While the “Disco Starbucks” may not be the Café Procope at the time of The Great Enlightenment, and Jon Birdsong and I might not be Voltaire or Diderot, it does not mean we can’t have thoughtful discussions examining interesting ideas. While having coffee with Jon (https://www.linkedin.com/in/birdsong/) we got into a conversation that started out with the Marketing technology landscape and evolved into companies’ seemingly futile quests to achieve differentiation.
Birdsong is a thoughtful and articulate young man having thrown himself originally into the world of marketing automation and sales acceleration at Salesloft and more recently as CEO of WideAngle (an Agile coaching and feedback performance management company). We discussed that in this age of the struggle to deliver product or service differentiation, maybe consumers and businesses are making decisions based on differences they alone can perceive – around brand promise, corporate culture and shared values. The idea being that buyers are increasingly expressing their preferences based on these factors NOT speeds and feeds or the benefits that accrue from them. It has become too difficult to differentiate in the traditional fashion. The web, social media, technological and demographic change is dragging BtoB into the 21st Century of the “always on” brand.
Before we charge headlong down this path let us first define “culture”. It is a fashionable word (like strategy) that is bandied around and seems to have multiple meanings. It is defined as” the way of life of a particular people, esp. as shown in their ordinary behavior and habits, their attitudes toward each other, their values, and their moral and religious beliefs” (Cambridge dictionary). Company culture is defined as “…the personality of a company. It defines the environment in which employees work. Company culture includes work environment, company mission, value, ethics, expectations, and goals”. Buyers are increasingly making their purchase decisions based on seeking an alignment of common values, beliefs, attitudes and behavior in the conduct of business. This may not be anything new, as illustrated by well-known phrases like; “people do business with people who are like they are”, “I don’t have to like you to do business with you, but it helps”. While simplifications, these demonstrate the appeal of shared value, beliefs, and behaviors in business.
Why are business buyers using culture, values, behaviors, etc. as characteristics by which to assess likely suppliers? Differentiation (or lack thereof) is likely one answer. This is especially true in the software world, particularly marketing software, as was mentioned earlier. The world is awash with software. It’s easier and cheaper to author, distribute and support than it used to be. With open source tools, a more educated market, commodity development help, and vastly superior hardware and storage price and performance, it’s easy to say, “there’s an app for that”. With so many apps, using well established frameworks and processes to differentiate is becoming less useful. All (product or service) things being equal, the buyer is then looking for other means to establish buying comfort. “As software became a service, the business buyer is applying a different rationale” notes UNDRSTND Group CEO, Martyn Christian. “It was formerly around speeds and feeds in the product space, but with “everything” as a service, the buyer wants to know who is delivering for them, are they competent and trustworthy? This promotes the importance of brand, aligned corporate cultures and shared values”.
Consumers and business buyers have always been susceptible to subjectivity. Brand has apparently wielded more power in BtoC than BtoB, obviously, things have been changing. Sales guru’s will generally argue that buyers make emotional decisions and then justify with logic. Labeling this growing behavior in the BtoB world as “cultural alignment” could just as easily be a more scientific term for activities that have been going on for some time. Maybe we have just noticed, and in classic fashion, applied an elegant sounding term.
I have taken stands in the past as an individual consumer and business buyer. After reading an article by Rana Foroohar, I decided to avoid buying Apple products as our values were apparently out of synch. The article discussed whether U.S. companies had any social responsibility with respect to domestic employment. Tim Cooke made it clear that his responsibility ended with his shareholders NOT the American worker, placing business with FoxConn in China. Foroohar pointed out that companies like Apple have been the beneficiaries of American culture in many ways – from Steve Jobs first seeing the genesis of the Lisa GUI at PARC – a research center partially funded from State & Federal taxes, through to the democratized commercial and social landscape built by Americans in America. This framework permits free thought, free trade, legal protections of property (invention and intellectual), access to vast domestic & international markets, an educated work force, liberal democracy. The list goes on and in part explains the global success of U.S. companies. BUT it is forgotten way too often.
Final thought – we live in an age where companies are getting bigger. More markets are dominated by fewer companies. Despite their assertions of customer pre-eminence and claims like; “our people are our greatest assets” we see startling examples of the opposite. The recent customer service headline horror stories are not the result of field managers making mistakes. They are the result of years of reducing, or stagnant pay, cost cutting, centralizing (and therefore cheaper) decision making, outsourcing, offshoring and the overall dominance of fiscal management with its singular focus on making the earnings number. This has all lead to toxic environments, employee anxiety and a culture of fear. That’s why customers end up getting dragged off planes by their hair, threatened with separation from their children and customer service centers communicate with you either “from” Java or “in” Java. These outcomes are not the result of field managers making poor decisions. They are the result of systemic cultural demise where field management are scared to make the right decision. These things don’t happen in companies building authentic, positive cultures.
So, the next time you find yourself the victim of the modern-day equivalent of the “Bum’s Rush”, you might conclude that this represents cultural “misalignment”. You should therefore make your stand and - “don’t buy it”.
Feel free to let me know some examples of great company cultures (big or small) as well as some that are…well…not so much.
About the Author - Simon Boardman is an innovative, thoughtful, authentic business and marketing leader. He is best known for his work in pioneering the B2B lead generation space as the founder of Covente, a full-service lead generation and digital marketing agency. At Verto, he advises and executes for companies on marketing strategy, demand generation and the adoption of marketing technology. He continues his quest to find Truth, Justice and the American Way, plus the perfect golf swing and tennis serve and he wishes his kids hadn't grown up so fast.