Can You Tell Me What You Do?

The most common problem I see in smaller companies is the inability to describe what they do in  simple language. This is one of those things that sounds really easy but isn’t.   A simple description for a technology solution isn’t simple at all.  That simple description needs to clearly describe the space it plays in and the (hopefully unique and powerful) value it brings.

We live in a world where people are processing a lot of information.  For many small companies, making themselves known to information overloaded customers is the greatest challenge they have.  All of the details around features and functions and competitive differentiators don’t make much of a difference if, when a prospect comes to your web site and can’t figure out what you do in 60 seconds, he hits the back button and keeps on searching.  Marketers need to have a clear way to describe what the company does not to close deals, not to win in a competitive deal, but rather just to get a new prospect to say “I’m interested, tell me more”.

Maureen Rogers over at The Opinionated Marketers talks about this in a recent post I really liked here:

For years, I’ve worked with my clients – usually with complex, B2B technology products or services – to try to achieve as clear, straightforward, and concise an expression about what they do as is possible. I always hold up as a model – albeit a nigh unto impossible to achieve parity with – the van I used to see occasionally on my 128 commute: “We Clean Blinds.”

And goes on to say:

My friend and colleague Sean has a similar, parallel favorite: the plumbers with “We Show Up” on their truck….Finding the “We Show Up” for your B2B tech products may be no easier than finding their inner “We Clean Blinds.” But when you’re coming up with your messaging, it’s not a bad idea to strive to achieve something that’s as close to it as possible.

When I talk about a simple description of what you do, I am not talking about a value proposition per se. The standing format for a value proposition goes beyond the simple description I’m thinking about and normally follow a format like this:

For: (bulls-eye customer)
Who: (key purchase motivation insight)
Our product is a: (customer-language)
That: (key benefit)
Unlike: (key competitors)
Ours: (key differentiators)
At a price: (less than, equal to, or higher than competitors).

Doing a proper value proposition is a good starting point to get you to the very simple version of what it is you do because it forces you to succinctly define who your target market is and how you differentiate from your competitors.  Once you have that well-defined it starts to become easier to get at your simple statement.

Some people would argue that coming up with a simple statement about what you do is fine if you run a business cleaning blinds but is impossible for a software business.  In some cases that might be true but I can give you loads of examples where it’s been done.  Here are a few:

  • Red Hatthe world’s most trusted provider of Linux and open source technology.
  • SalesForce.comthe world’s favorite CRM software as a service.
  • WikipediaA free encyclopedia built collaboratively using Wiki software.
  • CAIT software management, services and solutions.

I don’t normally pick on people but I am going to give you a couple of examples of ones that (for me anyway) don’t mean a darn thing because they are way too full of marketing gobbledigook.  I’ll pick on some big guys since it doesn’t feel right picking on startups that might not even have a marketing person to think about this stuff.  These companies have hundreds and they still stink at this:

  • AdobeRevolutionizes how the world engages and interacts with ideas and information.  So the target market is the world, they deal with ideas and information and whatever the heck they do is revolutionary.  I have no clue what this means.
  • Sun MicrosystemsInnovative products and services that power the network economy. This one makes the very big assumption that I have any idea what “the network economy” is (nevermind that I’m thinking that anything that’s powering this particular economy isn’t working all that well).

The key difference between a good statement and a bad one is that a good one is easy to understand.  If you catch yourself using words like “revolutionary” or even “innovative”, you are probably going down the wrong track.  Keep it simple and if you can get someone to say “I get it, tell me more” instead of scratching their head, then you’re on to something.

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32 thoughts on “Can You Tell Me What You Do?”

  1. This entry cracked me up.
    I’ve found it difficult in the past to not only to be able to come up with that key golden little descriptive sentence, but then I’ve had huge issues in selling it internally to the big dogs. Any suggestions on this or have you had any similar experiences?

  2. Oh Gosh, I could not agree more. On marketing and marketing-like statements. Thanks for calling this emperor naked.
    The next time I hear a mission statement like “we aim to provide the best possible service to our customers and in doing so we aim to maximise shareholder value while offering a world-class work environment for our employees” I think I will scream.
    Michael

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  4. Hi Katrina,
    Thanks for the comment.
    It’s strange that the more you know about something the harder it is to talk about it in simple terms. Execs are often engaged with customers late in the sales cycle and therefore rarely have to explain what the company does to folks that don’t already know which makes it hard to sell them on the value in having a simple “what we do” statement.
    The easiest way to make the case for it is to talk about leads you get from the web. Imagine the person who searches on “x” comes you your web site and is going to make a decision to either click around or just go away. You have about 10 seconds to prove your relevance.
    Again, the key is to make them understand that this isn’t about closing deals, but rather about getting a very early stage prospect to say “tell me more”.
    April

  5. Hi Mark,
    I totally agree with you on the “about us” section. I also remember having a discussion with a CEO once where I was trying to make the point that his home page was really the “about us” page except you have to do it in way fewer words and much plainer language.
    April

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  9. How about this one? 🙂
    X Technologies is the trusted partner for health and human services’ largest connected community of providers and payers. Netsmart provides on demand and traditional software solutions to automate key financial, clinical and management processes for more than 18,000 organizations, including individual private practices, small group providers, community health centers, counties and more than 35 state systems, to help them improve the quality of life for millions of consumers.

  10. In spirit, I agree with the thrust of your post….but there remain challenges. One person’s view of simplicity is another person’s opinion on complexity. In your examples of “good” statements:
    Red Hat – the world’s most trusted provider of Linux and open source technology.
    – so do people know what Linus and open source technology is?
    SalesForce.com – the world’s favorite CRM software as a service.
    – assumes everyone knows what CRM is or means. A very vague term that means many things to many people.
    Wikipedia – A free encyclopedia built collaboratively using Wiki software.
    – What is wiki software again?
    CA – IT software management, services and solutions.
    – Now that’s specific.
    Clearly, these statements are better than most but if simple language with a laser like focus on explaining the essence of the company is the desired result, there is still lots of work to be done.

  11. If your audience is smart enough to understand the words that you are using, go for it. As long as you have a clear understanding of the personas you are communicating with, you can use whatever word that resonates with them.
    Example:
    SalesForce.com – their target market already knows what CRM means, so not a big deal if the rest of world doesn’t. By the way, SalesForce says what they do by itself.

  12. Great post. This really is a big problem especially for smaller businesses that don’t have time or resources to spend thinking about their story from other perspectives. The book “Made to Stick”, by Chip and Dan Heath (http://www.madetostick.com/thebook/) is a great reference and provides ways to test if your statements are “sticky”.

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  15. I am having a slight problem with the references you put for the value proposition. What is “our product” in you view ?
    I also find myself repeating the same words and sentences in “that”, “unlike”, “ours” and partially “who”.
    I would appreciate an explanation with example to clarify that.
    Thanks.

  16. Hi Eran,
    “Our product” is just a placeholder for the name of your product – nothing more complicated that that. The statement “our product is a” is the tricky part where you have to actually say what your product is in the language that your customers might use.
    The value proposition format I reference in the post is from “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore. There is a section that describes each of the parts. If you haven’t read this book – you should! It does a much better job of describing the part than I could.
    Hope this helps – good luck!
    April

  17. Hi, April,
    Great post!
    I am actually working in a very very large corp and I think we have the same problem as most start-ups. Too many marketing people and nothing gets done anyway.
    I am not writing to whine. Just a very specific question: Do you happen to know a good marketing book about how to market to SME?
    Thanks for the insights!
    Chen

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  20. I violently agree with your article. The challenge that I’ve run into countless times is that the executives that end up “blessing” the official company statement don’t like simple. They want to appear smarter than the competition and they equate “smarter” with “big words”. They’re often in love with the technology and can’t resist words like “innovative” and the even worse “next generation.” *sigh*

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  22. What great insights, April. And they remain as fresh and useful as they were when you posted them. In fact, I enjoyed this post and your companion post about the importance of storytelling so much that I’m directing people to them in my own blog. Hope you don’t mind!

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