One definition of innovator might be “someone who’s in love with the new.”
When you see the world through innovator eyes, you see the potential to do things differently. While everyone around you thinks things are running along just fine, you see how they could be running so much better—whether “better” means quicker, leaner, cleaner, brighter, or just newer.
Your visionary capacity sets you apart from the pack. However, it also creates a divide between you and your customers.
Most innovators I know would agree with the modernist poet William Carlos Williams who practically made a religion out of worshipping the novel. In one of his most iconoclastic works, Williams throws down the gauntlet in defence of newness:
“Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence.”
William Carlos Williams, Prologue to Kora In Hell (1920)
As a business change-maker, you’d probably find Williams a kindred spirit. But I bet that most of the people you need to communicate with to make your business run would find him scary.
For many people, novelty is frightening. Because newness brings change, and change brings various kinds of discomfort: uncertainty, ambiguity, adjustment, to name just a few.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, people tend to buy from (and invest in) companies they know, like, and trust. As an innovator, you’re presenting your audiences with solutions that are unknown, and therefore hard to like or trust. Newness is not necessarily a strong selling point.
A tale of two sales calls
For example, let’s consider two different sales calls to a store that sells paper products (notebooks, greeting cards, and so on). In the first call, the sales rep from Company A presents stationery produced from conventional (tree-based) paper featuring the latest colors and designs. In the second call, the sales rep from Company B presents a similar product line, but their paper is produced from apple peelings.
Who has the tougher sales conversation? Even if the customer is an advocate for environmentally friendly products, chances are that the rep who’s peddling paper made from apples will have a harder job.
Just think of all the questions that could come up as the customer considers this innovative product, that may be completely foreign to them. How durable is the paper? How easy is it to write on? How expensive is it? How does it feel in the hand? How popular has it proven with consumers?
In contrast the sales rep with conventional products will likely face just some predictable questions about price, product track records in similar stores, and so on. The customer probably won’t question the basic functionality of their product, or their personal integrity or sanity (“Apple peels? Really? Are you pulling my leg? You must be crazy if you think I’d put that out for my customers to laugh at!”)
The novelty paradox
This fictional scenario perhaps presents an oversimplified situation. Or does it?
I notice many innovators pitching their novel products on the assumption that their audience will automatically welcome new, unfamiliar (and perhaps untried) features. Yet newness, even when it initially excites your audience, inevitably draws out skepticism. Newness on its own is seldom your strongest selling point.
Because here’s the paradox: even people who buy into innovation want to avoid risk. So they desire solutions that push the boundaries of the possible, but they also want the assurance that success is not only possible but also predictable. They get enthused about driving a never-before-seen, rocket-powered automated car—and they also want to feel safe on the highway.
So what’s true of the store owner poring over paper products is equally true of the investor listening to a pitch or a potential customer reading a proposal. In each case, your challenge is to generate curiosity and excitement about the new while also creating a comfortable feeling of familiarity and trust.
Help customers connect with what they know
One of the best strategies for achieving this tricky balance is to associate the new with the old, to intentionally relate a novel aspect of your solution to a product, service, or approach your audience knows well.
For example, let’s go back to our friend selling the apple-based stationery. They might address questions about durability by pointing out that plant-based scrolls produced by Ancient Egyptians (the papyrus most school-aged children have heard about) still survive today.
Of course, when you’re drawing such a comparison, you want to make sure that the known thing to which you’re comparing your unknown solution is easily recognizable to your audience. If the shopkeeper has never heard of papyrus, then the sales rep has just made their product even more strange and inaccessible.
In a recent coaching session, a client mentioned how frustrating she finds it when prospects “pigeonhole” her complex service into “something they’ve heard of.” While this response can be exasperating, it can also give you valuable insight into how to truly connect with your audience. When people misinterpret the “new” you’re offering as something old, that’s your cue to pivot and follow their lead. Let them guide you into their familiar territory, where you can attach what you’re selling to ideas, beliefs, and virtues they’ve already bought into. They’ve just given you a glimpse of the mental frame through which they view the world, which gives you the power to position your solution within it.
For instance, let’s say our apple-paper salesperson notices the shop owner is standing next to a rack of “eco-friendly “cards made of recycled paper. The concept of eco-friendly paper made of recycled materials provides a ready-made frame for viewing the apple paper as eco-friendly paper made of organic, replenishable materials. With just a slight adjustment, the sales rep can shift from selling something Brand Scary New to selling something that’s simply Newer Than.
Whether you’re pitching your audiences on paper, planes, or software applications, remember that your essential task is always to build trust. Novelty may grab your audience’s attention, but it’s your ability to tune into what your audience understands and appreciates that will gain their confidence and move your business ahead.