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It's Buying, Silly - Part 5

Furniture World Magazine


What kind of benefits leave customers feeling glad?

Only Relevant Benefits Benefit
The role of the salesperson is to find out how much value a customer attaches to features and benefits as well as the priority of those values.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Peter Marino’s new book “It’s Buying Silly,” Published by FURNITURE WORLD MAGAZINE.

The distinction between features and benefits has been amply emphasized in most manuals and seminars that teach selling skills. Features are defined as characteristics of a product or service; benefits as the "good things" features do for the customer.

Most of us have heard the saying, "Features are; benefits do." Nevertheless, features and benefits are actually different aspects of the same things. That is true even from a linguistic point of view, both words having been derived from the Latin verb facere, meaning to do. The word feature originally had the passive meaning of something "having been done." A feature is a "done deal" or as the French might say, a fait accompli. Features therefore refer to a characteristic built into a product, something "done" to it, such as double doweled frames, software, hardware, leather, vinyl, tempered steel and steel-belted tires. Features can also refer to characteristics growing out of a company’s policies and procedures, such as its delivery system, customer service policies, and warranties.

But features can also be things done by Mother Nature: silk, hides, wool, cotton, pine, oak, etc. Features as such don’t really do anything. They simply are. If a feature could break out into a soliloquy, it would sound exactly like Hamlet’s "To be or not to be, that is the question."

A benefit - somehow the suffix "fit" lost its original intransitive meaning - has an active meaning of doing someone some good. If a benefit could break out into a soliloquy, it would exclaim, "To do or not to do, that is the question." But, while all features wear the hat "I am," benefits wear two kinds of hat: either the hat of "I can possibly do" or the hat of "I can do right now."

The two kinds of "I can do" hats differ from one another as much as the pupa in the cocoon differs from the butterfly. The one kind of "I can possibly do" hat is worn by what I call potential benefits. Potential benefits, just like features, wait around until the right customer comes looking for related benefits.

Salespeople who do not know the difference between potential and related benefits tend to break out into an indiscriminate litany of features and "I can possibly do" benefits. This is referred to in some sales manuals as product dumping or, to use a well-traveled metaphor, as the "throw-enough-on-the-wall-until-some-of-it-sticks" approach to supporting the customer’s needs. This approach is guaranteed to irritate customers and is the surest way to win the customer’s "Well, let me think about it." It is also the approach of those who think their role is to come off as the know-it-all experts who just can’t wait to get on with their dog-and-pony show. It is the approach of those who do not realize that their role is to state and demonstrate only those relevant features and benefits that can help customers make the best buying decision.

Someone coined the saying, "Features tell, benefits sell." I’d like to modify that saying. "Features tell; benefits sell…sometimes." The word "sometimes" should be added because whenever salespeople practice the indiscriminate dumping of both features and benefits, then benefits don’t benefit. Only relevant benefits wear the "I can do now" hat.

If the "I can do now" benefits could speak and if they were to tell us their greatest frustration, they would say something like the following: "Nothing frustrates us more than those salespeople who fail to make proper use of us. We have noticed two groups of salespeople who do this. One group fails to make use of us because they never uncover their customer’s needs: their specific needs, all their needs, and the priority of those needs. The second group is even more frustrating. These salespeople, by throwing out features and benefits indiscriminately, are an entire waste of our reason for existence, our raison d’etre."

A phrase I have borrowed from the sciences to describe these relevant features and benefits is "the valence factors." The root meaning of the word valence means value. Only the customer can judge how much value is to be assigned a given feature. The role of the salesperson is to find out how much value a customer attaches to the salesperson’s features and benefits. But it doesn’t stop there. The salesperson must also determine the priority of values the customer attaches to the salesperson’s features and benefits. In short, the salesperson must qualify the priority of the customer’s needs.

Qualifying then is simply helping the customer prioritize his or her needs. Why can’t customers always do their own prioritizing? Because, quite frankly, customers are frequently unaware of their needs, let alone the priority of their needs. Also, because they are often ignorant of some of the latest product features, they cannot possibly be aware of the benefits of those features. That’s where the salesperson’s role of consultant comes into play. Owing to their specialized product knowledge, salespeople can create an awareness of needs the customer couldn’t possibly have imagined. We now see why customers need a salesperson that is a consultant as well as a partner. As we mentioned in the introduction, a salesperson should be a partner first, because until customers view their salesperson as a partner, they won’t accept him or her as a consultant. To repeat author and consultant Harvey McKay’s statement, "People [Customers] don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

One more thing about features. Don’t assume to know which feature a customer prefers, simply because a manufacturer might list it as an advantage, which is a kind of comparative benefit. For example, in some manufacturer’s brochures oak is given the advantage over pine since it is a denser wood. Years ago when I was a salesperson in Santa Clara, California, my failure to understand that an advantage to one customer may not be an advantage to another customer cost me a sale. One day the owner of the store, as was his practice, went over the items in the ad. With the greatest excitement he pointed out an Early American oak bedroom set he had purchased at a remarkably low price and had decided to sell at fifty percent off. His excitement became my excitement. That morning a woman came into the store looking for an Early American bedroom set. "Aha!" I thought. "This is my lucky day and hers." With that I led her to that Early American marvel. When we arrived at the vignette in which it was displayed, I trumpeted: "Voila! There it is!" The woman, with the greatest disdain, replied: "I hate oak. Pine is the wood I love." Mortified but not discouraged, I did my utmost to impress her with a series of pine bedroom sets, but in vain, as she burnt me several time with the same question, "Can I get this set at the same price as the oak set?" Of course she couldn’t, and so I fell a victim of a drawback I might have easily prevented had I known what I know now about the comparative advantages or benefits of one feature over another.

Now you know why "benefits sell… sometimes," that is, why benefits sell only when they are relevant to the specific needs or valence factors of the customer.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.