Don’t Let Your Expertise Kill Your Products

Technology companies struggle to explain what they do in a way that non-experts can understand. A major reason is that we use different parts of our brains than our customers and prospects when thinking about our products. Here are three ideas to deal with this challenge.


My son Ben turned 16 in July, and a few days later
passed his driving learner’s permit test. To me, the summer of 2011 will always be remembered as the summer I
taught Ben how to drive. We started off
in the parking lot of his former elementary school. (The irony of teaching him at the place
where just 11 years ago we dropped him off at kindergarten was not lost on me.)

Ben was soon bored with the parking lot. We advanced to little traveled local
roads. Moving from a parking lot to a
road with multiple distractions was a big jump. 

As I tried to explain to him how to make right and left
turns, I realized just how automatic driving had become for me. My instructions (slow down going into a
turn, turn the wheel and then accelerate) made perfect sense to me as an
experienced driver. However, to a new driver the instructions were
useless. His mind was flooded with

  • How much do you slow down?
  •  When do you start the turn?
  •  How much do you turn the wheel?
  •  How fast do you turn?
  • When do you accelerate?

Answering them required me to become aware of things I
haven’t thought about in years. I needed
to think like a beginning driver. Later that evening, I went out driving on my
own and broke the entire process of making a right turn into simple steps that
were easy to explain to a beginning driver.

Research has
determined “when people are first learning a skill such as driving a car, they
engage the higher conscious areas of the brain such as the cerebral
cortex. But with practice [as well as
knowledge and experience], the skill becomes automated and moves to more
primitive areas like the cerebellum. Thus experienced drivers can maneuver a car with far less active attention.”

This is a good thing for humans since it enables us to do
routine things easily while freeing up the higher levels of our brains to take
on new and challenging tasks. 


The implications of this research for those of us who sell,
market, and develop technology products and services are enormous. The phenomenon of being so good at something
that you can’t explain it, isn’t restricted to driving. 

I regularly witness technology companies struggle to explain
what they do in a way that non-experts can understand.   A major reason is that we use different
parts of our brains than our customers and prospects when thinking about our

Like my driving ability, a vendor’s knowledge of their technology
is engrained into their subconscious. As a result, it is difficult to understand what it is like to be a
non-expert (first time driver) and communicate effectively with them. Yet these non-experts are often the key
decision makers who are vital to our commercial success.     


Here are three steps to deal with these challenges.


  1. Recognize
    that it is human nature and the way our brains are wired rather than a
    character flaw that leads us to do a “deep dive” on product features and assume
    that everyone else is an expert. This
    realization will help organizations recognize that the “product feature” trap
    is a natural occurrence and focus on ways to avoid it.
  2. Recognize
    that the walls between sales, marketing and development exist because our
    brains (as a result of years of experience) are wired differently. Individuals in each group see the world
    differently. As Marty Petraitis, VP of Software
    Business,  PDF Solutions, the leading
    provider of yield analysis solutions, puts it:  “This shouldn’t be a situation that
    one group is superior to the other.  It
    is actually a good thing that there are different points of view.  To break down organizational walls, we need
    to move from figuring out who is right to recognizing that the groups are
    different and have something to contribute to the conversation.”
  3. When
    you develop your value proposition and messaging, it is essential to include
    someone who is not invested in the technology in the discussions.  These individuals could be from other
    internal organizations, an external consultant or a customer.



It behooves us all when dealing with either new drivers or
prospective customers to remember that our in-depth knowledge is a mystery to
the driver or prospect.  By remembering
the three points above you’ll be able to more efficiently turn your knowledge
into messaging that resonates with your audience.

1. Sports Illustrated, August 8, 2011.

[Image: Flickr user djneight]


About the author

Neil Baron is an internationally recognized authority on selling and marketing innovative products, services and solutions sold to risk averse customers. He has served in a variety of senior marketing and management roles at companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, Sybase, Art Technology Group, Brooks Automation and ATMI