Henry Kissinger once said, “The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes.” In sales and marketing, no one would dispute that perception is reality. If interpreting Mr. Kissinger’s quote into a sales and marketing context, I would restate that “understanding prospect perception, whether reality or not, can be used to create differentiation to fulfill corporate sales and marketing goals.” WorldNet defines differentiate as “to be a distinctive feature, attribute, or trait.” Therefore, creating a prospect’s perceived differentiation would simply mean to understand your prospect’s perceived reality of their needs and to fulfill those needs with a unique attribute or feature of your company or product.
Solution-centric sales training and principles teach “Probing” or “Discovery” stages, but do not account for market perception or provide the differentiation of your products. Furthermore, when previously successful sales performance falters, the differentiation articulation has sprung a leak. The only way to discover differentiation messaging is to understand prospective buyer perception and to align the findings with real attributes of your company and products. As such, there are two types of differentiation: Product and Company.
Remember that to differentiate is to have a distinctive attribute. Likewise, ownership of an attribute is validated by prospect perception. Therefore, verifying an organization’s attributes requires a simple validation process ensuring that attribute ownership realistically matches the organizational culture.
Company differentiation is validated using the discipline of post-decision interviews after sales cycle opportunity wins and losses with its goal of aligning the marketing and sales messaging. Any subsequent efforts after the original internal process is completed should have the goal of mapping external (e.g., prospect, competition, market) findings and trends to ensure continuity and accuracy of your attribute and organizational message. Without this message validation, marketing agencies and departments give up perspicuous aspirations of a systemic, singular approach in lieu of the path of least resistance – catchy marketing slogans and phrases – the dysfunctional cycle continues.
Product differentiation must first be discovered by comparing real product functionality to real competitive functionality. I am not suggesting a competitive side-by-side detailed feature-to-feature comparison because that is both impractical and unnecessary. Instead, I compare functionality because functionality is a summary of many features. For example, invoice matching is an accounts payable function, but how the function performs is the result of many features. I recommend comparing no more than 150 functions of 2-4 competitive products to thoroughly understand the strengths and weaknesses of competitors as well as the functional expectations of the market. Note, it may be easier to distinguish between reality and perception with prospects than with internal company product development teams because most company branding and positioning activities are inconsistent with what sales and sales support people are telling prospects and customers. Therefore, is it a surprise that most product development teams design products based upon the loudest screaming client and not the principles of prospect-driven product differentiation?
In summary, prospect perception offers a world of understanding to discover your corporate attributes and the validated attributes owned by your company is your differentiation. Affixing your unique company attributes to unique competitive product differentiation creates the highest articulation of your common sales cycle “story,” of which, should be incorporated into all prospect, client, and shareholder communications (e.g., prospect demonstrations, presentations, messaging, website, shareholder annual reports, customer service, trade show booths, brochures, installation manuals). Understanding prospect perception is the most important discipline required if your company is serious about buyer alignment or being a market-driven company.
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