What's the Benefit?

Glass Ashtray

As I mentioned in my previous column, being able to articulate the benefits of what you’re selling is one of the keys to the whole process—but "benefits" are widely misunderstood.

A memorable exercise at sales training school was that groups of us were given glass ashtrays (remember ashtrays? Back when people used to smoke?). Our instructor told us to write lists of its features, their functions—and the benefits of those functions.

What was—and still is—widely misunderstood about benefits is that they get confused with "functions." Take that glass ashtray. A feature of it is that it’s made of glass. What’s the function? It’s easy to see through. For many people, that’s enough—the benefit of glass is that you can see through it. Wrong! We were taught that the benefit is always described in terms of “what it can do for you." And, as we eventually found out, that needed to be extrapolated in most cases into “How does this save me—or make me—money?”

OK, so it’s glass

So, back to the glass ashtray. The function of glass is that you can see through it. The benefit is that, because you can see through it, it’s easier to see whether it needs cleaning—so you save time and, by extension, you save money because the see-through nature of the glass helps you be more productive. 

We would be encouraged to take this to the nth degree. "Glass" might be the feature, but that feature could have multiple functions—and benefits. A function of glass is that it is fire-resistant, so a smoldering cigarette left in it won’t cause it to catch fire—and set fire to the building. Avoiding fire damage is, of course, a money-saver… Another function of glass is that it goes with pretty much anything—so one ashtray can be used in multiple different settings, eliminating the need to buy multiple ashtrays. You get the picture?


I’m exaggerating (slightly…) for effect. The point is, though, that what I hear way too much of these days is confusion between a function and a benefit. All too often, we stop short at the function as if that’s the benefit. We demonstrate some cool piece of software, and point out that the ZappMaster routine (the feature) eliminates all code errors. We sit back, proud that we’ve articulated the benefit of ZappMaster. Wrong again! The fact that it eliminates errors is the function, The benefit is that by automatically eliminating errors, it saves time—and money.

We were taught that articulating benefits was absolutely key to the sales process, on the basis that no one buys something for what it is, or even what it does. It’s all about what it does for them. In the B2B world, that’s invariably how it saves the business time—and, as I noted above, money. (Or, of course, the benefit can be that it helps them make money: whichever it is, the benefit is always financial.) In the B2C world, it’s slightly different, of course—although much of what we buy is about saving us money, or making us more productive. A factor that comes into play in the consumer world (that should, in fact, never be underestimated in the business world) is “What does buying this say about me?”

That’s a consumer motivation that has propelled both Apple and BMW to where they are today…

Ian McMurray's picture

Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

More Posts