6 Ways Vendors Are Talking At You Instead of To You

15 years ago, you could forgive a company for thinking that a Web site was something they needed to have because everyone else had one. But by the end of the dot-com boom, pretty well everyone had realized that a corporate Web site was much more than just an online business card or brochure. Today, a company’s Web site is one of its most important assets, simply because it’s the first point of contact with potential customers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to talking to those potential customers, many companies are still missing the mark, and enterprise software vendors are among the worst offenders.Instead of talking to you, they’re talking at you. Here are 6 ways they’re doing it.

Making Meaningless Claims

If you're developing a tagline, a good rule of thumb is to analyze the claim you're making and think about whether any of your competitors would ever claim the opposite. If the answer is no, you need a better tagline. For example, a software vendor might use the classic three-word tagline structure and come up with something like “Flexible. Powerful. Efficient.” Since no vendor would claim to be rigid, weak, and wasteful, it’s neither memorable nor effective.

Shouldn't the same rule apply to other communications?

Apparently not, it would seem. Vendor Web sites are chock full of unsupported claims that sound good, but don't mean much. For example, almost every vendor's site claims that the vendor is an "industry leader." But what does that mean? How is it measured? Who decides? And more to the point, if every vendor is an industry leader, is that claim really going to help you decide?

What you want to know is what sets the vendor apart, and how that affects you. For example, if you run a financial services company and you're looking for accounting software, are you going to pay more attention to a generic "industry leader" or to the "leading provider of accounting software for financial services firms?"

Probably the latter, right? And if that vendor backs up the claim with some hard information about their expertise and ties it into your business, so much the better.

But most vendors, content to wow you with their leadership, don't do that. Why not?

Talking About “Businesses” Instead of Talking About You

Vendor Web sites are full of descriptions of businesses. Businesses facing challenges. Regular businesses becoming best-run businesses. Businesses applying best practices to achieve explosive growth. Businesses in turmoil. Businesses suffering in a weak economy. Businesses burdened by regulation.

But the only business you care about is your own.

This may sound picky, but to me, these generic descriptions sound a little too prescriptive. They sound like the vendor, without even asking what your business is actually doing, knows what it should be doing. Like without understanding where you want your business to go, they know where it should go.

If you would only implement their solutions.

And in their defense, many vendors deal with hundreds or thousands of companies—certainly enough to see what successful businesses (and unsuccessful ones) have in common.

But having things in common doesn't make businesses the same. Your business has its fair share of unique characteristics, and you're more keenly aware of them than a vendor will ever be.

So isn't it easier on the ears when a vendor asks what you need? When they acknowledge that your business has its own problems and its own requirements? When they ask you what you want instead of telling you what "businesses" need?

Making It All About Themselves

If vendors aren't telling you what you need, they're probably telling you how good they are. Industry-leading this, best-of-breed that, and redefined the other. They're almost daring you to speak ill of the software they're so proud of. And pride in your work is great, but the problem with this approach is that it implies that the software is perfect, and it's your business that has the problems.

But facts are facts. No solution is going to do 100% of what you need it to do. You're going to have to make some compromises, and so is the vendor. In other words, the "best fit" solution is the one that comes closest to doing what you need with the least amount of headache. And vendors know that. The chest-beating tone is just that—a tone. But it does create an impression of how you'll be treated as one of their customers.

So why not change the tone? Wouldn't you prefer to hear that a vendor has a great piece of software and that they'll work with you to integrate it into your business as smoothly as possible? Wouldn't you rather feel like you're working with your vendor and not for them?

I thought so.

Not Providing Concrete Examples

I see this one all the time. Vendors start by extolling the virtues of their solutions, then they make a bunch of claims about what those solutions will do for your business, and  finally they throw a laundry list of features at you in the hopes that you'll recognize what you need. But they rarely connect the dots.

The problem is that many vendors approach things backwards. They developed all kinds of neat features to (presumably) solve common business problems. So when they tell you that a feature exists, they think you'll a) connect it to the problem it was designed to solve, b) immediately see its value, and c) recognize the benefit they claim it brings.

A more effective approach is to just spell it out. Rather than claiming that a solution "manages customer interactions, from contact data and history to calendaring and tasks," (for example) a vendor might explain that when a customer calls the support department, your rep can see what products they have, what problems they've had in the past, and what other reps have told the customer. The call goes smoothly (and quickly), the customer feels valued, you save money, etc., etc.

It takes just a few extra words (or a short video) to explicitly connect a feature to a real world problem, connect the problem to a solution, and connect the solution to a benefit. And as a potential customer, you now know a lot more about what you're buying.

Again, wouldn't you rather deal with a vendor that goes out of its way to give you all the facts?

Making Information Difficult to Find

The problems I've listed so far all assume that you've actually found something like the information you're looking for. But a number of vendor Web sites commit the cardinal sin of making information hard to find in the first place. You can find examples of this easily enough, so rather than listing some, let me just say this:

You should never have to work to find the information you want on a vendor's Web site. That's the vendor's job.

Every vendor should be doing everything in its power to make sure that all the information you could possibly want is available, easy to find, and easy to act on. From information about solutions, to feature lists, demos, trial versions, references, testimonials, contact information, and especially purchasing information, it's up to the vendor to make sure you find it. Not the other way 'round.

Assuming You Care

That issue of responsibility brings me to the common thread in all of these problems: vendors assume you care. About them. And they’re not wrong. They’re just going about things the wrong way.

What they’re doing is assuming you're willing to slog through reams of marketing material to get at the information you want, convince yourself that their solutions are right for you, and buy.

You, on the other hand, care about whether vendors’ solutions can address your specific problems. You care whether the vendors can deliver what they promise—on time and within your budget. You care whether they’re going to support you before, during, and after your implementation.

So why aren’t they telling you those things? In concrete terms, and in language that’s targeted at you?

What Do You Think?

Do you feel that vendors aren't addressing your needs on their websites? Are you frustrated by sites that don't speak to you? If you're a vendor and you feel like your company does a good job of communicating with customers, how are you doing it?
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