Pick one and own it

What if your company were allowed only one advantage over the competition?

What would a sales call look like, starting with your 30-second pitch, then dealing with skeptical questions, trying to earn this potential customer’s interest, respect, and eventually money, all with only one advantage?

Impossible, or just pointless?  Neither!


You should go through this exercise because this skill is valuable in every sales call. Sometimes you’re defending the few advantages you have over a specific competitor. Sometimes you’re arguing the virtues of small businesses over large ones. Sometimes you’re defending your product against what the potential customer perceives as a glaring lack of functionality.

Hanging your hat on just one advantage that you can own completely is stronger than diluting your message across many advantages.

And it’s not just in face-to-face sales calls either. Your homepage becomes laser-focused. Your advertisements become pointed, powerful, pithy, and other words starting with “p.”  Your 30-second pitch becomes compelling. You know what to blog and Twitter about. Your 5-minute product demo drives home a single point. Everyone knows who you are and where you stand.

And at least on this one point, you’re untouchable. Doesn’t that sound nice? It is nice.

But don’t you need lots of advantages to overcome sales objections and competition? No. Let’s see how to riff off single advantages, using them to answer a range of skeptical questions and concerns.

If nothing else, this should get your juices flowing and make future sales calls and marketing messages more effective.

Most Expensive

You: We’re the Cadillac tool — the most expensive, but also the best. I know, “most expensive” doesn’t automatically imply “best!” But in our case you get what you pay for.

Customer: Hmm, I don’t know, budgets are tight. We’re thinking of going open-source — it’s free.

You: Open-source is free like puppies are free. You don’t write a check to get it, but you have to support it for life. Your employee’s time is not free. Working around bugs is not free. Having nothing but the Web of Lies Internet to rely on for tech support is not free. See, we don’t line our pockets with that revenue, we spend it making you maximally effective.  We answer the phone on the first ring. When you have a problem, we connect you directly with developers instead of hiding behind off-shore Level 1 support. We’ll stay on the line with you at 3am as you work through a problem. We’ll do a conference call helping you through best-practices on using the tool for your specific purpose. We do things open-source would never do.

Customer: OK, that’s useful. But BigCorp offers 24/7 tech support too and they have consultants.

You: It’s quality, not quantity. Let’s get specific. We employ actual software developers for Level 1 tech support and email, so you’re talking to someone who not only can answer every question but can even read the code to get answers. You’re talking to someone who has the power and ability to change the code to fix a bug or add a feature. That’s an inside track that no big company will offer. And consultants? Our consultants write blog posts about best practices. Our consultants literally live and breath with the entire team every day. Our consultants train with the top experts in the field, who we can afford because we’re the Cadillac. You’re not getting someone who realized they can turn a buck installing high-priced software — you’re getting true experts giving you insight that only we can provide.

Customer: I’m also checking out SimpleCo’s tool. They’re much cheaper, and although they don’t have as many features, it seems simpler to use.

You: Just because they do less doesn’t mean they’re easier to use. For example, one of the reasons we’re expensive is that we integrate with 20 other software packages. That’s great for you, because it means we interoperate with more of your other tools — including that tool you’re going to buy next year but you don’t know it yet. But it’s not more complex for you, because if you don’t use an integration it has zero impact on your day-to-day use. There’s a myth that “more features are always more complex,” but that’s just bad user interface design. And yes, you guessed it, we can afford awesome user interface experts who help us avoid those mistakes.

Customer: But still, even if I agree with all that, I still have to justify the budget today.

You: When you factor in the cost of the tool, also factor in the cost of failing to be successful with the tool. To spend many months installing, integrating, training, learning, customizing, fighting, on the line with tech support, only to have it fail in the end — having to rip it out, then go through the whole process again with a new tool. Multiply that by the chance the tool will indeed fail. Sure it’s possible that any tool could fail, but with us — more features, better support, expert help — it’s less likely to happen. Oh, and besides the catastrophic expense, what’s the effect on your personal career? What’s best for you and your company is to bet on the best.

Obsessed with Quality

You: Software is so crappy nowadays, we expect failure. We expect bugs. We expect to be helpless, to just have to “deal with it.” At AwesomeCorp, we say that’s unacceptable.

Customer: Yeah…. so you’re saying you have no bugs at all?

You: No, I’m saying we’re maniacal about finding bugs, and when you find one we’re incredibly fast at fixing them. It’s not unusual to have a fix in under 24 hours. All software can have bugs, but no one is more committed to fixing them.

Customer: Well if that’s true, that’s good. But I’m currently trialing BigCorp’s tool and they have more features than you. I don’t know which we’ll need, but I have a problem buying a tool that doesn’t do much.

You: It sometimes sounds like “more feature bullet points” is automatically better, but you and I have used software that claimed to have lots of useful features that didn’t really work in reality. Usually the more features a product has, the worse each feature is. Try uploading a 1gig file to BigCorp’s tool — oops, it breaks! To us, saying you have a feature when in reality it’s full of holes is dishonest. We’d rather know we have fewer features that we actually stand behind rather than claim to have features that are just incomplete.

Customer: OK, I can appreciate that, but what about OpenSourceOrg’s tool? I know it doesn’t do quite as much as yours, but free is free!

You: Yup, free is free… until you run into a bug. It’s free until it crashes. It’s free until you notice there’s incorrect data floating around. It’s free until you need something and there’s no one to ask. Of course they say “you can fix that bug yourself” or “you can add that feature yourself,” but that ain’t free! And even if you invest the effort, if they don’t accept your patch you’ll constantly have to re-patch when you get updates. Bugs are a reality, and that’s when open-source starts to become non-free in a hurry. We, on the other hand, never charge you for bug fixes, even years later, because we’re 100% committed to quality code.

Small Company

You: If you haven’t worked with a small company before, you’re in for a nice surprise: Smart people you can actually talk to, people who care about what you need, people willing to go out of their way to make sure you’re successful.

Customer: I get that, but little companies fail all the time. How do I know you’ll be around to give me that great support?

You: You say that as if big companies are stable during recessions and accounting scandals! You say that as if big companies don’t cut entire product lines if they’re not profitable, or sell them off even if they are. It’s impossible to know when a big company is about to discontinue your product, and it happens all the time.

Customer: You say you have great support, but BigCorp is the one with 100 developers and support engineers willing to help me.

You: “Willing” to help you perhaps, but able? Typically the software developers are shielded by “Level 1 support” — people without power, certainly not the power to get your feature requests into the pool. In fact, wouldn’t you agree most tech support feels like a shield rather than a help?  And even if you get a bug into the pile or a feature onto the list, big companies release new versions infrequently, so you might have to live without it for a year. Not us. You get to complain directly to the engineers who can fix the problem in weeks — or sometimes days.

Customer: But they have 24/7 support. Do you have that?

You: No, we don’t pay folks we’ve never met $1.25/hour to answer the phone at 3am PST so they can tell you to reboot your machine and RTFM. Instead we pay actual software developers $70/hour to talk with you in person about exactly what’s wrong, either solving the problem or getting it fixed ASAP. Sometimes we even write special code just to get you running again, tiding you over until a proper fix is released. Try getting that from BigCorp!

Customer: Well if that’s true, that’s good. But BigCorp also has more features than you.

You: Do you really want your tools to have “more features,” or is it really that you want your specific needs met, and “more features” could potentially mean that more of your needs are met? We believe the point of software is to solve your problems and make your life better without incurring too much new expense in time and money. Even assuming BigCorp’s has one or two features you like today, what about in six months when you’re deep into the tool and realize there’s 10 more things you really want? Do you expect them to add half of those to their next release? Because that’s exactly what we’re going to do — hold proactive meetings to find out what you need to be most productive, and agree to add those as soon as we can. Don’t ask “Which tool will satisfy my needs today,” ask “One year from now, which tool will be satisfying my needs, including the ones I can’t foresee?”

Why try to defend 10 points when you only need one or two to make your case?

Why not focus your message, focus your behavior, focus your look-and-feel, and focus your sales pitch?

It’s already hard enough to stake out a niche in this massive world! Don’t dilute your message.

Do you disagree that fixating on one advantage is a good idea? Do you have other tips? Leave a comment!

17 responses to “Pick one and own it”

  1. Jason

    Your articles are always on point. They have the ring of authenticity to them because you have been there and done that. This article is a sales approach that will work tremendously for Owners that find themselves selling.

  2. Jason,
    An excellent article, but I don’t see why you have to own only one point. If a company has all the things you mention (quality obsessed, small, etc.), can’t they own ALL these points?

    My takeaway from your article was: anticipate customer objections before game time, and prepare your responses accordingly.

    At my company, we do just that — we have role-playing exercises where one person gives the demo, and the other acts as a prospect stakeholder in one of our target market segments: a small-company president, a big company CTO, etc. (The dialogs you’ve put together are like transcriptions of these role-playing exercises.)
    .-= Richard Wilner’s latest blog post: Difficult Projects and Silver Linings =-.

    • Well of course “one” is extreme.

      As an exercise to hone your message, pitch, and Rude Q&A responses, picking just one is a useful tool.

      In practice obviously more than one thing will be true! Still, the fewer the number, the more effectively you can argue for each.

      I’ve seen tradeshow booths where they have 10 different adjectives listed on their banner: Fast, easy, smart, scalable….. Certainly trying to defend 10 different positions is weak and unbelievable compared to, say, 1, 2, or 3. That’s really my point.

      • This is a great exercise ! If you find that you cannot defend a position, then you’re able to do something about it ! Once you’ve “secured” a point, you may continue with the exercise on the next advantage (if you have more than one ;-) ).

        Also, great story-telling format…I definitely need to improve my own writing, as this is much more compelling…thanks for the inspiration

        • Software guys (like me) find it much easier to create broad lists of features than work deeply on a single point.

          Hammering one point until you own it is truly hard. As I read the article, I tried to predict where the hammering could go – and failed miserably.

          This exercise forces you to dwell on benefits – not features. Which is all anyone really cares about anyhow.
          .-= Mike Schoeffler’s latest blog post: Seven lessons on Twitter crowdsourcing =-.

  3. I think you prioritize your benefits and hammer on the top three. One is not enough to convince a customer since they always want to know additional details. This, of course, is customer dependent. Some customers resonant with different things and your pitch should be catered to the individual customer.
    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: 6 Steps to Closing The Loop =-.

  4. USP, or Unique Selling Point, is an old idea that happens to be extremely important. Your sample dialog is terrific. I think it is OK to focus on more than one advantage, as long as each uniquely distinguishes you from the competition. If you don’t have a unique advantage, find one and build it in. If there is no competition, there will be if the idea is any good.

  5. You don’t have to pick one because you don’t often know what you will run into. Rather, the entire exercise above is a good example of how to be prepared. That’s not defending a poor marketing message which is scattered, it’s good sales. Never the less, I felt compelled to play along:

    Most Expensive

    Customer: Hmm, I don’t know, budgets are tight. We’re thinking of going open-source — it’s free.

    You: It’s not free, you just don’t make the first payment with Open Source. The install isn’t free because your people have to take many extra cycles to learn how to implement it. Training on the tool set isn’t free because those your technical staff have to figure it out on there own and there aren’t any certifications with Open Source. If you have a mission critical failure the help forums don’t operate 7/24, so what does it cost your Dumbco every hour this system is out of production genius (sorry, Mr. CIO).

    Obsessed with Quality

    Customer: Yeah…. so you’re saying you have no bugs at all?

    You: Not at all. We are just saying that it is understood that things break/stop working from time to time as that is the nature of software. Our customers know that it is acceptable as long as we immediately move to fix the problem. You can’t do that with open source/cheapco low cost support because they won’t get to your problem until a future release.

    Small Company

    Customer: Well if that’s true, that’s good. But BigCorp also has more features than you.

    You: Right and we do that on purpose because we have found that BigCorp can only sustain it’s out of whack prices by adding more features which you don’t end up using. So you are paying extra money for something you don’t need. We charge a very competitive price but our solution performs exceptionally well over BigCorp because we put all of our engineering effort into being excellent at what really matters. We do this because our customers indicated this is what mattered most to them.

    Thanks Jason, this was fun.

  6. I’m a marketing copywriter and my clients are mostly in the tech sector. What you’re saying applies to products and services as well as companies. Mostly, my clients want me to to talk about ALL the features in their products without any sense of priority. If you try to be strong everywhere, you end up being weak everywhere. My job is to talk about the most important feature(s) as seen from the reader’s perspective.
    .-= Matthew Stibbe (Bad Language blog)’s latest blog post: The best plays in London – Jerusalem and Twelfth Night =-.

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