Why We Love to Buy From Thought Leaders
There’s a critical distinction between experts and thought leaders when we decide to buy. An expert may know their subject well. If they do not publish and share their expertise publicly, there is no way for us to get to know their expertise. When you buy from a thought leader, you can “try before you buy” by reviewing their publications and materials. That gives you peace of mind that you have made a good buying decision.
Hold on a Minute — What is a Thought Leader?
Before we go any further, let’s define what this term means. According to the MacMillan Dictionary:
a person or organization that is recognized by their peers as the authority in a specialist field and whose opinions and expertise are valued.
That’s part of the story. We need to add one more element to the definition to arrive at a 21st century definition. Writing in Inc., Justin Gray argues that thought leaders tend to have three themes. Our adaptation of Gray’s themes are noted below:
Deep expertise. “A true thought leader understands the importance of striking a balance between what’s already known and what hasn’t been thought of yet.”
Action oriented. “You can be an expert in any range of industries, but what actions are being taken to push your ideas forward?” This factor distinguishes a thought leader from a journalist or academic researcher. A researcher might identify a trend in identity management while a thought leader would translate that research into advice and recommendations.
Communicating your expertise. “What good is being an expert if all that knowledge stays trapped within you? Yes, qualifications are important and yes, experience matters — but lots of people have both. How effectively you communicate will ultimately determine how good of a leader you are.”
Now that we understand broadly what thought leaders do, what relevance does it have for you? In my opinion, looking for evidence of thought leadership is a helpful criterion to consider in major purchases. Committing resources to thought leadership shows that the vendor has ideas and the professionalism to communicate them.
When it comes time to make your business case, working with a thought leader makes everything easier. You can quote from the vendor’s publications and easily point to examples of their success. What exactly should you look for when you are comparing vendors?
Checklist to Evaluate if Your Vendor is a Thought Leader
1. What distinct ideas does the vendor have?
If a company has a unique perspective on a given problem or topic, that’s a good sign. Consultant Alan Weiss is an excellent example of advocating distinct ideas. He built a successful firm as an individual when the prevailing wisdom emphasized the need to scale. He has also made a name for himself by advocating value-based fees rather than hourly rates. In the software world, Salesforce.com has become a major thought leader through books (e.g. “Behind the Cloud: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Went from Idea to Billion-Dollar Company—and Revolutionized an Industry”), an annual conference and a content marketing program.
Question: What distinct or contrarian ideas does the vendor advocate?
2. What publications does the vendor produce?
An expert who does not publish or communicate their wisdom cannot be considered a thought leader. There, we said it! To evaluate if a vendor knows their business and industry, look at their publications. This could include books, speeches, podcasts, blogs and interviews. For example, Microsoft has a specialized publisher — Microsoft Press — that produces books and other materials designed to help people succeed. Look for publications that help you understand the industry, explain a process or move closer to your goals. Insights from original research — such as surveys of industry CEOs — also help to evaluate the quality of a vendor’s thought leadership.
Question: How have the vendor’s publications helped me improve my work?
3. What third party recognition does the vendor have?
According to “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” social proof is highly persuasive. What does that mean in the context of a thought leader? Look for cases where the vendor is quoted in high quality publications. For example, search general news publications such as the Wall Street Journal and industry specific publications like American Banker and CIO for quotes. In addition to quotes, look for awards and other industry recognition. In the technology industry, check if the vendor appears on rankings and reports created by Gartner and Forrester Research. If a vendor has attracted the interest and recognition of a specialized research firm like Gartner, you have social proof to recognize the vendor as a thought leader.
Question: What third parties (e.g. publications and professional associations) have recognized the company as a thought leader?
4. Does the vendor offer training resources?
Publishing training resources helps the professional community achieve specific tasks. While a book or blog may enlighten the reader about risks or trends, training has a different impact. Specifically, training resources like tutorials and certifications give the reader additional skills. If a company’s certifications become in high demand, that vendor will be perceived as a thought leader.
Training resources matter when a buyer is evaluating complex software like identity management software. Why? Think about it — a buyer needs more than software to achieve their goals. Managers and employees need guidance on how to apply the software to their work.
Question: Does the industry view the vendor as a provider of valuable training?
5. Does the vendor’s customer reputation align with their thought leader persona?
Publishing impressive materials and books is one way to attract attention. It is not the whole story. A true thought leader follows through by providing excellent customer service. How can a buyer evaluate customer reputation in a vendor? Start by reviewing the company’s testimonials, case studies and similar materials. If you are unconvinced by what you read, contact the vendor and ask to speak with their past clients.
Question: Does the vendor’s reputation from past customers align with their thought leader publications?