May 19, 2009

The Swiss Army Knife Paradox and it’s implications for your sales proposition

Lessons from rich and retired entrepreneurs
A client of ours turned for advice to some rich and retired entrepreneurs who had recently sold their business to one of the big vendors. How did they do it? What advice did they have for others? How to build a business that a vendor would ultimately want to buy? These were just some of the questions.

The Swiss Army Knife paradox
Now, the conversation threw out many nuggets of information, but there is one that I wanted to highlight in particular. It is called the Swiss Army Knife paradox – a clear way of explaining something that we have long held to be true. Let me explain.

A Swiss Army Knife has many uses –screwdriver, nail file, scissors and much more besides. If you are a MacGyver type who is struck in the wilderness the Swiss Army Knife is the ultimate penknife, combining 20 plus tools in one.

Now, the temptation for every company is to continually develop its product, or solution, in a similar fashion to the Swiss Army Knife – adding new functionality in an effort to make it do everything and serve everyone. That our rich and retired entrepreneurs emphasize is not a good idea. It will result in a product that is harder to sell to customers. Paradoxically the more your product does the less attractive, or certainly the more confusing it may be.

I will let them explain: ‘If your product does everything then that is just plain confusing – people like to pigeon-hole your company and your solution – clearly defining what it does and does not do. If you tell them it does everything for everyone you run the risk that they may not believe it, and in particular that they will continue to search for a specialized solution that is specific to what they see as their own special needs. ‘ When it comes to selling your company the same applies they explain.

'It does everything' is not a selling point.
From our point of view we continually hear buyers complain that salespeople stretch credibility because of their reluctance to say no to any question about product functionality, or scope. Does it do this ‘’yes’’ does it do that ‘’yes’’, oh and it is ‘full integrated’, ‘feature rich’ and does it incorporate ‘full reporting functionality’? Saying yes all the time may be one yes or one promise too many to convince the buyer that your solution does everything that you say.

Buyers want to hear what it will not do.
Buyers tell us they would prefer if salespeople would come clean and say what their solution does and does not do. They would much rather, for example, hear the salesperson say ‘our solution does not provide reporting, most of our customers prefer to use their existing reporting tools, what our solution focuses on doing better than others is on gathering the data in a way that is faster, more accurate and less bandwidth intensive…’

The Swiss Army Knife Sales Proposition.
Back to the Swiss army knife, if you need to tackle a screw then it cannot compete with a screwdriver, that is, if you have access to one. So the sales proposition and real value of the king of pocket knives is not that it contains 21 tools in one, but that it fits in the pocket and is great for situations where you don’t know what you may need, but like a good scout you want to be prepared for. Just like your solution, when you think about it, the knife cannot legitimately claim to do everything, unless off course there is no full toolbox in sight.

So avoid the Swiss Army Knife Paradox. Being explicitly clear on the unique value of your solution is key and putting limits on your claims as well as your product’s functionality makes sense.

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