Monday, April 14, 2014

Winning SaaS customers requires patience

"Eighty percent of success is showing up."  — Woody Allen.


For most companies, buying a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution to address a critical business need isn't a decision they take lightly.

Evaluating a solution to support HR, CRM, finance, marketing, or any other important part of the business takes a good amount of deliberation.  It could involve a demo or a trial.  There might be several people involved in the decision.  It could require a series of meetings or presentations.  In other words, it takes time.

And time is in short supply.  Prospective customers don't have a lot of it.

What's urgent for you isn't necessarily urgent for the customer

While you, a SaaS vendor, thinks your solution is the most important priority, the customer has other items on their to-do list.  And the particular problem your solution is addressing just might not be at the top of the list right now.

That doesn't mean they don't have a problem that you can solve.  It doesn't mean they don't like your solution or your company.  And it doesn't mean they've already bought a solution from some other vendor.

It just means they're not ready to evaluate your solution and make a purchase decision right now.

Two options:  Push or Wait

So what's a SaaS vendor to do?

One option is to push.  That is, try to move the problem and your solution higher up on the priority list.

Create a greater sense of urgency and convince the prospective customer that every day they delay, they're losing money, losing customers, exposing themselves to risk, or some other bad outcome.  (See Practical Advice on SaaS Marketing newsletter: "Turn 'nice to have' into 'need to have.'")

Another option is to wait.

But waiting doesn't mean sitting on your hands and doing nothing. It means staying in front of the prospect, so that when they are ready and able to spend the time to evaluate solutions, you'll be there.

Guidelines for waiting

Waiting isn't easy, especially when your company has sales goals to meet.  But there are a few guidelines to doing it effectively.

Be consistent:  Staying in front of a prospective customer requires a long term commitment.  It can easily take a prospect many months before they fully engage on an evaluation of your solution.  And you'll probably not know precisely when that moment arrives.

That means you need be in front of them consistently... maybe not once every week, but certainly at least once every month.  A "one and done" approach won't work.

Educate your prospect:  The most effective way to stay in front of prospects is to provide something useful for them.  Publishing an insightful white paper, a blog post, benchmark data, or some other valuable content reinforces your credibility and makes a positive impression.

By the way, keep in mind that just because someone's on your contact list isn't an invitation to harass them.  A high "opt-out" rate will tell you've crossed into "spammer" territory.

Keep costs low: All of this effort to stay in front of prospects while you wait patiently isn't free.  It's part of the customer acquisition costs that make the SaaS business model so challenging.  (See "How to cut customer acquisition costs.")

But there are ways to keep the costs under control.  Email newsletters, white papers, and blog posts, for example, are fairly inexpensive to distribute.  On the other hand, on-site visits from sales executives are expensive and probably not the most efficient way to stay in touch with prospects who are not yet ready to fully engage.

This stuff does work

I recall work I did with one particular vendor to assess whether this "stay in front of prospects" strategy really works.  We looked at the deals we had won and worked backwards to examine the entire life of the relationship with the customer.

In most cases, we found that the process extended over many months and involved at least ten "touches" with marketing material.   That is, we got in front of the prospect ten times over the period: sent a white paper, invited them to a webinar, delivered a blog post, etc.  All that activity happened before the customer seriously engaged in an evaluation of the solution and began working closely with a sales person.

Believe me, I know patience isn't always easy.  But if you're selling important solutions to enterprises, plan for it.  It's just the way the process works.





Monday, March 10, 2014

How SaaS Marketing has Changed

Over the 10 years since salesforce.com went public, a few things have changed in the way we market software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.

For one, companies are getting more comfortable with the idea of running critical business functions in the cloud.

Not too long ago, people marketing SaaS solutions spent a lot of time trying to convince prospective customers that putting key applications and data on the cloud was OK.

We put together plenty of documents - white papers, fact sheets, policy and procedures documents, and more - explaining that SaaS solutions were reliable and sensitive information stored there would be safe.

Fewer concerns about "the cloud"

I don’t hear many of these concerns anymore. 

Companies have grown more comfortable with the idea. 

Maybe the hosting companies have earned more trust, building a solid record of security and high-availability over the years. 

Or maybe the benefits of cloud-based solutions now simply overwhelm the possible downsides.

Of course when companies evaluate SaaS solutions, the IT professionals still care about security, performance, and integration issues.  They need to do their due diligence and ask the tough questions.  And solution providers need to have solid answers.  (For more on addressing these concerns, see "SaaS Security:  Don't Ignore It.")

Smarter buyers

As the SaaS market has matured, buyers have become more knowledgeable.  In some markets, they are now on the second or third generation of solutions.  These companies are often replacing existing systems, not adopting automation for the first time.


With this experience, buyers have a much better idea of what features and functions they really need, and what they’re willing to pay for.

To package and promote their solution effectively, SaaS marketers need a much better understanding of these more sophisticated buyers. There's no point in highlighting features and benefits that prospective customers don't really care about and aren't willing to pay for.

“SaaS” by itself isn’t a selling point

In many markets such as HR or CRM software being “SaaS” doesn’t, by itself, distinguish one solution from others anymore.  The benefits - faster deployment, no local servers, access from anywhere, regular enhancements, lower cost, etc. - are now simply “check box” items for prospective customers.  They expect them from all the solutions they’re considering.

Of course, vendors should include the benefits of SaaS in their marketing messages, but it may not make sense to put them at the top of the list. 

(A brief commercial interruption:  Contact me if you need help understanding your prospects and preparing your marketing messages.)

Some things stay the same

Though there have been some changes, some of the challenges of marketing SaaS solutions have stayed the same.

When a company’s evaluating a SaaS solution, there’s still a broad mix of folks involved in the process.  Along with IT and procurement, there’s the business owner, the department head, and the end user.  In fact, it’s often the department head - the executive responsible for Sales, Marketing, or HR, for example - that initiates the process. 

We folks marketing SaaS solutions need to reach each of these audiences and address their particular concerns.  The head of HR or the head of sales needs to hear different messages than the IT executive.


SaaS marketing is still expensive

Another constant is the high cost of acquiring customers.

In its most recent financial statement, salesforce.com reported it spent 53 percent of annual revenues on sales and marketing.  By far its largest single expense, sales and marketing costs have kept it from net profitability.  And this is for a SaaS company that is already well-known and well-established.

Yes, there are ways that SaaS companies can keep their customer acquisition costs under control - inbound marketing tactics, low-touch sales models, etc. - but sales and marketing is still going to be a substantial expense.  (See "Customer Acquisition Spending: Lessons from Workday")


It takes a lot of work and money to build visibility and credibility, generate leads, nurture leads into qualified opportunities, convert them into paying customers, and then retain and up-sell those customers.

That's an effort and an expense that hasn't changed for SaaS companies.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Listen to your SaaS customers

Companies get more from software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions than just lower cost.

So says a recent study conducted by IBM.  It reveals that companies find that the greatest benefits from SaaS solutions are more collaboration, a better customer experience, and faster time-to-market.

For anyone that’s been marketing SaaS solutions for any amount of time, those finding aren’t terribly surprising. 

What is remarkable is that IBM actually asked customers about their SaaS experience.  Companies
don't do that often.  For some reason or another, many just don’t get around to asking their customers why they bought their solution.

Too bad.  You can hear a lot just by listening. 

I know that sounds remarkably simple (and like something Yogi Berra would come out with.)  But it’s true.  

Why do people buy your solution?

I work with many companies to help them figure out why people buy their solution.  At the risk of giving away a trade secret, here’s how I pry that information out of customers:

I ask.  And then I listen carefully.

Here are the kind of things you can learn:
  • What problem were these people trying to solve?
  • How big or costly was the problem?
  • Where did they look for solutions?
  • What alternatives did they consider?
  • What’s been their experience with the solution?  
  • Were the original problems resolved?

It takes some practice, and there are advantages to having an outsider ask the questions.  People know I’m not trying to sell them something.  And they say things that they might not share directly with the solution provider.

Don't waste money pushing out the wrong message

Without this kind of information, it’s difficult - no, make that impossible - to develop a compelling value proposition and messages.  How can a SaaS provider tell a prospective customer that they have a solution that the customer needs... if they don’t really know what the customer needs?

And without a compelling value proposition, SaaS companies can waste a lot of money on marketing campaigns that don’t work.  Given the way the SaaS business model works, that’s money most can’t afford to waste.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

SaaS Security: Don't Ignore It

Remember all those concerns about the security of software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions?  When SaaS was still a new idea, at some point in the sales process you'd get the same questions:  Who's got my data?  Who can see it?  Is it safe?

As SaaS has matured, maybe you thought those concerns were dead and gone.

You'd be wrong.

SaaS security is still an issue

Yes, SaaS solutions have been widely adopted by enterprises, and in many cases they're preferred over on-premises applications.

But for enterprise buyers, security is an issue that just won't go away.  CEOs and CIOs are still asking questions about how sensitive information is protected.  And with news of the recent data breaches at Target and Snapchat, they have good reason to keep asking.

I don't know how the information was stolen from Target or Snapchat.  Maybe it had nothing to do with how most SaaS solutions protect data.  It doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that some prospective customers think there are security issues with SaaS solutions.

So at some point in the purchase and evaluation process, these folks are likely to ask those nasty security questions.  They'll want to know exactly how their data will be protected and why they should trust you to do the protecting.

Be prepared to address security head on


As a SaaS provider, you should be prepared.  And the "you" I'm talking about here isn't just the operations people.  The marketing people have a role here, too.

Concerns about security can derail a purchase and they need to be addressed.

To satisfy CEOs, a short document that spells out the basics of the security procedures can be effective.

For IT professionals, though, a longer document is usually necessary.  They expect something with serious heft and full of details on server security, network security, application security, penetration testing, back-up procedures, and every other security issue. 

However you do it, if you're selling to enterprises, you should be prepared to address the security of your SaaS solution.   This issue isn't going away anytime soon.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Another task for 2014 planning: review your messages

I'll start by apologizing.

I know you’re up to your eyeballs already with your 2014 planning, but I’m going to add another chore to your “to do” list.  Sorry.

Besides working through your budget, marketing programs, headcount, and whatever else you need to have in place when the new year rolls around, I’d suggest you add another item:   

Review your value proposition and messages.

Here’s why.

Most of your marketing plans are meant to deliver your messages to your target audience.   That’s what email campaigns, presentations, webinars, press campaigns, website overhauls, white papers, data sheets, events, customer conferences, and search engine marketing are all about. 

So before you do any of this stuff, you should think about the messages themselves.


  • Do they mean anything to the people you’re trying to reach?  
  • Do they address their problems?  
  • Do they distinguish your solution from alternatives?  
  • Do they compel the prospective customer to act?

In other words, is your value proposition still valid and effective?

Things do change

A value proposition and messages aren’t things I recommend you tinker with very often.  Consistency and repetition are good.

But they are worth revisiting from time to time.  After all, things do change. 

The things customers care about might change.  For example, for some buyers, mobile is much more important now than it was a few years ago, so you’ll need to address that.

Or new competitors may be have come into the market.  That may mean you’ll need to update the way you talk about the unique advantages of your solution.

The best way to figure out if your messages are still valid?   Ask your customers.  

There are a few ways to do that:  surveys, focus groups, interviews, A/B testing, monitor relevant conversations on social media, etc. 

Many companies I work with find it especially useful to have an outsider talk with customers.  (Contact me and I can tell you more.)

However you decide to do it, it’s worth going through the effort from time to time.  Why not now?







Creative Commons License

This work by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Images obtained via iCLIPART.com.



Monday, November 4, 2013

Most demos are useless

When you're selling business solutions to companies, at some point in the sales process you're likely to end up doing a demo.

Too bad.  Most demos are useless.

They usually don't help the prospective customer make a good choice. They just confuse and bore them.

And they don't help the vendor make the sale, either.  That's especially true for software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.

In this short video, produced with help from the good folks at Openview Labs, I explain why most demos are dreadfully dull, and how we can do better than bore our prospective customers and waste our own time.



Tuesday, October 8, 2013

SaaS Marketing Requires Focus

There's a guy in my town who advertises himself as "The Bulkhead Man."  What he does is install the entryways that go from the outside of a house into a basement.  Most are heavy steel doors that are mounted onto the concrete foundation.  Here's a photo of mine, partially obscured by a very healthy holly bush.


I assume "The Bulkhead Man" could probably handle a lot of other construction projects around the house: build a deck, hang new cabinets, replace siding, whatever.  He could rightly call himself a "contractor" or "handyman." 

But that would be a bad idea.

Then he'd be just another guy in the long list of other "contractors" and "handymen" who advertise in my local paper.  His ad would be stuck in with about two dozen others, instead of being the one and only "bulkhead man."  

Companies want solutions for their particular problems

If I needed a new bulkhead, believe me, "The Bulkhead Man" is the guy I'd call.

And I'm probably like most people in that way.  Most of the time when we're looking to fix something, we're looking for someone with particular expertise, a specialist in delivering just exactly what we need.

This same logic applies to people searching for business solutions.  They're usually not looking for something that can "do anything for anybody."  They're looking for a solution to their particular problem.

How can software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies can take advantage of that logic?  One word:  Focus. 

Focus lets companies build visibility and a reputation as experts in their particular niche.  It lets them distinguish themselves from the pack.

When someone searches for solutions like theirs, they rank at the top of the list.  When someone sees them at a show or receives an email from the company, they pay attention.  "Hey, these folks have something that's exactly what I'm looking for!"

Focus on a problem, a customer, a geography, something

A SaaS company can focus on a particular problem or task.  For example, "our solution is specifically designed to help eCommerce companies more quickly and accurately update the inventory they present online."

Or it can claim that its solution is developed for a particular kind of customer, as in "this product is built for companies with teams of 5-40 customer support reps."

A company could even claim a specific geographic specialty.  For example, "our solution is designed to help public school administrators meet the unique reporting requirements of the State of Florida."

If you think about it carefully, you may find other ways to identify your particular market segment.  Contact me if you need help.

Focus isn't easy

Believe me, I know it's difficult to narrow in on a specialty and there's lots of temptation to present yourself as "we can do anything for anybody." 

I talk with a lot of companies that are rightly very proud of what they've built, all the things it can do, and all the markets it can serve.  "Yes, it solves that one problem well... but wait.  It does so much more."

My advice in most cases: focus.  Or at least take on a carefully selected handful of well-defined segments.

Focus is especially important if you're competing in an established market with a few 800-lb gorillas.  In the market for CRM solutions, for example, if you get head-to-head with companies like salesforce.com, they'll easily out-spend you with their vast marketing and sales budget.  You'll be buried.

Focus is essential to the SaaS business model

The key to survival in the SaaS world is getting your money's worth from what you spend on customer acquisition.  (See "Marketing Spend;  How Much is Enough?") Once you've spent money on developing your product, sales and marketing expenses are likely to be among your largest on-going expenses.   For your business to thrive, the return on that spending - the long-term customer value - must exceed the acquisition costs.

With focus, a company can distinguish itself from competitors, make itself easier to find, attract more leads, and close more business.

What does that means in terms of the "customer acquisition cost (CAC)/ long term customer value" (LCV) formula?  If the company spends $1 on sales and marketing, it's got a better chance at earning back much more than that in long-term customer value.


Don't just be another company that does everything that everybody else does.  Be the one and only "bulkhead man."




 
Creative Commons License

This work by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Images obtained via iCLIPART.com.