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What do top technology companies have in common? Think about Apple, Cisco,, IBM, VMware, Riverbed, Workday. What separates market leaders and category creators from the rest of the pack?

They tell powerful stories.

Stories matter. We see it over and over again: Companies that capitalize on an inflection point and grab a leadership position always have a thought-provoking point of view that resonates with buyers. Customers buy into the story before they buy the solution.

And a story is more than a slogan or a catchy tagline. It's offering a different perspective, not just pushing a product. It's a crisp, clear way of communicating how a company or a product will solve a big, hairy problem for customers. It comes from putting the customer's needs and requirements first, not the technology or the company's agenda.

Look at Cisco. The company wasn't founded to sell routers and switches. It started when a husband and wife wanted to email each other from different offices at Stanford and they couldn't. So they created the multiprotocol router and solved the problem. They didn't launch a product—they solved a problem and created a powerful story and different point of view. And they instilled a customer-first, problem-solving culture at Cisco. You know the rest of that story.

Need other examples? Look at game-changing CEOs Marc Benioff, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. They disrupted markets and catapulted their companies into legendary status with conversations that reframed buyers' problems and offered neat solutions. They articulated their company's value in simple, concise positioning stories and narratives that offered a new perspective to buyers.

So if a great story is the key to success, why doesn't every technology company have one? The reason is simple.

All too often, the responsibility for positioning is taken on by tech CEOs or product managers who are in love with their technology. And technology moves to the forefront of the story. Wrong. Buyers don't care what's cool about your technology or your intellectual property (IP). They care what it does for them.

The most effective storylines carve out a distinct corner of the room—and effectively label competitors as having a solution for "yesterday's problem" or "the right idea, but the wrong approach."

What makes a good storyline? The most effective positioning stories must answer three questions for the target buyer.

1. Why your company or product, now?

Your buyers want to know, in clear, human terms, which problems you will solve for them? And why it's important to solve those problems today.

All disruptive companies and market leaders "own" a set of buyer problems and create a sense of urgency to solve them. Consequently, compelling stories place the product or service in the context of market dynamics that affect the buyer and cause a big, hairy problem. Is this an old problem that has gotten worse? A new problem caused by fast-changing market dynamics? Is there a sense of urgency to solve this problem? Will a buyer lose his job if he doesn't solve it?

Strong positioning stories empathize with the buyer's situation and create a sense of urgency about solving a critical problem.

2. Why is your solution different?

Once buyers agree with your point of view, the next question on their mind is "who else can solve this problem?" or "can my existing technology vendor take care of this for me?" It's not about being better. Great companies offer a different approach that delivers a multiplier effect or quantum leap in value for the buyer.

Great stories lay down the logic for a new approach to solving the problem and set the buying criteria for solving it. This requires talking about your secret sauce, IP, or game-changing differentiators in terms of business requirements. The narrative goes like this:

  • This is your big problem. You will get fired if you don't solve this problem.
  • Traditional technology was built for another era; it solves yesterday's problem. Hence, a new approach is called for.
  • Here are 3-4 business requirements and technical capabilities to solve your problem.
  • Only we can deliver on those requirements.

You can avoid the tedious "feature checklist" war by articulating the need for a different approach and owning the buying criteria for solving today's problem. Otherwise, you will be playing on your competitor's field – and the buying criteria established by that competitor years ago.

Different, not better, always wins.

3. How will this improve my life six months from now?

Paint for your buyers a picture of how much better their life will be with an investment in your solution. Your life is hard right now (big problem); here is the unique approach (our secret sauce) for solving this problem; here is what your life will soon look like (solution).

Take them on a journey. Clearly articulate how they will benefit at the end of the journey. But the benefits must be realized within six months—not two years.

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All market leaders and category disruptors have a compelling and distinct point of view. If you want to join them, start by getting your story straight.

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Robert M. Wright is founder and managing director of Firebrick, a strategy consulting firm that has helped Microsoft, Workday, Citrix Online, Riverbed, Autonomy, AppSense, Symantec, and dozens of other companies drive revenue growth with positioning and changes in strategy.