You’ve worked your butt off opening an insurance brokerage. People walk in the door and you sell them insurance. Or do you? We often choose our job and career because we like the job or the product or the industry. “High tech is fast-paced and exciting,” my friends exclaim as they dive head first into the Next Insanely Great Thing. It becomes easy to fool ourselves into believing our customers think about our product the same way we do. Yet our long-term survival depends on knowing what we’re really selling.

Selling the product when customers buy the benefit

Since we don’t know what customers are buying–only what we’re selling–we think we’re selling our product. To find out what customers are really buying, look to the benefit they’re getting. Verizon needs this lesson. My next door neighbor has had an unlisted phone number for the last 40 years. She recently heard that Verizon is now reporting phone bill payments to credit card agencies. She called and complained. “My account number is my phone number. By sharing my record, you’re violating my privacy.” The customer service rep smartly informed her that she’s paying $5/month to keep her number from being listed in the directory. She’s not paying for “privacy.”

Guess what? He’s wrong. The only way Verizon used to share her number was through the directory. People who wanted privacy would pay for an unlisted number and they were covered. Now that Verizon gives out numbers in databases, etc., they seem to think that customers won’t mind unsolicited calls as long as the calls didn’t originate from the printed directory or 411. Poppycock! My neighbor is buying privacy, and Verizon is going to lose $5/month unless they start selling privacy, and not just an unlisted number.

Sometimes customers are buying the interactions

What if you’re selling a commodity? Customers get the same benefit from any other producer of your commodity. But the experience of buying from you might be different. Customers might be buying that experience.

My local bookstore (www.PorterSquareBooks.com) charges full retail prices in a community full of techie geeks who love Amazon.com. They’re not just doing well, they’re thriving. Why? Because they’re not selling books. The physical layout of the store is light, airy, and open. Books in the center of the store are on tables, while the bookshelves line the walls. Freestanding bookshelves are arranged so aisles open into the middle. No matter where you are in the store, you never feel hidden or isolated. Shortly after opening, they added a cafe where people can sit, read, and work. Next, they started having book readings by authors, book clubs, and the like. Despite the higher-than-online prices, the bookstore is almost always buzzing with people. Because even though they make money with a commodity, books, they’re selling something far rarer today: community.

Selling community is very different from selling books. It means expanding into areas that bring people together, that encourage interaction, and that create a sense of belonging. Amazon sells books, and they’ve expanded product-wise. Now you can buy lawn furniture, too. Yippee. Recently, Amazon has added Blogs and Wikis and other community elements, but I’m convinced. Amazon online will never be more than a pale imitation of Porter Square Books in-person.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Ad companies don’t sell advertising campaigns. They sell sales.
  • Consulting companies don’t sell hours, they sell advice and/or results.
  • Media placement companies don’t sell ad impressions, they sell prospect calls.
  • Clothing stores aren’t selling clothes, they’re selling identities.

Take the time to understand what your customers are buying. Are they buying your product or service? Are they buying the benefit they get from your product? Are they buying the interaction around your offering? Understanding what you’re selling is the key to knowing how, why, and where to go next to grow your business.

Know what you're really selling; it may not b…

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