Benefits alone won’t sell your wares

I’ve always heard that customers make purchase decisions based on product benefits, not features. My product offers greater benefits than my competitors’, so I always try to stress them when I call on architects. But they just don’t seem to get my message. How can I improve my product presentation?—L.M., sales representative

Focusing primarily on benefits often works in consumer sales, but is less effective when selling to architects, engineers, and other construction specifiers. While product benefits such as “longer lasting,” “easier to install,” or “better looking” may initially catch a specifier’s attention, they are not enough to hold it. Specifiers are technically oriented, and therefore also want to know how a product works. Furthermore, their professional responsibilities require them to be skeptical about benefit claims.

To break through their skepticism, construct your building product presentation like a three-legged stool, with three elements: a list of product features, a description of the benefits resulting from those features, and proof of the claims. Depending primarily on benefits for your sales communication is as secure as sitting on a one-legged stool.

Three legs

Features, the first component of your presentation, are physical aspects of your product. They can be seen, touched, heard, or otherwise recognized by the senses or by laboratory analysis. The chemical composition of a roofing membrane, the shape of a masonry unit, and the appearance of a door knob are examples of features. Items such as product literature, packaging, and warranties can also be considered product features. They are all tangible and available for inspection.

Benefits are the functional advantages a user will experience with a product. A statement of benefits should appeal to a prospect’s emotions. For example, “I feel confident about this product because it provides a high degree of reliability and safety,” is a strong statement of product benefits.

Proof is the evidence that the features and functional benefits you claim really do exist. Laboratory test results, evaluations of actual installations, financial analyses, engineering calculations, and first-hand observations can serve as proof for various claims.

Proof addresses the specifier’s professional responsibility to be skeptical. Having strong proof of your claim is also critical to reduce your product liability exposure.

Link the legs
For greatest impact, each element of a feature-benefit-proof analysis must be linked: every feature creates a benefit, every benefit is substantiated by a tangible feature, and all features and benefits can be proven.

Consider, for example, an insulating concrete roof deck. By mixing a foam froth into a portland cement slurry, the installer can create a concrete mix full of small air cells. The air cells are a tangible product feature that can be clearly seen in a product sample or photograph.

The air cells contribute to the benefit of the roof deck’s light weight—another feature. This in turn, reduces the load on the building and the cost of the structural system. While lab reports or engineering analyses can be used as proof of the weight and structural savings, a more visceral proof can be made by handing the customer a sample of the lightweight concrete or by showing a photograph of the material floating on water.

If any part of the feature-benefit-proof triad is omitted, the customer will have an incomplete understanding of the product. Knowing the product has air cells is important only because it yields a structural cost savings. Similarly, the benefit of cost savings could sound like a hollow claim unless the customer sees it is a consequence of an intrinsic product feature. Finally, being able to prove your claims can help overcome resistance.

This example my seem intuitively obvious. Indeed, many building product presentations are built upon data that seems obvious to the manufacturer or sales rep, but that may elude the prospect seeing the product for the first time.

The feature-benefit-proof analysis is not always so simple. In one curtainwall system I analyzed, I identified more than 50 features that could be linked to benefits and that required proof to substantiate. Not all the curtainwall features, benefits, and proofs were of equal significance from a marketing perspective. Still, a comprehensive analysis provided invaluable insight into how the product should be positioned and promoted.

Every product or marketing manager should conduct a feature-benefit-proof analysis of his products and competitors’ to gain a better understanding of his competitive strengths and weaknesses. New building product salespeople can also use the exercise to gain product knowledge.

Armed with a richer understanding of your product as a result of this analysis, you will be able to point to a product feature and explain what it does, associate that feature with a benefit your customer can use, and then offer proof when necessary. Or you can begin by discussing a benefit your customer requires and then point out the specific product features that delivers the necessary benefit. Either approach gives your customer a better appreciation for your product than if features and benefits were presented without being linked.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1998