Can Flexibility Be a Marketing Strategy?
“Our system is flexible,” “We are very flexible,” “The system’s flexibility makes it suitable for any type of client” – do these messages sound familiar? Do you also find yourselves using them when you attempt to sell your B2B software solutions to clients, trying to emphasize your unique features?
Each vendor may mean different things when they say “flexibility”. Some refer to changing basic system properties and policies without needing additional software development, others mean adding features quickly and easily, customizing software products to all types of clients or needs, integration with third-party systems, client-focused service and more.
Well, what’s wrong with that?
Of course, from a technical point of view, there is nothing wrong with flexible software, nor is stating its flexibility. Flexibility allows maximum adjustment to clients’ needs, savings both to the vendor and to the client, customization for different types of clients, time saving in development and implementation, and more.
This also concerns the company’s own perception as a service provider, who is willing to adjust when needed, to adapt to the needs of its existing clients and to the requirements of prospective clients, to think out of the box and be creative and different – flexibility shouldn’t be looked down upon and it may reflect the good, personal service you are willing to offer your clients.
During our work with dozens of B2B software companies we have identified three problems with over-reliance on flexibility and with the accompanying marketing messages: A problem with the messages, with the sales process, and – most critically – a problem with the marketing strategy.
Insofar as messages are concerned, there are countless software providers, including probably your direct competition, which state that their system is “flexible”. Try it for yourselves: search for “Flexible LMS” on Google (LMS are Learning Management Systems). Does it strike you as odd, that top results show at least 50 different systems which boast about their flexibility?
If this flexibility characteristic (and statement) is one of the benefits and unique characteristics of your system – you may have a problem. Nearly any software provider now declares that their solution is flexible – whether or not it actually is. You’ll find it very difficult to stand out from the crowd using flexibility as your single differentiating feature. Messages such as these go in one ear and out the other. It will be hard to draw clients’ attention when they are bombarded with countless solutions offered by vendors who are all “flexible”.
This doesn’t mean we can’t claim that our software or service are flexible, only that if we want to rely on it as a central, substantial message in our value proposition, we should do so only if:
- Most solutions available on the market, in your particular sector, suffer from very limited flexibility
- Flexibility is particularly important to clients in your sector, given the nature of their activity
- Your degree of flexibility is substantially outstanding in its capabilities, it is well integrated into the architecture and design of your product, or into your service model – and it serves as an integral part of your value proposition and marketing strategy
Another problem often occurs at the sales interaction level. It may be that the architecture of your software does indeed allow flexibility and customization to different types of clients. Suppose, for example, that you develop and sell a project management system which is suitable both for the construction industry and for project and task management in high-tech companies. From your viewpoint, you have been able to develop a single, flexible system which is suitable for two different work environments and two different markets. That is great. However, is your construction client interested at all in the fact that you are flexible and that your product supports clients in other industries? Probably not. During the sales phase it is important to establish what, if anything, your particular client gets out of your flexibility.
This brings us to the final, most critical level – your marketing strategy.
Oftentimes I come across local software companies planning to enter international markets. Some are start-ups, while many others are well-established local companies, which have done very well on the Israeli market, and are now looking to leverage their success on global markets.
One phenomenon that is particularly common among the latter, the ones which have operated for many years in the Israeli market, is that during their activities they have expanded into additional areas, in order to increase their client base. This sometimes grows out of the company’s intended search for additional market segments, especially given the size constraints of the Israeli market, and sometimes in an unplanned manner, addressing new requirements coming from other departments within the client’s organization. This sometimes evolves within the relationship between a client and its software provider, which, as part of its service, is willing to serve as the client’s primary provider which addresses most of its requirements – in cases where maximizing revenues from existing clients and using company resources for more development and services makes business sense. And so, these companies find themselves a few years down the road with expanding products, services, as well as different types of clients and areas which they serve.
The “backlash” often comes when the company starts turning to new markets overseas. Now flexibility fades as it loses the impact it may have had with domestic clients. It is very hard to stand out and to differentiate yourself overseas when you are trying to serve different types of clients. Your international competition has broader products with greater functionality, resources, and client base. Local competitors in your target markets will also have “flexible solutions”…
Is it possible that a company which takes pride in its flexibility would come across – and ultimately serve – particular clients better than a company whose strategy is focused solely on one type of clients or only on specific needs? Let’s review the project management system example. If you were a construction contractor, which system would spark your interest – one which is designed solely for the construction industry, or another, which addresses more than one industry? Hasn’t that flexibility become a replacement for a long-term strategy that is focused on a particular type of client, thus creating differentiation and a competitive advantage?
Doesn’t “flexibility” – the attempt to be good at many things for many clients – entail “mediocrity”, meaning that we are somewhat good in many areas and types of clients, but we don’t excel in any one particular area? Was our choice of flexibility nothing but a way to avoid strategic planning and decision-making?
According to Porter’s famous model, strategic decisions also clarify explicitly what we don’t do and whom we don’t serve. This assumption is based on countless evidence and cases where companies, even large ones, cannot excel in many areas and with different types of clients and needs at the same time. Trade-offs must be considered in order to build a well-synchronized chain of capabilities which support one of the alternatives, making it stand out from the crowd, even more so on a crowded international market.
Think about it.