Selling 101 Part 1

OK, so you love your product. You have been around this market for a while, and--quite honestly--you have never seen a product so useful, so inexpensive, so long-lived and so visually attractive. Unfortunately, you are suffering from a condition that affects many businesspeople. Its principal symptom is a blinding lack of objectivity. If left untreated, it can result in the disappearance of entire, staff and product, which fade till they become mere ghosts in the annals of business history.

Your customers remain proudly self-centered. They don't appreciate the glories of your product's reputation, the immense practicality of its design or the cleverness of its name. No, they're focused on their personal need. Maybe it's a car that's leaking oil. Or a child's sweater that needs mending. Or a bookkeeping system gone haywire. Or an old coffee pot that's died and gone to Colombia. What do they want? A solution to their problem, not a product. They want to be able to drive without dripping oil; they want something to keep their child warm; and they want an accurate financial report and a cup of java. You've got to present your product as the satisfaction to the need--the scratch to their itch. That, they can buy.

Features Vs. Benefits: The Key to Marketing
In the marketing "Hall of Big Ideas," the distinction between product features and benefits sits on a raised marble pedestal in the center room under a ring of spotlights. This distinction separates marketers and everyone else in the business world just as sharply as the Berlin Wall divided Berlin into East and West. Many entrepreneurs talk about their product in terms of its features: its capacity, color, strength, durability and other technical capabilities. Marketers (that's you) are different. They speak of the product, often as dramatically as possible, in terms of how it will benefit the customer. They describe the need the product will immediately fulfill, offering a vision of the wonderfully satisfied customer living his or her suddenly carefree life. Marketers make a living by wish fulfillment (or sometimes, so I've heard, by just the appearance of wish fulfillment).

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Some companies think "benefit talk" is beneath them: "That's for retail types," they say. High-tech businesses, generally selling to technically sophisticated customers, sometimes feel a full-voiced recitation of cutting-edge product features is enough to make the sale. Not so. Every person responds most immediately to what they understand most easily--in this case, what the benefits of the features are. If you spell out the benefits to technical people, they don't have to calculate them themselves. Why make them work? You don't have to talk in baby talk. But be as obvious as you can. State your key competitive advantages as clearly as possible.

Some service businesses are also reluctant to think in terms of benefits--to their eventual calamity. Manufacturers at least have the physical product to talk about. Service providers don't, and they sometimes feel a deep-seated discomfort with the airy nature of what they offer. They often create esoteric jargon to glorify their "product" and make it appear more mysterious and complicated than it is. There's nothing wrong with this, except that when the jargon becomes too murky, it obscures the genuine value. As long as the jargon is benefit-oriented, no one suffers.

Benefits are the satisfaction of a need or desire. Let's take the example of a coffeemaker and study the difference between features and benefits.

What you're doing is translating from a very accurate product description to the words your customer wants to hear. You're quite literally translating from one language to another. A parched Parisian won't respond to "Want some water?" but you'll get his or her attention with "Voulez-vous de l'eau?" It's the same thing when you market a product: Customers may see you talking, but they won't become interested in what you're saying until you speak their language.

Study your product or service with this in mind, and then train your entire organization to appreciate the sometimes subtle difference in perception. The hydraulics engineer will boast of how many gallons of water a western dam holds, but regional residents will only focus on self-serving goodies like cheaper water, more electricity, fewer floods and more opportunities to take the boat out for a spin. Whenever you list a product's benefits, you're answering the age-old question: "What's in it for me?"

Once you master this distinction, you are halfway to becoming a marketing guru.

Compiling a Key Benefit Inventory
What are your products' key benefits? You must first develop an exhaustive list of every feature for each of your products. Grill your product people until you've got everything. Now sit down with your sales manager (of course, this might be just you and a legal pad) and translate, one by one, each feature into a very short benefit statement. Some may not translate. If one isn't "benefitable" after reasonable effort, just cross it off. But experience shows that 90 percent of product features can deliver benefits to some market.

Does each benefit apply equally to every market for a product? Lightweight all-weather jackets might pack an enormous appeal to a serious backpacker, but brilliant colors might clinch the sale to suburban teens. Categorize the benefits by the markets they appeal to most powerfully. Then rank them by importance within each market.

Once you have solidified this listing for each product by market, you have created the most powerful tool your sales force can carry. In every customer contact, your salespeople should deliver the full key benefit message. This works for retail sales just as well as business-to-business. Each carefully crafted benefit will appeal to various clients unequally--that's life. Price may mean everything to one customer, while availability might be the deal-breaker to another. You often can't know which issue might be driving a customer's decision. That's why it's critical to deliver the entire key benefit inventory at every sales opportunity--in sales presentations, in company literature, in displays. If you can't fit them all in (small ad, tight schedule or other reason), use the benefits by rank for the particular market you're addressing.

Key Appeal, Market by Market
Once you have your features translated into benefits, you've got to make sure that you know how important given benefits are to each type of customer. There are some things for which almost all of us are customers: restaurants, clothing, vehicles, watches and so on. Sometimes these items can be mass marketed: The manufacturer can apply the same appeal across a large number of people and be reasonably assured of the results. But more often, you're selling to several different people at once, and you must adjust your product's presentation to appeal to each of these differentiated markets.

Many times, entrepreneurs have trouble understanding that the exact same product has different appeals, depending on the type of customer you are selling to. Small advertising agencies and freelance writers often get instructions when creating a brochure to make it speak to two audiences, such as to both doctor and patient, when promoting a given medical device. Though both doctor and patient are looking for the same final result, their perspectives are unique. You must appeal to them differently, using different language.

When you market your product, you must not only appeal to the customer (and to each type of customer separately), but you must distinguish yourself from the competition. In fact, most products that compete directly against each other share many of the same benefits. No brand of ice cream tastes "unpleasant." No infrared spectrometer talks about its "inaccuracy." All the products in a given category are likely to make a large number of similar benefits claims. So why would a customer choose one over another? There can be many reasons, of course, especially convenience (it's right in front of them). But often it's the USP, the unique selling proposition. It's the compelling benefit that one else is like me!

What's unique about your product? What makes it stand out from the competition? What gives the customer a good and irresistible reason to select your product rather than those other fine products? If you're making ice cream, you can't base your whole appeal to the customer by simply saying "it tastes better"--unless you have some credible objective documentation that this is so. Perhaps you can claim your ingredients are uniquely fresh, or that the ice cream is handmade in some particular way, which makes it taste "better" or at least different than other ice creams. Look at Ben & Jerry's: They don't just market their ice cream; they market the structure of the company itself and its commitment to making charitable donations. This helps give them a unique profile in a crowded market.

Many companies base their selling pitch on what's unique about them. For years, Ivory Soap based all its advertising on its claim of being 99 44/ 100 percent pure it floats! Domino's and its two-for-the-price-of-one pizzas. The unique Volkswagen look, which, thinking small again, has returned.

Once you've established your product's range of benefits and distinguished it from the competition, can you sum all this up in one phrase or brief sentence? Such as "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," "Nothing runs like a Deere," "Better living through chemistry" or "Legendary engineering"?

If you can, then you are ready to take your case to the public. It's time to persuade them to buy.

To follow:

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