[PMC Weekly Consulting Insight] Does data modeling lead or follow business strategy?

I’ve recently chosen a CRM. Note: If you just instantly, uncontrollably fell asleep upon reading the letters C R M, I get it. Give this article a chance anyway; this issue is way more interesting than CRMs themselves are.

When you really dig into this issue, it touches on several things that might seem to be un-connected, but actually are connected: genre, business strategy, and product positioning.

That I’ve recently chosen a CRM means I spent some time evaluating different CRMs, and that process was fascinating, despite the narcolepsy-inducing nature of CRMs in general.

Evaluating CRMs was fascinating because my goal wasn’t to choose the best normal CRM, it was to choose the right CRM for my business. And that’s where the idea of genre starts to show up.

Genre

As far as I can tell, “normal” CRMs are a software tool that use contact management and reporting to help you shephard prospects through a pipeline.

Some normal CRMs let you set up multiple pipelines, but the main idea of a pipeline is that it’s a linear process, with distinct stages in the process.

This is where the genre of “normal CRM” impinges on business strategy.

Business strategy

For businesses like ours, business strategy is a combination of mission and focus.

Some combinations of mission and focus will imply that a linear process describing how someone moves from anonymous to lead to prospect to client is the ideal way to structure the sales process. In other words, a pipeline will be a good data model for these businesses.

I definitely understand the appeal of this model. It’s simple. It promises that you can understand and control your sales process using a really simple model. The marketing funnel is another such simple, appealing model.

And then some other combinations of mission and focus will imply that the pipeline model makes no sense at all. Same with the marketing funnel model. This is where genre impinges on business strategy.

For some businesses, the genre of “normal CRM” will be a terrible fit.

I think this is why I’ve resisted using a CRM up until now.

It’s not that I haven’t tried! It’s just that most CRMs — because they’re trying to fit into the genre of “normal CRM” — use this pipeline model that seems ill-suited to my business strategy. I’ll use the next article in this short series to explore why the pipeline model is ill-suited to my business.

Positioning

Product positioning, which is distinctly different than services positioning, is (sometimes) the task of making genre explicit. Software products succeed and fail at this to varying degrees. The usual approaches fail.

The first usual approach with software marketing is to focus on feature completeness, believing that a robust enough description of features will telegraph clues about genre, and from that faint, implied signal about genre, prospective customers can make up their own mind about whether the software is for them or not.

From this perspective, it’s arrogant to make declarations about who the software is for.

From this perspective it’s believed that emphasizing the product feature mix in the right way will telegraph that “this fits in the normal CRM genre” or “this is the best option within the normal CRM genre”, and potential customers will have no problem deciding what “normal CRM genre” means and whether that’s what they want or not.

I believe but can’t yet prove that this approach to positioning comes from how enterprise software is typically sold.

This first usual approach works fine where the market is not saturated with an overabundance of seemingly similar options.

The second usual approach is to differentiate through feature emphasis, or a unique feature-level design philosophy. For example, Copper CRM takes what might be the most valuable real-estate on their marketing home page to say the following: “Copper is a new kind of productivity crm that’s designed to do all your busywork, so you can focus on building long-lasting business relationships.” The rest of the home page elaborates on this statement by highlighting the product features that enable this “freedom from busywork/focus on relationships” design philosophy.

This second usual approach is one way to deal with a market that’s saturating with good options, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach in this kind of market.

Copper is getting closer to being clear about genre, but they’re still using feature descriptions as a proxy for being clear about genre. They’re being coy about who exactly their software is for.

I understand why Copper does this. It’s the same reason we all waffle on being emphatically clear about who our products or services are for: we’re hungry for more, and the seemingly obvious path to more is going bigger, and the seemingly obvious path towards going bigger is to say some variation of “we’re for everybody”. Going narrow and deep is the better path to getting from small to big, but it takes courage and discipline to pull off, so it’s easier to to believe that the right [design | marketing site copy | product feature mix | whale customer/client] will substitute for market focus + courage + discipline + time.

Secondarily, Copper probably doesn’t want to overhaul their marketing site every 12 or so months. 1 Yet, if they were willing to do that, they could start with a narrow focus and broaden over time as they gain traction and realize growth goals.

What’s pretty unusual in software marketing is to make genre explicit, rather than implicit.

If I wanted to give the typical SaaS founder nightmares with a chaser of heartburn for good measure, I’d suggest they heavily emphasize the following message on their product’s marketing site. Let’s cast this example as a CRM:

This is not a normal CRM. It’s quite unusual, in fact. It might not be for you. But… if the pipeline sales approach doesn’t work for you and instead you are seeking a CRM that focuses on relationships first, you won’t believe how well this CRM matches your needs!

This is the beachhead approach Geoffrey Moore documents in his book “Crossing the Chasm”. It’s sane and smart and bold, but under-utilized (except when I get hired to consult on product positioning).

I’ve left some loose threads hanging here. What CRM did I choose? (Not Copper CRM, FWIW.) Why is the pipeline model not a fit for my business strategy?

I’ll get to those in subsequent emails in what will become a short series.

-P


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Notes

  1. I want to be clear I don’t know the Copper CRM folks, so I’m making some generalizations and guesses here and using Copper as a way to personify those generalizations. Stereotyping, in other words. 🙂