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Chapter 7: Features versus Customer Usage


In this chapter, we're going to pick up on a theme introduced earlier: the need to focus on how a customer might use a product - growing out of conversations about that customer's needs - rather than on a presentation of a product's features.

Here's a question you might want to ask us, at this point: Is Customer Focused Sales applicable in a range of situations? For example, is it applicable when a product is viewed as a commodity with no distinguishing features?

Our methodology is based in large part on our recent experiences, many of which have involved selling information technology at the enterprise level. But the principle of positioning offerings applies whether you are trying to make an enterprise sale for an intangible offering, selling the phone company's services, or helping a bank that is trying to cross-sell additional features or services directly to consumers.

Over the years, we have worked with a wide range of companies in a variety of industries. These have included professional services providers, retail banks, companies offering credit card sales to merchants, overnight delivery services, and temporary housing providers, to name a few. All benefited from our approach, even in cases where the offering was only one of many in a crowded field of entries. In fact, our experience suggests that in situations where the offering is perceived as a commodity - that is, interchangeable with the competition - the most powerful differentiator is the buyer's experience with the salesperson or sales process.

The Pinocchio Effect

As noted in earlier chapters, traditional sellers tend to lead with product - that is, to push hard on what they perceive to be the distinguishing characteristics of their offering. But this approach is fraught with peril. It often fails, for example, to establish a salesperson's competence. It short-circuits meaningful discussion of the buyer's needs. It may lead to premature price discussions, causing sticker shock, and ultimately result in no sale. Many traditional salespeople fail to realize that only those differentiators that the buyers agree they want or need are applicable.

Part of the problem is the seller's familiarity with the offering - most often thought of as a great asset. Think about how traditional salespeople learn about their products. In many cases, newly hired salespeople are sent off to what their employers call product training during their very first week on the job. In many organizations, this instruction is referred to as sales training, but it should not be, in our estimation. This training is frequently conducted by the Product Marketing department.[1]

More and more companies are building infrastructures in Product Marketing. In many cases, these efforts lead to what might be called a Pinocchio effect: The product begins to take on a life of its own, aside from any customer-related considerations. The apparent mission of Product Marketing is to talk about what "it" will do - "it" being the product. It will lower your inventory costs, it will build your market share, it will improve your profitability, it will reduce your employee turnover . . . (feel free to fill in any unsubstantiated claims your Pinocchio can accomplish).

This is backward. At the end of a call made by a customer-focused seller, the buyers shouldn't be focusing on what it can do for them; they should be focusing on what they can do with it. The conclusion is inescapable: The focus of both salespeople and buyers should be on product usage, not product features.

Features and Benefits

What's a feature? For our purposes, a feature is an attribute of a product or service. Features include things like size, weight, color, material used, modules, and specifications. Product Marketing people take artistic license with these facts, adding adjectives to heighten the feature's presumed sex appeal and thereby make the product even more irresistible. This is where words like robust, seamless, and integrated begin to creep in.

The primary problem we have with sellers being taught to lead with features is that this approach counts on the buyer's knowing whether or not the feature is useful and therefore relevant. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of salespeople who lead with product features in their sales pitches every day, and yes, in a lot of cases, it actually works. But it works best when buyers already understand how to use the proposed product or service, understand the value of using it, trust the seller, and trust the seller's company.

Information or Irritation?

Let's say that you are a satisfied BMW customer, and you go into a BMW dealership shopping for your next Beamer. You already know the product line, already trust the company, and already have a pretty good idea of which model you are interested it. Up comes the salesperson, and begins lecturing you on the way-cool new features of something called "I-Drive." As a buyer, can you get past this feature presentation? Probably. You'll listen for a while, take a test drive, and - all else being equal - you'll buy your BMW. Were you impressed by the salesperson or by I-Drive? Not really. How much selling was done here? Not much. You came in the door as an expert buyer, and you bought. If you didn't buy, has the salesperson earned your loyalty? Wouldn't you buy the same car for $500 less from another dealer? The seller has missed an opportunity to become part of your buying decision.

So is it a good idea for salespeople to spew features? Almost never. The expert buyer already knows about, or knows enough not to care much about, I-Drive. As for the rest of the buying population - most people, in other words - those who do not understand I-Drive might not ask for an explanation that could expose their ignorance to someone they don't trust. They could be intimidated, and start to distance themselves from the salesperson. Most people have their own version of I-Drive in their buying past. For example: Have you ever been told that the car you are thinking about buying has an overhead camshaft? Well, do you know or care what an overhead cam is, or how that feature might be useful to you? How about a McPherson strut? Does that sound like something you might put to good use? Could you explain the usage or value of these commonly spewed features at a cocktail party?

The Customer-Focused definition of selling is "helping a buyer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need." So what do we do if we're not BMW - if our buyer has no clue as to why he or she might need our product, or how to use it? Presumably, our product has some features that are of interest. So how do we position our features to nonexpert buyers?

The first step in a buying process, of course, is having someone decide to look. Assuming that our business-development efforts succeed in stimulating some measure of curiosity or interest on the part of prospective buyers who we believe should be looking at our offering, what then? They will stay interested only as long as they are curious about what we are selling, understand the importance of our offering to them, or have hope for a solution from us. If we launch into a feature presentation, we will lose most nonexpert buyers very quickly. They will stay interested only as long as they perceive the conversation, and therefore the seller, to be relevant.

Many salespeople experience a 6- to 12-month learning curve when they join companies selling enterprise solutions. In those weeks and months, they frequently get their heads stuffed full of product features - which in the case of a complex product may number in the hundreds or even the thousands. Then they go out into their territories and attempt to convey their personal versions of that vast mental archive in a 30-minute presentation - and are surprised, and frustrated, when their prospects don't get it. How well can CEOs sleep when they come to the realization that each of their 200 salespeople has developed his or her own boiled-down version (opinions?) of what the company sells?

In most cases, the buyer who doesn't get it isn't stupid. So what's going on in a buyer's head when he or she encounters a seller describing a product as a noun (versus a verb)? Here are some of the questions a buyer may be asking:

In situations like this, buyers defend themselves with objections. Dozens of sales courses over the years have had modules on handling objections, as if an objection were an ailment or character flaw in the buyer. Many companies have taught the "feel, felt, found" approach. When encountering objections, the seller takes three steps:

  1. "I understand how you feel."

  2. "Others have felt that way."

  3. "But they found that (insert phrasing indicating that the buyer is mistaken in having the concern mentioned)."

The fact is, most objections that salespeople encounter are salesperson-induced. Sellers invite objections by the way they present their offerings.

Even some sales approaches that seem customer-friendly are really "spray-and-pray" presentations in disguise. In early Xerox sales training, for example, salespeople were taught to talk about benefits: "Because of Feature X, dear buyer, you can expect to get Benefit Y!" But strangely enough, Xerox's sellers were not encouraged to find out what the buyer wanted to accomplish before they made their initial benefit statement. In that sales culture, therefore, the alleged benefit of a feature resided mainly in the mind of the seller.

And Xerox was not unique in this regard. We sometimes ask our audiences the question, "What sales culture did you grow up in?" Most large selling organizations have their subtle sales-culture idiosyncrasies, but virtually all of them encourage presumptuous benefit statements by sellers to buyers.

The Power of Usage Scenarios

Our experience has taught us that great salespeople rarely have to close, and that great sales calls are conversations, rather than presentations. customer-focused salespeople are able - usually with very little help from their Marketing department - to translate the feature knowledge they are given by Product Marketing into usage scenarios. These are simply hypothetical examples that are highly relevant to the buyer and that the seller can use to conduct intelligent conversations. They somehow just roll off the tongue of a customer-focused salesperson.

As noted, those are the lucky 10 percent. But what about the other 90 percent? What about salespeople who are unable to do the feature-to- usage-scenario translation on their own?

Let's say we have a seller in his late twenties who is going to make a sales call on a senior executive in her mid-fifties - let's have her be the Vice President of Sales of a Fortune 1000 company. The seller's mission is to convince the buyer to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a customer relationship management (CRM) system, which is an application she does not fully understand. How can we help this young seller relate to this buyer? How can we help him have a conversation, rather than make a presentation?

One of the features of the CRM application is control over access to specific data - that is, who can see what - in a company's database. Most likely, an expert buyer can understand this feature and relate it easily to his or her own use. Most senior executives, however, are not adept at understanding how software can help them achieve their business goals. What can the seller do?

Well, most senior sales executives understand high employee turnover. Suppose the seller asked a question like, "What if you heard through a reliable source that one of your top salespeople was going to leave to go to work for your competition?" If the executive expressed interest, the salesperson could then pose another question: "Would it be useful to you to be able to go into your CRM system and suspend that person's access to your prospect and buyer data - from any location, even if you were traveling?"

This is an example of converting a feature into a usage scenario. It works because it is so specific. It shows the prospective buyer how the data security feature could be used by the executive to protect company assets in the event of employee turnover. Usage scenarios help buyers visualize how they could use the seller's offering to solve a problem, achieve a goal, make money, or save money.

The above example involves a complex enterprise software sale. What about simple retail sales? Would converting from product presentations to usage scenarios also be preferable?

We gave a presentation at a Silicon Valley marketing executive symposium at the Stanford Business School. At the end of our talk, a senior vice president of a retail bank approached us with the idea of trying out our ideas in a banking context. Specifically, their issue was cross selling. At that time, the average number of bank products (savings account, checking account, ATM card, CD, and so on) for a retail bank buyer was 2.2. His bank was below average - at 1.9 - and he was under heavy pressure to increase cross selling.

First, we needed to learn how they were currently selling before we could suggest any changes. We were observing one morning when a couple from out of state came into a branch near one of the campuses of the state university system. They had their daughter in tow. After a brief wait, they were steered toward the desk of a 23-year-old retail banker, whom we'll call "Sarah."

"Our daughter will be going to school here," the father told Sarah. "We want to open up a checking account for her."

Sarah immediately brought out her sales kit, which included details about the four checking account plans. She detailed each, and asked the buyers if they were prepared to select one. Then she remembered the new corporate priority - cross selling - and asked politely, "Would you also like a savings account?"

No, thanks, said the father, they did their banking back home in Iowa. They simply needed a local checking account for their daughter while she was in college.

We told the bank that this was one approach to cross selling, but that we thought there was room for improvement. The bank's marketing head decided to let us try out our ideas on a pilot basis. After we studied how consumers actually used each of the bank's products, we developed usage scenarios, and (in a predetermined pilot region) trained their retail people in the use of these scenarios.

Here is an example of adopting a customer-focused approach to cross selling: A couple from Nebraska visited a branch office to open a checking account for their daughter, who would be attending school near the bank. This time, before working through the specifics of the checking account, the retail banker asked a number of usage-scenario questions. For example:

Good questions, right? Questions that you would like to be asked by a representative of a bank that you're doing business with, and that demonstrates customer-focused expertise in dealing with circumstances like your own. Well, guess what happened: Through the use of these kinds of usage-scenario questions, cross selling in the pilot region went up 400 percent. In truth, the bank had no product differentiation whatsoever from its competition. The difference lay in patience, process, and content - in architecting the buyer's experience with the seller. It lay in shifting from feature selling to customer-usage selling.

Another, slightly more complicated, example of converting from feature to customer-usage selling involved the call center of a telecommunications company in a large metropolitan area. When new residents moved into the area, they typically called to set up their phone service - service initiation. We're willing to bet that almost everyone reading this resource understands what call waiting is, and what it enables you to do. But imagine it's the early 1990s, you don't understand call waiting, and someone is trying to sell it to you. Chances are that you'll have to ask some follow-up questions before you get it - and maybe even buy it. Even then, the phone company would hope mightily that you would keep that service for at least 6 months, so that they could break even.

Let's assume that a call center representative of a phone company today were speaking with a retired couple in their late seventies or early eighties. During the service-initiation process, the call center representative asks a series of "do you want . . ." questions regarding the company's various products: call forwarding, voice mail, call waiting, paging, and so on. If a free trial were offered, might people say yes to these features?

The problem for the phone company arose when many of these services were discontinued 3 to 6 months after initiation. The phone company needed these additional services to stay installed for at least 6 months to break even on them; after that, the arithmetic was good. So how do you keep new services installed? Customers must realize the value of the services and understand how to use them.

In the case of our client, our analysis revealed that many buyers didn't know why they needed the additional services they were saying yes to, or how they would use them. Some elderly purchasers of call waiting were calling customer service complaining that their phones "keep on beeping." Others objected strenuously when their phone bills went up in the fourth month - perhaps forgetting that the premium services that they had subscribed to (and that they had never used) were offered free of charge for the first 3 months.

In designing an approach to this customer issue, we first developed a simple spreadsheet of available features (the y axis) and their related buyer issues (the x axis). We then worked through a series of diagnostic questions and usage scenarios for their customer service representatives to use while taking orders during service initiation.


Call center representative

Have friends or family tried to reach you while you have been on the phone?

Have they been frustrated by busy signals?

Have you missed, or been delayed in receiving, important calls?

If (and only if) the buyer says yes to these questions, the call center representative then asks:

"If someone attempts to call you while you are already on a call, would it be useful if you could hear a tone, and - at your option - click the receiver to put the first call on hold, take the incoming call, and when finished, click the receiver to resume your original call?"

If the buyer answers with a yes, the call center representative can then close the sale:

Our Call Waiting feature provides this capability at a cost of only $4.95 per month. Would you like to try it for 30 days, at no charge?

It's not rocket science, right? But it works. By taking the time to ask a few simple questions about need and customer usage - and, not unimportantly, to educate the consumer about the usage and the value of particular services - the company was able to cut discontinuances dramatically. And, we should stress, the company was able to deliver services to people who understood and appreciated them, and were willing to pay for them. A win-win outcome, all around.

The Shared Mission

In simple terms: What we propose to our clients is the reinvention of their marketing efforts away from Product Marketing and toward what might be called customer-usage marketing.

The core enabler in this reinvention process is the Customer Focused Sales Solution Formulator, to be explained in subsequent chapters. Once the theme of customer usage replaces the traditional emphasis on product features, all kinds of good things can start to happen across multiple marketing vehicles. These include, for example:

When Marketing becomes focused on customer usage, it shares a mission with Sales: helping buyers discover how they can achieve their goals, solve their problems, and satisfy their needs through the use of their company's offerings. For companies without this shared mission, CEOs will continue to lose sleep at night, knowing that the forecast consists of the opinions of sellers who each developed their own boiled-down version of what they're selling.

[1]In this case, we'll use the specific term product marketing, rather than the broader marketing.

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