Satisfying the “Curious Buyer”

John Trigg kicked off an interesting exchange on The Integrated Lab about community participation, especially by vendors etc.

I think there’s multiple issues here, more than would fit in a comment to the original post, hence this one.

The good news is there are examples of how healthy communities can arise, the bad news is the ELN market isn’t there just yet. There’s still a lot of old-school thinking around about how a market should communicate, especially by vendors (Wolfgang and I are the only ELN implementors actively blogging for example).

My view, formed both as a result of my own experience as a “customer” and by books like The Cluetrain Manifesto, is that markets are conversations. This is especially the case in new markets, where none of us know what we’re doing, and the only distinction between “Vendors” and “Customers” is that the vendors are trying to generate enough marketing fluff to hide from the users that they’re making it up too!

I guess there’s at least three levels of conversation/interaction that need to happen in a market:

  1. We need to figure out the problem and how to solve it in general terms. This is market formation stuff.
  2. Customers need help getting from “I think I might have a problem” to “This is the kind of solution I am looking for”. This is the start of “Curious Buyer”.
  3. Once the prospective customer has some idea what they are looking for they then need to decide which is the “best” vendor.

Each of these deserve a post on their own, but for the sake of brevity some quick thoughts…

The Market Formation Conversation

CENSA was a really good place for the Industry to figure out what the problem was, although it’s usefulness declined once the industry got to a size where the vendors hired marketing people and sent them rather than their CTOs or founders. We still need something like that because we’re still not where we need to be in terms of really understanding the “map” of the space we call “ELN”. There’s too much confusion even in the use of basic terms, and when that’s combined with sales & marketing efforts a lot of projects just start out doomed from the start.

Personally, I’d love to see all the vendors and consultants running their own blogs, blogs written by people who are responsible for actually helping customers, writing about their daily experiences. I know a lot of people are constrained in their messaging, but I don’t think that’s going to work much longer so Sales & Marketing may as well get used to it.

I’d also love to see people with an ELN blog their experiences. Again, this is hard to do but I’d love to see even anonymous blogging (although how do you know it’s not a vendor… this has happened in other industries, sadly). The academics are starting to blog though, and that could well be our salvation – although the needs of Industry and Academia are somewhat different, so the conversation is going to get a little skewed.

Helping the Curious Buyer

In terms of helping a curious buyer, typically that’s a role a consultative-based sales person would do. If done well (and by well I mean ethically) this is often an excellent way for a buyer to quickly understand their problem and how it might get solved. This is why at Amphora we have a very “soft” sales approach, tend to hire people with more of a consulting background than sales, and have a compensation system which focuses on long term customer success not “get the sale in”.

However, not all vendors work in that way – some can’t (because of their company structure) and some just lack the vision. So buyers don’t trust any “Vendor”. Which is why the Industry needs ways of helping Curious Buyers move forward, and sites like The Integrated Lab are a good starting point for this.

Some people view analyst reports as a possible way out for a Curious Buyer – “If I buy this report it will tell me what to do”. Unfortunately this rarely works even in mature industries because of the inherent conflicts such analysts encounter – you’re generally reading something that’s heavily vendor influenced.

I know that our interactions with Analysts hasn’t been good – a “review” of our product appeared based on not actually seeing our product, our market positioning is totally misrepresented, and even the basic analysis is wrong – we weren’t even given the courtesy of being able to respond. Not going there again.

Having said that I do quite like the guys from RedMonk who have an “Open Source” approach to Analysis. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs of their web site:

RedMonk is the first analyst firm built on open source. We’re dedicated to providing high quality research at no cost, and believe that the dialog that follows is beneficial to us, our community and our clients.

William Gibson once said that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” and we concur. RedMonk analysts spend their days learning from the communities that are defining the future of technology, distilling our findings into free research, and working with clients to explain the likely impact.

Bit of a contrast from the traditional “Buy our badly researched and very expensive report, and oh by the way we do consulting so you can CYA even more” analyst!

Right now our solution to this phase is a very soft, consulting-centric sales approach. It is expensive (for us) but it does work. We also do lots of conference talks and articles where we concentrate mainly on industry issues and our experiences, rather than product pitches or “real user case study” type stuff. Our hope is that if you like our approach, find what we say interesting, then you’ll come and talk further.

Picking the right product

Once our Curious Buyer has a good idea of what they want to do, it’s time to pick the vendor. I think this is the easiest bit right now, because the vendors are sufficiently differentiated that once you understand the problem you quickly end up with one or two candidate vendors – so get them in and have a chat with them, and then take up references.

I’m not sure product reviews will help right now. It will be too hard to do an “Apple to Apples” comparison, and without a decent map of the market it will add more confusion than enlightenment for a Curious Buyer.

This is also my concern about case studies right now – rarely are they positioned in a way that allows the audience to understand how their specific needs relate to the needs of the subject of the case study. So you get someone walking out of a case study believing they’ve just heard that it’s perfectly possible to use one ELN throughout your organisation – which is perfectly true but only if you all do the same kind of science!

Summary

I must admit I don’t know the solution to all of this. I know we have a big problem, and I know the first step is to start the conversation – which is why I started this blog.

One Reply to “Satisfying the “Curious Buyer””

  1. I totally agree – what I’m finding is that our blogs can be very much *one sided* conversations. Many of the potential users out there aren’t being proactive or aggressive enough, IMHO – I would much rather have folks tell me what they want so that we can build it!

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