The Blind Men, the Elephant, and Componentization of Content

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I recently commented on a Sales Craft LinkedIn discussion in which Sharon Little with Appcelerator had the following discussion: Enablement and the Content Paradigm, and in her discussion she included an article that was written by Corey Sommers, VP of Business Development at WittyParrot. I was so impressed with what Corey wrote about that I contacted him and asked if I might use his article as my guest blog post this week and he was kind enough to allow me to use it.  So, my fellow readers, I hope that you will enjoy this poignant article as much as I have. So without further ado here it is:
My friend Rajesh Setty showed me this cartoon last week and it quickly struck me that this is an important parable in the context of sales and marketing.

Let me quickly recounelephantt the condensed version.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a small village. One day, they heard the other villagers shout, “There’s an elephant walking through the village!”

The blind men had no idea what an elephant was, because they had never seen one. But they decided, “even though we cannot see it, let us go and feel it anyway.”  They all gathered around the elephant, touched it, and cried out to their friends describing what they were feeling.

“Hey, the elephant is like a tree”, said the first man who touched its leg.

“Absolutely not, the elephant is like a rope”, said the second man, grabbing its tail.

“You are way off my friends, it’s like a branch of a tree”, said the third man as he touched the elephant’s trunk.

“It’s like a big hand fan”, said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

The fifth man touched its belly and exclaimed, “How can you not tell it’s like a huge wall?”

“Hogwash, it’s clearly a smooth pipe”, pronounced the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

Then they began to argue about the elephant, each insisting he was right.

Soon they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and saw the commotion.  He stopped and intervened.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“We cannot agree on what this is” and they recounted their different experiences.

The wise man calmly explained, “All of you are right.  But you all perceive it differently because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. The elephant has all of those characteristics.”

The dispute was resolved and the blind men were happy because they were all right.

The moral of the story is that when it comes to any object, concept, or idea, while people may see (or feel!) things differently, they may all be right about different aspects of it.  But if they cling too tightly to a feature of the thing that they perceive or understand the most, there is a lot of room for error.

The Elephant in The Sales & Marketing Room

This parable is instructive when thinking about marketing and selling complex solutions to educated buyers in competitive markets.

Consider an enterprise software solution (the elephant). It has many characteristics, but each can have different levels of importance in different sales scenarios.

The software user loves the look and feel of the software’s elegant interface, and the Systems Architect likes the integration it offers.  On the other hand, the CFO is not crazy about the pricing model, but the head of the department who is driving the purchase really cares about using it to become more competitive and agile.

Now, let’s return to the elephant parable. Imagine if the elephant tried to use its ears to defend against a tiger and its tusks to fight off flies!

Crazy, right?

Well, a similar scenario plays out every day in high dollar B2B sales.  A seller may be enamored of, or better educated about, one particular part of the product or solution he/she is selling, at the expense of others that may be more relevant to the buyer’s interests.

On the flipside, sellers often send customers monolithic documents and the same “kitchen-sink” collateral and proposals with ALL capabilities to ALL buyers, regardless of their specific wants and needs. Why send information on the beautiful user interface to the Systems Architect or information about pricing to the CFO before her concerns are addressed?

Far too often, typical collateral and other sales tools contain TOO MUCH information, very little of it tailored specifically to a particular buyer’s interests and pain points.  What a lost opportunity, and even potential for harm.

Even worse, sellers, who have so little time, are frustrated at having to comb through portals to dig up old proposals and presentations, and make up their own messaging when they can’t quickly find what they need!

Monolithic Sales Tools & Made Up Messaging

This scenario is the bane of a marketer’s existence (I should know, I’ve been struggling with this my whole career).  The content that marketing churns out is generally good, but it’s often not in a usable format to suit different sales situations. Made up messaging is even worse as it dilutes the brand, or in the example below, back-fires in your face.

I heard a particularly painful story recently of a customer who wrote a scathing email to a vendor’s head of sales because one of their sales reps grossly misrepresented their product.

How did the customer know this?

The buyer was better educated than the seller about the company’s products and services – and those of their competitors!  In this case, the vendor’s brand, reputation, AND the opportunity itself were sacrificed.  This seller was a veteran of the company; imagine what new reps and channel partners do if they can’t quickly find answers to a customer’s inquiries!

Componentized Content is The Answer For The Blind Seller

Organizations large and small make significant investments in portals and intranets – both home grown and off the shelf – and pack them full of these fact-filled, “kitchen-sink” documents.  They’re great for document storage, but insufficient for quickly finding targeted messaging for a specific sales situation.

Sellers perform searches and get back dozens of documents that they use to bombard customers with.

Now imagine this:

  1. Instead of putting your elephant into a document that no-one reads, content is  automatically componentized into “knowledge nuggets” for each capability, value proposition, business requirement, silver bullet, and case study (among others).
  2. Next, the messaging components are organized along multiple axes; buyer persona, industry, value proposition, competitor, and tagged with meaningful      descriptors.
  3. Sellers can easily query to find the right content without having to navigate the Intranet to log into a website or portal.
  4. They can then simply drag and drop content to which they have access anywhere that text can be inputted – email, documents, chat windows, social media tools, etc.
  5. And finally, the knowledge nuggets can contain dynamic links back to documents that live in portals, intranets, and box drops, so sellers can further educate themselves with relevant material (and if appropriate, selectively provide those documents to customers and prospects).

Salespeople will take the path of least resistance to get things done and they will use tools that make life easier.

Marketing can now be confident that sellers are reusing the right content in the right situations.

Moreover, if content is communicated to buyers in contextually-relevant chunks, instead of monolithic documents, buyers are far more likely to consume – and respond to – that information.

The content can now help move sales opportunities forward, instead of slowing salespeople down or having them labeled unresponsive or out of touch.

Life & Death Stakes in The Jungle of High Dollar Sales

The stakes couldn’t be higher for making this change in how content is managed and delivered to sellers.

Imprecisely – or worse incorrectly – positioning a product or solution in a fluid and competitive sales situation can mean the difference between winning and losing a major opportunity.  And as we saw earlier, a company’s brand and image in the marketplace are also on the line.

Componentized content and messaging is a great place to start in getting everyone to agree on the size and shape of their elephants.

Thank you again, Corey, for this great article. So, if your Sales and Marketing departments are creating “elephant-sized” sandwiches (assets) that explain, educate or tell way too much for the buyer to absorb, then perhaps feeding your salespeople bite-sized chunks of content will be more effective for both the sales rep and the buyer.  At least that’s the way I see it, what say you?

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