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Achieve Competitive Separation Out of the Gate — Vendor Eyes Only

Vendor Eyes Only
I spent the last month, nose-to-the-grindstone, reviewing LMS solutions for extended enterprise suitability. We’ve reviewed about 25 solutions and have published 11 reviews of the best LMS solutions we found so far.  I also spent many years successfully selling high-end LMS solutions.

Vendors, I’m going to tell you something you already know, I’ve always suspected and now finally confirmed– there is not a ton of functional difference between LMS vendors.  75% of the solutions I reviewed have almost identical core LMS functionality that manages content, users and reporting.  The other 25% are comprised of varying degrees of advances in ecommerce, social, mobile, compliance, globalization and integration.

What that means for LMS (and TM) vendors and salespeople is that you have to work awfully hard to get competitive separation from the competition with your 25% and business savvy. It’s all too easy to get lumped in with the 75% and never have a chance of winning.

I believe that if you know the “right” publicly available information about a potential client and your primary contact —before your first discovery call –you can break out of the pack and give yourself a fighting chance to win.

I always wanted to be the one who stood out — early.  A 90-120 minute investment to learn this “right” information almost always put me in a position to compete.  “What?  2 hours before I qualify them?”  Yep. Considering it takes anywhere from 50-100 hours to get second or third place, it is a small yet strategic  investment.

Let’s make the assumption that your marketing department is out marketing with webinars, writing blog posts, case studies, tradeshows and social media.  Passively over time prospects become aware of your name, eventually obtain budget and go looking for a pool of vendors to compare.  A prospect finally reaches out formally on your website and asks to be contacted.  The request is forwarded to you.  What do you do?

I would email the client, ask for a formal time on their calendar for a discovery call and get to work on my research. Here is what I would do to prepare for that first call:

Step 1:  Read Their Website – 30 Minutes

Even the biggest corporate websites are really not that big.  I typically read the top two levels of information and try to find and learn the following:

  • Read the About Us and History to make sure you understand who they are.  Companies change their names, acquire and merge overtime.  Commonly this results in multiple LMS solutions in the same organization.   So there can be one or many incumbents you can identify before the call and question about.
  • Read products and solutions sections to get a deeper idea of what they do.  The contact reaching out to the vendor is from a a particular division,  group or corporate function, and I want to know if that group is a primary focus of the company — or not.
  • Key Executives/Leadership section shows who the company thinks are the most important leaders.  I want to determine where my contact fits into the reporting hierarchy.
  • Who are their key customers?  What do they sell them?  In some cases, you and the client may have common clients and that makes for a good story and future reference.
  • Skim the last year or so of press releases. This information tells you what they think is important. Find out what they are selling, who they are selling to and what problems they are solving.
  • Read the annual report.  The CEO or Chairman letter is on the first page and really lays out what is important to the organization from a business and goal standpoint.  If you can align your solution (and verbalize it) with the overall corporate goals, that really helps establish credibility.
  • Read the financials — You don’t have to be Warren Buffet about it.  At a minimum check to see if they are profitable or not and compare with previous quarters or years to see if trend is up or down.
  • Identify and learn any mention of training or education on their website.  Learning focused organizations talk about it as a competitive advantage to prospective employees and to partners, channel and customers.   If you can ask intelligent questions about their current solution, you are ahead of those who don’t.

Step 2:  Read the 10K & 10Q Report –30 Minutes

If your prospect is from a public company, then you have another research step and the ability to get an even deeper advantage.   Public companies have to reveal most information about themselves because they have outside investors.  Here is what I look for:

  • Go to a finance site for research.  I like to use free services like Google.com/finance or etrade.com for my research.   Most public companies also have links to SEC filings in their Investor Relations section of the website.
  • Finance sites also have the latest news, competitors and industry comparisons for your prospective company.  Experience in a company’s industry is a great advantage in the sales process and so don’t let it go unsaid if you have it.
  • Determine if their stock price is trending up or down over the last year or two.  Companies trending down buy on price.  Companies trending up buy on vision.
  • Find latest 10K (annual) and 10Q report (quarterly) reports in the “SEC” filings section of their website or the finance site.  The 10K  and 10Q reports are all business.  I read the intro section and then skip to the Management Discussion and Analysis (MDA) section.
  • The MDA is in every 10K and 10Q report and tells how the company is organized, how they go to market, their strengths, their weaknesses, risks to their business, future strategy, competitive pressures and industry trends at the least.
  • If a company is going to spend a significant amount on a learning technology solution, you will be able to find a direct or indirect connection to something in the MDA.   If there is no connection, it’s an indication the project may be nonstrategic and the  purchase will be predicated on price.

Step 3:  Review LinkedIn – 30 Minutes

LinkedIn is the great client vendor equalizer.  Both you and the contact are on LinkedIn.  If you have been doing your job establishing your network on LinkedIn, almost every prospect is in your first or second degree network unless you are just starting out.   For $30/month you get the 3rd degree which should include everybody in our industry.  If they are in your network, there is a lot you can learn about them.  Here is what I do:

  • I read every word on their profile and recommendations.  Many times I find the contact has former or current relations with competing vendors. They may have implemented XYZ or ABC system here or there.  I want to know what their LMS experience is.
  • I like to know what college they went to, their degrees and their hobbies.  I’m a lifelong learner on many topics so always looking for commonalities.
  • I look on the right hand side of LinkedIn and look at all the other people users looked at when they looked at my contact.  People usually link in with their boss, coworkers and subordinates and I explore those connections.  More than a few times,  I found classmates, old colleagues or connections in the organizations directly related to my contact.  It’s always good to know as many people as possible to start determining the decision makers, influencers and subject matter experts in the buying organization.
  • I type the “company name and LMS” into the LinkedIn search and see what turns up.  Many ancillary people will have things like Mindflash LMS Administrator in their current or old job descriptions.  I can use this as an alternate way to figure out who the incumbent LMS providers are.

Step 4:  Cheat Sheet – 30 Minutes

I create a one page cheat sheet that I print out and keep next to me during my first discovery call.  Anything that I learned, I bullet out so I can find it quickly and refer to it.  For example I include:

  • Org chart with all the names I know related to contact
  • Names of key products or groups of products
  • Names of key clients named in press release
  • Names of key executives
  • Names of any certifications or training courses
  • Key business drivers, goals obtained from annual reports, 10K and 10Q reports
  • Any other current event or headline to call to the conversation if appropriate
  • List of common customers, names of competitors, key data on competitive solutions
  • List of discovery questions (stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on what to ask)

Step 5:  Achieve Competitive Separation

OK.  Now you are ready to call the client.  Based on the 90-120 minutes of above prep, you now will know so much more than all the average salespeople.   Ask all questions and answer all questions using the info you learned and documented.  Here are some examples of how to answer prospective customer questions interlaced with above prep:

  • Customer:  Does your company have experience with Pharmaceutical companies?  Vendor:  Yes, we have solutions installed here, here and here which are very similar companies in terms of size, global reach and oncology focus.  Are you going to be using this solution for your sales or  manufacturing divisions or both?
  • Customer:  Are you global?  Vendor:  Yes.  I noticed in my research that you have manufacturing plants in Switzerland, Mexico and China.   We have many localizations and global capabilities.  Could you tell me about your localization strategy and requirements?
  • Customer:  Do you support Social Learning?  Vendor:  Yes.  I read in your latest 10K report that you will be retiring 40% of your workforce over the next two years, driving collaboration and the sharing of information  is probably going to be critical to get through that transition and ramp up replacements.  Do you have a formal social strategy in place or will the LMS be the first attempt?

Conclusion

Even if you do all of the above, it doesn’t mean you will win.  Far from it.  However, it’s a tool in your bag that allows you to be more strategic,  helpful and valuable than others.  It allows you to focus your message and concentrate on the important things.  It allows you to position your solution in a way that moves you along in the selection process.  It gives you competitive separation and a fighting chance to win when many vendors have a viable solution — which is every time.

Before the first discovery call is when competitive separation starts– this is  my secret.  Young ones heed.  Veterans, keep doing what your doing.

Thanks for reading!

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John Leh
About John Leh (98 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. John is an LMS selection consultant and eLearning industry blogger focused on helping organizations plan and implement technology strategies that support extended enterprise learning. John has almost 20 years of experience in the LMS industry, having served as a trusted adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $50 million. John helps organizations define their business case, identify requirements, short list vendors, write and manage the RFP and negotiate a great deal. You can connect with John on Twitter (@JohnLeh) or LinkedIn.

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