Agnostic is where MSPs go to die.

I want to tell you the story of two VoIP providers. VoIP providers are not MSPs, but this is a superb example. And if you run an MSP, I guarantee you that selling VoIP is much more complicated than selling MSP services.

Both of these companies started at about the same time. Initially, their teams were the same size, and everyone on each team was intelligent, capable, and dedicated to their job.

They both sold Voice Over IP services. They both invested in sales and marketing and were committed to delivering world-class service. They both promised that a human would answer the phone if there were issues, and they both delivered on their promises.

The big difference: one grew to millions of dollars in revenue and couldn’t keep up with the market. The others could never pay themselves a full salary and ended up stumbling along until, eventually, the company died.

I will explain why.

But first, understand people buy to solve a problem

All people everywhere, no matter what, since the beginning of time and until the sun explodes and consumes the earth, buy to solve a problem. That’s it.

They must be unhappy in some way to motivate them to take action or part with cash.

I once said this to a group of Oncologists. They all nodded. They understood that the people coming to them were unhappy.

But there was one concerned participant ready to prove me wrong. “I don’t solve a problem; I sell a pillow.”

I asked him what the pillow was for and why he crashed the Oncologist networking hour. He explained that his pillow was designed for chemotherapy; it made cancer patients more comfortable.

In his mind, he wasn’t solving a real problem. He wasn’t curing cancer. But for someone uncomfortable as they go through the awfulness of chemotherapy, he solved a problem that, at the moment of use, made it to the top of their list.

The problem you solve doesn’t have to be meaningful to the world; you don’t have to solve world hunger; you have to transform an individual from unhappy to happy.

There are two types of problems: people either want to alleviate a pain they have or obtain something they don’t have.

Or another way to think of this is that they either move away from something or toward something.

To sell anything, therefore, you must identify whom you sell to (people always buy businesses never do) and what they are moving toward or moving away from.

Now, what does this have to do with telephones?

One of our two companies sold itself as a VoIP provider. They did VoIP better than anyone else. They were the people to go to for anybody who ever wanted VoIP.

When we asked them who their ideal customer was, they said, “anyone whose check clears.” When we asked them to get more specific, they couldn’t or wouldn’t.

“We’re industry agnostic,” they explained, “anybody can use our service.”

In their sales and marketing, they talked about VoIP, bought Google Adwords for VoIP, and tried to compete directly with the big names in VoIP. They were one company in a million selling the identical solution.

They couldn’t clearly identify whom they sold to and were not clear on what their target customer was moving toward or away from.

When we asked the other company whom they sold to, they told us they only sold to the hotel operations managers. More specifically, they only sold to operations managers annoyed with their current phone provider. They had to have a phone in each room, but they saw providing the phone as annoying. When phones dominate the operations meeting, that’s when this company would show up.

“We take telephones out of the hotel’s operations meetings.”

They weren’t like everyone else. They didn’t talk about VoIP at all. They focused so intently on the hotel telephone problem that they developed new technology to solve the hotels’ issues better.

They were crystal clear on whom they were selling to and identified exactly what their target customer was moving away from.

Of these two companies, which one do you think was the more successful?

The problem with agnosticism

As sellers, we see the market as all the same, and we believe that our solutions work for everyone.

But you can’t sell if you can’t communicate with the person you sell to and the problem they have. And you can’t identify either of these if you sell everything to everybody.

There is another problem: your solution doesn’t work for everybody.

I recently bumped into someone on LinkedIn who needed some help. He asked me about our coaching. I told him what we did and asked who his target market was.

He was agnostic, of course.

Then he asked me: “what makes you qualified to work with MSPs?”

He’s selling generic but buying specific.

When I asked why he told me how complicated MSPs are. “We are different than other businesses.”

As one who has worked in many industries in 37 countries and four languages, I assure you all businesses are the same. They are strikingly the same.

At the same time, when you work in one industry, you begin to understand its nuances. Each has its jargon, war stories, and way of approaching the world. The more you know an industry, the more different it appears.

And, even though business is business, each industry, sub-industry, region, or whatever distinction you want to use is, in fact, different.

For example, I have used the same branding concepts with automobiles, diamonds, mines, industrial equipment, technology startups, and MSPs – they are all the same.

But even though the need for branding and how humans think about it are the same, how we discuss it is entirely different. Even though I used the same slides when discussing brand with miners, I couldn’t use the word brand. They didn’t know that was what we were talking about. (They still don’t, so…. Please keep it to yourself). They needed it in their language, focused on their needs.

The intricacies, the detail, and the nuance matter.

Every industry is different.

The generic VoIP company saw everybody as the same because they didn’t get to know any one specific customer type. They saw their business as complicated because they understood it, but saw every other business as uncomplicated because they didn’t understand it.

When the hotel VoIP company delved deep into the world of hotels, they realized that hotels had specific needs. It was still VoIP, but it was subtly different. So they developed solutions that addressed the distinctions.

When a hotel company has a problem, whom will they turn to, the generic provider or the one that understands their situation?

They will turn to the one who understands their problem in all but one scenario. The only time they will go generic is when they are looking for the lowest possible price and don’t care about anything else.

That is why if you are agnostic, you feel constant price pressure: the only ones who buy are those who only care about price.

Selling to everyone is selling to no one.

There’s a perception that narrowing your market and choosing a niche, hotels, for example, reduces the pool of people you could sell to, your addressable market.

Reality is the opposite.

Counterintuitively the broader your marketing, the fewer people will be interested. Paraphrasing Seth Godin: if you have to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one.

Nobody wants VoIP. But thousands of hotel operations managers want to take telephones out of their morning meetings. So narrowing to hotels expands the market from 0 to tens of thousands.

So, to thrive, define a target market

Hopefully, you figured out that the successful company was the one that focused on hotels.

And we’ve seen this repeatedly in the MSP space. Those who do well pick a target market: manufacturing, hedge funds, dentists, doctors, retail, cab companies, accountants, etc.

Industries can be a good shorthand for your target market, but it doesn’t have to be an industry. Perhaps you only work with companies that run secure databases on IBM z16 mainframes.

The point is to get specific enough that you can clearly and specifically identify the person you’re selling to and the particular problem that person has.

Without that specificity, you can’t grow, your customers will always squeeze you on price, and eventually, your MSP will end up in a business graveyard.

Don’t let your business die the death of agnosticism; choose a target market.

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