Sometimes buying software can be like buying a car. All of the car marketing that you used to ignore is now suddenly interesting now that you are car shopping. At one time you had no idea what dynamic traction control is and the next thing you know, you MUST have it. Remember the first time you bought a camera or a cell phone? You lived your entire life not needing to know a darn thing about GSM or 3G or resolution or HD and suddenly, you’re an expert (or at least you are working hard at being one).
Much like other purchases, when customers go to buy software, typically it’s an infrequent event and there’s a period where customers are figuring out what they need to worry about and what they don’t. Vendors selling something new and innovative have to move potential customers through the process of first understanding what they need to know in order to make a purchase decision before they can then convince them that their product or service is the best of many alternatives.
Smaller companies I work with are often reluctant to try to influence customer buying criteria. The customer knows what they want and doesn’t want to be “sold.” I don’t believe that’s the right way to look at it. One of the main things prospects do is try to figure out a set of criteria they should consider. There’s no question in my mind that customers understand their pain and problems much better than you do. However, they aren’t always the experts in the different ways that those problems might be solved. Of course you have a bias – you would like those prospects to rank the things you do higher than the things you don’t do so well – customers, I believe understand that. However, you are also an expert in your market space. You know much more than the average customer does about the landscape of solutions to solve problems and I think customers would like you to share that knowledge.
Some companies spend money on getting “neutral” third parties to do competitive comparisons and I think those have a lot of merit particularly where the goal is to try to quantify a concrete difference between products such as a different in performance. At the same time, I think a buyer’s guide written by a vendor is also valuable to prospects, particularly where the vendor has tried to be as neutral as possible and freely admits that they are not the right solution for every problem.
Materials you can create to help customers buy:
1/ A buyers guide – If you can keep this as neutral as possible and create it in a way that customers can tailor it for their own needs, I believe this can be really valuable. What are the key things a customer should consider? What things should they give a high or low priority to and why?
2/ Checklists – I’m working with a company now where the customers are completely crazy for checklists. Every customer comes into the sales process with a 10 page checklist of features that changes after every vendor meeting they have. Creating a starter checklist, particularly where they can add their own requirements to the ones you have suggested helps prospects get started as much as it helps ensure that they are thinking about your key features when they evaluate products.
3/ Feature Comparisons – different vendors have different approaches to solving a particular problem and those approaches have pluses and minuses. An article/whitepaper/blog post that describes how customers might make a decision between competing approaches can help customers pre-qualify themselves as a good fit for your solution. I know this scares some vendors, but getting customers that aren’t a good fit for your product out of the pipeline quickly so that you can focus on the ones that are a good fit is a really good thing.