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18 March 2009 | Paul Gostick Blog
Send to a colleague | Add to MY ITP

One More Time - Customers Buy Benefits Not Features
This week Paul looks at why customers want you to help them solve their business problems and not become one..

It's very easy, when you run a business of any size, to begin to think that your business is terribly important. You know how hard you work every day. You see how hard it is to find customers. You worked hard to create a product or a service that is as good as you can make it. The problem is that it is often a product, engineering or sales led business.

The fact is that customers don’t care. It’s not about you, it's about them; how you will help them to solve a problem, how you will make their lives better, and how you will make them feel good. Put simply, people buy products and services to solve their business problems. They buy or hire you because of what you can do for them, not what you do.

I’ve asked this simple question many times - what do you sell? In the vast majority of situations the response is something physical eg "widgets", or an aspect of a service eg “book keeping” – in other words a statement of what it is or a function it performs - a feature. In essence something tangible that you can see, touch or write into a contract.

Product features or attributes tend to be factual and concrete, but in some situations they can also be abstract in nature. Consider, for example, of a 3GHz microprocessor or quad core microprocessor (processor speed is often used as the lead in communications), the more abstract way of thinking of this attribute by using the concepts of "performance" or “high throughput”.

A benefit is what the product or service does for the customer. Benefits are always abstract, and they are often the result of a number of product features, some of which may be abstract. Think of car safety there are numerous physical product features eg air bags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones and side impact bars which, collectively, give rise to the more abstract concept of passenger safety. Volvo sells safe family cars.

Customers don't buy features - they buy benefits and you as the vendor have to make the connections.

The difference between features and benefits is fundamental, but when it comes to taking your product or service to market, why is it that most communication seems to focus on the features and attributes – speed, performance, breadth, depth – the ‘mine’s bigger/better than your’s syndrome’? I call it specmanship. The problem is that specifications are just that, specifications. Your competitors can produce a better specification, lower price point and leapfrog you – in other words build a better mouse trap. A classic example is the PC industry. Specifications rarely give you a sustainable competitive advantage and in most situations, it is not what the customer buys.

Your software could have hundreds of interesting features, and all kinds of extra things that can be tailored to the customer’s needs. But, at the end of the day, if the software doesn’t benefit your prospect in some way or they don’t understand how it will benefit them, you are unlikely to make the sale.

So the basic premise must be define the features, but sell the benefits – what it will do for the customer (and better than your competitors), because it is the benefits that ultimately justify expenditure of time, money and effort. Will it improve a business’ bottom line? Will it enhance the user’s physical or emotional well-being? Why should your customers care?

If you don’t know what your existing or potential customers want or need, ask them. In most cases, they will be happy to tell you.

To reinforce the concept that benefits are abstract consider this. You don’t go to the shop just to buy toothpaste, what you want is clean, healthy teeth and fresh breath, the benefit of using toothpaste regularly. I remember one of my early days in marketing and a comment about Revlon in a marketing lecture. In the lecture the class was asked what Revlon sold and of course the responses were product focused, in other words cosmetics – the lecturer said that this was not the case, Revlon sold hope! This is an abstract concept and solicits an emotional response.

All benefits ultimately have an emotional dimension. Fundamentally, we do things because we want an emotional payoff. Many years ago British Airways encapsulated this point in their advertising. You may recall it. Whilst all the other airlines we advertising the size of their seats, the legroom etc (and all sounding the same with no real point of differentiation), BA focused on the customer and the service they delivered. The message was ‘it’s the way we make you feel’ - an emotional benefit.

In developing a successful marketing campaign, tailor your messaging to establish the benefit customers will derive from your product or service. Then take it to market.

To sum up, I’d like to refer to an open letter I found on the web a few weeks ago. It is written to business to business (B2B) marketers and salespeople and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it with you. For me it is light hearted but right on the button and offers some real food for thought.

“Dear Marketer/Seller,

I can only spare you a minute, but I understand you would like to stimulate my interest, build a relationship and even set up a meeting in the hope telling me what you can do!

Let me be very frank and to the point, you’ve got absolutely no idea what my working life is like –you may think you have some inkling of an idea - but you're completely and utterly wrong. Unless you take on board the advice I’m giving here; this letter will make absolutely no sense.

I arrived in my office today at 6:30 am, so that I could have some undisturbed time to work on yet another very urgent, unfinished IT project. You see, I can't get this sort of work done in my normal 9-5 working day, which always seems to consist of one continuous meeting after another.

By 7:30 am all my plans went out the window. My Managing Director turned up, saw me in my office and suddenly dumped yet more work on me, asking me to drop everything to get some statistics together out of our ERP system for his very important board meeting.

Then at 8:15 am the Marketing Director came to me shouting about the wrong data file being exported from the CRM system, which meant the new product launch was sent to the wrong customers.

And if that wasn’t enough, the credit crunch is making business conditions much tougher. And new corporate governance regulations seem to come out every day, together with a new mountain of paperwork containing yet more rules to comply with.

I still haven’t got any further on my very urgent IT project. Are you beginning to get the picture? Step into my shoes for a minute - my average day is one of chaos, and no matter how hard I try, I seem to go two steps backwards. I’ve got a backlog of two weeks work on my desk, with no way of catching up.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention the number of eMails I get daily? Over 200 eMails every single day, and because everybody thinks they need to cc me in, I’m completely snowed under. As well as the eMails, I get over 25 phone calls a day - many from IT suppliers just like you who want to set up an intro meeting. I receive so much direct mail that I can’t find my important letters amongst all the junk, and some of it is your junk.

Basically, I have far too much work, coupled with impossible deadlines and constant interruptions. Like gold, my time is a precious commodity and I value it with a high premium and protect it at all costs. I would like to change the situation, but that would take up time that I don’t have!

Let me be brutally blunt and direct here - I'm not one bit interested in your unique widgets, one-stop services, patent methodologies or “USPs”. Your self-serving, self-centred sales-blurb, which you think will lure me into a response is a complete turn-off. I scan your eMails and all I see is effusive marketing-speak.

The moment I see these glossy marketing words in your eMail I hit the delete button and exile you for good to my junk mail. I do the same with your voicemails when I hear the same waffle coming from some ill-thought-out call script.

If you were to succeed in getting me on the phone, I would quickly find an objection that your call script can't handle. I have work to do and I will not waste my time on anything I perceive as irrelevant or self-promotional. Just sometimes an innovative marketer grabs my attention and gets me to ask for more information or even agree to a meeting.

These savvy marketers are totally 100% focused on my business issues and how they can help me solve my business problems in the job role I have and the impact they can have on it. That’s the big, big, big difference.

Talk to me about a shorter time-to-market, quicker sales cycles and lower costs. Talk to me about my business, don’t reel off sales blurb! Get industry-specific and tell me how you've helped companies similar to mine with increased sales of x% and I'll agree to that meeting, no problem.

Tell me about your fresh and innovative ideas concerning the challenges that I’m facing, and what other companies in my industry are doing – I would be very interested. Tell me how you can make a real difference for my company, instead of boring me with how your company is different.

I don't have time for your “marketing and sales fluff”, but I do have time for relevant and timely info from trusted advisors in their field that have bothered to take the time to build a relationship with me by showing they know my problems and can impact my business in a positive way.

There goes the phone again. I hope you get the message that I’m trying to spell out here, as I'm now late for yet another meeting as a result of the time I’ve spent writing this! Anyway, I hope this helps.

Yours sincerely

Your prospective customer”

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

Paul Gostick Email to a colleague | Add to MY ITP

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