Sell Drill Bits Not Holes

Benefits bore the bullet points out of me.

I’ve probably read more benefits lists than any other human being in history. For every project, I look through a lot of information—including a ton of competitor content. And no matter what the technology I’m researching, the benefits are all the same. I don’t mean just that all the benefits for a given product category are the same—every performance management solution for instance. I mean the benefits for every technology are the same: performance management, omnichannel, data fabrics, AI, distributed enterprise—it really doesn’t matter. You know the list of benefits I’m talking about. Infinite scalability. Decreased costs. Accelerated time-to-market. Easiest-to-use. Blahde-est-De-Blah.

If every competing product presents the same benefits, then those benefits can’t differentiate—your product minimizes resources and so do your competitors’.  To talk about “decreased costs” (for instance) as a benefit of technology is to talk about “goes forwards and backwards” as a benefit of automobiles. Cutting costs (or ROI or ease of use) is a condition of entry for tech products, not a unique sales proposition.

But we tech marketers go on—banging out the benefits in digital and print and everywhere else. We try to make them interesting with unique adjectives and innovative superlatives (“hey, no one’s ever said ‘connect resources with super-protean flexibility’”). But, of course, that just differentiates the bullets not the technology. And we do it because we believe—because we’ve always believed—that that’s what we’re supposed to do. People, the Primal Marketing Truth tells us, don’t care about features—they’ll deal with features later—they care about what the product will do for them: what its benefits are. Nobody wants to run through a mind-numbing discussion of protocols and APIs and schema. That’s not the way people are and, after all, technologists are people too.

People, we’re certain, buy holes, not drill bits.

People might. Carpenters don’t.

Carpenters take the hole for granted. They buy drill bits. Carpenters buy based on purpose, material, shank length, type of cutting tip, TiAIN or TiCN.

The technologists I’ve worked with—well over a thousand of them, Buyers and Sellers—are just like those carpenters.

They know your technology is easily integrated with other technologies to leverage existing investments—because they know that if it weren’t you’d be out of business. They assume your management dashboard is familiar and easy to use: that it uses the same interface conventions as every other management dashboard in the known universe. They want to know how to modify it, share it, protect it. They know it reduces steps, because they’ve never—ever—heard of a technology that increases them.

Everybody in tech companies seems to know this except us. Salespeople don’t talk about benefits. Sales couldn’t close the door, much less a deal, talking about benefits. Sitting across from technologists at any level—even at the first meeting—no rep with her slides on straight would spend more than a gratuitous minute or two going on about ease of use and scalability and so on. She’d be asking and answering technical questions—not about “ease of integration” but about adapters and message libraries and APIs and number of seats. And I’ll bet my “minimize costs” against your “maximize ROI” that nary a superlative—fastest, easiest, leanest—would escape her.

The same is true across the enterprise. Name an organization. Executives talk vision with prospects. Finance talks deals with prospects. Support talks tech turkey. R&D—well, they do as little talking to customers as possible. But none of those organizations would stick more than a toe in the benefits bog. And customers, well, they never talk about benefits.

It’s just us. We are the last bastion of the bull. The keepers of the clichés. The guardians of the generic. We alone persist in saying uninteresting things to a disinterested marketplace.

Marketers, Meet Your Markets

The reason we don’t deliver relevant messages to our markets is because we don’t know our markets.

Marketers rarely meet the markets they market to—how many sales calls have you and your team gone on? We hear about the markets. We imagine them. Some of us (come on, we do) make fun of them (pocket protector anyone?) But we don’t sit in the rooms with those rational and impatient technology buyers and listen to them, learn what they need to know, what they object to, what they spark to, what they laugh at, and what they don’t. Without that direct knowledge, without having some kind of first-hand relationship with the markets we communicate with, what kinds of messages can we create other than vacuous, hyperventilating fluff?

You know. User Benefits.

If we get out there and meet the people who take in our messages, it wouldn’t (at least, it shouldn’t) take us long to learn that our expert markets don’t buy based on bennies. They want to know about the features . . . they’ll figure out if it has any benefit without any help. And a good marketer, like you and me, would quickly adjust our messages so it matched the mind of the marketplace. We’d learn that “a library of 32 preconfigured adapters supported by a J2EE development environment” is a lot more compelling to them than “minimize CAPEX by connecting to virtually any existing resource.”

Make this a mandate: every Marketer sits in on at least one sales event—let them watch (silently!) the pros sell. And, yes, I mean every Marketer: designer, intern, Marketing chief. Let them audit sales meetings where pitches are worked on. Give them the opportunity to learn the real market’s real issues—many of which will surprise them, and some of which will befuddle them. When they do this, they’ll learn that much of the “benefits oriented content” (I had to use the dreaded phrase at some point) they create is about as meaningful to their markets as a Paul Revere and the Raiders reunion concert—maybe less

Direct experience will guide their messaging in a different direction. You’ll see a fascination grow with product features, along with the ability to communicate about them in smart, interesting ways. They’ll understand they’re marketing drill bits not holes. They’ll dig up detail upon detail instead of benefit upon benefit to deliver your message. They’ll avoid the adjective. Shun the superlative. And catch the market’s interest.

This is not a mandate for monotony. You can be interesting, creative, clever, colorful, playful—in other words you can create quality design and content—as long as you remember the market and talk about what it wants to hear.

You want to talk about how my HTML 5 Web Sockets envelope maintains connection across a hybrid infrastructure during a DoD attack?

Have I got a story to tell you.