Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Dan Callahan

Whether your firm is a services provider or a product company, you must clearly differentiate your offering or personnel.  Perhaps this is true in any market during any economic cycle, but since our focus is on the IC, here are some of my thoughts on how to accomplish this mission towards the intell agencies.


All good selling and business development begins with putting yourself in the shoes of the client decision maker.  If we do this properly, we will emphasize that which matters to them, not us.  If you don’t know what matters to your target client decision makers, you need to ask them or ask someone who does know.  Certainly, background reading can get you most of the way there.   For instance, low-cost (as a differentiator) may be interpreted as low quality or a likelihood of not being able to follow through.  So, be careful with a value proposition that emphasizes a lack of something. 


Similarly, if a professional that you’re trying to place into an agency, has a long list of certifications or experience, are those certs highly regarded at that agency or better suited at a commercial organization?   



Another issue for services firms: what one or two characteristics do each of your professionals have in common?  Is it a curiosity about how to improve the agency?  Is it a worth ethic?  Is it integrity? Or perhaps thoroughness of reporting.  Whatever it is, the chances are good that it got there intentionally.  The obverse is true: if you want a common and positive characteristic that pervades all of your employees (placed at a particular agency), proactively instill this into them.  And make it fun!  How ‘bout a once-per-quarter dinner for all of your teammates at which you train them or brainstorm with them regarding “hunting for new opportunities”; or how to write a fantastic report, or “driving quality into every task” at the target agency?  …or any other topic that you want to see more emphasis on.  Handled properly, they will appreciate your vision and leadership.   (HINT: keep it fun, not boring).


Let talk about product companies and their challenges.  Frankly, there are a lot of gadgets out there!  As a “differentiated product provider”, we need to know exactly which problem your software or hardware solves.  Don’t leave it to your client to figure out which problem your product solves.  This is a prescription for long-term missionary selling.  The onus is on you to research a problem well enough so that you can clearly articulate how your product solves it.   The more articulation of this, the better.  I am pounding the table here.  During 2009, I interacted with a company that had a very robust software toolbox, but they had trouble identifying challenges that their clients may have and then taking the next logical step of focusing their software to solve those specific challenges.  Business involves risk.  Do your homework, take a stand and execute on the plan...with commitment and flexibility.  If it were easy, they wouldn’t pay us the big bucks!


If you need help understanding your product’s unique value proposition, by all means hire someone who can help your leadership get meetings or research the client environment.  But by all means, answer the question “what problem does my product solve and who really cares about solving this?”    Then, the rest is good execution of a business development plan (who, when, where, why, and how).  Adjusting along the way is also important.  I am familiar with one product provider who has taken pains to follow the changes in a given niche market and it has paid-off handsomely.  In most cases, the intell agencies are not making the rounds as you may be and they will not notice shifts in the broader market as quickly as you might.  This is yet another value-add: being able to tell them what is going on in the “outside” world and then providing some ideas on how they may want to prepare. 


Yes, this is hard but all great endeavors are similarly challenging.  Keep up the good fight.  Our warfighters and intell analysts are counting on us.