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Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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Sunday
Dec012013

How to Sidestep "Competitive Necessity" (And Win)

I’ve seen a lot of roadmaps where the reason for many items was given as “competitive necessity.” I don’t deny that this is sometimes a reality, but it always makes me wary. When I see a lot of “me too” features driven by requests from Sales, I wonder if the product is positioned correctly or if it is really trapped in a perpetual game of catch-up that it will never win.

I wrote a piece on competitive analysis  back in 2008 where I asked:

“Would you rather have a conversation with a prospect about whether your feature list is longer than the competition's or about the benefits the prospect will derive from your product? Which of those conversations would allow you to charge more?”

My thought was that if you're concentrating on market needs rather than competitive checklists, you have a chance at that second, more profitable conversation. And I still agree with that thinking, but in this sixth post in the Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks series, I have a few additional thoughts to share that involve paying at least some attention to the competition, but not to duplicate or one-up them.

Do Your Win/Loss Analysis

Win/loss analysis is like flossing. Everyone knows they should do it, but few do it regularly enough. It is a critical part of your competitive analysis, though, and a great way to defend against what I would call “catch-up syndrome.”

Don’t take salespeople’s word for what lost them the sale. They are not objective here. I find that interviewing prospects that did not convert more often uncovers problems with the marketing and sales process than feature gaps. I also find that interviewing newly-converted customers more often highlights great positioning and consultative selling than it does competitive differentiation.

This is very instructive when you come to consider the priority of features intended to fill perceived competitive gaps. Does it matter if you don’t have every item on the competitive RFP if few of those are really part of the decision?

Be a Category of One

Seth Godin says, “When you define the category, when the category is you and you alone, your marketing issues tend to disappear.”

If you are solving a problem no one else is solving (or in a way no one else is doing that provides unique benefits) then there is no way to compare you directly to competitors and the pressure to duplicate every one of their features is lessened, perhaps to zero.

We all struggle with fixed development capacity, so we need to prioritize down to the few things that will have the greatest effect on business results. If you are weighing down your roadmap with catch-up items, you are slowing progress toward your ultimate destination.

When you ask yourself, “How can I become a category of one?” you are essentially asking how you can make all of those competitive-response features irrelevant in the eyes of your customer and focusing instead on what will make you indispensable.

Scare Yourself

An approach I like to use is to ask myself, “What is the scariest thing my competitor could come out with?” The answer to that question is probably the thing that should be at the top of your development priority list.

This approach can be a very hard sell in an established business, though. The natural reaction to a fearful situation is avoidance, and if your “scariness” exercise is perceived as purely hypothetical, then executives will “take it under advisement” and do nothing.

Instead, fight fear with fear. Convince them that if you were the product manager of your number one competitor’s product, this is exactly what you would be planning. Show them that technological trends make it inevitable that someone will do this thing in the near future and that, if it isn’t you, the consequences will be devastating.

I saw a vivid demonstration of this at a Board meeting once. Our president showed screenshots of a new competitor that was steadily duplicating our desktop software’s capabilities on the web. Where we had a subscription fee, they charged only on usage. Where we thought we had the most favorable terms with our suppliers, they had somehow gotten even better terms. Where we could only update the data in our product quarterly, they theoretically had the capability to update every day.

The temperature in the room dropped palpably during this presentation. Investors were seeing the value of their investments drop to near zero in just a few slides. The final slide was the kicker. It turned out this new competitor was … us.

We had developed a new brand and an online capability that no one else had. We had even gotten a break from our largest supplier for internet sales. Our investors intuitively knew this would be disruptive and when faced with the reality of it; and they were enormously relieved (there was actually cheering) to discover we were our own disruptors. The rest is history as our desktop version was phased out over time and the web took over.

Struggling To Differentiate?

If your organization’s roadmap is bogged down with "catch-up" features that are holding you back, pick a 30-minute slot to chat with me. I’m happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamp Boston, or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.

Reader Comments (1)

Seth Godin says, “When you define the category, when the category is you and you alone, your marketing issues tend to disappear.”

If you are solving a problem no one else is solving (or in a way no one else is doing that provides unique benefits) then there is no way to compare you directly to competitors and the pressure to duplicate every one of their features is lessened, perhaps to zero.

This point is precisely why I created competitive mindshare maps to properly frame the effort to analyze a product's competitive differentiation. Companies should should view all product decisions through this lens.

A feature by feature, or even a problem by problem, comparison is a fools errand, as you point out.

December 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger L. Cauvin

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