Product breadth or flexibility is not a compelling differentiator

Why do CEOs and CTOs think that having the “most complete” or “most flexible” product is something to be proud of? It’s not. In fact, it’s a red flag and something to run away from.

We’re all customers.

As a customer, when I buy something, I want the best solution to solve my need. I don’t really care if a product solves others needs as well. Is it best for me?

Yet, I see numerous B2B companies crowing about their product breadth or flexibility. It’s “the most robust” or has “the broadest feature set” or is “the most flexible” and the like. Multiple CTOs have told me “we can build anything with our product.” Often, this is backed up with a Harvey Balls chart showing their product alongside the competitors. “Gartner says that these are the key features for our market, and we do ALL of them while [insert competitor] doesn’t.”

When you drill into sales, you’ll almost always find the same story: that customers are rarely (if ever) buying the whole product – they just want two or three modules – or worse, every customer is buying it for their own value prop.

Executives wonder why they aren’t growing faster when they think have “the best” product out there.

The problem is that the value of having the broadest product accrues to the business, not the customer. A customer doesn’t get any value for resources you’re spending on features or modules they don’t use or won’t use.

Getting back to my statement at the beginning: as a customer, I want the product that solves my problem the best. I generally don’t care if your product solves other problems as well (unless those are also my problems); I just want my specific problem solved.

Your company likely conducts customer interviews about your product. Making this matter worse for companies is when customers say they value the product’s flexibility, reinforcing the notion that flexibility is the value prop. When this happens, the smart exec drills deeper into the situation, to uncover why the customer values the flexibility. 9/10 times, they’ll discover that the customer was unable to solve their real problem with the products on the market, but because of this product’s flexibility, they were able to solve it. They may say they value the product’s flexibility, but what they really mean is that they value the product’s ability to solve their problem, albeit with some elbow grease. If there was a product out there that solved it directly, without elbow grease, they’d probably jump at it.

Why is this important?

First, if your product’s unique capability is its flexibility, realize that it’s not going to sell at scale. No one starts out saying “I need something flexible.” They start out saying, I need something that’ll solve my problem. Eventually, they realize that nothing does and they occasionally end up having a conversation with your sales engineer who helps them solve it. This is a great path to slow sales and missed goals. You need to address problems they are looking to solve.

Second, if you’re guiding your product’s development and working to solve an increasing number of problems, realize that your competition is working to solve specific problems you cover better, and when your potential customers are given the choice between something that is focused on solving their specific problem perfectly, and something that can be used – however imperfectly – to solve a whole variety of problems, they’ll chose the former.

When a market is new, most problems are not addressed very well, and there’s room for “generalist” products. Over time, as competitors move in, the most valuable problems are solved, leaving generalist products with lower value problems to solve. And in highly competitive markets, generalist products are left with problems that aren’t widespread enough or profitable enough for other companies to address them – the table scraps.

You can build a profitable company around this, but it’s not a growth/scale story. If you’re going for growth/scale, you can’t afford to build a generalist product.