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Case studies: the B2B challenge, and systems integrators

In late 2013 I spoke to the customers of Peer One, a provider of hosting and related services for the web. Many of their customers are technology consultancies that build e-commerce systems for large retailers using third-party tools such as Magento, and are often known as systems integrators.

The question I was asked most was: ‘How can we apply the Curve when our core product is so expensive to deliver? We can’t afford to keep giving away our services for free, because they have a substantial cost to us. We know that we need to find customers, but the Curve doesn’t seem to help us, particularly those of us in small businesses with only ten or twenty staff.’

It took me a little while to think about the answer, which was tricky, because I was standing in front of an audience at the time. So I went back to first principles.

‘My starting point is always to give away what you can share at no marginal cost to you. In other words, although it may be expensive to create, once you have made it, you can give it away again and again at a cost that is so low as to make no difference.’

That is a challenge for system integrators. The heart of their business is consultancy. They take other people’s software, whether paid for or open source, and adapt it for their clients’ needs. While many of them can develop proprietary skills, processes and even software packages that run on top of the platforms they use, they are predominantly a business about people, about identifying needs and about delivering what their clients want for an appropriate budget. They do not seem to be natural Curve businesses.

So I asked: ‘Do you get a lot of support questions?’

Everyone nodded yes.

‘Are they often the same?’

Again the nods.

‘OK, then, that’s where we’ll start. Ask your front-line support team to write down the questions that they are most often faced with. Start creating content that addresses those questions. Sit down in front of your computer and think about your customers. If you were trying to find answers to common problems, what words would you type into a search engine? Type them in. See what answers you get. Then write your own answer that would address the words that an ordinary human would type into Google.’

Far too often I see people creating the content that they would like their customers to read, not content that their customers would like to read. That’s not content marketing, that’s just marketing. And in a world of easy searches and massive online competition, it’s not good enough to write something, make it free, and hope people will visit it. You have to have a message worth sharing.

The systems integrators already have customers at the expensive end of the Curve. They have clients who will pay for guaranteed uptime, for instant response, for premium services of many varieties. Their challenge is how to stand out at the free end. By creating high-quality content that addresses their clients’ needs, in the same way that Marcus Sheridan created high-quality content for purchasers of fibreglass swimming pools, they can start acquiring customers. The same content will also act as a retention tool for existing customers, as they will find that their existing supplier provides many of the answers that they need to support questions.

This content-marketing strategy is not enough in its own right: the web is a global platform, and with hundreds of systems integrators creating content, it will get crowded. The key will be to create content that is genuinely useful to customers and potential customers; to earn the right to talk to them again; and to use traditional paid sales channels, as well as search engine optimization, to drive customers to that area.

Over time, I expect that having a great repository of accessible knowledge in your chosen sphere will become a key competitive advantage for many businesses trying to start or strengthen their relationships with their customers.

 

Since The Curve was published in late 2013, many more examples of Curve businesses have come to my attention. I hope that this trend will continue. I shall carry on publishing case studies of new industries and new situations in which Curve ideas are implemented or demonstrated on the website. I hope they will help you think about how to apply the ideas of the Curve, especially to industries outside the obvious field of digital media.

Nicholas Lovell