Do Customer References Matter More than Product Features?


I was recently pointed to this WSJ article entitled The Secret to Turning Consumers Green. The topic of the article is irrelevant, but the techniques documented inside paint a very interesting picture about how individuals make decisions. These findings should not be ignored by Sales Engineers when designing a pitch.

Let’s look at one of the experiments from the article:

The second paper described a study involving public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.

Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as “your community’s popular choice!”

Meter readings found that those presented with the “everyone’s doing it” argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group.

When attempting to influence, the (lesser seasoned) SE’s primary staple has always been the Logos approach. It’s the easiest and most familiar given our backgrounds. We talk about how feature x is unique and how our feed is 25% faster, etc. But as we present up the food chain the dynamic of a technology or featured-based decision erodes quickly in favor of a more Pathos-based set of criteria.

You might be thinking at this point that I’m suggesting you eschew your technology roots when presenting up the chain. Not so. I think there is a nuanced way you stay within your area of expertise while providing additional social proof.

A couple examples:

Customer: Your competition says they deploy in 3 months and you’re telling me you deploy in 1 month, why is that?
You (Before): We have a learning algorithm that  profiles your users activity to help us auto-configure the business logic before we go into production.
You (After): We had two early-stage customers of ours, Proctor and Gamble and General Electric, where they were desperate to get our product deployed quickly. Our product and consulting team worked with them to develop a capability to quickly learn about your users before deploying. Since then, our customer deployments that I’ve personally been involved in like AT&T and Chipotle have been completed in just a couple weeks, and they are so happy about the process they are all willing to talk to other clients of ours about the process.

Customer: Tell me about your data retention capabilities.
You (Before): We can store up to 1TB of data at a time, which has proven to be more than sufficient for other large customers.
You (After): We currently up to 1TB of data at a time. To put that into perspective, our largest customer General Motors has been using our software for 4 years now they have only reached half of their allotment. I also happened to be working with Exxon the other day and I was shocked they were only requiring a tenth of that amount. Since they are in your industry, would you anticipate having similar usage?

What you are subtly communicating with these answers is that your prospect will be in very good company if they select you as their vendor. You are also demonstrating your credibility in being able to address the business issue. There are many places you can work in these “micro-references” into the conversation including presentations, demos, competitive showdowns, etc.

The hardest part of this approach is that it requires a certain type of company culture. SEs have to be exposed to other accounts, customers must be publicly reference-able, recorded pitches and demos need customer anecdotes built in. Without this cultural aspect, it can be very hard for an individual SE to internalize enough reference points to reach critical mass. Thus it is essential that an SE or SE manager work up the organizational food chain to instill some of these elements where they might be missing today.

The final result is not that features become irrelevant in the conversation, they just will oftentimes become far less relevant than the reference points you provide.


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