Getting guidance from technical experts

The worst thing you can do when you’re discussing a business-to-business marcom assignment with a technical expert is act like you know what he’s talking about when you haven’t a clue. Unfortunately, the tendency among younger practitioners, especially those on the client side, is to nod knowingly and say, “You bet,” when Mr. Technical asks if he’s making himself clear.

Nobody wants to appear thick-headed, so it’s easy to see why people act like they understand when they don’t. But it’s a rookie mistake; you’re hoping you can retreat back to your office with that armload of technical literature and figure it out there, but that’s not likely to happen. Which leaves you with two choices: Go back to Mr. Technical and ask for a second helping, or fake it.

Unfortunately, most young people choose to fake it, because they know that Mr. Technical wouldn’t be pleased to find his first session was wasted time. The reality is, however, that if you do this with him more than once, he may decide to avoid you altogether. You don’t want to upset him by asking lots of dumb questions, but who says you have to ask dumb questions? In my experience, technical experts will gladly spend time with marcom people who make an effort to learn the technology’s fundamentals. You don’t have to be able to design complex gizmos; just understand how they work and why certain ones are better than others.

Here are some basic questions I’d ask Mr. Technical, and you might be surprised to learn he hasn’t thought much about the answers:

What are the gizmo’s most important features and benefits? Technical people love to talk features, but they often leave out the benefits. (Everybody knows those, right?) Make sure you get both. Also, technical people don’t always give you the most important information first, and they love to throw in secondary and tertiary features just to show you how complicated their jobs are. If they provide a long list of technical features, ask them to prioritize it.

And here’s an important corollary question:

How do these features compare with the main competition? Try to think like a customer: Why are these things important? What other choices do I have? If your gizmo costs more, is it worth the extra money? These inquiries usually prompt the big idea for marketing, or at least the basis for it.

This is also the time when you’re most likely to act like you’ve got it before you really do. Keep burrowing until you can articulate the basic advantages and disadvantages of each approach, just as you would if you were about to make a purchase.

And as long as you’re thinking like a customer, here’s another good question:

Who is the most important prospect for this gizmo? This is an easy area to gloss over. You’ll get some quick and vague references to purchasing agents, process engineers or plant managers, but that really doesn’t tell you what drives these people to make buying decisions.

Try to find out their hot buttons; ask what pressures they’re likely to be struggling with, such as downsizing, rising energy costs and shrinking profit margins. Your direction-givers will try to tell you about all the exceptions to the rule, but if you really press, they can close their eyes and describe the typical customer or prospect in surprisingly vivid terms. This will give you psychographic clues about how to communicate with the key decision-makers. We’re talking creative concepts again.

What action do you want people to take? It’s amazing to me how many b-to-b ads and promotional pieces have no call to action, or a weak one such as, “Call today for more information,” or “Log on to our Website for full details.” When you go to the Website, you find the company’s standard home page with no reference at all to the subject of the ad.

Someone who is interested in your offer and willing to take the next step in the buying process would really be frustrated. For those people, it’s just good business sense to make that next step as painless as possible. Instead of linking them to the home page, send them to a special jump page geared to the subject. Include an e-mail form so they can click a few boxes indicating their situation, and maybe type in a special concern for someone to respond to.

But for people who aren’t quite ready to take the next step, suggest a non-threatening and helpful action that will nudge them in that direction, such as requesting a free information kit or a test report showing how your gizmo performs relative to other gizmos.

I’m sure you could ask your technical experts many other good questions. But if you just focus on these four, you’ll probably experience a technical information epiphany and be well on your way to becoming a valued marketing communications partner.

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