1. Crafting Your Story

Crafting Your Story

This guide was written specifically to help founders identify and win the right initial set of customers to build a successful startup. It’s based on years of experience and understanding the process that founders from successful companies like Citrix, Okta, and Unusual portfolio companies use to create compelling narratives.

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1.1 Intro
Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

The Unusual Guide to Customer Storytelling

Introduction

This guide is all about storytelling with a purpose.  Winning customers.  To set the stage, think back to a major purchase — a car, an education, a home, etc. Now consider how you made your decision. A change in your life caused you to investigate a big new problem or opportunity — a new baby, a need for specialized training, maybe a job relocation — so you had to buy something. You put a plan together (perhaps with your executive, your spouse!) with your priorities and a deadline that created urgency to buy now. And you conducted an evaluation based on a set of criteria to ultimately buy one product over another. In short, you traversed the buyer’s journey by answering for yourself three questions: why buy anything, why buy now, and why buy you

 

As an enterprise software product marketer with experience at Okta, Microsoft, Citrix and a dozen startups, I’ve always been fascinated by companies that successfully create stories that align to the buyer’s journey, from awareness through consideration to decision-making.  In this guide, we seek to share the instructions for entrepreneurs to create the ‘perfect’ story – one that completely answers the three ‘why’ questions through a compelling, airtight narrative.  Our goal is to create a story that resonates so deeply with a customer that the storyteller is viewed as more than a salesperson – they’re viewed as a consultative, trusted advisor dedicated to helping the customer navigate the windy, twisty decision-making process from beginning to end.  Once complete, our story lays the foundation for any external conversation and can be used in customer discussions, prospective employee conversations, or more broadly in outbound marketing and thought leadership initiatives.

 

To be sure, this framework is built from core selling principles taught using Command of the Message or Challenger Selling.  In some ways, you could think of this guide as a way for us marketers to ‘catch up’ to be in sync with how highly trained enterprise salespeople naturally sell today.  A practical how-to-guide to creating a story that stays laser focused on answering the key questions every rep must answer to qualify and ultimately close a sale.

 

Part I of this guide will walk through how to find the answers to each of the "Three Why’s".  We’ve deliberately made this framework simple, but there is a lot of nuance to how to answer these questions correctly, so we’ve broken down each why into two key parts and have included examples along the way.  Also, Three Why Storytelling is modular and easy to update over time as your company grows and capabilities evolve. 

 

Part II of this guide is a step-by-step set of instructions for putting your story together and taking it to market.  I like to write out a 1-page summary that essentially becomes your north star, the standard talk-track for a customer meeting or other presentation.  Once written, building a customer meeting deck, website, whitepaper, demo script or any other core messaging deliverable is straight-forward.

 

How a Story Based on the "Three Why’s" Aligns to the Buyer’s Journey

 

When I led product marketing at Okta, I was fascinated by how some sales reps crushed their number while other reps struggled, particularly when it came to competing against Microsoft, Okta’s 800lb gorilla adversary. Some reps had over 90% win rates, while others were shown the door after repeated losses. In these highly competitive deals, compelling storytelling was essential because the entire narrative had to be airtight to win the deal — especially when going up against a Goliath like Microsoft, the safer choice with huge incumbent advantages.

 

For context, Okta’s identity product competes directly against Microsoft’s Azure identity product. Both companies have the mission to “be the foundation for secure connections between people and technology.” — i.e. the control point for IT in a cloud-first world. As you can imagine, Microsoft was highly motivated to maintain their grip on this winner-take-all control point. Competition was so intense, they booted us from their annual customer event, set up ‘Kill Okta War Rooms’ in Redmond, regularly went over our reps’ heads by leveraging long-standing C-suite relationships, and gave away their software for free when they were in a competitive deal against us. These were — and still are — bare knuckles, take no prisoner contests.

 

To combat this existential threat, we conducted a win / loss analysis for our executive team by interviewing dozens of reps. We looked at product gaps, sales motion gaps, pricing/packaging gaps, business practice gaps, etc. What we found was that successful reps who crushed their number and beat Microsoft regularly did three things to win when selling that unsuccessful reps did not do:

 

Step 1: Align with customers on how their world is changing

Successful reps aligned with their customer on shared beliefs around how their world is changing. In Okta's case, reps would align with customers on one or more of the following beliefs with IT leaders: companies are moving from on-premises to SaaS software, which challenges IT to serve its users; consumerization of IT favors 'best in breed' choice vs. vertical software stacks; IT leaders are becoming business enablers vs. implementers, etc. 

 

Step 2: Identify key business initiatives and hair on fire problem(s)

Successful reps were wired into their customer's urgent business priorities and had a broad view of their growth initiatives, as well as their challenges across the enterprise. In Okta's case, successful reps spent a lot of time understanding the urgency behind moving to the cloud, such as the need to rapidly deploy multiple, mission-critical SaaS apps like Office365, Workday, or Box to meet a business unit's needs. If IT could not deploy these applications fast enough, the business / users would go around IT.

 

Step 3: Prove value and differentiation

Successful reps utilized Okta's Business Value Team of consultants twice as often as their less successful peers to conduct a detailed business justification analysis that demonstrated with quantified, irrefutable proof the unique value of Okta's solution vs. the competition's solution. This included value drivers like time-to-market, cost, and productivity improvements.

 

Put another way, successful reps won competitive deals by telling stories that answer three key questions, collectively known as the “Three Whys”:

  • Why buy anything?: A shared belief around how the world is changing and the impact this change has on an organization.
  • Why buy now?: A deep understanding of urgent business priorities and the impact from the organization’s current (in)ability to meet these priorities.
  • Why buy you?: Key capabilities needed to solve the urgent problem AND the unique value your company provides vs. the competition to deliver these capabilities.

 

Why are the “Three Whys” so powerful? Because answering these three questions concisely and completely leads a prospective customer through the three stages of the buyer’s journey to arrive at a decision that your company has the one and only answer to a very urgent problem.  Keep in mind, of these three questions, understanding customer urgency is the single most important and hardest part to get right. Here is how the “Three Whys” map to the buyer’s journey and how large, complex buying decisions are processed between the executive and staff functions of an organization:

 

 

Aligning your story to the buyer’s journey means you aren’t really “selling” so much as partnering with a customer as a trusted advisor on how they can best achieve their priorities. This approach also gives your story a driving purpose that will put you in the driver’s seat throughout a competitive sales cycle.

 

What’s more, if we build a narrative that answers these three "Why Buy" questions, we create a strong foundation not only for our sales efforts, but also our entire go-to-market strategy.  In part I below, we’ll go into detail on ‘how’ to answer the three ‘why’s’.  Then, in Part II, we’ll look at how this story provides the blueprint for a story-driven go-to-market plan.  The two – story and go-to-market – become synonymous with each other because they are aligned to the same goal: to make the most compelling argument possible for every step of the buying process.

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1.2 Why Buy Anything
Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Why Buy Anything

I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’.  Brilliant in its intuitive and empathetic approach, Sinek’s book has single-handedly flipped sales and marketing conversations from leading with ‘what’ a company does to ‘why’ they do it.  If you haven’t watched his TED talk, stop reading and take a few minutes.  My favorite line, “Martin Luther King didn’t give an ‘I have a plan’ speech.  He gave an ‘I have a dream’ speech”. 

 

By starting with why, we align on shared beliefs around what’s changed in the world to form a tight connection with our audience that builds the relationship foundation and trust needed throughout the rest of the journey.  It also allows you to quickly disqualify those who aren’t ultimately aligned to your views.  


Our first sales leader at Okta would disqualify 70% of prospects who didn’t view a cloud-first approach as strategic.

One very effective approach to answering Why Anything is framing the shift through an authentic founder insight.  This works best when the founder has deep domain knowledge of the shift that’s occurring.  One of our portfolio companies, Shujinko, automates compliance in the cloud.  Their two co-founders ran IT ops for several companies including Starbucks and have been through 50 audits.  They have a powerful founder insight that provides instant credibility with a buyer.  Who wouldn’t want to work with someone who has such deep knowledge around such a painful problem?

 

Once we align on what’s changed, we introduce the impact that change has on an organization – the size or magnitude of the problem.  Again, if this assertion is backed by an authentic founder story, even better.  Here are some examples of how to answer, “Why Buy Anything”, which has three components for each: 1) authentic insight, 2) shift in the world order, and 3) empathetic impact statement:

 

Okta

  1. Authentic insight: “As the former head of engineering at Salesforce, the first software-as-a-service application, I saw that….”
  2. Shift in the world order: … as the world moves from on-premise applications to SaaS
  3. Empathetic impact statement: … IT needs to rethink how they deliver services to employees

Shujinko


  1. Authentic insight: “As head of cloud ops for Starbucks and after going through the pain of 50 audits ourselves, I saw that…”
  2. Shift in the world order: … the rapid pace of cloud-native app development and explosion in compliance requirements like GDPR
  3. Empathetic impact statement: … require security teams to reconsider how to do compliance continuously throughout a rapid software lifecycle.

 

Dashbase

  1. Authentic insight: “As the head of cloud product management at Splunk, I saw…”
  2. Shift in the world order: hypergrowth cloud companies that provide data rich services are creating huge log files
  3. Empathetic Impact statement: these logs are quickly becoming unmanageable by traditional players Splunk and ElasticSearch.

 

This approach introduces the problem statement not as your opinion, but rather as an insightful belief that invites shared understanding around where the world is heading, supported with credibility from you, the founder.  Using this approach means you’re far less likely to be talking at someone but rather pulling up a chair, sitting down, and having a conversation as equal partners setting out on an important journey.

 

To summarize, Why Buy Anything can be thought of as a two-part formula for defining the “Big Problem”:

 

Start with why: a ‘shift’ based on beliefs or authentic founder insight
<PLUS>
Align on shared view of impact

 

You’ll know you have this right when you’re able to natural segue into a discovery question like “is this how you see the world?” and the prospect spends a few minutes either aligning with your view or presenting another worldview.  If the latter, you may want to qualify out the opportunity.  Whenever we found an ‘on-premises hugger’ who held onto the notion that cloud SaaS was dangerous and the exception to the rule, we moved on quickly!  Assuming you’re getting the head nods and maybe even expansion of your belief in their words, let’s move on to Why Buy Now – the most urgent question your company needs to answer.

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1.3 Why Buy Now
Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Why Buy Now

As a startup, TIME is a luxury you don’t have. The #1 killer of startups is slow moving customer prospects. The feedback cycle is essential to product / market fit and prospects who lack true urgency won’t provide the input a startup needs to succeed on the timeline they have to survive.

In addition, if there’s one thing we’ve learned via the Get Ahead Platform at Unusual, it’s that many startups consider Why Buy Anything (BIG problems) and Why Buy Now (URGENT problems) as one in the same thing. There are a few reasons for this:


1. We are conditioned to tell stories using a ‘problem / solution’ method. So, we munge together big and urgent problems into one statement, typically at the expense of getting really specific around urgency.

 

2. Many founders use their investor pitch when selling to customers. This is a REALLY BAD IDEA. The two audiences are distinctly different in motivation and pain points.

 

3. It takes A LOT of time to figure out the hair-on-fire urgency behind a problem. Compared to Why Buy Anything and Why Buy You, Why Buy Now takes more time because you can’t create the answer yourself. Why Buy Now requires insight derived from asking the right questions in customer meetings to get it right (see our how-to-guide).

 

One way to think about the distinction between the two questions is that Why Buy Anything is about where the market is heading, while Why Buy Now is specific to where a customer is heading — their specific priorities, hair on fire issues, and alternatives. The former is great for an investor pitch. “There’s a big market for compliance automation in the cloud.” The latter is essential for aligning to customer priorities, “I need to demonstrate SOC 2 compliance of my AWS environment to this prospect or I’ll lose the customer and won’t get my bonus.”

 

To put Why Buy Now into an equation:


Urgent business need
<PLUS>
Incentive to act

 

To explain further, let’s come back to our buyer’s journey:

Why Buy Now is all about how a customer internalizes the changes happening to their business and then funds initiatives to capitalize on an opportunity, solve a problem, or both.  Progressing our examples from the first Why Buy Anything section, here are three examples:

 

1. Okta

Big Problem: Moving from on-premises software to SaaS breaks traditional identity technologies and techniques.

Urgent problem: My business has started going around my IT team because I can’t deploy all of these (eg: >5) SaaS applications.


2. Shujinko (an Unusual Ventures-backed Company)

Big Problem: Getting cloud compliant is manual and requires expensive investments in staff or professional services.

Urgent Problem: I need to certify to my customer that I’m compliant or I’ll lose their business.


3. Dashbase (an Unusual Ventures-backed Company)

Big Problem: Searching increasingly large logs is becoming a problem for my support team.

Urgent Problem: My level 1 support calls have all become level 3 customer escalations.

Incentive to solve: So my NPS is taking a nosedive and my customers are churning.

 

See the difference? Going from Big to Urgent requires a lot of customer empathy and getting really, really specific to the acute, urgent pain that requires immediate action.

 

One final thought on Why Buy Now and how answering this question effectively can transform your entire go-to-market. Notice in the chart above that the Why Buy Now process gets elevated to the executive (or at least Director) level. This is due to priority setting being a senior-level function and why sales leaders frequently ask their team to “get high in an account”. It’s not just to get to the ultimate decision-maker — which is certainly important — but also to get a jump on the competition by understanding the business priorities a prospect has before the evaluation cycle begins and lower-level staff start evaluating features and capabilities across multiple vendors. 


Identifying Why Buy Now is how to go from a ‘product’ based go-to-market to a ‘solutions’ based go-to-market. 


Solutions-based go-to-markets attach to high-level business initiatives sponsored by senior management vs. product-based go-to-markets that target lower-level staff and often lead to difficult-to-win feature bake-offs. You can see the common business initiatives that we attached to at Okta on the company’s solution page (i.e. increase M&A agility, protect against data breaches, collaborate with partners, etc.)


If the prospect hasn’t tried to hack together some other alternative solution, it means the problem really isn’t a priority! So ask this question and then LISTEN. If no hack is offered, that’s your clue to move on from this prospect for now. Bleeding people apply bandages. If no bandage has been applied, it’s not an urgent problem.


You’ll know you have this right when you’re able to naturally segue into a discovery question like “how is your company currently solving this problem” and the prospect spends a few minutes talking about their current approach and – hopefully – it’s deficiencies.  Or, even better, says something like “this year, we have a project to do XYZ”.  Either way, you exit the Why Buy Now phase with a qualified opportunity.  Pain is urgent… and ideally budget is or will be spent.  Now we can present the new world.


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1.4 Why Buy You
Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Why Buy You

By this point, you are aligned on beliefs and you understand how the impact of the change identified above has created a critically important need from the customer that they cannot find an answer to any other way.  Now you need to propose a new approach for solving the problem that meets the critical needs above AND demonstrates that your company is uniquely qualified to be the best solution for this new approach.  Put in formula terms, Why Buy You is:

 

Required capabilities
<Plus>
Your unique offering and value

 

Required capabilities

The best way to think about required capabilities is what a customer would put on the RFP.  Or how Gartner would define the requirements for a Magic Quadrant.  It’s how the customer envisions solving the problem.  There may be multiple vendors who meet this basic requirement.

 

Here’s a simple example: You and your spouse are having your first child and you decide you need a bigger, safer vehicle in short order as your small car that you currently own won’t work (eg: Why Buy Anything and Why Buy Now).  Now you need to decide between an SUV or mini-van, what child safety and family features are important, and how much you’re willing to spend.  That’s required capabilities.

 

Next you head down to auto row and start the evaluation process.  You’re looking to see which vendor exceeds your expectations the most.  Some have luxury stereo systems, others have better child safety features.  Some get better gas mileage.  And then there’s price – which car is the better value for money.  Essentially in this phase, the customer is looking to see which vendor provides the most functionality for the lowest price. 

 

There’s a tricky turn in the story here.  After Why Buy Now, a prospect should be receptive to something new.  But, try NOT to jump straight to how your company solves the problem.  There’s an element of thought leadership embedded in how you designed your product that should come out in this part of the narrative.  You’re trying to set the table vs. competitive approaches so you are the best option to consider.  Maybe your cloud-first approach makes your product easier-to-use.  Maybe your product provides visibility to some new problem that wasn’t important before.  At Okta, we latched on to ‘best of breed’ vs. ‘integrated stack’ as a core part of our approach.  Customers liked thinking about how they regain control of products they choose vs. a vendor dictating what software to use.  Again, you know the conversation is moving well when the prospect starts leading you to capabilities you’re about to reveal.

 

In short, there is a ‘how’ to think about solving the problem before ‘why’ a customer should choose you.

Your Unique Offering and Value

Now we move onto the specifics of your product.  Every product marketer loves their messaging pillars – 3-5 ‘buckets’ of product goodness that magically solve your customer’s urgent problem.  But to get there, you’ll want to take an iterative process – a bottom’s up and tops down approach.  For ease of reference for bottoms-up approach, I’ll use Okta’s single sign-on product, seen here: https://www.okta.com/products/single-sign-on/

 

Bottoms-up, you’re collecting an inventory of features that your product offers and grouping those features into concepts to simplify how to explain the product to a customer since there are usually too many features to discuss in one meeting.  There should be no mystery or art to this part of the process – that comes in the tops-down part of message development:

 

  • Features: the most granular-level of product capability.  “Web Portal” is a good example of an Okta product feature – a single pane of glass for users to access all their apps.  I suggest creating a Google Spreadsheet and sitting down with engineering / product management for this exercise.  Essentially, this is the handshake agreement marketing and PM have on how to describe any product.  This spreadsheet could also have SKU and feature-flag level detail.  That is, one “feature” may have many feature flags associated with them from an engineering perspective.  But since customers don’t buy feature flags, they buy features, the Feature is the lowest level unit of messaging.
  • Concepts: a group of features that customers would logically understand if presented during a first meeting.  “Customizable User Experience” is a concept that includes the Web Portal feature above.  

 

Top-down, the next step is to cluster Concepts into Pillars. 

  • Pillars: the highest-level of product messaging and need to be developed using a “MECE” approach – mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.  No concept or feature should sit under more than one pillar and the pillars should come together to tell a complete product story.  So, SSO has 4 core pillars, “Always On Single Sign-on”, “Customizable User Experience”, “Secure Directory with Integration”, and “Real-time Security Reporting”.  They are organized to lead with the most important feature and end with the ‘back of house’ reporting feature. 

 

Pillars should be differentiated wherever possible. At Citrix, we used a 3-point scale to determine differentiation of a particular pillar:

  • Table-stakes: required capabilities that everyone and where there’s no clear uniqueness. 
  • Competitive differentiators: everyone has the capability, but your company does it better
  • Purple cows: your company provides this capability and no one else has it

 

The goal, of course, is that over time, ‘table stakes’ features become more differentiators and the company develops more ‘purple cow’ capabilities and product.  In the early days, however, some juggling of concepts into different Pillars may be needed to beef up the competitiveness of Pillars that need more differentiation. 

 

Continuing on the Citrix example, when we entered the market for mobility management, we had to redefine what was at the time a very crowded category.  To differentiate from other mobile device management (“MDM”) vendors, we came up with a new term called “enterprise mobility management” (EMM).  EMM was MDM plus app management and data management.  We did this because we had unique app security capabilities and had acquired ShareFile, which was essentially Dropbox for the Enterprise.  Here’s how we ranked the capabilities in our messaging source document:

 

  • Mobile Device Management: table stakes.  Everyone has it, no one had a big advantage
  • Mobile App Management: differentiated.  We put a security ‘wrapper’ around applications that protected them from security breaches.  Not unique to us but the easy wrapping capabilities were novel.
  • Mobile Data Management: purple cow.  No mobility vendor offered a secure Dropbox-like capability.  We generated 70% of our mobility sales based on this unique capability.

 

The best part?  The term “EMM” was adopted by Gartner, Forrester, and the rest, and really took off.  In a highly competitive market, there’s always a fit-in/stand-out challenge.  You need to fit into what all customers need or there’s no budget for what you offer.  At the same time, you need to differentiate to win deals.  Great messaging accomplishes both goals.

 

As an aid to help messaging development, see the attached “Messaging Source Document”.  This tool provides a good way of organizing all of your company and product-level messaging.  The entire document doesn’t need to be done all at once, but at a minimum, going through the bottoms-up / tops-down exercise above to define capabilities will result in a nicely defined product that’s is uniquely different from the competition.

 

Proving business value

Finally, and most importantly, we look at the business value that your company offers.  This is where the rubber meets the road and where, ideally, you’re able to quantify the benefit of your solution to a customer. 

 

I never really understood the power of business value until Okta, where it was essential to win deals vs. Microsoft.  Microsoft used their Enterprise License Agreement – or “ELA” as a financial weapon to essentially give their competing product away by rolling it into a larger agreement that could include Office and/or Windows.  How do you win vs. free?  Compete on business value.

 

Business value is a topic that usually requires a consultant to explain it (we hired Forrester to come in a do a Total Economic Impact assessment at Okta), so here’s the reader’s digest version.  Business value quantifies the benefits of your product by 3-4 ‘value drivers’ that either generate revenue or decrease costs for the customer.  That’s it.  Ultimately, if your product doesn’t help drive topline growth or expense reduction, it’s worthless.  And, of course, your company needs to create more business value than the other guy to win the deal.  At some point, you’ll spend six figures to get Forrester to interview your customers, figure out your business value drivers in great detail, quantify the benefits, and prepare a spreadsheet calculator.  It’s a worthwhile investment, but if you don’t have the budget or time, just create a simple spreadsheet calculator to get started.  Here’s how.

 

First, figure out your top level value drivers. Usually, you’ll have ‘hard’ value drivers and ‘soft’ value drivers.  In Okta’s case, we had three value drivers – IT Cost Savings, Increase Productivity, and Secure Your Environment. 

 

Then, figure out the sub-drivers of value for each top-level driver.  Sort of like the concepts/pillars process above.  Here are some examples.

 

  • IT Cost Savings: we would lead with IT cost savings because it’s a hard value driver.  Server maintenance avoided by going to the cloud, reduced time spent on provisioning users, reduced time spent on password resets, etc. were examples of hard savings that could be quantified by asking our early customers how long these activities took and multiple by the cost of an IT admin FTE.
  • Increase productivity is a little squishier.  “Day 1 access” for new hires was quantified by assuming the amount of time saved vs. day 2 or 3.  “Faster application adoption” was quantified by assuming a 2 hour productivity loss per app used.  “Forgotten passwords” would quantify all of the 10-20 minute employee calls to the helpdesk that were avoided (ie: there’s IT expense reduced and Employee productivity improved from the same activity)
  • Secure environment was pretty soft but important to include – we used a $6M cost of security breach that we got from a Poneman study and 10% reduction in likelihood to quantify that value.  It’s a low-ball estimate based on the actual economic impact of a data breach but that’s what you do with a squishy but important value driver.

 

For each sub-driver of value, you’ll need to either make an assumption based on external data (like the security example above) or by interviewing customers.  Or, if you don’t have customers, try to think about what it might be based on average FTE rates and conservative estimates – a la fake it ‘till you make it!

 

Check out ROI tool vendors like Alinean or VisualizeROI to create a web-based version of your business value tool for lead-gen purposes.  Here’s one that we did with Alinean at Okta:  https://www.okta.com/roi-calculator/.  Notice how we just need to know two pieces of data – number of apps per user and number of employees (users) to create a nice business value report.  This gets refined during a deeper engagement, of course, but you get the idea. 

 

In summary


At Unusual Academy, we kick off our first session with a critically important startup truth:Only desperate customers buy from startups.

Let’s recap the 6 steps to building a perfect story that wins customers:

 

 

Step 1) Start with an authentic founder insight.  The shift in the market that created the opportunity for your business.

 

Step 2) Align on shared view of impact.  Remember, this is about you and your customer agreeing on how the <move from on-premises to cloud, shift from monolithic to microservices apps, etc> has impacted a particular team / persona in an organization.

 

Step 3) Connect problem to business urgency.  This is the CUSTOMER language, NOT vendor language.  For us, “protect against data breaches”, “collaborate with partners” and “increase pace of M&A” were urgent business initiatives that we could latch onto… and the start of solution selling.

 

Step 4) Show current solutions are ineffective.  Sometimes referred to as the ‘pit of despair’, think of the worst case scenario that your customer could be in without your solution and then back off a bit.  That’s desperation.  That’s where this stage needs to end.  ANYTHING less will stall your sale.

 

Step 5) Frame new approach to solve the problem.  Set the table with the key requirements to solving the new world problem.  This is the time for thought leadership and framing the narrative to your favor.  Think back to the Citrix example, MDM is not enough to enable mobility for your company.  You need Device, App, AND Data Management to empower a truly mobile workforce.  You need Citrix EMM not MDM.  You get the idea.

 

Step 6) Prove unique value.  There are hard and soft value drivers.  Start by quantifying the hard drivers and lead with these (hardware retired, work avoided) and then round out with soft value drivers like productivity, security, etc.  For some businesses, there’s topline growth as well.  Fake it ‘till you make it with your own knowledge and online research, but you’ll eventually need to interview customers and probably get a professional vendor to help you do this to win bigger deals.

 

So, there you have it! An end-to-end story that starts with a market shift and ends with a customer seeing the most value from your company.  As a next step, we’ll look at 3 examples of how these stories come together and we’ll then flow this story into a 6-8 slide customer presentation to bring it to life.

Tool
Worksheet
"Why Buy Now" Framework
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Link to Tool

Framework for discovering your "Why Buy Now"

2. Your First Customer Presentation

Building Your First Customer Presentation

The following guide provides a step-by-step process for building a customer meeting presentation that wins based on the "Three Why's" storytelling framework.

Introduction

Today’s customer meetings look nothing like what they were 10 years ago.  Per Forrester, 62% of B2B buyers today will get to a vendor shortlist based solely on online research.  Armed with more information and the need to sort through more vendors than ever, customers seek consultative two-way conversational meetings that start and end with their challenges rather than one-way product pitches.


In ‘Three Whys Storytelling’, we discussed how to create a shared narrative that wins customers by shifting the focus from ‘what’ you do to a higher standard of ‘why’ you do it.  One that meets a customer where they are at – their worldview, their urgent problems – and collaboratively walks them through your proposed new approach and how you uniquely solve their problem by demonstrating the most value. The following guide provides a step-by-step process for building a customer meeting presentation based on this framework.  


We are going to assume conciseness is important: a 30-minute meeting, 10 of which is a demo, 5 for intros.  That leaves 15 minutes for your slides.  At 2 minutes per slide, that’s only 7-8 slides for a first meeting!  Even if you have an hour, the slides should not take longer than 20 minutes to deliver.  Far better to fill the rest of the time with discovery, discussion and concrete next steps.


Finally, form follows function.  Before diving into PowerPoint, be sure to draft an outline of your story.  Once in PowerPoint, it's simply too easy to start adding slides that don’t help your argument move forward.  Assuming you’ve read the Three Why Storytelling guide, try writing out a 1-2 page story that buckets your three why messaging into slides.  Then, create 7-8 headline points from each paragraph that form the basis for your slide headers.  Your story should then fit neatly in the speaker’s notes of the presentation.  Done well, you have a key point to build each slide around and narrative detail that you can refer to as you add visuals.  Assuming you’re working with other team members, be sure to collaborate on the script in Google Sheets before finalizing.

Your presentation, slide-by-slide

Slide 0 – The dreaded title slide

Your first slide is actually the title slide.  It contains the least amount of information but from a delivery standpoint is the most important to get right.  It’s the slide that will probably sit on screen for those first crucial minutes.  The risk is undershooting or overshooting how much is delivered.  Best practice here is to script a 30 second elevator pitch that provides a ‘3 why’ preview.  Here’s an example:

"‘Hi, I’m Todd.  I’m the CEO at Okta, a venture-backed identity management startup helping companies accelerate their move to cloud software. As the former head of engineering at Salesforce, I saw first-hand how the world was changing from on-premises software to SaaS and how IT was becoming increasingly challenged to adopt applications like Salesforce, Office365, Box, etc.  Over the next 30 minutes, we’d like to understand what initiatives your company has around SaaS and how we could partner together to quickly and securely enable cloud adoption for your business.’"

In your intro, include who you are, a one-liner on the big problem you solve, your founder insight / credibility, an invitation to a two-way discussion, and a simple value proposition.  Notice that this intro presumes that accelerating cloud adoption is important.  This should have been discovered prior to the meeting as everything that follows from here will build on this core belief/assumption.


Slide 1 – The shift from <old world> to <new world> has challenged <target audience>

Goal: agreement on important shift that’s causing a big problem / need to change 

Example: the shift from on-premises software to SaaS has broken IT’s ability to deliver services - Okta


This slide is all about getting to a shared understanding of the new world.  It’s context setting with some insight and thought leadership.  In general, you want heads nodding and an engaged audience.  I like to start with a simple old world / new world contrast visual and impact statement on the target audience.  In Okta’s case, a visual with on-premises servers and apps like Oracle/SAP surrounded by a perimeter with cloud apps outside.  Then the impact statement is that the shift to SaaS software challenges IT to deliver services to employees.

To ensure engagement, always end the presentation of this slide with a discovery question like ‘how has this change impacted your world?’


Slide 2 – <Target audience> are now struggling to <urgent pain>

Goal: identify 2-4 acute, hair on fire Why Now pain points

Example: “Who to wake up” - Omnition


This slide is best focused on naming specific, urgent pain points that should be easily understood by the customer.  One of my favorites is from Omnition, an Unusual portfolio company recently acquired by Splunk.  Their company provides monitoring for modern API-driven applications.  They landed on ‘who to wake up’ as their urgent Why Now problem.  They saw that customers who had application outages would spam their entire engineering staff to fix a problem and, of course, time was essential.  Worst case, these all-hands on deck alerts would go out at night.  So, ‘who to wake up’ is a beautifully designed urgent problem statement because it’s almost the worst-case scenario for a development team… and shows a great deal of customer empathy in its construction.


It’s good to have 3-4 problems on the slide in total, ideally built out in a logical flow that shows that current solutions are ineffective.  So, after ‘who to wake up’, Omnition had a second one ‘how to connect problem to root cause’, a third one ‘which customer is impacted’, and a fourth one, ‘where are the bottlenecks’.  Even if a company knows who to wake up, they can’t pinpoint the source of the problem and they have no idea what the impact is to the customer.  See how all of these are using language that a customer would use?  Again, empathy, urgency, and relevance to the business.  By the end of this slide, the customer should be heavily engaged and looking to you to provide a new way forward out of this mess!

As with slide 1, the presentation of this slide should end with a discovery question, ‘are you seeing any of these problems in your organization’?  It’s worth staying on this slide the longest of any slide in the deck to invite the customer to open up around their internal priorities and challenges relative to the problems identified in this slide.  



Slide 3 – A new approach is needed to solve <urgent pain>

Goal: provide a high-level framework for how the new world should work

Example: Citrix – need to enable mobile workstyles and cloud services


Before we solve the problem, we need to demonstrate that we understand the essential criteria for success.  Be sure to be complete as no one wants a partial solution to a problem – that’s what they currently have!  Think of this slide as the key requirements to compete in your market.  You’ll cover your unique offering in the next couple slides, so this slide is setting the table.


One of the best examples of a new approach is below – this is part of Citrix’ presentation of its Mobile/Cloud story circa 2012 in its heyday.  Even though the company has a lot of products, it was able to simplify the framing of the new world in simple language and set of visuals that just made a ton of sense to the customer.  Customers want Mobile Workstyles delivered by Cloud Services.  They need them delivered from any cloud to any device.  Then the 6 capabilities listed are the ‘how’ that snap to a visual transition framing slide.

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Slide 4 – Introducing <your company>: <company tagline>

Goal: customer should understand how your solution works at a high-level

Example: Citrix product line, organized under Mobile Workstyles and Cloud Services (below)


Now you are ready to explain how your product works.  For visuals, try to have a single marketecture diagram that shows all of the core elements of how you solve the problem on slide 2.  Where possible, try to have each piece relate to each other visually.  At Citrix, we would start with the products under Mobile Workstyles to explain the end user story that creates demand for the cloud story.  Then, we’d walk through the ‘secure tunnel’ between the two clouds (NetScaler), and conclude on the cloud services product portfolio as the delivery vehicle.  This is a very broad product portfolio with a dozen products in it.  So even complex products can be simplified with the right framework. 


Finally, there will be quite a bit of discussion on this slide as prospects should be asking how each part works and how your product would work in their environment.  Ideally, you’ve had a discovery call earlier and understand their environment, but if not, know that a prospect will want to quickly move from how you view your offering to how they would use the product in their environment.

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Done well, this is a great jumping off point for your demo.


Slide 5 – Case study or evidence of success

Goal: prove value and demonstrate that your solution is the best choice among competition

Example: Okta Adobe case study – progressive CIO, adopt 200 SaaS apps in 6 weeks, embedded Okta in Adobe Creative Cloud.


Assuming you have at least one referenceable customer, this is where you want to start proving that you are the best choice.  The best ones are those where the buyer shares the same worldview as you do.  For the first 5 years of its existence, Okta’s marquee customer case study was Adobe.  The CIO, Geri Martin-Flickinger was a progressive CIO who saw a huge opportunity to shift the perception of IT from the team that says ‘no’ to new technology to the team that says ‘yes’ to empowering their business units.  She was able to roll out Office365 (the #1 SaaS app) and 200 other applications to 20,000 employees in just a few weeks – the most successful IT project in company history.  Also, Adobe as a business was making the transition from sending customers CDs to becoming its own cloud SaaS application and embedded Okta into its Creative Cloud suite.  This provided us with a lot of thought leadership storytelling as we could demonstrate how partnering with Okta was a great choice in the near-term to ‘modernize IT’ as well a good strategic long-term bet to ‘transform the customer experience’.  Geri became the hero of the story.  Everyone wants to be the hero:


Slide 6 – How <your company> stacks up to the competition

Example: side-by-side comparison chart of your company’s primary competitor or competitive ‘staircase’ that shows your differentiators by depositioning other technologies as legacy or out of touch with where the world is going.


By now, your prospect likes what you have to offer but is considering his or her alternatives.  Having a simple side-by-side comparison chart that lists the key competitive dimensions and how your solution checks off more of the boxes is one popular approach.  Another is to have a slide that shows how the industry has evolved over the years and that you’re now leading customers into the where the world is heading.  Here’s a recent one for Okta that shows the three ‘stages’ of identity maturity, which can then be used to deposition various IAM competitors.


Ideally, you’ve handled most of the questions on what makes you unique earlier in the presentation (eg: your approach and solution on slides 3 and 4).  But it’s good to have this slide to put any competitive questions to rest.  Keep in mind that there are three types of features – table stakes (everyone has the feature), differentiators (everyone has it but you do it better) and ‘purple cows’ (you are the only vendor who offers the capability).  Start with the table stakes features that everyone has and then end with purple cows clearly highlighted.


Slide 7 - <Your company> delivers business value

Example: lower costs from reduced help desk tickets, reduced cost of data breach, reduced time spent provisioning users, reduced time spent managing corporate directories - Okta


As a final slide, I like to end with business value.  You may end up camping on this slide for a long time so it’s good to have a final slide that nets out what’s in it for the customer, preferably in quantified business value terms.  The ideal number of business value drivers is 3-5.  If you’ve been able to quantify business value (per the Three Whys Storytelling framework) then you should include the specific range here.  If not, then at least a statement of where each source of value comes from needs to be included on this slide.  Here’s an example that you can see running live today on https://www.okta.com/roi-calculator/ (customized as slide for each prospect when running a meeting).  Only two questions required to create this – how many apps and how many users.  That’s it!


In Summary

A great presentation takes a customer through a three-chapter journey:


  • The opening gambit: why buy anything and why now to draw prospects into the problem, open up, and enter a discussion as to their business priorities and how they’re solving the problem today.


  • A new way forward: your opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership as to how the problem should be solved


  • Your unique solution: told in triplicate - how your solution works, your demo, and customer evidence that it works and provides value as advertised.


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2.1 Building Your First Customer Presentation
Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Scott Schwarzhoff
Scott Schwarzhoff
Operating Partner

Building Your First Customer Presentation

Today’s customer meetings look nothing like what they were 10 years ago.  Per Forrester, 62% of B2B buyers today will get to a vendor shortlist based solely on online research.  Armed with more information and the need to sort through more vendors than ever, customers seek consultative two-way conversational meetings that start and end with their challenges rather than one-way product pitches.


In 'The Unusual Guide to Customer Storytelling’, we discussed how to create a shared narrative that wins customers by shifting the focus from ‘what’ you do to a higher standard of ‘why’ you do it.  One that meets a customer where they are at – their worldview, their urgent problems – and collaboratively walks them through your proposed new approach and how you uniquely solve their problem by demonstrating the most value. The following guide provides a step-by-step process for building a customer meeting presentation based on this framework.  


We are going to assume conciseness is important: a 30-minute meeting, 10 of which is a demo, 5 for intros.  That leaves 15 minutes for your slides.  At 2 minutes per slide, that’s only 7-8 slides for a first meeting!  Even if you have an hour, the slides should not take longer than 20 minutes to deliver.  Far better to fill the rest of the time with discovery, discussion and concrete next steps.


Finally, form follows function.  Before diving into PowerPoint, be sure to draft an outline of your story.  Once in PowerPoint, it's simply too easy to start adding slides that don’t help your argument move forward.  Assuming you’ve read the Northstar Storytelling guide above, try writing out a 1-2 page story that buckets your three why messaging into slides.  Then, create 7-8 headline points from each paragraph that form the basis for your slide headers.  Your story should then fit neatly in the speaker’s notes of the presentation.  Done well, you have a key point to build each slide around and narrative detail that you can refer to as you add visuals.  Assuming you’re working with other team members, be sure to collaborate on the script in Google Sheets before finalizing.

Download our outline customer deck here.

Your presentation, slide-by-slide

Slide 0 – The dreaded title slide

Your first slide is actually the title slide.  It contains the least amount of information but from a delivery standpoint is the most important to get right.  It’s the slide that will probably sit on screen for those first crucial minutes.  The risk is undershooting or overshooting how much is delivered.  Best practice here is to script a 30 second elevator pitch that provides a ‘3 why’ preview.  Here’s an example: 

‘Hi, I’m Todd.  I’m the CEO at Okta, a venture-backed identity management startup helping companies accelerate their move to cloud software. As the former head of engineering at Salesforce, I saw first-hand how the world was changing from on-premises software to SaaS and how IT was becoming increasingly challenged to adopt applications like Salesforce, Office365, Box, etc.  Over the next 30 minutes, we’d like to understand what initiatives your company has around SaaS and how we could partner together to quickly and securely enable cloud adoption for your business.’

In your intro, include who you are, a one-liner on the big problem you solve, your founder insight / credibility, an invitation to a two-way discussion, and a simple value proposition.  Notice that this intro presumes that accelerating cloud adoption is important.  This should have been discovered prior to the meeting as everything that follows from here will build on this core belief/assumption.


Slide 1 – The shift from <old world> to <new world> has challenged <target audience>

Goal: agreement on important shift that’s causing a big problem / need to change 

Example: the shift from on-premises software to SaaS has broken IT’s ability to deliver services - Okta


This slide is all about getting to a shared understanding of the new world.  It’s context setting with some insight and thought leadership.  In general, you want heads nodding and an engaged audience.  I like to start with a simple old world / new world contrast visual and impact statement on the target audience.  In Okta’s case, a visual with on-premises servers and apps like Oracle/SAP surrounded by a perimeter with cloud apps outside.  Then the impact statement is that the shift to SaaS software challenges IT to deliver services to employees.

Shif to SaaS software challenges IT to deliver services


To ensure engagement, always end the presentation of this slide with a discovery question like ‘how has this change impacted your world?’


Slide 2 – <Target audience> are now struggling to <urgent pain>

Goal: identify 2-4 acute, hair on fire Why Now pain points

Example: “Who to wake up” - Omnition


This slide is best focused on naming specific, urgent pain points that should be easily understood by the customer.  One of my favorites is from Omnition, an Unusual portfolio company recently acquired by Splunk.  Their company provides monitoring for modern API-driven applications.  They landed on ‘who to wake up’ as their urgent Why Now problem.  They saw that customers who had application outages would spam their entire engineering staff to fix a problem and, of course, time was essential.  Worst case, these all-hands on deck alerts would go out at night.  So, ‘who to wake up’ is a beautifully designed urgent problem statement because it’s almost the worst-case scenario for a development team… and shows a great deal of customer empathy in its construction.


It’s good to have 3-4 problems on the slide in total, ideally built out in a logical flow that shows that current solutions are ineffective.  So, after ‘who to wake up’, Omnition had a second one ‘how to connect problem to root cause’, a third one ‘which customer is impacted’, and a fourth one, ‘where are the bottlenecks’.  Even if a company knows who to wake up, they can’t pinpoint the source of the problem and they have no idea what the impact is to the customer.  See how all of these are using language that a customer would use?  Again, empathy, urgency, and relevance to the business.  By the end of this slide, the customer should be heavily engaged and looking to you to provide a new way forward out of this mess!

Example: Omnition's Urgent Pain slide

As with slide 1, the presentation of this slide should end with a discovery question, ‘are you seeing any of these problems in your organization’?  It’s worth staying on this slide the longest of any slide in the deck to invite the customer to open up around their internal priorities and challenges relative to the problems identified in this slide.  


Slide 3 – A new approach is needed to solve <urgent pain>

Goal: provide a high-level framework for how the new world should work

Example: Citrix – need to enable mobile workstyles and cloud services


Before we solve the problem, we need to demonstrate that we understand the essential criteria for success.  Be sure to be complete as no one wants a partial solution to a problem – that’s what they currently have!  Think of this slide as the key requirements to compete in your market.  You’ll cover your unique offering in the next couple slides, so this slide is setting the table.


One of the best examples of a new approach is below – this is part of Citrix’ presentation of its Mobile/Cloud story circa 2012 in its heyday.  Even though the company has a lot of products, it was able to simplify the framing of the new world in simple language and set of visuals that just made a ton of sense to the customer.  Customers want Mobile Workstyles delivered by Cloud Services.  They need them delivered from any cloud to any device.  Then the 6 capabilities listed are the ‘how’ that snap to a visual transition framing slide.


Slide 4 – Introducing <your company>: <company tagline>

Goal: customer should understand how your solution works at a high-level

Example: Citrix product line, organized under Mobile Workstyles and Cloud Services (below)


Now you are ready to explain how your product works.  For visuals, try to have a single marketecture diagram that shows all of the core elements of how you solve the problem on slide 2.  Where possible, try to have each piece relate to each other visually.  At Citrix, we would start with the products under Mobile Workstyles to explain the end user story that creates demand for the cloud story.  Then, we’d walk through the ‘secure tunnel’ between the two clouds (NetScaler), and conclude on the cloud services product portfolio as the delivery vehicle.  This is a very broad product portfolio with a dozen products in it.  So even complex products can be simplified with the right framework. 


Finally, there will be quite a bit of discussion on this slide as prospects should be asking how each part works and how your product would work in their environment.  Ideally, you’ve had a discovery call earlier and understand their environment, but if not, know that a prospect will want to quickly move from how you view your offering to how they would use the product in their environment.

“Citrix is the Cloud Services Company that Enables Mobile Workstyles”


Done well, this is a great jumping off point for your demo.


Slide 5 – Case study or evidence of success

Goal: prove value and demonstrate that your solution is the best choice among competition

Example: Okta Adobe case study – progressive CIO, adopt 200 SaaS apps in 6 weeks, embedded Okta in Adobe Creative Cloud.


Assuming you have at least one referenceable customer, this is where you want to start proving that you are the best choice.  The best ones are those where the buyer shares the same worldview as you do.  For the first 5 years of its existence, Okta’s marquee customer case study was Adobe.  The CIO, Geri Martin-Flickinger was a progressive CIO who saw a huge opportunity to shift the perception of IT from the team that says ‘no’ to new technology to the team that says ‘yes’ to empowering their business units.  She was able to roll out Office365 (the #1 SaaS app) and 200 other applications to 20,000 employees in just a few weeks – the most successful IT project in company history.  Also, Adobe as a business was making the transition from sending customers CDs to becoming its own cloud SaaS application and embedded Okta into its Creative Cloud suite.  This provided us with a lot of thought leadership storytelling as we could demonstrate how partnering with Okta was a great choice in the near-term to ‘modernize IT’ as well a good strategic long-term bet to ‘transform the customer experience’.  Geri became the hero of the story.  Everyone wants to be the hero:


Slide 6 – How <your company> stacks up to the competition

Example: Adobe Case Slide

Example: side-by-side comparison chart of your company’s primary competitor or competitive ‘staircase’ that shows your differentiators by depositioning other technologies as legacy or out of touch with where the world is going.


By now, your prospect likes what you have to offer but is considering his or her alternatives.  Having a simple side-by-side comparison chart that lists the key competitive dimensions and how your solution checks off more of the boxes is one popular approach.  Another is to have a slide that shows how the industry has evolved over the years and that you’re now leading customers into the where the world is heading.  Here’s a recent one for Okta that shows the three ‘stages’ of identity maturity, which can then be used to deposition various IAM competitors.

Example: Okta Competition Slide


Ideally, you’ve handled most of the questions on what makes you unique earlier in the presentation (eg: your approach and solution on slides 3 and 4).  But it’s good to have this slide to put any competitive questions to rest.  Keep in mind that there are three types of features – table stakes (everyone has the feature), differentiators (everyone has it but you do it better) and ‘purple cows’ (you are the only vendor who offers the capability).  Start with the table stakes features that everyone has and then end with purple cows clearly highlighted.


Slide 7 - <Your company> delivers business value

Example: lower costs from reduced help desk tickets, reduced cost of data breach, reduced time spent provisioning users, reduced time spent managing corporate directories - Okta


As a final slide, I like to end with business value.  You may end up camping on this slide for a long time so it’s good to have a final slide that nets out what’s in it for the customer, preferably in quantified business value terms.  The ideal number of business value drivers is 3-5.  If you’ve been able to quantify business value (per the Three Whys Storytelling framework) then you should include the specific range here.  If not, then at least a statement of where each source of value comes from needs to be included on this slide.  Here’s an example that you can see running live today on https://www.okta.com/roi-calculator/ (customized as slide for each prospect when running a meeting).  Only two questions required to create this – how many apps and how many users.  That’s it!


Example of demonstrated value customized for each prospect

In Summary

A great presentation takes a customer through a three-chapter journey:


  • The opening gambit: why buy anything and why now to draw prospects into the problem, open up, and enter a discussion as to their business priorities and how they’re solving the problem today.
  • A new way forward: your opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership as to how the problem should be solved
  • Your unique solution: told in triplicate - how your solution works, your demo, and customer evidence that it works and provides value as advertised.

Outline deck for your first customer meeting

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