Do you sell the drill or the hole? Putting the urban legend to rest #sales

Today, we’ll challenge the age-old chestnut, what your customer is buying: the drill or the hole? Spoiler alert, none! They’re neither buying the drill nor the hole.

And this urban legend story has been used by sales and marketing people to help others identify the difference between a product and its benefits. In our example, the product is the drill, and the benefit is the hole.

So, what will you learn from this? Number one, how to better speak to your customers; you will be writing much better copy that attracts the right audience and gets more conversions in your sales funnel or your marketing communication. Number two, you will have a much better perspective on positioning your product to your customers. Number three, you’ll also better understand why your current approach and style when selling the drill is not working with your intended target audience. And finally, I’m going to share some fun stories about how I approached this while running my agency and developed this skill and framework.

So let’s dive right into it. But, first, let’s look at the world view of the people who make and sell the drill. They have a product-centric view of the world, focused on our product, our technology, our people, our features and the benefits customers get from using our product or service. And they seldom talk about the outcomes.

Here’s something fundamental: benefits are not outcomes, and outcomes are not benefits. It’s the context—the why and the who shifts our perspective from a product-centric to a buyer-centric view.

Now, look at the example of the drill versus the hole analogy from a buyer-centric view. Focus on who is using the drill? And why are they using the drill? Is it a construction worker who depends on his drill every day? Or is it an artist trying to build an installation? Or is it some handy person who likes to fix things around the house?

Knowing who, how, what, and why paints a vivid picture of the different use cases. And the benefit in all those instances is that the drill makes a hole. But the outcome is very different. And by having cognitive empathy for your buyer, you can begin to look at the world view of how they will interact and live with your products. So even though they’re all making holes, the intention and context are very different.

And why is understanding your buyer’s context important? Because of how you will communicate with them, the messaging you will use in your sales and marketing efforts to target them in a specific way will change dramatically. We can all agree when you’re talking to a construction worker versus an artist trying to build an installation; one might care more about the technical aspects, the other might care more about the aesthetics, and both of them will care about different features. They will care about various reasons to buy that product, and you can communicate to them in a way that resonates with them.

So why does your communication flop in campaigns, presentations or pitches? Reason: you are trying to speak to all of these people from a product-centric versus a buyer-centric view. You want to focus on how and why they’re using your product.

I want to share some fun stories of how I built this framework over time through real-world experiences while running my agency. The first story dates back to when I was a teenager, and at the time, I was probably the only person with a CD recording device and an internet connection at home. I had “exclusive” access to some of the best songs, and I would burn CDs and sell them to my friends. Having that monopoly, I would speak to my friends and peers and learnt, through curious conversation, that they all had a different reason for buying them. For some, it was a status symbol to impress their friends and girlfriends, and for others, it was a passion for listening to the songs on repeat. Same product, different use case! By having this information, I was able to jack up the price! Capitalist, Paul!

Number two is the iPhone. It speaks very differently to the creative community and creators who use its camera to take pictures or record videos versus stock traders who keep an eye on their portfolio versus product or interior designers who use its 3D and depth-sensing technology. Now, what’s interesting is that Apple is very well aware and has loads of cognitive empathy towards these different use cases. If you were to scan the Apple website, you would notice that they very clearly speak to diverse audiences by communicating the outcomes, the benefits, the features and putting use-cases centre stage (who, why, how).

Another fun story, I know people back home in India who would buy the most expensive iPhones but won’t even purchase a data connection. For them, it was never about the features. Instead, it signalled other people that they had a lot of money. That’s it. So just by observing people around you and applying some cognitive empathy, you can be aware of how people think, talk, act, and feel about how they use your product and why they use it. That gives you the fuel to communicate to that audience precisely.

What about books? And you might have observed this with your friends and family. Some people purchase books because they want to read them. Reading one book a week, are we? Others buy books for ornamentation; because it just looks pretty in their house on the shelf. Having a pulse on how the product will live in your buyer’s world and what outcomes they care about helps you shape and articulate your offering to demonstrate your understanding of them better than they do.

Another controversial example is a sports car. For some it is purely a status symbol or a license to fraud people on how to make money online. And on the other end, you have an auto enthusiast who cares about every little detail about how the car rides, how it feels, the engine sound and things of that nature.

All the previous examples seemed pretty simple, right? What about B2B? Salesforce, a very complex product, has many diverse stakeholders who will care about very different things when using the product. And let’s say Salesforce is trying to sell/license the product to a large organization; that large organization will have a buying committee, and that buying committee will care about very different things.

As a salesperson in an enterprise environment, trying to close the gap and sell to the buying committee of a large organization, you have to have cognitive empathy for not only the stakeholders comprising the buying committee but the end-users. And you understand not only the benefits and features but the outcomes. Armed with that knowledge, you can begin to craft messages that speak not only to the features, the benefits and the product but how different stakeholders will use that product.

The frontline sales workers capture leads and prospects into the CRM, whereas the CEO will care about the global dashboard view of what’s happening across the organization. My goal is not to get into the weeds of selling Salesforce to a large organization and how to craft those messages. My intention is only to help you shift your perspective from a product-centric view to a buyer-centric view. And to clarify and re-emphasize that benefits are not outcomes and outcomes are not benefits. They’re very different things. And by having this buyer-centric view, you can demonstrate to your customers and buyers that you understand them better than they understand themselves—using this simple framework (who, how, what, why).

A buyer-centric understanding of the world will give you exponential results in your sales, marketing and advertising efforts because your messages will just hit differently. And finally, if you have any questions, drop them in the comments below, and I will be happy to answer them.


By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.