This article is based on Bryan’s brilliant presentation, ‘Overcoming your biggest competitor in B2B technology - the dreaded status quo’, given at the Product Marketing MisUnderstood event. PMA members can watch this presentation in its full glory – plus hundreds of others – using our OnDemand service.

Hi, my name is Bryan Socransky, and I'm the Director of Product Marketing at Zendesk. Most of my career has been in B2B technology, and SaaS in particular. I’ve worked for startups as well as large corporations like Oracle, launching dozens of new products, and I’ve run many, many B2B marketing campaigns over my 25-plus-year career. 

I'm here today to talk to you about overcoming the biggest competitor in B2B technology, which is almost always the status quo. 

Here’s what I'm going to cover:

  • The power of the status quo,
  • Why the status quo is a problem in B2B, 
  • The cause of this problem, and 
  • How product marketing can help overcome the status quo.

The power of the status quo in B2B

First, let me share a valuable lesson I learned about the status quo and how it is almost always the biggest competitor in B2B – especially B2B technology. 

In 2014, I was chasing a deal at a utility company. It was a big opportunity. They were a perfect fit for the B2B SaaS solution I was selling. 

I did almost everything right. I visited the customer many times, my solution consultant did multiple amazing demos of our product, and I brought in some business consultants who put together a great business case showing the fantastic return on investment that our product would bring. 

The customer posted an RFP (request for proposal), so we devised an absolutely amazing proposal and answered every question they had.

But in the end, the customer decided to do nothing. They stayed with their current solution even though it was old and riddled with issues. The status quo – doing nothing – seemed like an easier and safer decision to them. 

Ever since that painful experience of putting so much time and energy into a deal, only to lose it to pure inertia, I’ve been obsessed with overcoming the status quo. 

What is the status quo?

In B2B, the status quo can show up in a few different ways: A project can get delayed, it can get deprioritized, or it can get canceled altogether. Sometimes customers end up making no decision or simply staying with their current solution – which is exactly what happened in the scenario I just shared. 

This is an approximate representation of what the competitive landscape looks like for Zendesk, and I believe it looks very similar for most B2B tech and SaaS companies. It’s certainly been my experience over the past 25-plus years. 

Pie chart titled "Competitive landscape". Status quo: 90%, direct competitors: 10%

As you can see, we’re only competing head-to-head with our direct competitors in a very small percentage of deals. More opportunities never fully materialize or are lost to the status quo than to any direct competitor. 

The bottom line? As in most tech companies, the status quo is our biggest competitor by far. 

The main reason for this is that prospects are okay with their current solution. The status quo is acceptable to them, so they never reach out to Zendesk or any of our competitors. The status quo is like a warm blanket on a cold day. It feels safe, while change feels scary. 

When the prospect chose the status quo over our product, it felt like the right decision to them. Nobody wanted to take the risk of investing millions of dollars in a big software project – after all, if it hadn’t worked out, that could have cost them their credibility or even their job. 

Fear of change

If you look at the research into emotional fears, fear of change often ranks at the top of the list. People fear change more than they fear loneliness and rejection. 

Here’s a classic example of how much people hate change. In 1985, Coca-Cola were facing increased competition from Pepsi, so they introduced a new formulation. Now, they didn't just rush this to market. They did 190,000 blind taste tests across the United States and Canada and got overwhelming data showing that consumers preferred the taste of New Coke over the old Coke. 

So far so good, right? Not quite.

When they introduced New Coke, there was outrage. Loyal consumers were calling Coca-Cola to the tune of 8,000 phone calls a day, complaining about this new formulation. 

The problem was twofold: The company had totally underestimated loyal Coke drinkers’ emotional attachment to the drink and the brand; they’d also overlooked the fact that people hate change. 

Now, you might be thinking, “Great, Bryan, but Coke is a consumer product. What does this have to do with B2B?” Well, we have to remember that even in B2B, we’re ultimately marketing and selling to people – and the fears and biases they have as consumers don’t just disappear when they put on their professional hats. 

I have some more bad news for you: Buyers’ preference for the status quo is heightened in an economic downturn or recession. It's a tougher challenge to overcome. 

That’s because, honestly, most companies can live without the products we’re selling. Yes, our products can help reduce costs and improve productivity, but at the end of the day, they can postpone the purchase without suffering any catastrophic consequences. This is a major challenge we face as product marketers. 

Product marketing’s role in overcoming the status quo

There are just two things I want to zero in on that product marketing can do to help overcome the status quo:

  1. Get customers to buy into the change
  2. Emphasize the urgent need to invest in your product

Let’s start with the first one. A vital ingredient missing from too much product marketing is explaining to a prospect why they need to change. We rush into talking about our products, features, value propositions, and their superiority to the competition – but that’s putting the cart before the horse.