When I was 18, I held a summer job as a door-to-door salesman of double-paned windows. It was tough work walking the streets of Sacramento, California in the summer heat and dealing with constant rejection. Thankfully I did manage to make some initial sales, and after some advice from my manager, started to make adjustments to my pitch based on the customer responses.
One of the first lessons in marketing is to constantly review and adjust your “marketing mix,” a concept popularized in the early 1960s by Michigan State University marketing professor E. Jerome McCarthy as the Four P’s of Marketing: Product, Price, Placement, and Promotion. Whether you are selling a product or service, tangible or virtual, the marketing mix is constantly at play, and marketers spend a great deal of time measuring, reviewing, and strategizing around these factors (similarly to how I had adjusted my approach and the content of my pitch as I attempted to sell replacement windows in the unrelenting heat of those Northern California streets).
Throughout my 30+ year career, these fundamental principles have not changed — and yet many companies struggle against making any adjustments to their marketing approach, especially when trying to position themselves against the competition. Most MSPs struggle to understand what to do to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, far too many companies are deciding to stay the course despite the data — purchasing traditional advertising and relying heavily on email campaigns regardless of what the declining statistics show.
They fail to stand out because they do not understand “the state of the system.”
Understanding the System
I often use software modeling as an analogy for how entrepreneurs and companies should approach their business problems. The fundamental problem with most business planning – and competitive strategy, specifically – is that the underlying business model and the components of the “system” are ill-defined and not truly understood.
One common problem among software engineers is the urge to code before properly understanding and outlining the problem and potential solutions. As humans, we are wired for problem-solving, yet we often jump to solutions before the problem has been completely defined. How often is this same mistake made in business? Quite often, in fact.
Do you understand your product or service? Do you truly understand your market, your target customer, and your competition? Are you up to date on what is happening within the marketplace and target industries, and how trends may impact your offerings?
Before you answer consider this planning approach:
A (simplified) modeling technique is to outline what you know about your offerings and to develop use cases and customer journeys that help you define each of your offerings individually. Try to fully document the features, functions, and limitations of each offering so you can more easily adjust the “marketing mix” on each to better compete in the future.
Once you have this outlined, you can then begin to develop scenarios for these use cases, which will help you to visualize how your customers will use your offerings. Scenarios might describe the uses of a single offering, or combinations of two or more offerings.
The goal is to model every conceivable path for your offerings. These scenarios can help you to define or create new uses or to identify customers not considered in your original plans.
Include in your planning the following:
- Conduct a thorough self-assessment.
Outline your core competencies and strengths, your weaknesses, and ways to mitigate any gaps in your offerings. Look at your at all aspects of your customer journey from how you market your offerings to the initial customer engagement through delivery and support. Understand where there is room for improvement and the steps to help you improve.
- Follow up with a detailed competitive assessment.
Identify your competitors and (honestly) outline their strengths and weaknesses. Know where you meet or beat the competition, but also where you need to improve. Develop “battle cards” to monitor and regularly reassess your competitors, but be careful not to go negative. Be aware, but not obsessed. Instead, create a story or elevator pitch around each, with key messaging and positioning, and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
- Conduct an industry assessment.
You need to speak the customer’s language and demonstrate the depth of your understanding of the industries in which you’re selling. Identify and follow leaders and influencers, and adopt their language. Be mindful of trends and news that could impact how you approach future customers or open new opportunities for existing customers.
- Conduct a local and regional community assessment.
Similar to your industry assessment, know the movers and shakers within your local market. For most MSPs, your local or regional market will be your primary focus, at least initially. Identify current or potential partners, user groups, and city/county Chambers of Commerce or similar organizations.
Outlining each of your business components, and then brainstorming the various scenarios for using those components is a “holistic” method of business planning and market strategy. Understand what your product is, and you’ll better understand how to position it in the market against comparable products or “-like services.”
The better you know and understand your brand, messaging, and positioning, the better you’ll be able to respond to the constant changes happening around you.
Build Your Plan and Expand
The benefits of taking this approach and outlining the components of “the system” are that you will likely gain insights into your competitive strategies and identify opportunities that you might have otherwise missed. By outlining your own strengths and weaknesses, and those of your competitors, you can then focus on adding depth to your product and service offerings, ensuring that you are providing value to your customers at every touch point.
Where should you focus your planning? Without understanding the nuances of your specific offerings or the industries you serve, it’s difficult to provide guidance without sounding like empty platitudes. However, there are three broad strategies around which you can begin to build your strategy:
- Diversify your marketing channels.
You have a website, you regularly market through email, you run a blog, you host webinars and sponsor industry conferences. But so do your competitors. One important strategy is to go where your competitors aren’t. This might be to strengthen your SEO and paid advertising capabilities, expand indirect selling, extend your thought-leadership through industry sites and periodicals, participate in non-traditional events, or focus on joint-marketing activities with leading vendors, influencers, and other partners.
- Add depth through vertical solutions.
With a clear outline of your own and your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, you can focus on adding depth to your offerings by adding complementary products and services, or entering into entirely new areas. The more you are able to deliver, the stronger the bond with your customers – and your partners.
- Make it as easy as possible to work with your company.
All things being equal, customers will prioritize your company and offerings if you’re easier to work with. Reduce all barriers around the customer journey. Make it a regular practice to review customer feedback and address changing needs, which will help you to identify solution areas and strategic partners that can help you deliver more value to your customers.
Planning a competitive strategy is not a one-time activity, of course. The marketplace, the players within it, and the needs of your customers are always evolving and changing. But taking these fundamental steps to understand your current state, create a plan, and expand your offerings are the best way to stay a step ahead of your competitors.