The power of surprise to spark momentum in B2B SaaS

Remarkable software businesses don’t stop by creating a solid product, being crystal clear, and making their offer hard to resist.

They know their momentum grows when people talk about them, not because you (contractually) ask them, but because they want to.

It works for them in good times but even better in times of crisis.

It goes back to the power of trust: In times of crisis, trust erodes – we shrink ourselves, are more protective, risk-averse, and only trust our inner circle – our peers and friends. But once a peer shares his positive experiences, we listen – and often act.

The big question is: what makes people talk about your SaaS?

And one way to do that is by doing the unexpected, i.e., surprise.

  • Surprise is subtle, however.
  • It’s only a surprise if it’s not expected.
  • Surprise is extra.
  • It’s a gift.

Ideally, of course, surprise is part of the DNA of your product already. How to achieve that is what I spend much time on in my book ‘The Remarkable Effect.’

If surprise isn’t part of your product DNA yet, it doesn’t mean you’re too late or can’t adjust rapidly.

On the contrary, the good thing about ‘surprise’ is that it doesn’t have to cost a lot or take much time to create either.

We only have to be open to embracing it.

  • We know our customers best;
  • We know what they value;
  • We know what they hate, and
  • We know the norm in our industry, i.e., all the familiar things our competitors are doing as well.

That’s a powerful spectrum to play with to find areas to surprise.

This essay will give you a framework to make surprise part of the DNA of your SaaS business.

Surprise gives you an instant advantage.

What do Soccer and SaaS have in common?

Not too much – except for this: Surprise

Let me explain.

I was just watching the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup – a match between Mexico – Costa Rica, and this commentary triggered me.

“This was the first surprising attempt at the goal – and it was directly dangerous.”

Here’s why surprise is so powerful: It’s out of the ordinary and, by design, unexpected.

Most importantly: It catches you…

Imagine we’d use this more in B2B SaaS…

Imagine how it could help you stand out to the right customers

Imagine how it could change your position in a lengthy sales process

Imagine how it could accelerate revenue growth by triggering word-of-mouth

 

These are just three examples. There are 1000s

Imagine if you could say next week: “This was our first attempt leveraging surprise – and it was directly dangerous.”

Key learning: Surprise gives you an instant advantage

 


Question for you to reflect upon

On a scale of 1-10: How surprising is the message for your SaaS product? What if it was?


Angle 1: Does your message intrigue?

“Everyone that sees our solution falls in love with it – still, it feels harder and harder to get that first meeting.”

It’s a line I heard last week. In fact, I hear it every week.

Being the best-kept secret. It’s a trophy, so many B2B SaaS businesses carry against their will. So the big question is: How to replace it with ‘most-wanted.’

  1. The first problem to solve: The noise
  2. The next problem to solve: Trust

When I asked the founder who shared the line above, ‘What would be your ideal situation?’ he answered: “Intrigue my audience and become the word of the day.”  

The essence is in the word ‘Intrigue.’ That’s about hitting the right nerve. It’s about creating surprise.

And that’s not what B2B SaaS marketing is known for – because the messages I see are virtually always about what intrigues ‘us’ – not about what ‘them,’ i.e., the people that need to buy our software. That’s not intriguing. That’s irritating.

No wonder everything sounds like noise to them.

No wonder there’s distrust.

Intrigue starts with deep empathy. Saying it the way it is.

For example

  • Does it feel like MRR is plateauing in the last months?
  • Are more prospects ghosting you?
  • Did you just close another quarter behind target?

Your hook is one thing – your promise is the other one. The art is to make your promise irresistible i.e.

  • Including an outcome that they desperately want
  • combined with a guarantee that takes their biggest objection out

Stop irritating – Start intriguing.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

If you count the headlines on your website: How many do intrigue? What if you’d double that?


Angle 2: Surprise with Speed

I recently read the blog ‘Navigating Chaos‘ from Guillaume Moubeche, CEO of Lempire. I loved the simplicity of his definition of growth:

Growth = Speed * Momentum. 

Speed is basically how quickly you go from idea to execution.
Momentum is how the market responds to your actions.

I’d like to add to this to address several misconceptions

  • Speed is not about cutting corners
  • Speed is not about rushing things

Speed should be about creating a remarkable outcome fast. That’s about:

  • Focusing on the essence
  • Focusing on being different, not just better
  • Focusing on creating an element of surprise

Now, let’s shift to the momentum part

  • Momentum is not about push and hard-sell
  • Momentum is not about many one-off purchases

Momentum is about creating a motion that’s hard to stop. That’s about

  • Focusing on creating a pull effect in the market
  • Focusing on creating a desire to buy more, more often.
  • Focusing on getting customers to talk about you

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What underpins the growth of your SaaS business? Which element could you focus on to surprise everyone: Speed or Momentum?


Angle 3: Do the opposite of what’s expected.

How to win a market that’s 90% dominated by a huge vendors

Let me give an example of Vault Platform. Vault operates in a market heavily driven by compliance and dominated by huge companies.

A few months back, I saw a post on Linkedin from an event Vault participated in. It inspired me since it’s such a remarkable example of how to stand out and surprise your ideal buyers credibly – so I asked Neta Meitav, their CEO, for the story.

Here’s what she said

You’re referring to a sign you’ve seen above our booth at the Phoenix annual ethics and compliance conference. It was clear that we were coming in and up against major hotline providers that jointly control more than 90% of the market today. 

And we are a startup. We’re the underdog, the innovator, and the disrupter. 

So how do we approach it? First, we won’t be the conference’s platinum sponsor with the biggest booth and shiniest swag. 

We need to appeal to a new generation of ethics and compliance leaders. 

So we decided in that conference that we’re going to show up differently, and we’re going to appeal to them. And so we had this sign saying, ‘If you’re only interested in checking the compliance box, keep walking because essentially, Vault is not for you. We’re here for those who are truly looking to move the needle.’

Here’s the thing

This very thing makes them a remarkable SaaS company. Instead of tapping into the apparent demand created by regulation, they decided to do the opposite. This created a positive surprise reaction with those people that are buying solutions to genuinely solve the problem instead of just ticking a compliance box.

It immediately creates a strong emotional connection meaning they’re instantly on the same wavelength with their ideal customers, accelerating everything.

With that, they became a magnet for exactly the right buyer during the conference – the ones with the highest possibility of becoming their biggest fans and bringing them even more business.

Key takeaway: Stop showing up like all the others. Surprise, by doing the opposite.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

On a scale of 1-10, how does your SaaS positioning statement surprise – and with that, attract precisely the right buyers and credibly detract the wrong buyers? What if it was a clear 10?


Angle 4: Blend aspiration with constraint

A very effective way to surprise your ideal customer is to leverage a technique from the book A Beautiful Constraint: The Propelling Question.

It’s a technique to force breakthroughs in innovation, but it works equally well to break through the noise in your market.

Why? Because it enables you to bring together two ingredients that your prospects deeply desire, which generally don’t blend well.

Here are some examples from my clients:

  • Keep your Service promise…every time
  • Maximize eCommerce Revenue … the lean way
  • Reliable critical services…without slowing you down
  • Become a business that outperforms…without burning people out
  • Solve the impossible Microsoft 365 challenges…without relying on hard-to-find expertise.

Here’s how:

  1. Think of 5 aspirations that your customer secretly wants
  2. Think of 5 constraints that they’d secretly want to get rid of
  3. Combine the aspirations with the constriants into 25 combos
  4. Rate each combination to find the five that stand out the most

What you’re looking for is a combination that intuitively is rare.

That’s where you’re creating surprise.

Remember:

Average SaaS messaging talks about what you do.

Remarkable SaaS messaging talks about what your audience desires.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

On a scale of 1-10, how well do the headlines on your website surprise your ideal customer? What if you added some beautiful constraints?


Angle 5: Make it personal

One big way to surprise – particularly in a world that’s getting increasingly un-personal every day is: Make it personal.

One approach I’ve been impressed with is: “Catching Doing Good.”

I was in the middle of Seth Godin’s altMBA program where I heard about it for the first time.

At first, I thought I was already doing the “Good–doing’ thing – i.e., being thoughtful by helping people around me and in my network.

I realized that ‘Catching Good Doing’ is not about that.

It’s about paying attention to others, noticing, and making them aware of what you see them doing good.

It has a magical effect. Why? Because it’s rare and heartfelt. And that builds something special – because it’s unexpected and meant.

Doing it right gives you a perfect energy boost for yourself. Just imagine how good it will feel when you say something to someone that lands. It makes your heart swell.

I believe Catching Good Doing only works if done without any expectations. Eventually, it might end up in business – but it should not be the aim.

So, make it a habit. Make a deliberate effort to ‘plan’ this into your day-to-day work.

Don’t just send something of value – recognize people: catch doing good.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

Who can surprise today with a ‘catch doing good’ message? Imagine how that will make them feel. Imagine how that will make you feel.


Angle 6: Time – when it’s unexpected

Proactiveness in a time where a lot of people are going to be reactive is a huge differentiator.

Here’s the thing: 

We tend to shift our focus internally when adversity happens. There’s fear building up, and instead of being proactive, we get reactive. But so do our customers. And that’s where the opportunity lies to make a difference. Here’s why:

The problem?

  • Our key decision-makers will be under more pressure.
  • Budgets get cut, often in combo with layoffs, while at the same time, they have to step up.
  • The things they manage can’t fail – no matter what happens

What’s at stake?

  • A big revenue/income dip (or worse: customer churn)
  • The reputation of the business is at risk if things fail
  • Their own job is down the line in

The urgency?

  • This was already mission-critical without any crisis – but now it’s even more.
  • If there’s ever a moment for them to shine – it’s now

In respect to this, this quote expresses the instant value you can add:

“I called a large industrial client today, asking, “What are you worried about? He said: “My big problem is – I have five of my technicians leaving. We have to lay them off, and this is affecting 10% of my ability to deliver the services to our customers. I said: “I can help you further optimize on top of what you already have from us by about 20%. That will cover the 10% drop that you are going to have from the layoffs. They loved it. We activated that for them today to try.”

One call – showing empathy and having a helpful conversation, can make a huge difference for your customer and for yourself.

Some ideas

  1. In a downturn, Government will get more aggressive with audits. What systems do your customers have that are mission-critical that need to pass?
  2. Which customers operate in industries where customer loyalty is really low – where the risk of churn is increasing in a downturn when service levels drop (due to layoffs)?
  3. For which of your customers is employee retention even more important in the current market? Where is it getting harder and harder to retain people due to everything happening?

Key takeaway: Be proactive – be there when they don’t expect it.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

Which customers could you proactively reach out to and positively surprise with help that comes super timely for them?


Angle 7: Focus on creating peaks instead of fixing holes

If you’d assess all the software products you use on a given day, which is your favorite? Why’s that the case? What makes it your favorite? Often (at least, that’s the case for me), it’s because it’s there for you at the moment it matters. Some, not all, features stand out and have become highly valuable to you. So valuable that you’d recommend the product to others, just for that reason. Instead of fixing ‘holes,’ the vendor has focused on creating ‘peaks.’ And that makes the difference.

If you reflect on the above: How does your roadmap look for the next six months? Where’s the bulk of your investment going?

  • What’s the % occupied by ‘maintenance’?
  • What’s the % occupied by ‘technical depth.’
  • What’s the % occupied by ‘customer contracts’ or other single customer obligations?
  • What’s the % occupied by all those small things customers have whispered in your ears to fill a gap here and there?
  • What’s the % occupied by copying the latest moves of your competitor?

In the years I headed up product management, I’ve seen the capacity for new product development evaporate because of the five categories above. Don’t get me wrong, a certain % will always be occupied by maintenance and technical depth, but the key here is to do this in anticipation of what will matter a year from now. Too often, we end up in a vicious circle of ‘catching up’; we move from busy to busier.

What if we’d start by creating more peaks and filling fewer holes? It’s the peaks that matter to customers. And this pays dividends.

Let’s illustrate this with an example Derek Osgood, CEO of Ignition, recently gave me.

When I asked him: What was the moment you started to feel the tipping point?’ here’s what he said:

In the last few months, we slowed down on net new product development and focused on onboarding and polishing the stuff we already had.

That has paid huge dividends. 

  • We’ve seen a ton of deals closing in the last couple of months. 
  • We’ve seen a lot more usage
  • We’ve seen a drastically better reception to the product

It’s not about repairing holes. Art is in creating peaks in experience.

Surprise people when it matters most. One is often enough.

That’s noticed – remembered – and what people talk about

And momentum is the gift back.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What’s that peak of experience in your last release that people can’t stop talking about? What if you leveraged that in other ways?


Angle 8: Move the box – the unusual angle

Hundreds of thousands of things pass us daily without even noticing. We don’t notice because our experience tells us it’s normal; it’s how things behave or how it’s supposed to be.

We start noticing things when they are outside our pattern of expectation. It’s the unusual that makes us stop, pay attention, and think.

That’s the magic moment in marketing and sales: The ability to shift the frame of reference and change how people see things.

Let’s take a famous example: The envelope.

Steve Jobs was a master at doing this: Everyone still remembers when he unveiled the Macbook Air from a simple envelope. The story that instantly told: It’s super thin and super light. ‘It almost flies.’ That created an instant level of desire, and the rest is history.

Was the Macbook Air technically different from other notebooks? Not necessarily. But it wasn’t about the specs. Specs are table stakes. Every product you buy needs to meet basic requirements – it’s a knock-out criterion. Once you are beyond that, something else drives the decision.

Steve Jobs changed how people saw the new MacBook Air, and with his unusual gesture, he sold ‘Convenience’ and ‘Status,’ not specs.

Marketing and selling business software becomes so much easier if you change how people see things. But to do that effectively, it requires you to understand what motivates your ideal customer:

  • What are they hoping to buy from you?
  • What do they want (beyond what they need)?
  • What story do they tell themselves without telling you?

Once you understand that, you can get creative and find the metaphor, anecdote, or trigger to make people sit up, shift their frame of reference and turn them into buyers.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What’s your ‘envelope’?


Angle 9: Introduce a new perspective

A fantastic way to surprise in any part of your customer’s journey is by introducing a new perspective and influencing people’s viewpoints.

People always have a viewpoint on something. Often it’s formed by their own experience or what they’ve heard from people in their circle.

It can get people stuck – believing things are just how they are.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t influence that. On the contrary, it’s a massive opportunity if you do.

One way to achieve that is by leveraging narrative design principles.

The narrative structure lends itself perfectly to introducing a new perspective that changes people’s viewpoints forever.

Done well, it gives people a powerful Aha! Moment. As they say, once they see it, they can’t unsee it anymore.

How? Here’s where surprise comes in—the unexpected angle.

Narrative design, in essence, answers five core questions (see my daily from May 25th as an example).

  1. What’s the undeniable change in the market?
  2. How is this negatively impacting your ideal audience (the old game)?
  3. What’s required to escape? Adapting to the new game
  4. Articulate why it is so hard to adjust.
  5. What have you built to make it easy to embrace the New Game?

You have the opportunity to surprise in every section in various ways. Here are three that I have come to love in my work:

  • Open people’s eyes about how strange, ridiculous, outdated, dangerous, or sad the (current) situation is (becoming).
  • Connecting the dots for them – making them see things they didn’t see (yet) themselves.
  • The delta between ‘what is’ versus ‘what can be.’

Leveraging the power of surprise can help to challenge your prospect’s assumptions and biases and promote greater understanding and empathy.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What perspective do your ideal customers typically have? What would be one surprising way to change that to spark a helpful conversation?


Angle 10: Do what the others find too much work, complicated, or strange.

The final opportunity to surprise comes from many software vendors having a ‘good enough’ mindset. Why? Because why should you go above and beyond when meeting the essential requirement is considered OK?

The fact is: meeting the requirement gets you on par with all the others. It doesn’t stand out. And that’s an opportunity to surprise.

Let’s give some examples:

  • In my podcast interview with Sachin Dev Duggal, CEO of Builder.ai, he shared a story about their Builder Care service. This service is about creating ‘peace of mind,’ as it “proactively updates your tailormade-app so you’re never blindsided by 3rd party changes that could easily bring it all down. Even if that means an app needs to be totally rebuilt.”
  • Learn from what the insurance businesses did during COVID: Simply because people drove their cars less due to the crisis, they gave rebates.
    Obviously, that was not all charity work – insurance companies were also seeing the upsides because they saw a significant dip in claims. But that’s not the point. The point is to see and use the opportunity to make a difference for your customers.
  • Lastly, Paddle. They made this mantra the core of their business. Here’s what their website says: “Paddle provides more than just the plumbing for your revenue. As a merchant of record, we do it for you.”

What does this mean?

  • They build and maintain relationships with payment providers.
  • They take on liability for charging and remitting sales taxes, globally.
  • They take on liability for all fraud that takes place on our platform.
  • They reconcile your revenue data across billing and payment methods.
  • They handle all billing-related support queries for you.
  • They reduce churn by recovering failed payments.

Do they have to? No; still they do, because other vendors find it too much work, complicated, or strange.

Remember:

Doing what’s expected can bring you good business

Doing what’s unexpected brings you remarkably good business.

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What would your customers applaud for that your competitors find too much work, complicated, or strange even to consider? What if you’d offer that?


Summary – Embracing surprise – why bother?

Let’s go back to the moment I watched the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup – a match between Mexico – Costa Rica, and this commentary triggered me in the 10th minute.

“This was the first surprising attempt at the goal – and it was directly dangerous.”

That’s why surprise is so powerful: It’s out of the ordinary and, by design, unexpected.

Everyone can leverage it. To embrace it starts by being open to spot the right moments:

  • You know your customers best;
  • You know what they value;
  • You know what they hate, and
  • You know the norm in your industry, i.e., all the familiar things your competitors are doing as well.

To make this easier for you I shared 10 powerful frameworks to surprise.

  1. Framework 1: Does your message intrigue?
    The essence is in the word ‘Intrigue.’ That’s about hitting the right nerve. It’s about creating surprise. Stop irritating – Start intriguing
  2. Framework 2: Surprise with Speed
    Growth = Speed * Momentum. What underpins the growth of your SaaS business? Which element could you focus on to surprise everyone: Speed or Momentum?
  3. Framework 3: Do the opposite of what’s expected.
    Stop showing up like all the others. Create a strong emotional connection by doing the opposite. It will instantly get you on the same wavelength with your ideal customers.
  4. Framework 4: Blend aspiration with constraint
    Average SaaS messaging talks about what you do. Remarkable SaaS messaging talks about what your audience deeply desires. Look for intuitively rare combinations.
  5. Framework 5: Make it personal
    Don’t just send something of value – recognize people: catch doing good. Make a deliberate effort to ‘plan’ this into your day-to-day work.
  6. Framework 6: Time – when it’s unexpected
    We tend to shift internally when adversity happens. Instead of being proactive, we get reactive. So do our customers. That’s where the opportunity lies to make a difference.
  7. Framework 7: Focus on creating peaks instead of fixing
    Surprise people when it matters most. One is often enough. That’s noticed – remembered – and what people talk about. And momentum is the gift back.
  8. Framework 8: Move the box – the unusual angle
    Find the metaphor, anecdote, or trigger to make people sit up, shift their frame of reference, and turn them into buyers.
  9. Framework 9: Introduce a new perspective
    Challenge your prospect’s assumptions and biases and use surprise to promote greater understanding and empathy.
  10. Framework 10: Do what the others find too much work, complicated, or strange. Doing what’s expected can bring you good business. Doing what’s unexpected brings you remarkably good business.

Remarkable software businesses don’t stop by creating a solid product, being crystal clear, and making their offer hard to resist.

They know their momentum grows when people talk about them, not because you (contractually) ask them, but because they want to.

It works for them in good times but even better in times of crisis.

One way to do that is by doing the unexpected, i.e., surprise.

Following these frameworks helps you to make surprise part of the DNA of your SaaS business. It’s a choice.

Good luck.

 

Additional resources to help you grow traction momentum for your SaaS business.

The easiest way. Book a free call to explore if there’s a fit to do this together.

Otherwise – here are three other options

 

A daily email for B2B SaaS CEOs who want to end unpredictable traction.

About the author

Sales Pitch

Ton Dobbe is a former B2B software product marketer who's on a mission to save mission-driven SaaS CEOs from the stress of 'not enough' traction. He's the author of The Remarkable Effect, the host of the Tech-Entrepreneur on a Mission podcast, and writes a daily newsletter on the secrets to mastering predictable traction.