Most companies and their salespeople covet their value add, their features and benefits, and their value proposition as if it were the Holy Grail. The reality is all value propositions are inherently valueless. The feature and benefit style of selling that has served companies so well in the past no longer works. It is tried, but no longer true.
Firms that have successfully relied on this kind of selling to differentiate themselves from their competition, translate their value, maintain their margins and avoid the dreaded price focus are discovering that this once-dependable method is backfiring. The irony is that in today’s highly competitive marketplace, where information runs freely, companies actually create the commoditization they work so hard to avoid.
Value added selling is rooted in old economic conditions using time-honored traditions, a sales strategy from another era entirely, some unimaginable distant epoch of 5-10 years ago. This artificial style of selling that, until recently, has withstood the test of time, only homogenizes your offering. Value proposition selling is just roll-the-dice selling, where you are on autopilot and you cross your fingers and show up and throw up. It is driven by the love to talk and the fear to listen. It is jargon on crack.
Premature presentation syndrome is typified by ready, fire, and then aim. Shoot and ask questions later. You are simply unleashing the product hammer and as Abraham Maslow stated so eloquently, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see everything [problem] as a nail.”
Salespeople operate under the quaint notion that it is their God-given right to sell their features and benefits. Since it states in the Sales Constitution that all products are not created equal, it is your solemn right and salesman duty to show prospects the correct way to the Promised Land. However, no one has the corner on absolute truth.
If it was all this easy and it really was all about our product’s capabilities and market leadership, we would all be retired now because the product would speak for itself and sell itself. Actually, we would all be out of a job and a profession if it were all about the product. If it were, they certainly would not need most salespeople.
The following is an illustration of how the value proposition plays out and puts you at a severe disadvantage:
Imagine you’re meeting a prospect for the first time. After a little chitchat, this potential customer asks you to describe what you do, what you sell, what makes you different. “Why should I buy from you?” they ask.
More than likely, you would include the following: quality, service, reliability, expertise, and value/performance.
Now let’s imagine that you just landed a plum job with your biggest and strongest competitor, gaining a better compensation package and three weeks of vacation instead of two. To add icing to the cake, you have your former territory.
Excited to prove yourself to your new employer, you return to your old contacts, including the one from the example above. Your former client congratulates you on your new position, and then queries you about the new company and its capabilities. Again, this former client asks, “What makes you different and why should I buy from you?”
This time, the prospect may prompt you by asking, “You know, one of the things we really appreciated and valued about your former employer was its quality—do you have good quality?” Your response: “You bet, it’s one of the reasons I moved over to ABC Co.” The prospect might then ask, “What about service?” You stress the company’s wide commitment to service and pull out the mission statement to drive your point home. And being a professional, you continue producing all the latest industry reports that highly rate your company’s reliability, expertise, value, and star performance.
In all your excitement to create this unique value proposition, what you’ve really done is to commoditize it. You’ve recited, chapter and verse, the exact value proposition your competitors tout. Of course, you have left the prospect with one differentiator: the same differentiator by which they will now measure all your competitors: You guessed it—price.
In today’s marketplace, the feature and benefit sales methodology that so many companies use to differentiate themselves actually makes them look and sound like everyone else, completely marginalizing their value proposition. The sales reps all sing from the same hymnbook and they all reduce themselves unwittingly to the lowest common denominator. What a lot of sales reps don’t realize, however, is that many customers work very hard to set reps up to sell this way.
Illustrating this point, I once gave a presentation at a company where a buyer attending the meeting pulled me aside and proceeded to explain this exact strategy and how it benefited him by getting all the suppliers to believe they weren’t different at all. As soon as the reps were convinced they were basically interchangeable, he noted, they would all reduce their pricing.
The irony is all companies, big or small, sophisticated or unworldly, in all industries, covering all products and all services, intangibles or tangibles, sell the same way. They sanitize and whitewash their offering by using common standards, open architecture specifications that multiple vendors can easily meet. In the end, it becomes a wash. The very thing that feature and benefit selling tries to protect against, it reinforces. Their self-indulgent presentations reflect mostly minimum standards and lowest common denominators for being considered or just staying in business. It is truly a zero-sum game. Companies are just grounding down one another to a lackluster sameness.
In respect to your features and benefits, there is ample anecdotal research that prospects perceive differences between competing products and services to be considerably less measurable and important than salespeople think it is. On an average sales call, a salesperson touts 6 to 8 features and the average prospect can only remember one product feature and frequently that was inaccurately recalled.
That correlates well with industry accepted research that says the success of a salesperson is based only on 10% product and technical expertise, 15% on selling skills, 25% on relationship and people skills, and 50% on beliefs and attitude (goals, motivation, and beliefs about sales).
In addition, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) research states that your message to an individual whom you are trying to persuade and convince will evaluate you by:
- 7% — the words we use
- 55% — nonverbal message: the way we look when we say it
- 38% — vocal: how we say it
93% of communication is nonverbal. Imagine what that means in relationship to your features and benefits and your value proposition. With your mouth shut, barring any information spewing, you have a 93% chance to communicate. When it is open wide, you only have 7% chance to communicate.
Although trite, the following truisms really debunk the time-honored product dump:
- Seek to understand before being understood
- Prospects hate to be sold, but love to buy
- It certainly begs the question, “Do you want to sell or have someone buy?”
- Prospects don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care
- Seek to be interested before being interesting
- Prospects don’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel and what they emotionally experienced. They don’t care about facts or figures, but feelings and emotions. They buy intuitively and justify their decision logically and intellectually
- No one resists his or her own ideas. The best ideas people ever heard were the ones that they thought of themselves
- Prospects are people, not companies. Features and benefit selling’s fatal flaw is it predominantly positions itself as if it were selling to companies
- Prospects buy what they want, not what they need. And in many cases, they are not even aware of what they want. We are trying to sell prospects something before we establish why they want it and what is at stake
A recent study by the National Association of Manufacturers found that there is a superfluous 30% added value on products that are valueless. Vendors are supplying products and services that customers do not want, need, or recognize. Our hype and over-reliance on featuring our products’ attributes cause this. We use our products as a stick to try to beat people into submission. The harder you attack and hold onto your products’ features and benefits, the harder you hold onto the belief that it is universally right for everyone. It is a vicious cycle.
The irony is that prospects will do everything possible to have you sell your features and benefits, outline your solutions, have you ask as few questions as possible to learn more about them, and make premature recommendations, when the exact opposite is what they desperately need and want. Be aware that they will deny you an authentic, professional approach because of fear and apprehension of full disclosure. That is why you get blank stares and restlessness from prospects after you have expertly showed them how you can help them, and you ultimately walk away with nothing to show for your efforts. There is an old fable that captures this concept well: the mythical story of Samson slaying 10,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Salespeople are doing the same thing daily by killing sales opportunities with the same weapon. When prospects ask if you can help them, inquire about what makes you better, ask for a proposal, request your pricing… what they really are asking and what they really care about is, “Do you understand me?”
Value based (features and benefit) selling does not work as well today because prospects are more savvy and sophisticated. They have less time to be influenced with all your information (especially as you move up the food chain), they are held more accountable in their purchasing decisions, and the information you have can be ascertained and accessed through alternative channels.
In the knowledge based economy, the value of a salesperson is judged not on what they know about their product but on what they can learn about their prospects’ problems and critical success factors. Unlike in the Dark Ages, leading with your product information and solutions now is looked upon with suspicion.
In the Internet era, sales organizations can no longer get away with placing pathetic faith and stock in their products and solutions. We eulogize and romanticize our products and service offerings as if they were the end all, the real thing. We can no longer afford to treat prospects as Pavlovian dogs that are shaped by only one stimulus—our features and benefits. All products and services are intrinsically valueless. We need to put more faith and value into our prospect’s problems, their corresponding consequences, and learning the intricacies of their business so we can build a business case that supports change or recognizes that change is not feasible.
By playing the role of a product pitchman and being a talking brochure, we end up simply parroting what our competition is doing: advancing our position negligibly. By being exactly like all the other competitors, we naively participate in the parade of venders who are like the lemmings, blindly and without question, marching to the sea to their inevitable demise.
Like professional boxers, you cannot just be equal to the incumbent to be a challenger; you must be demonstrably better. Too often, salespeople are forcing their will and agenda on prospects before they have firmly established if their prospect has a compelling and driving reason to change. You cannot sell value until your prospect has voiced what value looks like to them.
Prospects do not buy in a vacuum where there are no other variables or priorities to consider, yet salespeople conduct themselves as if they did. Roughly 60% of all sales are lost to a “no buy” or “no change”. Selling your value proposition does not account for the prospects who do not buy from anyone. Salespeople waste untold amounts of time and credibility establishing product superiority with a prospect who has not firmly decided they are truly committed to changing. They are trying to close someone Moses or the Prophet Mohammed could not close.
To exacerbate the problem, most salespeople operate under the belief that their prospects have a very evolved understanding and have deep insight into their problems and are fully capable of making rational, informed, and quality decisions. Unfortunately, most prospects and salespeople do not have the time, inclination, or expertise to fully diagnose and prioritize their business problems. “There is clearly a performance oversupply in the marketplace that outstrips the comprehension and needs of prospects. We see this with our more technical customers where close to 80% of the prospects do not understand their needs or their priorities. Frequently, their problems are more complex than salespeople are treating them as,” says Jeff Thull.
Feature and benefit selling works moderately well with prospects who know exactly what they want and works well in slow-moving, more price sensitive and commodity oriented businesses where being an advisor is not valued. “If you are strictly product focused, you will ultimately be a commodity. If you are obsessed with your competition, you will always be product driven,” says Skip Miller. Feature and benefit selling also has modest success with prospects who buy from you solely for the intrinsic attributes of your product. We call these intrinsic value buyers. They only buy your product for what it can accomplish and perform for them.
“Unfortunately, these are the type of prospects who are price shoppers, not loyal, and who maintain a very hardened and inflexible procurement-like attitude. Feature and benefit selling works extraordinarily poorly with extrinsic value buyers. They are more concerned with all the extrinsic or external elements beyond your product offering. They are more concerned with your advice and counsel and they will pay a premium for your integration capabilities,” says Jeff Thull.
Feature and benefit selling is a static and fixed method of selling that does not translate well into the realities of how prospects really buy, which is experientially and emotionally. It also wastes a lot of time and credibility because it does not fit well into the 80/20 rule… 80% of buying decisions will be focused on only 20% of the product’s benefits. Ultimately, salespeople end up doing dog-and-pony shows, pulling out all the stops on their floor show, getting out all their pots and pans and their bells and whistles and getting on their soapbox to do their premature presentation. This premature presentation syndrome has the salesperson always beaming with excitement, but prematurely climaxing with their information and ultimately leaving everyone (prospect and salesperson) unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
In relation to feature and benefit selling, familiarity not only breeds contempt, but defensive prospects. They put up their guards. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do shouts so loudly in my ears, I can’t hear a word you are saying.” Too often salespeople are a dogmatic mouthpiece of run-of-the-mill standard fare, stressing the same-old same-old. Salespeople unwittingly relegate themselves to being the master-of-the-obvious. Their selling position is simply a triumph of the lowest common denominator. When all their distinctions (features and benefits) without a demonstrable difference cancel out, vendors are reduced to a pure commodity play. Products become interchangeable and easily substituted and readily replaced. Your products can now be easily matched, point-by-point, by your competition. Salespeople believe their products’ value proposition is their lifeline, but it really is a hangman’s rope.
Salespeople using value based selling end up being very promiscuous sellers by giving away, for free, all their valuable ideas and solutions, resulting in free consulting, unfair product comparisons, and collusion with the competition by sharing clever ideas that prospects invariably bring to your competitors to replicate… better, faster, and cheaper. We treat our features and benefits as the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, prospects do not pay homage respectfully, canceling out the similarities and devaluing the differences.
Like attracts like. Since we do not judiciously protect our information, prospects like-mindedly do not respect and treat our information as valuable. Loose lips not only sink ships, but they sink sales orders. We sell our products vigorously and then we buy them back. It is not unlike quicksand. The more we struggle and work to sell our products, the more we sink deeper into a giant black hole. How can we expect prospects to have an open mind when we feed them all our dogma? Without demonstrating and initiating a balanced approach, prospects will not feel obligated to treat us as equals.
Not only have salespeople commoditized their company’s value proposition, they also have commoditized themselves. They look and sound like everyone else, yet wonder why it is so difficult for them to get new accounts, to get high-level meetings, and to have customers respect their time.
Because we are in the information economy, customers are savvier and better informed. They now have direct access to the traditional information they once obtained and valued from salespeople.
“To counter this scenario, companies feverishly bring out new products, add new bells and whistles, and become certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or Six Sigma, only to be eclipsed or copied within a few months, a few weeks, a few days, or even a few hours. So from where the buyer sits, all salespeople and products look frighteningly similar,” says Christine Gould.
So long as we rely on our hollow dog-and-pony shows, we will be set up to be shot down like ducks in a row. As with certain diseases, the stronger the medicine we use to fight it, the more resistant the disease becomes. Feature and benefit selling by itself is the disease of which it is purported to be the cure. Prospects are resistant to your value pitch. The law of unintended consequences fits perfectly for feature and benefit selling. We are reduced to column fodder where prospects spreadsheet us and devalue our offering.
Feature and benefits selling is marginalized because we do not know what we are selling until we know what our prospects are buying, why they are buying, how they are buying, and when they are buying. Without these benchmarks being established, instead of getting active listening from our prospects, we get active annoyance. They are annoyed because being a product expert does not mean we are customer experts. When we recite volumes of technical information about our products, we are demonstrating we understand our own products, not our customer’s business. We are essentially cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Imagine going to an orthopedic surgeon complaining about knee pain and after 5 minutes, he recommends surgery or he gets out all his product information on the latest surgical techniques and starts telling you in intimate detail ad nauseum about how he will apply all these nifty new techniques to make you even better than when you came in. How would you feel if this happened to you? Now imagine you go to surgeon #2. After an initial one-hour consultation, with careful review of X-rays and lots of questions, he also recommends surgery. Who would you feel most comfortable with?
As you can pointedly see, all prospects are futures traders. They buy future expectations. No one buys the product for itself. We all buy it for what it can bring, but most salespeople are so in love with their offering, they are too busy to find out what the prospect is trying to accomplish and then help them navigate and define their options with a balanced assessment of the pros and cons.
The reason sales can appear to be so challenging and difficult is because we carry this heavy burden of proof around. The more we think we must sell our products’ features and benefits, the less we will sell. It is a cruel joke of the universe. Ironically, the reason we do not change is because we would feel so guilty at how easy it is by not selling—it would grate against our Puritan work ethic. We would feel so cheated and shortchanged by patiently sitting back, listening, observing, questioning, and letting the prospect proactively do all the selling as to why or why not they would be open to changing. What would you do if you no longer had to be in charge? We take the path of most resistance because we feel in control, we hate to listen, we are self-absorbed, and we love to convince and persuade, even when it is not necessary.
As soon as salespeople conclude that they have nothing inherently special or unique to sell, that is when they will truly differentiate themselves from the competition and not have to rely on a flawed style of selling: features and benefits selling. We should no longer treat our product as if it were the means to an end. Our product and its attributes are simply a vehicle to help us build trust and respect by learning about our prospect’s business. We should look at our products or services as an empty container. This container is inherently without value and it remains neutral until we start to fill it up with compelling and demonstrable proof and evidence as to why someone would want to change or buy. Today’s salespeople can no longer be like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who is out there gripping and grinning and telling and selling unsubstantiated and prejudiced features and benefits. Value based selling is fatally flawed because it fails to sufficiently address the two most important issues on any prospect’s mind — “my personal agenda and my company’s needs.”