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It's Buying, Silly - Part 2 - Customer Fear

Furniture World Magazine


If you have trouble selling... then step back and look at the reasons why your customers might be afraid of buying.

Before we take a look at what makes customers glad, we need to examine the fear customers may feel when they consider the possibility of making a serious buying mistake. That should be easy, since all of us have been customers longer than we have been salespeople.

The day we made our first big buying mistake is the day we learned the difference between being a customer and a prospect. The following anecdote should clarify that difference.

One day a gentleman appeared at the Pearly Gates where Saint Peter immediately welcomed him. "Well, sir," he said, "I’m sure you are anxious to see the reward that awaits you." The gentleman nodded in great anticipation.

Saint Peter continued: “Forget all you’ve heard about us on earth. The situation here is a bit different.” “How’s that?” the man asked. "Well, we give you a choice between choosing hell or heaven." The man was not pleased with that. “You can skip hell and give me heaven.” It’s not that simple. Everyone here has to choose.” So without further ado, Saint Peter led him down into hell and the first thing he showed the man was the most spectacular golf course he had ever seen. Nothing he had ever seen before could match it. Hanging gardens surrounded the course that wound around a clear spring-fed lake that held large schools of bass, walleye, muskie, and pan fish. Hooked up to a long dock was a magnificent yacht. On it was printed the gentleman’s name in large golden letters. All this Saint Peter told him was his for the asking, adding "And you’ve hardly seen the rest of the perks that go with this elaborate estate." "Of course I’ll take it," the man replied in disbelief. "Not so fast," Saint Peter exclaimed. "Don’t you want to see what awaits you in heaven?" "No way!" the man replied. This is it. You can go back up without me." "OK," Saint Peter said, "but you have three days to change your mind." "My mind’s made up," the man insisted. So Saint Peter left the good man there and returned to his pearly post. One week later he returned to see how the man was faring. He found him immersed in a quagmire reeking with an abominable stench. His body was swollen from the swarms of mosquitoes that incessantly feasted on him. Gone were the spring-fed lake, the yacht, the golf course, and the hanging trees. With tears streaming down his swollen eyes and cheeks, the poor wretch turned to Saint Peter and asked: "What happened, Saint Peter? The first three days were wonderful. But after that, everything changed to this." "Well," Saint Peter replied, "the first three days you were a prospect. Now you are a customer!"

While that anecdote may not present a fair analogy to selling, it does emphasize the consequences of making a wrong buying decision. Our role as salespeople is to help customers avoid making a wrong buying decision. That role becomes a lot easier when we look at selling as buying. It’s silly not to.

What Kind of Benefits Leave Customers Feeling Glad?
The distinction between features and benefits has long been a standard in manuals and seminars that teach selling skills. Features are defined as characteristics of a product or service. Benefits are defined as the "good things" features do for the customer.

Features are; benefits do. In a real sense features and benefits are different aspects of the same things. That is true even from a linguistic point of view, both words having derived from two related Latin verbs facere and fieri. The word feature derives from a form of the verb meaning “having been made or done.” A feature is a “done deal” or as the French might say, a fait accompli. Features can refer to a characteristic built into a product. Examples of these characteristics are double doweled frames, software, hardware, leather, vinyl, tempered steel, steel-belted tires. Features can also refer to characteristics growing out of a company’s policies and procedures. Examples are a company’s delivery system, its customer service policies and warranties.

But features can also derive from Mother Nature: silk, a hide, wool, cotton, pine, oak, etc. In as much as a feature is a feature it can only simply exist wherever it happens to be without doing anything. A feature is content simply to be. If it could break out into a soliloquy, that soliloquy would sound exactly like Hamlet’s "To be or not to be, that is the question."

A benefit, because the word "fit" lost its original intransitive or passive meaning in certain verb forms, would, if it could break out into a soliloquy of its own, exclaim, "To do or not to do, that is the question." In other words all features wear the hat "to be." Benefits wear two different kinds of hat: either the "potentially can do" hat or the "actually can do" hat.

Each kind of "can do" hat is worn by two different stages of benefits, as different from one another as the stages of the pupa in the cocoon and the butterfly. The one kind of "can 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 end up indiscriminately dropping these potential benefits together with features. This is called product dumping or, to use a well-traveled metaphor, 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."

Someone coined the saying, “Features tell, benefits sell.” I’d like to modify that saying. "Features tell; benefits sell… sometimes." The word “sometimes” is necessary because whenever salespeople practice the indiscriminate dumping of both features and benefits, benefits don’t benefit. Which goes to prove the point that only relative benefits wear the “actually can do” hat.

If the “actually can do” 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 the salespeople who fail to make 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 the customer’s needs: specifically what they need, all they need, and the priority of those needs. The second group is even more frustrating. These salespeople throw out features and benefits indiscriminately. They are an entire waste of our reason for existence.”

A phrase that describes these relevant features and benefits is "the valence factors©." The word valence – borrowed from the sciences – means weight. Only the customer can judge how much weight is to be assigned a given feature. The role of the salesperson is to find out how much weight a customer attaches to the salesperson’s features and benefits. But it doesn’t stop there. The salesperson must also determine the priority of weight 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 nothing else but helping the customer prioritize his or her needs. Why can’t customers do their own prioritizing? Because, quite frankly, customers frequently start out not knowing their needs, let alone the priority of their needs. 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. The satisfaction of these needs can gladden the heart of the customer. We now see why customers need a salesperson who is both partner and consultant.

Partner, because until the customer views their salesperson as a partner, they won’t accept him or her as a consultant. Author and consultant Harvey McKay put it best: "People {Customers} don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Now you know why “Benefits sell… sometimes.” Benefits sell only when they are relevant to the specific needs 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.