Product or Concept?

You have to know what you’re selling.

If you’re in automotive sales, you sell cars. You convert the physical features of your product into vibrant stories in the minds of your customers (if you’re good, that is), and you differentiate your product from the competitors’. Your primary obstacle is convincing your customer base that your car is better than the other guy’s.

If you’ve only ever sold cars, you might not realize that there’s an entire extra step that is absolutely crucial to the sales process, but that you are fortunate enough to get to skip. Because before you can get into why your car is better than anyone else’s, your customer has to believe they can benefit from a car, any car, in the first place.

You get to skip this step because, at least in the United States, the benefits of a car are well-established and most people would like to have one. There are exceptions, like NYC (where nobody drives because there’s too much traffic, haha), but for the most part you don’t have to start your sales process by convincing an automotive skeptic that there are benefits to car ownership.

That’s not the case with every product or service, though! In today’s modern world of fast and awesome innovation, lots of companies aren’t just improving on existing stuff, they’re creating whole new categories of stuff.

Sometimes, though, really brilliant innovators sell their product or service like they’re selling cars. They go right into comparison sales, trying to convince prospective customers that their widget is the best of all available widgets, and it’s so much more effective and a better value and so on. But the customer doesn’t care about widgets yet, so the sales falls flat.

It’s a tempting trap for the first-mover to think “I’m the pioneer in this field, so I have no competition! So sales will be easy!” But you do have competition: Your competition is inertia. The status quo. Ignorance.

Before you sell a product, you have to sell the concept.

That’s a totally different sales process. On the macro level, it involves a lot of “awareness marketing,” which most likely includes lots of free content, lots of helpful information, and lots of market engagement where you show off helping people. People will not beat a path to your door if you build a better mousetrap – the world has too much noise.

On a micro level, it involves really digging in to the problems your customer is facing. Finding out what issues they have, what difficulties they’re trying to overcome. If you can illuminate their problem and highlight that you have a solution, then selling the concept is selling your product, because the sale is going to be made at that point.

This can be very emotionally difficult for the innovator. That person has spent a large portion of their life immersed in this; he or she lives and breathes the value of their product and how it can help people solve an essential problem. To them, it’s crazy that the whole world doesn’t immediately see the benefits. But in general, the masses are slow to adopt and skeptical of these things at first, and that can feel very frustrating to the innovator. They want to help people, not convince people that they need help.

Almost every salesperson I’ve ever met has had that particular moment of frustration at some point in their career. “I don’t get it – the thing I’m selling would be great for them, it would literally save them money and make their life better, it’s perfect for them. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t want it.” It’s a frustrating moment. But the reality is that it’s on the shoulders of the salesperson to show that there’s a problem worth solving.

The concept comes first.

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