I want to bring to your attention to a fascinating tale of marketing redemption from a “boring” business you almost certainly never think about.

Xerox is a company that sells printers and copiers. It has achieved rarefied status as a verb in the English language. However this is no longer an edge, as you can now xerox something with an HP, Canon, or any other number of competitors.

Xerox had no edge selling printers to the cash-strapped K-12 school districts either, which makes the way they transformed flat growth to 17% growth in the vertical so stunningly impressive.

It’s about selling printers, right?

Xerox’s new ColorQube™️ technology was so competitive that it cost only slightly more than the black-and-white solutions everyone else was selling. 

But when you’re selling to K-12 education industry, the customer doesn’t care about your technology nor your brand, and the last thing they’re interested in is the premium (💵) option. Hard pass.

“K-12 is one one of those markets that is extremely price-sensitive, so the only way we had to present things was by…picking the cheapest products we could possibly sell, usually in a bid process. So we had to compete on price,” says Leah Quesada VP Marketing

“For the most part, we lose a lot of deals because of that. Because there’s no opportunity to articulate what is the value that we bring,” she adds.

This was the message Xerox was putting across its marketing channels in order to drum up buzz among educators: 

For their part, educators were clear on their needs: A solution that gets the job done. Improves performance. At budget.

Meanwhile, sales reps were calling them to sell vibrant colors, less waste and the latest technology…if only they stretch the budget just a little. Not surprisingly, it was a no-go. The sales process was stagnant. No one could crack this egg.

It’s probably not about the printers

Here’s where things get interesting. The Xerox team, realizing their product message was talking over the needs of their customer, drew themselves the following diagram:

They already knew their differentiators. They were now hunting for a connection between the value they offer and the outcomes that customers cared about.

“An insights-led approach is understanding what the customers biggest business concerns are, independent of what we’re selling to them,” says Quesada.

In other words, they flipped from asking “What can we offer you?” to “What outcomes do you care about that we can help you with?” Somewhere in there would be the seed for their commercial insight, the unique insight that challenges the customer’s beliefs with new information that only their product can solve.

It’s definitely, definitely not about the printers

This shift may seem like a case of semantics, but Xerox could not have unlocked the next step without it. They asked stakeholders across the buying process the same question: “What outcomes do you care about?”

Across superintendents, district managers, school principals, heads of curriculum development, there was a pretty clear consensus: student performance. Everyone wanted the students to be more successful at learning.

But what makes students successful? The Xerox team also probed the respondents for answers there too. Their responses, including “student engagement”, “motivated, inspired teachers” and “individually paced lessons” brought them closer to how educators viewed their own role in reaching that desired outcome.

This is known as the customer belief set. These were the unshakeable truths that their customers operated their organizations around.

So printers…and student performance?   

The team brainstormed ways that could link their product to the customer belief set with the help of a particularly good set of questions (imho):

  • What impact can we have here that we haven’t yet realized?
  • What do we know about this area that customers are overlooking?
  • What is changing in this outcome that customers aren’t aware of? What changes are customers missing?
  • What recommendations would our customers’ customers (pupils, teachers and parents) make here?

Then they arrived at a compelling possibility: Could color printouts help students perform better in school? It was possible. They conducted a survey of students to validate the idea and a whopping 77% said color helped them focus and remember things better.

They continued to test the idea and messaging among stakeholders and also commissioned research that would give them the credibility to walk into a room full of lifelong education professionals and teach them something they didn’t know. Once they were able to confirm it, they had an insight which they could proprietary ColorQube technology printing solution, which they could provide within budget.

Printers? What printers?

Selling color printers was barely getting their foot in the door, but starting conversations about student performance transformed the sales process. Sales reps were now collaborators with a valuable message: Research shows that color printouts boost student performance.

In other words, here was the new message:

Xerox’s new message to K-12 school districts

It was never about the printers. It wasn’t about the printer’s features or attributes or stunning new technology. The key to repeated sales success was throwing away weak language (“broader education solutions that fit your needs”) and focusing on that one powerful value proposition.

“The deals I get involved in, I’m winning almost all of them. Once I reframe the conversation around student learning and how Xerox can help, there’s no more talk of competition. It’s as if the door closes. I’m on the inside and everyone else is on the outside,” says John Golitz, a Xerox sales rep

The value of marketing-sales alignment

What really resonates with me as a sales copywriter is that even with a powerful value prop in their hands, they still had to resist the urge to talk about…features! It was a tempting fallback. Maybe a little feature talk would push the deal back in their favor? 

But the team knew that the message they had crafted was already in their favor. They had a great deal of discipline, staying “laser focused” on what they knew would work. But that didn’t mean robotically repeating the same set of words over and over again.

The team supported the buying process in two main ways:

  1. Content marketing – they developed a variety of content across a variety of angles that consistently came back to the same commercial insight
  2. Positioning guide – they developed talking points and objection handling that sales reps could use to guide conversations with different stakeholders (e.g. principal vs. IT manager)

It seems like a painstaking effort, but “spraying and praying” requires the same effort for less impact.

Takeaway

I just want to recap, because we just looked at a remarkable story.

Xerox was able to convince the extremely price-sensitive education market to reject cheaper offers from competitors in order to buy Xerox’s premium, color solution. They were able to convince the customer that they needed something they had never seriously considered. Xerox was able to replicate that success around the country and carve out a 17% lift in sales in this vertical.

What could a commercial insight do for you?


This piece simplifies a multi-step process that took months of testing and iteration to complete. For the full story, check out The Challenge Customer and Gartner’s (formerly CEB) Challenger Marketing resources. the folks who originally published these insights.