I like to check out one of the morning TV shows on one of the major US-based networks for a few minutes, as I’m eating my breakfast cereal. There are 3 major programs on at the start of the day: NBC’s Today Show (the traditional market leader), ABC’s Good Morning America (the perennial runner-up) and the recently re-branded CBS This Morning in (last place for many years).
So what the heck does this have to do with software market segmentation, you ask?
I’ve been struck by how much the morning show race reminded me of the software industry has become more vertical over time. In particular, there are some strong parallels between the software business and the morning shows with respect to the product being “soft enough” to make relatively easy product changes as part of a new segmentation strategy.
Recent changes in strategy on the TV morning shows
The Today Show has been the “10,000 lb Gorilla” of the morning shows since the beginning of the category. They’ve had a large lead over their competitors across multiple changes in on-air personnel and even societal cultural changes over the years. The Today Show’s format has been aimed at a “horizontal” audience–a little bit of something for everyone. They start with hard news at the beginning of the show and it gradually becomes “lighter”, transitioning to Pop culture, celebrities and gossip as the show progresses through its marathon 4 hour time slot.
The other two major shows have taken a real beating at the hands of NBC in the ratings, with many tweaks to their formats and even more turnover in personnel over those many years. Fundamentally they have tried to compete by “building a better Today Show”, essentially competing head on with the market leader in a horizontal fashion. But over the last couple of years, ABC and more recently CBS have changed their strategy, utilizing a much sharper segmentation than at any point previously. ABC has essentially gone “younger and lighter” over the last couple of years. The show has the least serious tone and is the most “fun” of the three, focusing a lot of time on pop culture and other topics skewed toward younger viewers. It’s paid off. Good Morning America has taken a clear lead over the Today Show due primarily to this new segmentation and to a lesser extent some personnel missteps at NBC.
After many years in last place, CBS has segmented sharply in the other direction with a shorter 2 hour program focused almost entirely on hard news and staffed by serious, credible news people. It’s too early to say how successful this will ultimately be for CBS, but they have won over this writer and have picked up some market share overall-I’m watching consistently CBS in the morning for the first time. The Today Show has been struggling to remix it formula and regain its clear lead, looking much like a complacent large company that has grown fat, dumb and happy as a result of years of unchallenged success.
Software Market Equivalents
Ok, enough about TV morning shows! How does this relate to segmentation in the software market? A very similar situation albeit in a B2B rather than B2C market, is the ERP software market. The ERP market is also a very large, horizontal market–a mass B2B software market, if you will. Just about every company in the world needs some type of ERP software to run its business, from an entry-level, basic accounting application like Intuit’s Quickbooks all the way up to very expensive, complex enterprise suites such as offered by Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and Sage.
This of course is one form of verticalization–segmentation by target customer size and sophistication. Intuit and Oracle aren’t targeting the same segments. But the ERP market is so large that over time it has also segmented by industry; nearly every industry group of any significance now has ERP software vendors with specialized applications aimed at a narrow industrial segment.
Another similar example is Medical Practice Management Software. The last time I looked, there were over ONE THOUSAND software vendors with products targeting this very large market. You would think the software requirements of most medical practices would be pretty standard across the board. But because the market is so large and lucrative, nearly every market segment (Surgeons, Gynecologists, Dentists, Chiropractors, etc.) has it’s own sub-market of competitors, with applications that speak that particular medical practice’s lingo and strictly models its business processes.
I have a personal example from earlier in my career that illustrates how important segmentation can be as part of a software company’s overall strategy. I took over as CEO of an early stage mapping software company with excellent technology but an unsophisticated business strategy. While the company had a neat technical advantage over its larger competitors, the product otherwise was positioned directly against the market leaders in that space. The primary distribution channel for the mainstream mapping products of the time was computer and electronics retailers, a notoriously tough and expensive channel. I was able to make some headway in penetrating this channel. But even with our technical feature advantage it was already too late in the game and we lacked the resources to compete and win head-to-head with the larger market leaders of that time.
So we quickly came up with a segmentation strategy that proved quite helpful. Initially we took out some features away from our primary product and created an entry level product priced far below the mainstream mapping products. This allowed us to occupy the price leader position targeting the most price-sensitive consumers, and distribute through both consumer/gaming software stores of the time as well as mass market retailers such as drug and grocery stores. The mainstream mapping software players had almost no presence in these channels due to their higher price points. This entry level product, created with minimal development costs, allowed us to generate cash flow to fund our longer term segmentation strategy which was to target the B2B market. The mainstream mapping products were fairly generic and used by business people as well as consumers, but really designed for any consumer with no business-oriented features to speak of. We were able to create a premium, business-focused version of our product which we positioned as the mapping products for mobile workers/road warriors such as sales reps and service technicians. We included important business-specific features, such as integration with the popular CRM systems of the day, which weren’t found in any of the other mainstream mapping products of the day.
Important considerations in segmentation strategy
Hopefully we’ve established that segmentation of your software market can be a very powerful tool to compete with and outflank strong competitors and ultimately maximize the value of your business. So what are the important things to consider in formulating your segmentation strategy? Let’s look at a few:
Horizontal vs. Vertical – The first thing to consider is how horizontal your segment currently is and how vertical you think you need to be to compete effectively. There is a fine line here; the more horizontal you can remain (targeting multiple segments with the same product) the higher your product’s ultimate profit potential. But you must be realistic about your market position–go as “vertical” as you need to win–or your profit potential is likely zero!
Market Maturity – The more mature the market is when you enter, the more likely it will be important to segment smartly and attack a vertical niche. Of course this or any single factor shouldn’t be used in a vacuum to create a strategy–many factors need to be considered in your segmentation decision.
Market Size – The larger the market size, the more likely it is that it’s ALREADY segmented and will likely force you to do the same. There are several prominent potential exceptions here, listed in the bullet points below.
Market experience of the company - Do you know the market well, and just as important, are you known by the market? In cases where you’re known and understand your market well, it raises your odds of success even entering with a more horizontal approach.
Levels of funding – Big companies with massive resources or heavily funded startups may be able to successfully use a horizontal approach, although many confident late entrants of this type have failed in a variety of software market categories.
IP/Technology & other strategic advantages – A true innovator with market changing IP may also be able to attack and win in an established market using a horizontal approach, as they are effectively changing the ground rules of the market. But again, I’ve witnessed many companies very confident in their technical advantage that have ended up with their hats handed to them when competing head on in an established market.
Important upfront decision–but never too late to change
Like any important business consideration, it’s far better to optimally segment the market for your products up front then to wait until you are FORCED to do so. But just like a morning TV show, in the software business it’s relatively easy–at least compared to other technology categories such as computer hardware or semiconductors– and almost never too late to modify your target segments.
What’s your feeling on how best to approach segmentation in the software business? Post a comment so we can all benefit from your experiences.
In software and hardware businesses new ideas, technologies and products come down the pike at a rapid-fire pace. Many fail immediately and some muddle along before finally fizzling out. Some meet with modest success. Only a very select few turn into long run big hits. How can you tell which products will become hits, out of a sea of mediocrity?
Not many people can differentiate between these new ideas, technologies and products at an early enough stage to profit massively from it. Keep in mind I’m not talking about small successes, but the really big ones. The ability pick the big winners out early is a rare skill set, yet one that is applicable across a wide swath of functions including general management, product planning/management, inventors, venture investing, stock analysis/selection and many more.
Short of having a brilliant mind, multidisciplinary worldview and the ability to see the future—how do you go about maximizing bets on what will hit it big and what won’t? Here are some questions that may be useful to ask when making your evaluation:
Does it solve a fundamental problem, bend a cost curve or create a new playing field?
Not every new product is based upon a fundamental technical breakthrough—but it sure helps! After all, innovation is still the basis of the technology business. This is where you look first when seeking big ideas you can profit from, something that fundamentally changes the game in a particular marketplace. One of the most spectacular examples of a breakthrough that met all three of these criteria is the personal computer. It solved some fundamental problems of the time associated with mainframe computing, certainly bent the cost curve of computing downward (and continues to due so even today) and created an entirely new ecosystem with broad societal implications. Meeting all three of these criteria is a very tall order that you won’t see often, but passing one of these three tests is almost essential for a big-time winner with staying power.
Where does it fit in the marketplace?
There are certainly many great stories of fundamental research breakthroughs without immediate, obvious market applications that ultimately found a market and became a great hit. The problem occurs when the second step—finding a market—is given short shrift, or skipped completely. This can happen when there is pure excitement and the folks funding the project have a purely technical viewpoint. The number of big successes without expert market vetting is actually pretty rare although there have been some spectacular exceptions.
We’ve all heard of the invention of super glue by accident. And Thomas Watson Senior, Chairman of the IBM Corporation in 1943 was quoted as saying: “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” Five units do not make a commercial market, but IBM made the investment anyway—and look how that turned out. But in reality the number of fundamental breakthroughs in the research lab dwarfs the number of truly successful, innovative new commercial products. So it’s important to not get too excited about these breakthroughs until a commercial application becomes obvious and realistic. Avoid at all costs the proverbial “Cure looking for a disease”, regardless of the almost mythical stories of a few massive winners borne from purely technical circumstances.
How does it compare to alternative solutions, both current and forecasted?
After deciding the breakthrough isn’t a cure looking for a disease and which market segment it fits in, it’s also very important to evaluate how it stacks up vs. rival technologies and products. And not just with respect to a current market snapshot, but looking forward as well. Forecasting really comes into play here; which technical platform has the longest runway? An example is satellite TV vs. Cable TV. When Satellite TV came into play it took a lot of market share quickly by providing innovative new services which the utility-like Cable TV companies were slow to match. But in the long run the wired infrastructure of the CableCos may provide a strategic technical advantage in that long running battle that may enable a more advanced and diverse product set.
Do the owners have what it takes to bring it to market?
This question applies not only when evaluating someone else’s product or technology—but also your own. Realistic self-reflection is important here. There have been some great new innovations that have been wasted due to bad marketing, lack of financial resources or just plain ignorance and incompetence. These weaknesses often lead to the “ arrows in the back of the pioneer”, where the folks that initially bring out the “next big thing” fail or are quickly overtaken by a more tactically skilled competitor, who improves on the idea and/or out-executes them in the market. The software spreadsheet market is instructive here, conjuring up images of several bigger fish progressively swallowing smaller ones. Visicalc was the original spreadsheet innovator overtaken by Lotus who was then in turn overtaken by MS Excel. The resources and capabilities of the innovation’s owner matters a great deal in the long run.
Is it defensible?
This is what often separates the “flash in the pan” from a true long term winner. Defensibility can be defined by the traditional technology means of patents, copyrights and trade secrets. But there are more subtle ways of defense that can be very successful in the long run: branding, entrenched distribution channels, strategic partnerships and cost advantages.
Especially in the software and hardware businesses there are tons of fast followers, who are lying in wait for an emerging trend or new market segment, where they can apply deep resources and tactical skill to out-execute the pioneers. In hardware markets the major Japanese manufacturers long ago mastered this model by taking US inventions and productizing them cheaper and better. The large Korean manufacturers then found success with this same model and most recently it’s been replicated by the Chinese. In the software business Microsoft and other large software companies have grown by either mimicking or buying up technology leaders who have pioneered a new market segment. However it’s done–make sure the next big thing is defensible before betting on it becoming a big-time, long term winner.
Does it pass muster from every angle?
As stated earlier, it really helps to be a “renaissance man” man with a multidisciplinary worldview. But people meeting that description are in very short supply, so it’s really important to employ experts across several key disciplines such as technology, finance, manufacturing and marketing, to evaluate market potential and possible weaknesses. In the technology business marketing and technology are usually the key differentiating factors, so at a minimum make sure that expertise is brought to bear in those areas during your evaluation.
There you have my view—how to do separate the winners from the losers. Post a comment with your own view of this very debatable topic.
Software and hardware business are often segmented by the vertical or horizontal market they’re targeting, their technology platform, small vs. large companies and so on. One of the important ways to segment tech businesses, which isn’t often discussed, is by whether the company is sales-driven or marketing-driven in their customer acquisition strategies.
A balanced approach
Now some reading this article may ask “why wouldn’t you take a balanced approach”? Indeed, I don’t mean to suggest that either sales or marketing should be absent in the customer acquisition efforts of tech companies. There are a few scenarios that could be drawn up to support such a singular approach—but very few for sure. There are also some situations where the customer acquisition circumstances are “in between” in price, complexity, market size, etc. and you end up with a fairly balanced approach between marketing and sales. But in my experience the sales or marketing function will rise to the lead, more often than not.
Key criteria in choosing customer acquisition techniques
There are several considerations that often drive whether marketing or sales will dominate:
Marketing driven keys to success
Sales driven keys to success
The best approach isn’t always chosen
Unfortunately, logic and situation analysis doesn’t always win out when designing a customer acquisition strategy. Usually by the time a company grows to be large, their approach is in line with what’s best for the business. Of course, your chances of growing to be a big company are reduced if you make serious errors in sales and marketing strategy. But in any event, by the time a company is big they are usually utilizing both sales and marketing heavily and in the proper balance.
Startups and early stage companies are another matter. Often the emphasis on either sales or marketing is based on the experience of the founders and senior executives. If they’ve been successful in the past and their new company has a similar focus, maybe it’s fine and their approach works again. But a problem occurs when these executives start up a very different type of company than they’ve had success with in the past. It’s human nature to fall back on what I refer to as your “common business sense”, which is formed by your personal background and past experiences. This is when you can get a misalignment between what a company needs and the approach taken in the sales & marketing mix.
Even worse still is when the customer acquisition approach develops more or less haphazardly. This can happen when the founders of a company really don’t have much functional experience in sales or marketing. This occurs somewhat frequently in software and hardware companies, as many startups are created by technical types. In these cases there may be a fairly unsophisticated approach to both sales and marketing—and whatever works early may end up dominate. For example, a sales rep is hired who has some success, so the model becomes hire a lot more reps and turn them loose without much (or any) support on the marketing side. Or an early direct email campaign or online advertising generates some sales, so money is poured into that method. Unfortunately, these may not be the best approaches strategically for the business in the long run.
That’s what I think about Sales vs. Marketing driven orientations in software and hardware companies. What do you think? Post a comment with your own opinions or stories about what drives customer acquisition in high tech companies.
Many software and hardware businesses, particularly smaller ones, are religiously focused on a specific vertical market. As well they should; focus is one of the most important attributes that can bring a business from startup to a strong growing business. This is often one of the key areas I concentrate on with many of my consulting clients. Many businesses just can’t turn down any sort of deal, no matter what the effect it has on their existing product development plans or other key corporate initiatives.
But there is another side to the focus issue. Many tech companies have developed excellent, mature technology bases at huge expense. If that basic technology has a horizontal appeal, it can be quite profitable to spend a modest amount of additional effort to bring that technology to other adjacent markets that the company is currently not serving.
Care needs to be taken, of course, to not spread your marketing efforts too thin. But if you’re smart about it your company can increase, sometimes dramatically, the return on its product development investments. Let’s take a look at a few potential tactics, all of which I’ve used successfully both at companies I’ve run and with consulting clients:
Customize your products for adjacent markets
As an example, maybe you have an ERP software package aimed at retail markets. It might be quite easy to customize the product for other inventory-oriented businesses, such as distribution or service/repair businesses. By doing this you’ve created a potentially large new revenue source, at a fraction what building that product from scratch might cost. The trick in this instance is often marketing the product–read below for a couple of ideas on how to accomplish that without doubling your marketing budget.
Private Label/OEM products
Private labeling or OEMing your product to another vendor can be an excellent way to extend your product development ROI. It might be as simple as partnering with a non-competitive vendor who takes your existing product “as is” or with minor modifications, as well as changing the product identity and labeling. The target partner would be a company very strong in a market segment that you aren’t successful in, have no interest in directly marketing in, or simply is beyond your resource level. If done well, this is a win-win for both companies. Your company gets additional revenues with little to no additional costs (“pure profit”), while your partner gains additional revenue in it’s target market–without any product development investment.
Integration & bundling with other products
One of the best things a software vendor is to create a “developer’s version” of it’s product, which essentially consists of creating APIs (application programming interface) to the software. This allows easy integration with complementary software applications and even hardware. Back when I was CEO of a mapping software company with limited resources, we created a developer’s version which enabled both integration and bundling with a number of complementary applications, notably in the real estate and CRM segments. Once again, this tactic required only modest product development investment and enabled us to draw revenue from a number of different markets. We would never have had the resources to pursue these markets if we tried to build a new product from scratch as a company would traditionally do.
Different price points
Using my favorite mapping software company example, we were often forced to think creatively to wring out as much revenue as we could out from our existing technology. One of the other tactics we used was “de-feature” our existing $99 high-end consumer application to create a $9.95 version, which we then sold through mass market retailers of all kinds. Not only did this create more revenue, but the high volume business also created a bunch of opportunities to upgrade these entry level customers to our higher-end core product. This is a strategy I’ve used many times; you almost can’t go wrong when creating a larger customer base for your technology. I use the simplistic phrase “the more you sell, the more you sell” to illustrate the advantages of this approach.
Business vs. consumer version
At that very same mapping software company we used one other great approach to extending your technology: creating a B2B version of our consumer product which was aimed at road warriors such as sales and service professionals (the converse works just as well). The B2B version had a few additional features and we sold it via different channels and strategic partners. It didn’t have the unit volume of the consumer version, but the margins were much higher.
So there are a few ideas on how to extend the use of your IP to increase your overall ROI. What are your ideas on creatively utilizing existing assets to create additional growth? Please post a comment with your own thoughts so we can all benefit.
This is an age-old question facing software and hardware companies. In this article we’ll examine the pros and cons, as well as the specific conditions that should drive your decision process.
Two basic options confront a tech company considering a foray outside of their home market:
Let’s look at some of the key factors to consider when designing an international business development strategy:
How much money does your company have available for international expansion? If the answer is “not much”, this alone can be the deciding factor in your decision. If capital is very scarce, you’re almost forced to start out using distribution partners. This isn’t all bad, in my opinion. Using partners initially when you are an international newbie is a much lower risk way to start, and allows you to learn this part of the business without “losing your shirt”. I’ve seen a number of control-oriented management teams invest large amounts of money by putting people on the ground in subsidiaries, only to waste it in spectacular failure. Often this failure is due to inexperience.
Product Price and Complexity
If you have a high priced, technically-complex product with a long sales cycle, you will tend to benefit more than others by having people on the ground in the foreign market. These are the types of products which are most often sold directly, even in home markets. In this scenario, even if capital is tight and you can’t afford to put down a fully-loaded subsidiary with a dedicated direct sales force in every foreign market, it still may make sense to put some folks on the ground. As an example, you might be able to afford a channel sales rep and a couple of field engineers to support a large network of sophisticated local country distributors and VARs, across an entire continent like Europe or Asia.
What is the skill set of your corporate management team? If no one on the team has any experience with indirect distribution, for example, it’s going to be pretty tough to successfully build a working distribution channel in FOREIGN MARKETS which are far from home, in more ways than one. In this case, the most cost effective thing to do is to add someone to the top management team with the requisite skills and experience, or at least retain a long term consultant. Going without this hire often seems the cheaper route initially, but in most cases this end up being “penny-wise but pound-foolish” in hindsight.
Local Market Cost Structure
Each foreign market should be evaluated individually before deciding an approach for that market. For example, in large emerging markets with low costs (such as China, India, Brazil for many verticals) it may make sense to put your own people on the ground, regardless of the distribution strategy. When costs are low and the market is strategically important in the long run, the relative benefits of having your own subsidiary are high. In a high cost market with lower sales potential (Switzerland and Norway may be good examples for some businesses,) relying exclusively on a dedicated local partner may be a better way to go.
Availability of Partners
In some cases what may be the best strategy for your company and market in theory is overridden by facts on the ground. Many vertical software and hardware markets have a well established set of distributors and resellers dedicated to their marketplace. In these cases it’s relatively easy to find an appropriate distribution partner. But what if you’re in a business in which this ISN’T the case, which is not all that unusual? Or maybe there is an established channel, but you’re late to the game and all the obvious “good” partners are tied up with your competitors. Sometimes you may choose to not enter that market immediately. But if the geographic market is considered strategic, then you will need to choose a course that looks sub-optimal in theory. That might mean biting the bullet and outlaying the investment to start your own subsidiary. Or, you might find a local entrepreneur with the skill set to set up a new distributorship. If it’s a geographic market that you just HAVE to participate in, then you will find a way!
There are obviously a wide range of combinations and intermediate options, but “partner or invest” represent the extreme ends of potential strategies. In many cases (particularly large, established markets) the optimal distribution strategy will be a combination of these two main approaches: pairing a wholly-owned subsidiary with local distribution partners. In smaller markets, partnering with an established distributor or strategic partner may be the only viable strategy. In other cases, the optimal strategy may be dependent on the specific factors of a particular marketplace (local costs, available partners, etc).
What’s most important is to closely analyze your specific company’s situation and vertical market, as well as the “facts on the ground” in each individual geographic market. Resist the temptation to simply copy your competitor’s strategy or fall back on approaches that you are comfortable with from other vertical and geographic markets. That is how you make mistakes.
What’s your approach to international expansion? Post a comment and share your own personal experience.
There are many ways to organize a sales force. In my opinion, there is no one “right” way. There is only the BEST way for unique circumstances of your current company.
Like most aspects of developing a software or other technology-based company, there are guidelines, but no exact roadmap to building a successful sales force. In my practice at PJM Consulting, I often suggest that a management exercise like structuring a sales force should begin with a series of questions:
What stage of development is your company in?
This important, because an early stage company may not have the resources to fully fund the outside sales force that may be ideal for its situation. Or the company may want to sell primarily via an inside sales force, but hasn’t had enough early success or nailed down the sales process sufficiently, to sell effectively through this less “high touch” method. Stage of development can be as important as what the ideal “steady state” organization would look like–don’t over shoot your development stage in designing your sales organization.
What are you asking your sales force to do?
Are you using your sales force primarily as closers, supported by strong marketing, etc — or will your sales force be doing a lot of cold calling, handling the customer “cradle to grave”? In general the more you are asking your sales force to do, the more “high touch” the structure needs to be.
What markets are you targeting?
In some markets (such as many enterprise IT market segments) an outside rep knocking on the customer’s door is absolutely expected, and essential. In other markets (like many SMB markets), this type of attention would be considered a nuisance, not a service. It’s important to understand what the target customers want and are expecting in a sales interface.
What are your product price points?
The implications of this question are usually well understood. High priced products can support a more expensive outside sales force and may require one to make the sale. Lower priced products can’t usually be sold profitably this way and an inbound or outbound telesales operation is often the optimal structure.
Is your product more of a commodity sale, or is there a longer, more complex sales cycle?
Commodities lend themselves to lower cost inside sales, as well as a higher mix of channels. The more complex your sales cycle, the more likely your company will need a captive, outside direct sales force to serve at least part of your market.
This is just a sample of key questions to ask yourself as you design your sales function. There are many more relevant questions that should be asked, depending upon the specific situation. I won’t attempt to cover them all, or this article will become a book. Once you’ve done a good job of asking and answering the relevant questions, it’s time to actually start designing your organization. Below are some of the personnel types and organizational structure that a software or hardware company would typically consider as part of its sales organization:
SALES REP TYPES
This is the classic sales rep style that has been around since the beginning of time. In the “old days” even consumer products were often sold this way (those of a certain age can remember the “door to door” Fuller Brush Salesmen). But this is the most expensive form of sales person, and depending upon the market, products and other factors, is not always the most efficient or even effective. There are still a lot of companies that sell almost exclusively through outside direct sales forces. But in many companies where they direct outside sales reps do exist, they are often used more sparingly, in combination with other types of reps and channels.
This is a favorite form of rep for commodity products, companies that sell heavily through third party channels, and inexpensive, higher volume products. Inside reps can also be used effectively in a “teamed” approach with outside reps, helping to optimize a territory. They may source or qualify leads for the outside reps, handle smaller accounts in the territory or generally act as a “junior sales rep” to the more senior outside reps.
This rep type is more or less of my own invention (the term is at least). This rep is part outside rep, part inside rep. A rep of this type would be appropriate for those “tweener” products and markets, which don’t fit neatly into a pure inside or outside model. For example, software products with an average sales price of $5-10,000–too low cost to be sold strictly through an outside sales force, but maybe too complex or expensive for a pure phone sale. Hybrid reps spend most of their time in the office on the phone, but also travel modestly, maybe one trip/month. Example “core” reasons for trips might be to staff trade shows, visit channel partners and call on major accounts–then filling up the rest of the week with additional sales calls. This type of rep may be very appropriate for early stage companies that can’t yet afford to build out full inside and outside sales organizations.
This is pretty self-explanatory, but not every tech company can afford a classical, full-time sales manager. Often you will see individual reps reporting to a manager of another function in startups, and occasionally you will see the concept of a “producing manager”, who has line sales responsibilities in addition to management. This personnel type is very important to setting the tone for your sales organization, and is applicable to managing all rep types within any organizational structure.
A specialist that you tend to see in larger sales organizations, or at least those that have a lot of complexity (a lot of return activity, inventory management, repairs, rep splits, etc.)
SALE ORGANIZATION TYPES
All of the organizational types listed below can be commonly found as the dominant sales organizational type in many companies, as well as in combination with each other in larger, more complex companies:
This is probably the most common organizational structure, which may include any of the sales reps types listed above, who are assigned to specific territories. In many cases I favor this arrangement, as it tends to be the most unambiguous to measure and manage. The downside is that certain regions can prove to be much more naturally fertile than others, which can make the management process more difficult to perform fairly among the reps. You also may lose the advantages that certain reps may have in terms of contacts or vertical market knowledge which lies outside of their geographic region.
This is the second most common sale organizational type which of course tends to be found in companies that make strong use of third-party sales channels. There may be a direct sales force, a VAR or retail sales force, an OEM sales force, and so on. Sometime there is an “intermixing of these organizations, for example, an “overlay” VAR channel rep as part of a direct sales force.
Likely the least common of organization types, but one which is very appropriate in certain circumstances. For example, a tech company which has very different value propositions in a number of vertical industries, where “insider status” in important to selling into a particular vertical market, or the product offerings are arranged by vertical market.
There are many possible sales organization types and styles for software and hardware companies. Many different ways of organizing can work–and the people you have are always more important than organizational structure to your ultimate success. But by carefully considering your company’s specific situation and matching your organizational structure to your market, products and available resources, your company will have the best chance of achieving sales optimal results.
What do you think about the optimal way to organize a tech company sales force? Post a comment with your own advice.
Selling through sales and distribution channels of various types is very important to many software and hardware companies. Yet channel programs and specifically discount structures, are often thrown together quickly and haphazardly, without looking at any real hard data. Let’s examine some of the key items it’s advisable to consider when structuring a channel discount program:
The absolute first place to start when considering channel discounts is to survey the SPECIFIC market that you are entering. By this I mean look at similar products being sold through the EXACT profile of channel partners you are considering selling through. For example for consumer software, retail margins of 15-18% are common, whereas for a specific VAR segments the discount norms may be in the 25-40% range. If your discounts fall too far below the market norm, your program will likely fail. If discounts are set much higher than the market norm (without good reason) your company will be leaving considerable profits on the table. It is very important to do upfront research on actual conditions in your segment–don’t just “assume”!
Preferably, you will want to find out what your direct competitors are offering in terms of a channel program. This may seem obvious. But I see often in my consulting practice at PJM Consulting many companies using their own theories or experience from their past to ascertain what the right discount structure SHOULD be, instead of using objective data gleaned from the current situation. This often ends up being the main reason for a painful “restart” of their channel program at a later date.
Product and Pricing Strategy (Street Price)
Channel discount structures cannot be constructed in a vacuum. They are but one component of your overall product, pricing and distribution strategy. As such, they must be consistent with the overall goals you establish for the product. If you are seeking to penetrate a new market or a new channel, it may be wise to be more aggressive than the market norms to gain market share and shelf space. If your market is more mature and you are in a harvest mode on a particular product line, it may be wise to minimize channel discounts to maximize profitability. In any event, consider channel discounts early in any product planning phase as part of your overall product marketing strategy.
Type of Channel
There are many different types of partners for software and hardware companies that fall into the category of “channel resellers”. Computer/electronics retail, mass market retail, Value-Added resellers (VARs), Systems Integrators (SI), Domestic Distributors, International Distributors, Manufacturers Reps–and many more. Each of these reseller types are quite different from the others, and each add different types and levels of value to your distribution systems. Yet every one that you distribute through will be competing with the others (as well as your direct sales model), at least indirectly.
Multichannel Pricing Equity
It’s important if you are selling through more than one channel (including direct sales) to attempt to equalize, as much as possible, the street prices charged by the various channel types. The best way to do this is to use a “value-based” approach. A simple way of doing this is to consider the costs incurred by the various types of resellers in delivering your products to the target customer. For example, a VAR that provides support, pre-sales consulting and other services may need a higher level of discount to achieve an adequate profit margin than a retailer that simply is providing shelf space might. In reality, the retailer is likely to have a lower street price, but it is important to try to minimize this gap. Otherwise the VAR who may be providing important value-added services to a segment of your customers may be driven out of the market, and refuse to sell your product–which is not in your company’s interests.
The most common practice which causes inequities in channel pricing is a volume-driven discount model. New entrants to the channel often use this approach–why wouldn’t you want to incentivize volume sales by giving the biggest discounts to the largest volume sellers? Although this may work fine if you have a monolithic reseller channel, where all the players have the same business model and offer the same value add, it otherwise will quickly cause the problems discussed here. The resellers possessing the lowest cost structure and providing the lowest value-add will quickly dominate the market, driving the high-cost/high value-add resellers away. This may be ok with you; just make sure you explicitly consider this possibility before embarking on a volume-driven channel discount strategy.
As mentioned above, one of the things that I recommend considering explicitly up front is: what is the key value-add that you are seeking from the channel? Is it pre-sales consulting, installation services, post-sale support, shelf space and inventory for immediate customer access, or one of many other factors? Make sure you understand which channel value-adds are most important to you, and build protections into your discount structure for the reseller type who best provides this value.
Components of Discounts
It’s not always necessary (or wise) to offer a single, monolithic discount level for resellers. How you structure your discounts components should be closely tied to your product and pricing strategy–what you are trying to accomplish with your overall channel strategy. For example, if you are trying to manage your street price at a certain level, it can be dangerous to offer a large discount to certain types of resellers who may pass that discount on as a lower street price. Yet this segment of resellers (for example, retailers) may be an important, high volume channel for your product type. In this case, it may be wise to offer additional, conditional discount for activities that you value.
As an example, to keep your street price up but incentivize a high level of activity through retail, you could offer a high level of added discount for approved co-op marketing activities. A segmented discount structure driven by costs and value-add, rather than volume, is often the most effective structure to maximize multichannel sales. This will also limit discount-driven reductions in street price, which ultimately can severely reduce profit levels and incentives to sell, affecting both the vendor and all channel partners–if not properly controlled.
Creating a Channel Discount Strategy and structure is NOT a theoretical exercise. It should be primarily a tactical exercise based on a realistic view of market conditions, and include collection and analysis of objective market data. While what you hope to accomplish with your discount strategy is important, the overwhelmingly most important factors in creating your discount strategy should be what is happening in your segment of the channel–and what will work best for your company. Try not to create a structure based on what you’d like to see with respect to the channel. Focus on creating a pragmatic, workable strategy upfront to avoid an unsuccessful channel entry and painful restructuring that results. If you are new to the channel game, seeking outside assistance may help you avoid experiencing one of these painful false starts that happen frequently in the channel.
That’s my view of how best to create a channel discount structure. I welcome you to post a comment with your own thoughts on this important technology management decision.
Let’s talk about what for a lot of folks is a marketing method from a bygone era: Trade shows, or Trade Fairs as they’re referred to in most places outside of the US.
At one point in time, Trade Shows were a staple in most every tech company’s marketing budget–shows like Comdex, PC Expo, Network World and a host of others were annual rites of passage. But in the Internet age, they have been greatly reduced in the marketing mix, if not taken completely out of the picture.
There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the ROI of tradeshows was always very questionable for most exhibitors. In marketing departments everywhere there were always sharp discussions during budget time on whether to continue the expense of the major shows. They always seemed important to exhibit at but usually it was pretty difficult to make a direct correlation to enough actual revenue to justify the large expense. As the Internet became more prominent this ROI looked even worse in comparison–as it did for many other “offline” marketing methods, such as traditional direct mail and print advertising.
So are trade shows now obsolete, having gone the way of the Dodo bird? Probably not, but many marketing folks would say that they are at least on the endangered species list. So when, if at all, do traditional trade shows still make sense today? And what should your goals be if you do decide to invest in a show or two? Let’s take a quick look at 4 points relevant to each of these two questions.
4 REASONS IT MAKE SENSE TO GO TO A TRADE SHOW:
A CONTRARIAN APPROACH
One of the major enduring useful tactics in marketing is to “zig when your competitors zag”. If you are in a market where a show is still well attended but vendors are starting to stay home rather than pay for booths, you may have an opportunity. If your competitors aren’t there, you have a larger, captive audience of prospects to strut your stuff to. One of the basic tenets of a good marketing program is to find a “communications channel” which isn’t too crowded that the ROI goes to hell. With trade shows falling out of favor in marketing budgets, there is potential to benefit from a contrarian approach in some markets.
INTRODUCTION INTO A NEW MARKET
This is always one of the strongest reasons to attend a few shows. If you have a brand new company or your company is entering a market space it hasn’t previously participated in, a couple of well-selected shows can be a very good investment. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
INTRODUCTION OF A NEW PRODUCT
Much like a company entering a new market, a new product introduction is a very traditional reason to exhibit at a trade show. In my opinion, introducing new products at shows has historically been over-estimated as a useful marketing tactic. Sure, the press is there covering the show but if 50 other vendors are also announcing new products your new product might get lost, or at least get less press coverage then if you announced two weeks before or after the show. Remember the comment above about over-crowded communications channel?. In some cases, announcing at a show fits this description. This can still be a sound marketing tactic–just don’t do it because everyone always does it that way. Do careful research and planning to ensure it is a net positive.
IMPORTANCE OF HIGH TOUCH
If you have a product that absolutely requires some hands-on or personal selling before prospects buy, trade shows can be an excellent investment. For example, if the product is quite expensive, or an expert demo sells far more than prospect downloads from your website. I had a software company client at PJM Consulting who was in a market where expert demos are essential; they grew the company to a great extent with trade shows and almost always could demonstrate a profit on their show budgets.
4 GOALS TO ENSURE A HIGH RETURN FROM A TRADE SHOW:
This is always one of the most important reasons to go to many shows. If it is an important show, the press will be there in full force. You really need to plan PR tactics ahead of time, however, as all of the other exhibitors have the same goal of getting press appointments and coverage. It is CRITICAL to plan far ahead in securing appointments with target editors and have a “tease” of substantial news to obtain the appointment. Editor’s schedules fill up far in advance. Properly planned, the show can pay for itself just in this area by eliminating the need for a dedicated press tour. But if not well planned, you will end up “wasting” your product introduction or other news, resulting in little or no press coverage.
EFFICIENCY OF INDUSTRY NETWORKING
Networking with the other exhibitors is often overlooked by many vendors. The focus is generally solely on customers, and maybe distribution channels. Often many companies with complementary offerings are attending and exhibiting along with a few competitors. This can be a great arena to begin or continue discussions with potential strategic partners. At a minimum, makes sure to set aside some time to walk the show floor and see who might have synergy with your company. Even if you’re pressed for time, shake a few hands and gather some business cards–it can be an excellent setup for future discussions.
LOCAL CUSTOMER VISITS
This is also an area that holds potential to lift your show budget’s ROI, which is often overlooked by many exhibitors. You are flying staff to a faraway city–why not go in a couple of days early, and call on a few potential major customers? At a minimum, make sure you get those free show tickets that often go to waste out to local prospects in your database, so they can come to the show for a meeting or demo at your booth.
LOCAL CHANNEL VISITS
In the same vein as visits to customers it makes a lot of sense to call on current or potential channel partners, once you decide you’ll be spending money going to a show in a certain region. Add a couple of days to your trip and visit a few key partners and prospective partners in the area. And make sure to invite them to the show well in advance and supply those free tickets, so you end up seeing many more later at your booth.
If you just spend a lot of money and fly to a city, set up your booth, and wait for new customers to flock by to see you–you are likely to be very disappointed in your return on investment. But if you use a tradeshow as a hub for a variety of related activity, adding a couple of key shows into your marketing mix can still bring a very nice ROI. The key is preparation and planning, to make sure your results are optimized.
I’ve outlined a few reasons why it still may make sense to exhibit at tradeshows/trade fairs even today, along with some ways to maximize your return. What’s your reason for attending tradeshows in the Internet Age? And what concrete results do you hope to achieve? Post a comment to continue this discussion.