James Jay: Leaders face tough decisions to follow the market or blaze their own trails Featured

8:01pm EDT September 30, 2011
James L. Jay, president and CEO, TechPoint James L. Jay, president and CEO, TechPoint

Fast-growing consumer electronics and appliances retailer hhgregg has faced technology challenges in recent years but not the types you might think. Its main challenge has been not losing sight of what has made it so successful — its secret sauce, if you will — with all of the technology options now available to utilize.

Popular cool-guy mobile apps and do-it-yourself online stores interfere with the company’s traditional “secret sauce,” its highly trained and knowledgeable sales associates who help customers make the right purchase decisions. Instead of shunning technology, hhgregg has embraced its potential antagonist and found new ways to support and enhance its unique selling proposition utilizing technology in the right places.

Companies of every size in every industry face similar situations throughout their development and natural lifecycles. Leaders face tough decisions to follow the market or blaze their own trails, particularly where technology is concerned.

Know your assets. The first step in protecting your secret sauce is knowing what it is. If hhgregg had mistakenly identified having the latest products at low prices as its unique selling proposition, it might have focused on less personal online sales or discount promotions. Those strategies may work for competitors, but not for hhgregg. Does the company have the latest products at low prices? Yes, but that’s not why most people choose to shop there — it’s the advice of sales associates on which appliances or electronics best match what customers need and want that drives people into the stores.

The best, most effective unique selling propositions are short, easily understandable, and relatable to your target customers. If you can’t write the recipe for your company’s secret sauce on the back of your business card or communicate it in about a sentence or less, you may want to consider spending some time defining it yourself or getting some help from a marketing or branding expert.

Know when to say no. Another important part of protecting your secret sauce is knowing when to say no and having the audacity (perhaps temerity) to turn down potentially lucrative new business that would diminish or damage your unique selling proposition.

Indianapolis-based search engine optimization firm Slingshot SEO — TechPoint’s 2011 Information Technology “Company of the Year” Mira Award Winner — knows a thing or two about saying no. The company even incorporated a disclaimer of sorts into messaging about its selling proposition to define and advertise for the kinds of clients with which it wants to work.

“Slingshot SEO helps deserving brands achieve exponential business success through search.” This statement tells you what the company does and singles out that it chooses to work only with deserving brands as it defines them. The company helps clients refine their online presence for maximum search engine friendliness, and leverages proprietary software and processes to increase search visibility.

Slingshot SEO believes it is in the business of helping to connect brands with the customers for whom they are the best fit. It’s not about tricking search engines into making their clients the No. 1 result but providing the best possible response to a user’s keyword query — delivering the response that is most likely to match the user’s objectives.

Know who’s a player. This deserving approach doesn’t work for everyone. There is a certain amount of commitment required in terms of content generation and perspective on the part of the client, a commitment that some aren’t able to make. By being selective, Slingshot SEO is protecting its way of doing business, even though it may sometimes need to decline new business that isn’t a good fit for the way the company approaches the marketplace.

Like hhgregg and Slingshot SEO, many companies face difficult decisions about applying new technologies and taking on new customers. It’s important to stop and think about the possible impact it will have on your company’s unique selling proposition before embarking on significant new ventures.

New technologies and new customers alike are often fun and exciting for your company, but careful evaluation is necessary to ensure that they are a good fit for the way you do business and that they never interfere with your secret sauce.

JAMES L. JAY is president and CEO of TechPoint, Indiana’s technology industry and entrepreneurship growth initiative. He also serves as president and CEO of TechPoint Ventures, which has invested more than $16 million in early-stage capital in 12 Indiana-based technology companies through HALO Capital Group since 2009. An Indianapolis native, he has a successful track record as an entrepreneur, business leader and public servant.