Saturday, September 12, 2009

Using Equivocality in Sales Team Interaction with the Channel

Equivocality in the information a sales team presents to the channel should be varied depending on the relationship with the individual channel intermediaries. For someone not in our fold, we may be able to capture their attention and involvement by increasing equivocality in the information we exchange with them. In his work “The Social Psychology of Organizing”, Weick (1979, p 174) describes equivocality as inputs or messages that have multiple significance.

He notes that if we enter enough equivocality into the information we send to a group, that group must deal with our messages in a non-routine manner because that information will not make immediate sense and will not fit neatly into the classifications understood by the group. In other words, they question their retained beliefs about their environment, which is what we want if they are not a card-carrying, loyal customer. On the other hand, for one of our loyal customers, we would instead want our messages to erase all ambiguity in their retained beliefs about us. The information we send should re-enchant them with our offering, and reduce equivocality.

As a marketing example of a sales team using equivocality, in the late 90s, Sun Microsystems used it by raising doubts about the Air Force directory system. In turn, this impacted Microsoft Exchange, which relied heavily on the existing directory approach. Sun did not compare its messaging solution with Exchange but instead created doubt about a more fundamental USAF process that Exchange needed. Sun's proposed solution: Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI). Sun's questions about the fundamental USAF process resulted in the USAF discarding their retained beliefs about how to identify both people and resources, the essential purpose of a directory. Then Sun stepped in with the solution, which happened to use their offering, with implications for other more valuable systems downstream like Exchange messaging. This is from my own experience on a Microsoft sales team.

Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. and Borland, reported in the Neale-May (2005, p. 2) article, also used equivocality. They did not first talk about the characteristics of their offering. First they raised doubt by highlighting the organizational vulnerability to obsolete software. The vehicle was a survey to C-level execs. The survey had the intended effect of challenging the orderly world view that these execs had about their information systems. As the equivocality, the little recognized discontinuity, worked its powerful wreckage on retained beliefs, Cognizant steps in and offers expertise for a solution.

I think this a useful marketing tactic with big customers, B-to-B or B-to-C. More is needed than a comparison of our offering with our competitors. Creating a point of pain that challenges retained beliefs is a better first step. Then step in with a solution. Neale-May says:

"Winning companies today go well beyond the trumpeting of product features and functions. They are now putting their solutions and services into context by mapping the market landscape to identify pain points and little-recognized vulnerabilities, risks or costs."

An equivocality is something that causes our perception of the environment to no longer make perfect sense, and it creates a need to rethink things. It can be fear, uncertainty, doubt, vulnerabilities, risks, costs and the like. Weick calls them Equivoques. They can create big reversals in the status quo.

Cognizant and Borland are a perfect example of using equivocality to create favorable change for themselves. Their survey introduced the worry over the risk and cost of obsolete software. It was information that did not fit into the orderly worldview of the C-level execs. Instead it challenged that view with a sense of vulnerability that caused them to rethink their retained beliefs about their organizations.

Wallace (1960, pp 146-52) describes the stages we go through in such a transformation.
1. Orderly Steady State
2. Increased stress in individuals
3. Organization distortions in attempting to deal with the issue and reformulate beliefs
4. Period of Revitalization - some solution is reached, communicated and the organization transformed to reflect it
5. New Steady State

The PC revolution was another like the Cognizant and Borland effort.

Neale-May, Donovan (September 12, 2005). Using intellectual capital to build market capital. Retrieved 9/1/2009 from

Wallace, A (1961). Culture and Personality. Random House.

Weick, Karl (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd Edition. McGraw-Hill.

No comments: