We live in volatile and unpredictable times. When we think we’ve got one thing (a great job, a closed deal, the perfect product, the right strategy) figured out—our world changes, and we have to figure it out all over again.
Just like the erratic behavior of world order, so too are the forces that inform market demand, customer choices, and the strategies that drive our businesses forward. Coping and trying to survive (let alone thrive) in this environment is terrifying – whether you are leading a start-up or a global Fortune 500 company.
So how does one cope?
Traditionally, the foundations of marketing practice teach us that we should use data and market research to understand our customers’ buying behavior, preferences, demographics, and goals, and personify them into fictional clusters/personas. Marketers then leverage the principles behind the seven P’s (product, price, promotion, placement, packaging, positioning, people) to produce, market, and target their goods and services toward those generated personas.
This methodology works really well for companies producing products that meet a general basic need for a broad group of people. Procter & Gamble’s Tide Pods, for example, are targeted toward Millennials (~83.1MM people), a generation that generally seeks products that provide convenience, are energy-efficient, and in the words of a Tide ad, “provide excellent results with minimal time and effort.” It worked great for P&G, which now owns 78% share of a $7 billion market in the “single-pod” laundry detergent space.
It is clear that segmentation and persona creation are fantastic exercises, but these activities lack the ability to hone in on individual needs and desires for everyone individually.
Up against threats like those from technology, including word-of-mouth transmission (social media, T.V., internet) and online retailers like Amazon and eBay, customers have become savvier at understanding what they want, how much they want to pay for it, and where/how to buy it. This makes it harder than ever for companies to standardize offerings and marketing programs aimed at a general segment.
But what if we are making the process of coping with change too complicated? Moreover, do we really need to invest in expensive consulting teams, databases, and CRM tools to figure out how to humanize and understand our customers?
What if instead we treated customer interactions like team strategy meetings … thinking through ways to improve their company’s bottom line, increasing operational efficiency, becoming more competitive in the market?
I have spent the last year and a half helping to drive, improve, and enable our commercial strategy to do just that at GE Digital.
Commercial Strategy at GE Digital
At GE Digital, we are focused on transforming the way our customers operate their assets and run their businesses. We are working to provide solutions that leverage sensors, predictive analytics, and machine learning to make their operations faster, predictive, and more intelligent. Our customers are both small and large, and span the globe – so we must tailor our offerings region by region, customer to customer, and individual to individual within the organization.
Our focus, was not to push product, but rather become fluent in our customer’s goals, strategies, and initiatives and help them achieve them in the best ways. So, we created a software and operational “consulting-like” salesforce. It focuses on becoming strategic advisors to our customers, leveraging GE’s core expertise around manufacturing, organizational digital transformation, knowledge of software, data science, and machine learning. We strive to help our customers improve overall business operations with software and services.
This new role for the salesperson shifts away from leading with features and benefits to higher value-add discussions about operational performance, and how GE’s applications and services may or may not support the outcome that any given customer wants to achieve.
We aim to put on our customers’ “glasses” to understand their world, their needs, their challenges, and in turn, translate those perspectives into strategy and actionable insights for management and key decision makers up and down their organization. When we do this, we are often able to drive higher impact for our customers, because we know the nuances of their problems and needs, and are able to align and apply the right solutions to them in the right way.
Like strategy and operational consultants, to better align their strategy for each customer, our account managers spend significant time thinking about their accounts: leveraging research, data, and tools to understand the company, the P&L they are looking to work with, and the individual organizational priorities and goals. Moreover, they look at each account as a multilayered organization made up of individual people – each with unique needs, desires, interests.
Just because a CEO’s goals, objectives, impressions, and behaviors are one way, doesn’t mean that their executive team or field engineers feel the same way. Our account managers tailor their approach and interactions for each individual across the customer’s organization to build relationships and influence appropriately.
We use strategy mapping and strategic relationship mapping to improve knowledge, solution generation, and improve and influence customer relationships. This has dramatically helped us make this shift from product pusher to “trusted advisor.”
Strategy Mapping helps us understand a customer’s “story” from top to bottom in a logical way. It’s helpful for preparing for customer meetings, organizing imperatives, and thinking through how GE could help support the customer to achieve their goals. Moreover, it helps us understand what the customer wants and needs, where they spend their money, and how they work to achieve their goals. We essentially build out a personalized “persona” for each account.
There are four components to our strategic maps: Goal, Strategy, Initiative, and Barriers.
Goals are THE WHAT – What does the customer want to accomplish either from an activity (i.e. digital transformation) or from any other stated results/objectives (gather from annual reports, online research, networking, etc.)?
- Goals should be specific, never vague. “Increase profits” is not a goal; it is a wish. $2.40 earnings per share is a goal.
- Make sure the goals reflect all the major goals for the account or department. Too often we list the goals that only affect GE. To build credibility with executives it is important to discuss what is on their minds beyond GE.
- For every goal confirm the owner of the goal, this helps as we think through relationship mapping (later on).
Strategy is THE HOW – What are the plans, methods, or strategies by which the organization will meet their goals?
- Every goal should have at least one strategy supporting it.
- Strategies are often a statement of intent to be followed up with an initiative and with an owner.
- Make sure the strategies reflect all the major strategies for the account or department. Too often we list the strategies that only affect GE. To build credibility with executives it is important to discuss what is on their minds beyond GE.
Initiative defines the projects or initiatives that have been assigned by the customer with funds and personnel, to support their goals & strategies.
- Initiatives should have a name, budget, assigned personnel and desired result. If all four are not identified then it is possible that it is just a stated direction or a “wish”.
- Strategies lead to initiatives. Each initiative should connect to a strategy and contribute to a goal.
Barriers anticipate what might restrain or obstruct progress in reaching the organization’s goals or objectives.
- Barriers are important to GE. Our solutions overcome these barriers and aid a company in achieving their goals. The more barriers we discover and gain agreement on with the prospect increases the perceived value of our solution.
- We also identify major barriers that are not addressed by GE.
Strategy maps are ever evolving, as the organization develops and changes, so too do the strategies, goals, initiatives, and barriers that customers care and think about. Our account managers continuously keep these up to date, and refer to them even with customers to strategize and think through how to help customers achieve the outcomes they care about.
Strategic Relationship Mapping
Strategic relationship mapping helps us understand the account’s organization and key decision makers, critical in determining who, and how best, to influence up and down the organization.
Mapping helps us drive strategy around relationships, interactions, and time management. We want to better understand who we are working with inside the organization, define what they like and dislike, and understand on an interpersonal level what are their trigger points.
To do this, we divide our strategic relationship maps into two areas: Stakeholder Maps and Power maps:
Stakeholder maps sketch out the entire organization at large (not just the organization or key decision makers that influence a specific opportunity). We outline individuals at all levels of the organization from CEO on down to plant management, and within each box we categorize and codify our relationship and history with that individual.
When codifying each individual, we rate their influence at the organization, what their relationship development priority is (how important it is to expand or improve our relationship with this account); adaptability (how does this person behave in the face of change); strength of relationship with this account; and coverage (how much time do we spend with this customer, who has interacted with this customer, and who owns the relationship).
We then integrate these into a map to show where people fall within the organization. Stakeholder maps help account managers track important players within the customer organization. They are also an essential tool for helping senior GE leaders prepare for customer meetings. They help them anticipate what to expect and to tailor their messages.
This process is especially powerful when preparing for a potentially volatile meeting where I needed to convert an avid detractor into a supporter. These maps help us avoid pitfalls and sensitive areas, and move the relationship to a better place.
Relationship maps help us understand where our reps spend their time:
- Are we spending too much time with “non-influencers”?
- Do we have a silo-focus (do we only have deep knowledge and relationships with one department) with little coverage elsewhere?
- In the cases where we don’t have a supporter or “coach” identified, we need to build our development plant to create some.
Power Maps are for active sales opportunities. We use five key metrics to understand where key stakeholders within an account fall regarding a specific opportunity.
Similar to the stakeholder maps, we use power maps to understand at the account level, who the key influencers and decision makers are on a specific opportunity. We outline in these maps the role that the sales person believes he / she will play in this specific buying decision.
The number rating is the same as the stakeholder maps, but the meaning is slightly different. Is this person an advisor & coach on this decision, will they actually vote for GE behind closed doors?
Once each player in the decision is codified, they are placed into a power map, which resemble organization charts.
Like strategy maps and account plans, relationship maps are never really “complete.” We spend time reviewing and thinking about new ways to leverage data, partners, relationships and other resources to better improve our potential for winning. These tools are integral to our marketing and operations teams. They support account-based marketing, and help us deliver proposals more quickly. They help us provide seamless delivery. And, they support a continuous effort to improve customer behavior in the ways that matter the most to them.
Planning and research doesn’t guarantee success, but we find that when we shift our thinking from personas to persons, and focus our energy on creating the best possible experience for each individual within our account’s organization (each, with unique and ever-evolving interests and needs), we (and our customers) win bigger and win more often.
GE Digital’s account management strategy works for us now, but it requires resiliency, effort, innovation, organization, and the ability to pivot and shift strategy when we realize change is necessary.
I believe every company can be successful so long as they stay customer-centric. They must remember to see through their customer’s “lenses,” or to view the customer’s world through their eyes. Then it is possible to craft solutions that help customers achieve their desired outcomes. When they succeed, we succeed. By connecting the dots for each customer on a personal level, you can reduce the amount of chaos your customers experience, and share in the successes you help create for them.
Matthew Hellman, Head of strategy for GE Digital, the Americas, and Asia Pacific