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July 2009

You Built It. Now, Can You Sell It?

Can You Think Like a Salesperson?

It's a hazard of the job as a Product Manager, to develop a rather myopic view of your product or service.  If you've done some work on product discovery, or otherwise put some effort into validating the usefulness of what you're building, it's easy to think that all that remains is to get the thing designed, built, and into the market... Sort of a "Field of Dreams" approach.

Not so fast, bucko.  Are you overlooking one of your Marketing "P's"?  You know, "Placement", the one that's a "P" because nobody would remember "The Three P's and One D of Marketing"?  Ah yes, placement.  Also known as "distribution", meaning how do I get these widgets out of the factory and into paying customers' hands?  As I've worked in and around salespeople, in both direct selling and channel sales structures, I've learned a lot about what sales folks need in order to be successful selling your product.  Hint:  they need more than a great product.

So put on your fedora, grab your briefcase and appointment book, and join me in living in our salespeople's shoes for a day.  If you're lucky enough to have had a sales job, stop reading and send me a note to tell me how much I've gotten right and how much more I have to learn.  If the last thing you sold was lemonade or World's Finest Chocolate Bars, you'd better keep reading.

"Ms. Prospect Will See You Now"

So here you sit, across the table from your prospect, the one you hope is going to buy your gizmo.  As with other structured social interactions (think speed dating and job interviews, inter alia), you've got roughly four minutes to make your pitch.  Here's what you need to cover:
  • What is it?
  • What problem does it solve? 
  • For whom does it solve this problem? 
  • What will it do for me? 
  Let's take each of these questions in turn.

What Is It?

As a former (and future?) California governor once said, sometimes "less is more".  What's needed here is a simple, declarative statement about your service.  When people asked me what iPass did, my reply was "we provide enterprises and their employees a way to connect to the Internet and their corporate networks in a simple, secure, and cost-effective manner".  If you have to pause for a second breath in answering the "what is it" question, you're going too deep.  If you have to pull out a stack of PowerPoint slides, you're not sufficiently focused in on summarizing your product.

There's a reason why this question is so important.  Your prospect is trying to establish a point of reference for your service.  "I'm selling dreams" doesn't tell him/her what to compare it to.  "I'm selling real estate investment trusts" provides a point of reference--other real estate investment vehicles.  Some people fear that providing this point of reference will weaken their product pitch:  "it's like eBay, only better!".  I can see the point, but I think it's more important to give your prospect a way to think about your service, rather than claim that "it's totally revolutionary."

What Problem Does It Solve?

Now we're getting closer to the infamous "value proposition"... but hold your horses!  Your prospect isn't inviting you to launch into a presentation on how your product solves the issues of the day--not yet.  He or she is trying to figure out if this product solves a problem he or she actually has.  Why? Because your prospect gets called on all the time by people claiming to have the latest thing to revolutionize your prospect's life.  He or she needs to sift through the crap to get to the products that might actually deliver on that promise.  If you're solving a problem I have, I'll listen.  If not, I'll toss you out or politely wait until the salesperson offers to buy me lunch.

As with your "what is it" response, you want to be crisp in stating the problem to be solved.  "We take the pain out of managing your remote and mobile devices."  If you and your sales partner have done your homework, you already know that this a problem your prospect faces.  So now you've got them leaning forward:  "tell me more".

For Whom Does It Solve This Problem?

If your prospect has in fact leaned forward and started salivating (and lunch hasn't been served) then you've already made it past this question.  If not, be prepared to answer.  The heart of the question is this:  "is this a problem I have to worry about?"  If I'm selling's online sales automation service, I'm telling a sales representative that it solves the problem of keeping track of sales and commissions--that's what they care about.  If I'm selling the same service to the IT manager, I'm talking about the problem of bringing up and maintaining a salesforce automation tool.

What Will It Do For Me?

This is the famous "WIFM", or "What's In it For Me" approach.  Here's where as Product Champion you get to wax eloquent about how great the product is, how it's going to make your prospect's life so much better.  This is also where a lot of product pitches founder--because they focus on product attributes ("dual core processors") without relating them to the "so what" of WIFM.  So it's especially important to stay away from a long recitation of the features and benefits of the product, and all the improvements from the last version.  Everything is focused on showing the prospect that your product solves an important problem for him or her.


If you're thinking like a salesperson, these questions are never far from your mind.  And as you're shaping your service, you're continually testing to see if you have clear and compelling answers.  So far, so good.  But even you know that products don't "sell themselves"--people do.  Next I'll focus on what those people who do the selling need in order to love your product as much as you do.

Twitter Taxonomy

If you're on Twitter you know about "following" and "followers"-- people you follow and those who follow you.  I think it's time for a further refinement of the taxonomy.  There are also:

  • "Prostwitutes".  These are the sexy young things (I'm sure that's their real picture) that "follow" you, whose tweets are along the lines of "just posted new pictures of me, check them out!".
  • "Promotwits".  These are companies that "follow" you, who are promoting their new web site, software, or whatever.
  • "Tweetspam".  These are "tweets" from people/companies offering the same things regular spammers sell: viagra, college degrees, acai berries and the like.  

Maybe you can add to the list!