The German philosopher Heidegger famously distinguished between objects that are “ready at hand” and objects with properties. In other words, when we use a product (an object), we’re not usually focused on the product itself -- its fancy label, its color, and so on -- but on what it does for us. Heidegger used the hammer as an example: We don’t look at a hammer as, well, a hammer, but as something that can drive in a nail to help us do something like build a house. Only later, maybe, will we ponder the hammer as a hammer.
How does this apply to a business? Quite simply, customers don’t care as much about that your product is as what it does -- and what it does for them in particular. Sure, they care about the product and will think about it as a product, but first they need to see how the product can add value to their lives. Only then will they “look up” and notice things like color, size and, yes, pricing. It’s vital that you understand this sequence of events.
How to Sell Dreams (Not Features)
Our company develops property management software that customers can access through the cloud. But while we know that customers appreciate the features of our product, we also know they don’t appreciate those features in and of themselves, but only because those products let them accomplish their immediate and long-term goals.
We refer to this as customers “doing what they want to do.” Notice we don’t presuppose what any given customer’s goals are. For some customers, it’s managing their business more efficiently so they can spend more time with their family. For others, it’s saving time on management tasks so they can acquire more properties to manage.
There are almost as many large and small reasons as we have customers. But the point I want to make is that our customers have problems they want to solve, and by solving those problems, they can achieve their dreams.
How can your business get into the dream business? Here are a few questions to ask:
- What do your customers want to achieve at work? What are their goals? There are the everyday short-term problems and the “in order that” goals or dreams. This is where the concept of buyer personas could be helpful.
- How are they trying to achieve those goals now? Ask them this question. Then Listen, listen, and listen some more. Chances are, the solution they’re using now isn’t very inspiring or elegant. It’s just the best bad solution out there. There may well be an opportunity to introduce a better mousetrap.
- How can your product or service help them achieve their goals? Notice that you’re not leading with your “breakthrough” product or service and making the conversation about your “breakthrough” product or service. Rather, you’re starting with the customer (or prospect) and making it about their needs, goals, desires, and yes, their dreams. This should be the primary focus of your marketing. Mention features, sure, but only as a means to an end. Sell the dream, the vision, and not just toilet bowl cleaner.
Remember, your company isn’t in the business of making shampoo, cars, or software. Not really. Your company is in the business of making your customers’ lives easier, helping them achieve their goals, and living happier, more fulfilled lives. Anything you do that gets in the way of that is a mistake that should be corrected immediately.
If your company can help your customers achieve their dreams by accomplishing their goals, then your product stands a better than average chance of success. How so? You avoid the features “arms race,” the constant tit-for-tat comparisons with your competitors, and it lets you focus on your value instead of your price (no more low-cost leader worries).
Focus your business entirely on learning about your customers’ dreams and making them come true. It’s the best way to accomplish your own dreams of business success. And, as we like to say, it’s just the right way to run a business.
Dimitris Georgakopoulos is the co-founder of the property management software company Buildium in Boston, Mass., where he’s in charge of making sure Buildium sells dreams before software.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.