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The Forest and the Trees: selling the value of new concept products

New concept businesses can’t sell like others with more familiar products. Selling a pair of jeans in a department store requires a particular type of selling, emphasising the value of something already understood to be useful and desirable to the customer. Selling a platform or product that does something that's never been done before requires two extra steps...

  1. You have to understand the value:

Usually, founders and those closest to the creation of a new concept product understand the value. They're the ones who've been in meetings with the customer for months, they've hashed out the true value, closed deals and won customers. It's a good sign when a business needs more salespeople as it grows. But what happens if the value is difficult to explain to someone new? A salesperson thrown in the deep end of a new concept product will often revert to a familiar way of selling - rather than admit they don't understand the platform or technology they're dealing with, they'll sell it in a way that not only makes it clear that they have trouble understanding the product themselves, but also that they've chosen to revert to their comfort zone of selling something more easily understood. What happens when salespeople sell a watered-down description of your technology and conveniently package the benefits so it looks like something else? This is a way to get in front of the customer so that they'll listen for a while, but ultimately it makes it harder to close deals and retain customers. The problem with pitching your revolutionary product as something already out there is that ultimately you're compared to cheaper solutions and features that have nothing to do with the value you're actually selling.

  1. Tell the right story:

Stories are a way of making the complex simple. It's a mistake to rely on your salespeople to do this on their own, especially if you're asking them to tell a story about something they have trouble understanding themselves. The best way to tell a story that will sell is to involve your customers from the beginning. Rather than approach customers with a ready-made, neatly packaged offer, you can instead begin a conversation about value for the duration of the sales cycle. The story you tell customers can be developed from this conversation - by listening to your customer, you can find out what's most valuable to them. The key is to note carefully the points of value that you discover in these conversations. For example, a customer might unexpectedly exclaim "That's a game changer!" when you mention a particular application of your technology. Often there are times when an overlooked feature or capability in the product will contain the most compelling immediate value for a customer. Those moments when the 'penny drops' are the ones you want to include in the story that you circulate to your sellers. Rather than focus on the product, equip your sellers with stories and conversation points that get your customers excited. These mini-stories can begin with lines like "What would it be like if you could...", "Imagine if you were able to...", "One of our customers was able to X in Y days by just doing Z". Storytelling by your sellers is just a way for them to allow your customers to tell their own stories - once that happens, you're in a better position to sell.

Seeing the wood from the trees

Most selling strategies are dependent on the value of the product being clear i.e. what a customer will get out of the product, and why they might want to buy it. Often a new concept business or technology will have to cycle through many iterations before it finds product/market fit (as described by lean methodology). In the interim, how does a business continue to grow? As well as developing and securing customers for the existing proposition (there must be at least some value there, even if it’s not immediately apparent), it’s important to continue to navigate your way towards a more clearly defined view of the overall value you can provide your customers - so your business then becomes more like other businesses with a more clearly defined and familiar product. This is desirable because once this happens you can now apply standard systems for growth.

So the goal for growth is clarity of value.

The way to visualise the problem is to think of a forest. If you had an aerial view of the forest, or a map, you’d be in a position to take a straight path as the crow flies through the forest. But you don't have a map, and you're in the middle of the forest...

You're trying to go from an opaque view of the value you provide to customers to a total view of the value you provide. Because you’re in the dark, so to speak, and all you can see is the trees in front of you, you’ve got to be able to move from tree to tree to make your way to the other side. You’re going to zigzag a little, but what’s the most efficient way to get through? Well, imagine someone left Easter eggs hidden behind the trees along the path you should take to get to the other side. To get through the forest, you wouldn’t spend your time complaining about not having the map - you’d do what you could to find the next Easter egg. Step by step along the way you'd continue to look for the eggs in your immediate vicinity until eventually, you pop out the other side with a full belly and feeling a little wiser about the complete picture.

In business terms, this means finding pieces of value that you can offer your customers on their journey to buying your product. Every time a customer says ‘yes, that solves a problem for me!’ or ‘I get it - this sounds like it could be of value to me’ you are one step closer- those are your Easter eggs.

Now imagine you’re halfway through the forest and someone asks you to describe the forest. Because you’re in the middle, you’re definitely not in a position to describe the forest - all you can do is talk about the Easter Eggs you’ve been finding along the way.

"Finding Markets" is about getting clarity on those nuggets of value that your product offers customers as you work with them  - every time you find a piece of value your product offers, it gets added to the list. A list of value points equates to a meta description of value offered by your product. This can then be systematically used both to describe your product but also to attract and convert new customers.

Taking this kind of step by step approach rather than waiting until you have everything figured out is a more sustainable and healthier way to build a business. There is no need to describe everything to the customer - to find markets for your product just describe those pieces of value you offer along the path.

Andrew McAvinchey