girl walking a stubborn dog on a leash
PHOTO: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

When AOL announced it would no longer support AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in 2017, I had a flashback to the days when AIM was at the center of my social and work networks.

If you remember signing up for an AIM account, you’ll recall that the process wasn’t very intuitive. Usernames weren’t easy to remember. You had to use a random combination of letters and numbers because all the easy names were already taken. Over time, your username (“bobk2459”) became you — at least to the people in your AIM network. The name, and your buddy list, connected you to your friends, family and co-workers, which might explain why many people stuck with AIM even when newer and more intuitive instant messaging systems appeared on the market.

This got me thinking about how hard it is to entice customers to switch to new products. We often reach for what’s familiar, even if it’s not the best option. Hesitant consumers leave product marketers with a major challenge: How can we develop offerings that compel people to break away from the familiar and adopt something better? To do that, we have to present the benefit of change in its own right.

Reasons for Resistance

Every time a company adds a new feature or integration to an application, they’re asking customers to adapt to something new. While the existing system may not be very efficient, customers may feel that using it is more efficient than learning a whole new approach when they just want to get something done.

This all comes back to the core issue of familiarity. The old way feels like the “right” way, even if it may take more time or cost more money than a new way. Plenty of new tools might streamline the process, but few people want to invest their valuable time in learning how those new tools work — or how to get other members of their teams to embrace the new tools.

Product marketers have to learn to decode the drivers of customer resistance to adopting something new. Sometimes that resistance is economic, and sometimes it can be attributed to feature gaps. But my contention is it usually stems from the fact that the new offering is guilty of not being the old one.

In a work environment, resistance to change poses an even greater challenge. Would-be early adopters aren’t just fighting their own instinctual resistance — they’re fighting resistance at the organizational level, too. They don’t just have to convince themselves to make the change; they have to convince their whole department. Few people are ready to shoulder that responsibility.

Related Article: Why Resistance Is Essential to Transformation

Simplification Isn’t Simple

Earlier in my career, I was part of a team that was researching how customers processed PDF documents. We set up a focus group to dig into our customers’ behaviors — particularly to see how they handled PDF files, and what tools they used to do so.

One office manager stood out to me as she explained her unique solution: She typed her invoices in Microsoft Word, printed them out, scanned them, converted them to PDFs on the scanner, emailed them to herself, then emailed them to the customer. When we asked her why she didn’t just create a PDF from her initial Word document, she shrugged and said, “This is how I’ve always done it. It works just fine. I never thought to look for other ways to do it.”

In our role as product marketers, we’re always pushing the benefits of simplification and streamlining, forgetting that “simplification” can mean different things depending on context. Adding scanning functionality to a mobile app doesn’t simplify anything if the customer’s preferred scanning method is to walk down the block to the copy shop for some fresh air.

Related Article: Today's Product Managers Know Who's the Boss: The Customer

Finding Your Champion for Change

Recently, I was in a big-box store and overheard two employees chatting as they cleaned out the trash cans located throughout the store. “Take your time,” one employee warned the other. “You don’t want them to find out this can be done faster than they think. If management sees you doing that, they’ll give you something harder to do.”

I chuckled and moved on, but this highlighted for me the role of behavior, norms and new thinking within organizations. But in similar fashion to the example of the benefits of streamlining, how do you uncover the antibodies to change, whether you’re trying to adopt a new application, sell or market a new system, or simply improve the way your team works?

The core answer for me is understanding your customers’ language, and understanding how they think about problems and change. Finding and replicating the customers’ own language is the key to unlocking adoption and more. For this, you need a champion.

A champion could be an actual person in the organization who helps sell change internally — in fact, this is a typical way to market and sell enterprise solutions: “Speak with the customer’s voice.” But the true challenge is to figure out the persona of the champion who’ll drive change and discover what will motivate that champion to make change happen.

Our core objective as product marketers is to both develop solutions to help our customers and present those solutions in ways that feel helpful. We’re here to not just push the benefits of simplification (saved time, lower costs, accelerated results) but to present the ease of change as a benefit in and of itself. By adopting these sometimes-unfamiliar solutions, we can create the next wave of familiar programs that people won’t want to give up without a fight.