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CIOs Want CEO Strategy, Not Competitor-Bashing

In the past week on InformationWeek’s Global CIO, I’ve written a couple of columns questioning why the CEOs of two of the largest software companies in the world spend so much time talking about and bad-mouthing competitors.

Sure, I understand that this is a tough business and that free-market competition requires leaders to take strong positions on comparative advantages and disadvantages designed to present their companies in the best possible light.

But at a point, trashing competitors becomes silly and inspires many customers to wonder, “Why is this guy being so defensive?” Perhaps in the high-flying days of the late 1990’s such verbal broadsides had more credibility—after all, everybody had tons of cash and big budgets and the flood of new companies pouring into the market with dubious or downright dumb strategies required everyone to yell a little louder to get above the NOISE!!

This is surely not the late 90’s, however, and that style of positioning by posturing has about as much credibility as Enron in today’s challenging times. In this current context, CEOs should never underestimate the power of clear and direct communication with their customers, but only if that communication is delivered on the customers’ frequency rather than being a rant about how mean Wall Street is and how dirty your competitors play.

CIOs today have lots and lots of their own problems, and they’re not interested in trash-talk, particularly when it comes from CEOs who should know better and who clearly could have selected many other more-valuable things to talk about.  Let me offer two examples:

Here’s a link to a page on Oracle’s website featuring a very brief message from industry superstar Larry Ellison to the customers of Sun Microsystems, which Oracle is in the process of acquiring. A great deal has been written about how these Sun customers, while awaiting the approval of European bureaucrats for the deal to be completed, have been barraged by IBM and HP and Dell with offers to abandon their Sun products and commitments and to sign up with a new vendor that’s not under the legal entanglements that currently prevent Oracle from moving ahead with its plans for integrating tightly with Sun. Understandably, many of these Sun customers, unsure of when they’ll be able to see and evaluate Oracle’s road map for Sun, have jumped ship to IBM or HP or Dell.

Look at Ellison’s message and promise to Sun customers: after four bullet-points about increased investments in key product lines and optimized product integration, Ellison is quoted as saying, “We’re in it to win it. IBM, we’re looking forward to competing with you in the hardware business.” Not stunningly eloquent, but quite powerful: we’ll invest, we’ll upgrade, we’ll staff up, we’ll enhance the value of your investments, and we’ll compete vigorously to ensure what you’re getting from us is better than what you might get from anyone else.

So I had to ask in an ‘Open Letter To Larry Ellison’: why doesn’t Oracle superstar Larry Ellison speak more regularly to customers? Why not use this larger-than-life personality to create or enhance trust, to reassure jangled nerves, to demonstrate commitment, and to let these customers know they’re not just miscellaneous pieces in some remote-control game?

Here’s another example that I’ve written about recently: in a recent interview, just before the incredibly important launch of Windows 7, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer chose to denigrate IBM and its strategy in vague, imprecise, and frankly not terribly credible language. Ballmer’s remarks did not enhance Microsoft’s position any more than they weakened IBM’s position—rather, they represented two things: first, a lost opportunity for Ballmer to hammer home key messages about the customer value Windows 7 will deliver; and second, more of the vendor-versus-vendor blah-blah-blah background noise that CIOs and other IT leaders have begun to tune out.

Remember on the “Peanuts” animated holiday TV specials when one of the kids would call up a parent on the phone and the parent’s voice came through as nothing more than the “mwah-mwah-MWAH-mwah” of a muted trumpet? I really think that’s how dueling vendor CEOs sound when they get into gratuitous criticism of competitors. It might feel good to say it, but it sure doesn’t do much good in the minds of customers.
If I were an IT-industry marketing exec, I’d craft a marketing strategy for the next nine months centered on having my CEO and other top execs connect regularly and directly with customers about customer issues and customer concerns, and about how my company’s products and services and partners can help alleviate those problems and create new opportunities. I’d ban the competitor-slamming and focus intently on value, opportunity, flexibility, and a very sincere interest in the doing whatever is necessary to contribute to customers’ success.

Because a strategic CEO communications opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.