“Why? They all look the same to me … they all do the same thing, don’t they?”

Our 18 SEER is an industry-leading efficiency rating, and the HSPF is unmatched. The COP is 3.1 and when coupled with the 93.7 AFUE of our gas furnace, you couldn’t buy a better system.

“So? Everybody has big numbers, whatever those mean, anyway.”

Our cadmium screws and powder paint process ensure that the cabinet will never rust.

“That’s horse hockey.”

I’m trying to send my kids to college. Won’t you please buy this from me?

Everyone has been challenged (more than once) to prove why their product is better. Customers find themselves in the position of needing a new system about once in their lives, and they would usually rather not be making such a purchase at all. When customers ask “why?” they really want to know: What’s in it for me? What are the benefits?

Occasionally, one of my first customers — Earl — enters into my thoughts. Earl is not fictional; he was a real HVAC contractor who unmercifully challenged me from the time I first stepped foot into his office until the moment I turned over the account to another unseasoned sales rep. Sometimes I think that my boss encouraged Earl to hassle me as part of the rookie sales training program.

Early in the training process, Earl stated he wasn’t buying anything from me until I could prove to him that my product was better. Before I got my three words out — SEER, AFUE, and HSPF are words, right? — Earl said, “Murphy, get out of my office. I’ve already torn down your unit piece by piece, and I know more than you do about it. Don’t come back until you know what you’re talking about.”

Earl was not joking, but he was laughing at me as I left with my tail between my legs.

When I returned I came loaded for Earl the bear. I’m not suggesting this is true for every brand of product in the market, but, at the time, I discovered that Earl was right: there were only very subtle differences in the product I sold as compared to other brands. And, for those true differences, it was important to communicate the benefits — not the features — to Earl.

Once I had explained the monetary and safety benefits of my “powder painted” product, it was time to move on to more differentiation. With the purchase of my box, Earl and his staff also got me. Yes, that’s right. I convinced Earl that with my assistance his staff could generate more leads. More leads, more customers, more sales. Earl kind of liked that new benefit.

Working to help my contractor customer was different than how you may be able to directly help and thereby influence your customers. You can’t very well promise to stand guarding their thermostats as a way to ensure their energy savings. So, you’re back to the basics of differentiating between the features that everyone has to the benefits which everyone needs.

What Are the Benefits?

If your customer is one of those environmentalist types who doesn’t think your cadmium-plated screws are a benefit, then perhaps it is best to move on to another more exciting feature — like, maybe the paint job. If you’re having a hard time thinking of solid benefits for some of your product features, it may be time to think about how all of them tie into a few basic benefits: safety, health, efficiency, and comfort.

Every customer has different hot buttons. For one customer, the benefits of a healthier work environment may far outweigh the benefit of efficiency. Saving all the money in the world through reduced operating costs may not be important to someone who has a lot of money but is plagued with severe breathing problems. For that person, the reassurance of an excellent HEPA filtration system or other indoor air quality accessory may be the most persuasive conversation to have with them.

Being thoroughly knowledgeable of your product offering is very important toward being able to provide customers with what they want. You must know all of your features, but — even more important — you must know which ones the customer really cares about. As you know, you are always selling features, but customers are always buying benefits. The challenge seems to be in finding which benefits will cause a particular customer to buy your product.

Publication date: 08/22/2011