Un-Expert Yourself

There’s a well-known expression from the world of marketing –and it’s usually used in the form of an accusation: “You’re talking to yourself!”

There are common examples of this mistake all over the place.  For example, auto dealers insist on telling you that they are the “Sell More Cars Than Any Other Ford Dealer in Central Illinois!”  –even though no one cares except other Ford dealers.  When you go car shopping, you’re only planning to buy one car. You likely want to know if they carry that one, and if you will give them the best price, and how you will treat them while they shop and after you buy. The fact that they already sold 35 cars this month? Whatever.

Most people intuitively understand why this is a problem. Customers want to know how you are going to solve their problem. They don’t care about much anything else.

We could easily take the marketing admonition not to talk to yourself, and transfer it wholesale to technology founders, CEOs, product managers and marketers.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have several clients with complicated products. I know what they do. I understand their value proposition. I could even explain it to you in a sentence or two. But I worked hard for that understanding. Why? Because the way many of my clients talk about their products is virtually incomprehensible to an outsider.

Now, there’s a significant difference in complexity between a technology product itself and the value it delivers to a customer. I have only the most remedial understanding of how my air-conditioning works. But, when I replaced it last week, I needed to understand enough to know that the system I bought would solve my problem, would be competitively priced, would work reliably, would reduce my electric bill, and would be covered by a warranty ensuring that I was not left to swelter in July heat anytime soon again.

To learn that I spoke to 5 different companies. I bought from the one that I believed answered yes to all those requirements.

My belief was what mattered.

Undoubtedly, some of the ones I rejected would insist they could satisfy — even exceed– my expectations. But they failed to make me believe that. That’s the litmus test for communicating about technology.

I always spend time on my clients’ websites. I watch their explainer videos and read their blogs.

Often, I’ve spent over 100 hours talking with the founders and executive teams of these organizations. We have continually reviewed the product’s development, and I have been along for the ride at every juncture. Yet, more than once, I have gotten lost trying to figure out something on their website, or I’ve tried to sign up to use the product and been completely stymied.

Yes, their products are complicated. But learning how they can help and how to buy them should NOT be complicated. In fact, the more complex the product, the less complicated should be the value proposition and buying process.

Imagine you are a marketing director for a camping equipment company and your boss tasks you with finding the perfect influencer for your company’s products.

You’ve never hired an influencer before, but you get on Google, find an agency and go to their website. Their About Us page says that they firmly disallow #XYZBCA –and do not keep clients on who get regularly ratioed (yes, it’s a word). Moreover, when they detect a shadow ban, they provide a different influencer at no additional fee. They also offer such services as OOTD and Flatlays.

For someone who is not intimately familiar with influencer marketing (I did research to learn this terminology), most of that paragraph would be gibberish. If you are that mystified–the odds are strong that you will find a different agency –one that doesn’t make you feel stupid.

Some of the industries that “talk to themselves” include data storage, blockchain and IoT. All three technologies are common, and even if you don’t work in tech, you likely understand what they are. But if you go to company websites you may have no idea what they’re talking about. The language seems inexplicably obfuscated.

I’ve talked about this with leaders in these industries– product managers, founders, heads of marketing and CEOs.

The problem is a kind of blindness. Although each of these individuals wants customers to understand how the product solves their problems, none of them really sees that their language is incomprehensible. Why? Because it is clear as day to them!

They point to their results as proof of the fact that they are communicating well. But here’s the problem with that. You should NEVER use the results you have as the evidence against the results you could have! [click to tweet]  You have to look for evidence of a failure to communicate –it won’t show up in your normal metrics!

If you create something utterly novel, then you mustn’t forget that if nobody ever did it before you, there isn’t a common language to talk about it.

Lots of my clients have an entire “private language” they use to discuss the product with other teammates. But it’s essentially a code. Using it won’t keep prospects on your website or in your presentations.

Even if you think your product is utterly unique and that your competitors do nothing like what you do –if customers understand them and not you –you lose the business.

How do you fix this? Well, the origin of this problem is literally being too expert. Therefore, you need to UN-expert yourself.

Expertise clouds our comprehension of what it’s like for people who don’t have our knowledge. It’s impossible for us to truly understand what it’s like not to know what we know. We think we’re being perfectly clear. After all, everybody else in the company understands it and thinks it’s awesome. They’re experts too!

You may even be the product manager, ostensibly the voice of the customer. But while you weren’t paying attention, you became an insider, an expert. And now that you’re an expert, you don’t understand how amateur your customers are. You’ve lost sight of what it’s like to come into this world as an alien. We do this outside of work too, but it really matters when you’re trying to command the market –especially with completely new technologies or use cases.

Whether you’re the founder, in marketing, product or sales –make it your job to talk to NON-CUSTOMERS. Find out how they talk about the problems you solve –and how they describe the solutions. Hold focus groups and listen keenly for confusion, boredom or puzzlement.

Ask happy customers how they describe your product to their peers. Let them explain to you what it does for them. Without going directly into the world of the amateur, un-expert, you will not discover the gap between what you are saying and what your customers are hearing. Within that gap resides boatloads of customers you are leaving behind.

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