SalesTechStar Interview with Kurt W. Michel, SVP of Marketing, Veea
A lack of in-person events being met with a rise in virtual events in this new normal are transforming how sales teams are adjusting their remote selling strategies and diverting their budgets to focus on creating more customer-focused acquisition plans. Kurt W. Michel, SVP of Marketing, Veea joins us in this interview to share a few ways through which sales and marketing teams can scale efforts during this downtime.
Can you tell us a little about yourself Kurt? What inspired you to enter the marketing niche and over the years, what have been your biggest sales/marketing takeaways that you still swear by?
I started out as an engineer with a huge company in military communications for almost 2 decades, so I understand process and how things are built. I then tried my hand at B2B technical sales support in a semiconductor startup for a few years, which added an understanding of the sales process and direct customer interaction. That role morphed into product management where I learned how the ideas for products are formed, and the shepherding that is required to bring an idea all the way to market. Since 2012 I have been a pure marketer in B2B tech companies, and I really draw on the insights that I have developed in these various roles over the years. I love the challenge of crafting messages and stories for all of the different personas involved in the customer decision-making process, and I can tap my experience in all of these roles to tune the messages.
While doing engineering by day, I earned my MBA at night, where I was attracted to the marketing side of things. The combination of strategy and tactics, and the opportunity to quickly make a meaningful difference in a company’s fortunes with some smart positioning was appealing. I also loved getting out of the “factory” and talking to people in the real world. Given that I speak both tech and marketing–ese, I found that I could have an influence where pure marketers or pure engineers would struggle. Also, the tech industry seems to have a lot of really smart people who struggle to communicate to their markets or “productize” their solutions effectively. There is a prevalence of an “if we build it, they will come” mentality. Since I have worn many hats in both small and large companies, I have experiential empathy for all parts of B2B machine, and can build the bridges often needed to get things done.
My biggest takeaways are pretty basic:
Collaboration is key. What may start in my head as a good idea can become a great one with the right team around me. That team will also warn me when the “great idea” is maybe not so great. And of course, there is the need for a story. Good marketers and sales people do not pitch products – they craft stories that allow their customers to envision their future success.
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen repeatedly over the years is companies who tell stories about themselves – “look how pretty my (insert shiny object) is!” NO ONE CARES. But when you move to “Look how awesome you are with the help of my shiny object”? That is where the gold lies.
What are some of your predictions for the B2B / tech marketing and sales space for the near future: how do you feel that sales and marketing teams should reskill themselves for the new normal?
I think we are still trying to figure out what “the new normal” will be. In any case, anyone who was not embracing digital marketing is having a tough time, and needs to get on board. And by digital marketing, I mean anything and everything that can be done to put your message in front of your prospects where they are – on their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Sales and Marketing must be tuned in to the reality of virtual engagement, and master the tech. It still makes me laugh that most people have conference/ bridge capabilities on their phones, but don’t really trust or know how to use them. “I’m going to try to bridge you in, but if I lose you, just call me back…” How many video conferences have we been on where people can’t find the mute/unmute button, don’t turn on their cameras (body language is crucial!), don’t know how to properly share their screens, or haven’t thought through how to provide a product demo in that environment? We have to master our everyday communication tools, and not let them get in the way. That means a little practice is in order.
The good news is there are a lot of great tools in our industry that can help us do digital marketing at scale. The bad news is that there are a LOT of tools competing for our time and money, and they don’t all play nice with each other. So having access to digital marketing expertise on your team is crucial.
With COVID-19, the importance of “in-person” events is waning, event marketing is clearly suffering, and I think the shifts we are all making now to work around the lack of events could become permanent. I am optimistic that we will be able to effectively redirect the dollars spent on lavish trade show stands into other marketing campaigns – VR or AR-based? – that are more focused on the customers, and less focused on how big and shiny our stands are. What I love about the virtual tradeshows and webinars that we are all shifting to is that they can become video-on-demand content. That video can be repurposed in many ways. So it can really help scale marketing efforts.
Clearly with so much remote engagement, we are going to have to do better than the “death by PowerPoint” sales and marketing pitches of the past, because when you are not in the same room as your prospects and customers, you cannot see how the customer is responding to your deck. I’m dating myself here, but I still remember when “slides” were just that – printed on translucent plastic for an overhead projector. In that world, you could not change your messages or details “on the fly” the way we do with PowerPoint. And you did not want to carry too many of those slides around – they could get heavy. So we spent more time getting the messages on those slides right and tight, and practicing the story we would tell with them. Remote presentation makes this even more important now. You need a very engaging pitch that does not rely on personal charisma to get attention.
So digital marketing is absolutely crucial now. But there are so many “virtual tradeshows” and webinars today that the challenge is how to stand out. I think it all comes down to simple, resonant, consistent messaging. Digital media makes it so easy to scatter different messaging all around, that you can lose the focus, so we must have the self-awareness to guard against that.
While building out a new product’s core messaging strategy, what are some of the top takeaways / best practices you’d like to talk about?
A few very important things come to mind:
Who are your prospects, and can you speak in THEIR language?
Have you spoken to some of these prospects, or just product management and the development team? You have to get out there.
What is the problem the product solves, and can you tell a story that makes that problem real in the mind of your prospect? This is how you move them to “need”.
What are the real benefits, the areas that your prospects find valuable?
Do you have a clear understanding of the features and the benefits of the product – and the difference? Your prospects want benefits. Make sure you are clear about that before you dig into the “how” of the features that support it. I see “features” presented as benefits and “benefits” as features all the time. Take a little time to make that difference clear in your messaging.
I like to use the simple 5W+H equation that journalists are taught: “Who, What, Where, When, Why, How”. Notice the How is at the end. How our products do things is not nearly as important as what they do, and for who.
How can sales and marketing align better during this downtime, in order to optimize overall strategies and goals?
They can communicate more. “throw it over the wall” marketing was never a good thing, and I think it is even more destructive now. In my work at Veea, I have a video call with the sales team every week to learn what their challenges are, and where they are hitting roadblocks and objections. Where is our collateral missing the key points, and where are we missing collateral completely? I like to think of the organization and its markets as a number of concentric circles – like a target. Customers are outside of the circle, sales is the outer ring, with marketing, product management, and engineering in the rings moving toward the center. Communication must flow both in and out of the ring, with the appropriate translation at each ring transition. Engineering is focused internally on building products. Sales spends most of its time focused externally on the customers. Product management and marketing work together, with product marketing biased internally toward engineering, and marketing biased externally toward sales. Marketing is the conduit between sales (and their customers) and the products that customers want. In B2B, I learned long ago that marketing’s job is to support sales, and be their advocate with the internal organization. If marketing is doing the job right, they make sales’ job easier. As Veea’s sales people feel free to call or email me directly whenever they are hitting a roadblock, I believe I have successfully positioned myself as an advocate. If they are not talking to me, I cannot do – or am not doing – my job.
What are some of the ways in which you still see marketing and sales teams in tech not utilizing the full capability of their tech stack…how would you tell them to fix this?
Tech tools are only as good as the people who use them. I still see companies not embracing the use of basic tools like CRMs, which is a core foundation of digital marketing. They buy the systems – sometimes without involving sales in the planning process – put them in place, and then fall flat on the training, support and commitment required to bring them to the useful phase. The key to success is to get through the startup period as quickly as possible, because during that initial phase, the costs outweigh the benefits. If leadership understands that there is a startup cost and maintains their commitment through this phase, then the team starts seeing the benefit of having all of the necessary information provided by the tech stack, allowing them to make the connections that lead to success. This generally also requires cultural changes. Some sales people, often very competitive by nature, are not inclined to share information with their teams. Information sharing even within a team may be counter to instincts. Leadership must recognize and address this head-on through incentives and metrics that allow them to understand what is working, and what is not. And when the inevitable problems arise, the support must be there to fix them quickly. It is all about building trust. If systems are too “locked-down” preventing sales people from learning from the experiences of others, the initiatives will fail. This goes back to one of the key takeaways that I mentioned above. Collaboration is key. This is true across the organization, even in sales. When the sales people start comparing notes, or reviewing accounts to find what works and what doesn’t – when the sales “team” actually becomes a team – that is when the true potential of a sales force is unlocked. Marketing and sales leadership needs to make sure the training, messaging, and incentives are structured to nurture this behavior. That is not easy, but it is necessary to maximize success, and in the early days, you only get one shot.
While remote work is still largely in place due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic even though businesses and economies are slowly inching towards reopening, what are some of the thoughts you’d like to share for businesses (sales and marketing) teams in general?
Since we are entering a new normal, everything is in flux. Things that have worked in the past may no longer, and things that have been tried and failed in the past may need a second look. You have to look at everything you are doing and ask if you are doing it because of momentum, or because it makes sense today, in this new environment. Maintain your lines of communication. Over-communicate. Seek out new tools that will help you be more efficient. Look for new patterns of customer behavior – everything is different for them too. And keep an open mind to new ideas. They are out there, and they may be the keys to your future success if you are open to them.
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Veea Inc. (veea.com) is headquartered in New York City (Manhattan) with offices in Metropark (NJ), Bath (the UK), Geneva, Paris, Seoul, Atlanta and San Diego. Veea Systems Ltd. (https://www.linkedin.com/company/veea-systems/), Veea Systems Inc. and Veea Solutions Inc. are wholly owned subsidiaries of Veea Inc. The core of the engineering team out of the current team of 100+ highly experienced engineers, many with PhDs and Master Degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, have worked together on many breakthrough products, services and standards for over 20+ years. Veea has developed disruptive technologies that are incorporated in a highly integrated platform for edge computing and communications with a range of intelligent edge server products supporting all commonly used standards-based wireless and wired communications, called VeeaHub, that uniquely provide for running of applications including IoT, machine learning and AI applications at end-user premises.
Kurt is the SVP of Marketing at Veea Inc.