The Toothbrush Effect: Why Saying "We Provide Solutions" Isn't Enough

Recently an entrepreneur asked why investors look with glazed eyes when he pitches his startup. "I'm developing a B2B solution for integrating various technologies", begins the pitch. Actually my eyes glazed over, too. Not because it is over my head but because it is effectively contentless. Nowhere does he say what they actually do. "Solution" is too generic since that should apply to any business -- you are hardly meeting the expectations of your customers if you deliver problems.

Sadly this happens far too often. A fairly sizable tech company has a Twitter bio that says "provider of technology solutions that transform the way manufacturers create and service their products". I learned later that the "solutions" they talk about are actually software.

It's not just software companies that do this. I have seen the same problem on many websites and in many presentations. Wearing my freelance journalist hat I often have to get up to speed on new companies very quickly and the "About us" page on many company websites leaves me no wiser. Far too many companies sell solutions, products, devices and other generic concept labels without mentioning the crucial name of the solution itself. On a fairly typical company website we read "[Company] is a leading provider of technology solutions", then continues "[Company] creates custom solutions that bring real tangible business value to our clients."

Usually the cause of this vagueness is what I call the Toothbrush Effect. I have never actually worked in a toothbrush factory but I am pretty sure that nobody there ever uses the word "toothbrush" in normal conversation, partly because of the context. Inside the factory every product is a toothbrush so it doesn't need to be said -- and partly to avoid repeating the same word too often. This is fine as long as it stays inside the building, but it becomes a problem when you start talking and writing in the same way with outsiders.

There is a simple solution to this problem: just be concrete in your speaking and writing. You don't make "solutions", you make "software". You don't "deliver transportation solutions" to your customer, you sell trucks or whatever. Look very carefully at all writing intended for outsiders and check to make sure you describe explicitly what your company does. This will make your writing much clearer, perhaps bringing more customers or media coverage for those mysterious solutions.

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Clare Lynch said…
My favourite solution is the solution I saw advertised on the side of a lorry driven by a provider of "fluid transfer solutions". They made hoses.
Andrew Hennigan said…
Thanks Clare. Sometimes I wonder if people are being ironic, but apparently they really don't see how daft these explanations are.
Dunstan said…
Some years ago I saw a lorry driving up the M6. Along the side was the legend "Chillington. Britain's largest wheelbarrow manufacturer".
I now judge every strapline against this one, and have yet to find one that measures up.
Andrew Hennigan said…
I like that. Most companies would have gone for something like "we provide materials transportation solutions."

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