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Here’s how your tech startup can be truly disruptive

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Mike Restivo, senior vice president of international sales at CRM software company Bullhorn, explores what it takes to become a market challenger.

Dixon and Adamson’s ‘The Challenger Sale’ presupposes that the best kind of salesperson doesn’t promote the product, presume familiarity with the prospect, or claim they can apply some kind of salve to their wounds.

Instead, the “challenger” hits certain buttons: they make the potential customer think about their specific business needs, and how the product might fulfil them. The idea is to push them towards a moment of revelation or epiphany that feels entirely their own – and compels them to complete the sale.

It’s an interesting read, and more so because of its broad applicability to other parts of business. When a culture of innovation, differentiation, and self-reflection is adopted throughout the company – from the c-suite to the bottom floor – it can have profound, transformative effects.

Rising to the challenge requires considerable introspection and hard work in the following three areas:

The challenger statement

If you’re a market challenger in the making, much of the work will be out of the way once you’ve completed your challenger statement: the hardest part of the process by some distance, and the one that requires the most thought. Essentially, the challenger statement comprises the things that make your product or service different – the reasons why your customers should care about your company at all. Inconveniently, these things are often divorced from your own notions about what your business stands for.

Your challenger statement may focus on an idea that appeals to you, but it’s far more important that it has mass appeal. Whether you are ahead of the curve or simply off the mark, it might be the case that your idea isn’t quite a macro trend yet. Refocus your statement to address problems you know your customers are prone to complaining about: it will prove to be a much better answer to the question of what they actually want.

This statement will vary slightly according to specific market and regional trends, of course, but it’s important to develop a central, differentiating idea, and to organise your messaging around it.

Challenger sales and marketing teams

A challenger business needs challenger salespeople and challenger marketers. Your business development strategy should never revolve around calling up random strangers and reading a script or a product brochure. Nobody responds to itemised lists of features and statistics, so your hiring process should be designed to identify salespeople and marketers who are complementary to the challenger approach.

The former must be able to nudge customers towards identifying and addressing their specific requirements – with your product being the ideal solution. The latter should be able to take technicalities and translate them into straightforward, tailored challenger statements for each market.

Innovation and differentiation

Again, everyone’s idea of their business is a little different from the reality, even if they make every effort to be as accurate as possible. Your idea of what makes your product special will diverge from the practical needs of your customers – but it’s a matter of degrees, and if you can commit to a process of iteration and self-actualisation, you can differentiate more effectively. Moments of clarity should not be ignored: if you find that your success in one market cannot be duplicated in another, assess the reasons why and make every effort to adapt.

You should also prepare for differences of opinion. Nobody gets to the c-suite without a healthy amount of self-esteem, but when it transforms into ego, it can become dangerous. At Apple, Steve Wozniak wanted to create a computer for computer geeks; Steve Jobs wanted to take computers to a wider audience. Jobs was eventually right, but in the short-term, Wozniak won the argument, and for good reason: the market for computer geeks was an existing, observable phenomenon, while the mass market appeal was entirely theoretical.  The vision for your company should be singular, unmuddled, and – where possible – decided by consensus, but it should also be malleable, and adaptable to changing conditions.

A challenger company will embody these characteristics across the board – and from the board downwards. It’s never easy to change your direction, and less so to do it multiple times and across multiple markets. And yet it is necessary to do exactly this if you hope for sustained success and growth. To challenge yourself and your company is to confront everything good and bad about what you’ve done, in the hope that what you do in future will be even better. The rewards are very much worth the effort.

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