Want to sell someone a band-aid? ‘Cut’ them first

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A good friend and fellow sales professional recently reminded me of the old sales adage; if you want to sell a band-aid, there are two main ways to go about it:

  1. Look for people with cuts, and sell them a band-aid
  2. Look for people who are afraid they might get cut, and sell them a band-aid.

Which approach do think is most pervasive?

Well, the second sounds like a pretty sensible option. After all, it has larger addressable market since there are more people who may need a band-aid in the future than who actually need one now. And if they do get cut, they’ll need one. This approach is often referred to as the vitamin sell because it’s focused on a preventative solution. Circumventing a problem that has yet to materialize. From gym memberships to smoke detectors to car insurance, we see many examples of this approach in the buying sphere. The main issue with it is that buyers may not be sufficiently moved to purchase because they don’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem until they actually have it.

So how about the first technique?

Selling band-aids to people who already have cuts is more efficient and pragmatic. With a clear and present pain, buyers are much more motivated to purchase. This is often referred to pain killer selling because it addresses an acknowledged pain the buyer is experiencing now. It’s not surprising that in the United States, revenue from pharmaceutical drugs dwarfs that of vitamins by a factor of 10-20X! With such compelling statistics, you’d think that most sellers would bias towards the pain killer approach. While that may very well be the intention, vitamin messaging is unintentionally much more pervasive than you think for one key reason: most buyers don’t realize they’re bleeding and most sellers they do a poor job of highlighting that they are!

Don’t believe me? Try this little sales science experiment. Pick a random technology company (check out Deloitte’s Fast 500 list for examples). Go to that company’s website. Now in 60 seconds or less see if you can figure out the business problem they solve. Not what they do (although that may be hard enough!), but the quantifiable business pain they solve. I’ll wait. [Girl from Ipanema music paying…] You back? Great. How did you do?  Chances are, not very well.

So what’s wrong with the messages most of us plaster our websites and training materials with? Are they poorly crafted? Unclear? Confusing? Not exactly.

Most vendors mistakenly focus on what they do or how they solve a problem, rather than putting the pain they address front and centre. They force buyers to reverse-engineer the pain from the how. Unfortunately, that’s simply too much work for the modern buyer.

In short, vendors think they’re selling a pain killer but their messaging sounds more like a vitamin. As as a result, the solution is lost in the sea of sameness and ignored.

For example, suppose a sales rep for a drug company was pitching their latest innovation. “It’s a cure for the common cold”, the rep says. “A revolutionary formulation that uses patented ionic bonding chemistry to help boost your body’s immune system and ward off viruses 30% more effectively than good diet alone”. Sounds awesome right? But maybe I feel my immune system is good enough already. I eat better than most people. Heck, so what if I get a cold? I sniffle for a few days and ride it out right? Without a clear illustration of the pain, what should have been a pain killer has become a vitamin. The same goes for messages we see in the B2B technology space everyday. Messages like “consolidate your customer data”, “boost employee engagement”, or “reduce time spent solving customer support tickets”. They sound like problems but they’re easy to ignore.

So how do you help your band-aid solution stand out in a sea of people who don’t know they’re cut?  You cut them!

Of course, I’m not suggesting you deliberately harm a customer! Rather, you should adopt an approach that clearly conveys the problem you solve in advance of communicating the way you solve it. For example, at my third start-up, Rypple, we developed a modern performance management solution focused on providing employees with ongoing feedback, coaching, and recognition rather than a once-a-year performance review. Selling that solution in a mainstream way may invoke statements like:

  • “We help employees get the feedback they need to perform their best and grow their careers”
  • “We help managers become great coaches”
  • “We help promote your amazing culture by making winning behaviors visible”

Implying that employees don’t get enough feedback at work, managers can often be poor coaches, and your people do awesome things that not everyone sees. All fair points and all problems that have benefit to addressing. But also statements that are easy to dismiss. On the other hand, we found prospects were much more responsive to our pitch when we preceded those with messages with ones like:

  • “70% of people leave their company because of a poor relationship with their manager”
  • “Nearly all of your employees use the word HATE to describe how they feel about performance reviews”
  • “4 of out 10 of employees are actively disengaged at work and cost companies millions in lost productivity”.

Why did this approach work so well? The messages were striking. They were laden with specific and compelling statistics. And they invoked real business pains. In short, they made the customer realize that they were bleeding.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that every statement that emanates from your sales and marketing machine is pain-centric. But in a world where the modern buyer is inundated with pitches, seemingly similar solutions are more bountiful than ever before, and companies operate on the principle of inertia to survive in a sea of distraction, pain is what sharpens the point on the tip of your pitch spear. Without it, it’s easy for your pain killer solutions to be easily dismissed as a vitamin.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a simple approach you can use to find the ideal pain killer message for you business.

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