Features, Benefits, and Discriminators

Customers buy benefits. Sellers offer them with features. Discriminators help customers decide which seller’s benefits best meet their needs.

Introduction

We commonly refer to the features and benefits we offer to customers. However, it is important to keep in mind that customers are sold on benefits, not features. Yet many businesses fail to look beyond their seller’s perspective to create valid links between features and benefits.

Deep understanding of your customer’s needs, competitors’ offerings and discriminators, and your own capabilities (features) and unique characteristics (discriminators) allows you to communicate compelling, substantiated benefits to buyers.

Here is a simplified way to think of features, benefits, and discriminators:

  • Features = What
  • Benefits = So What?
  • Discriminators = Why Us (and why it matters to you)

Best Practices

1. Understand your customer’s needs.

When you have identified an opportunity, you assume that your capabilities can potentially fit the prospect’s needs. The sales/opportunity process explores that fit. It builds the relationship necessary to understand the benefits your prospect values and expects to obtain through the purchase. Prior to your written offer, hold collaborative sessions to determine advantages as potential benefits.

Advantages are solution concepts discovered during customer collaboration. Advantages apply your features to a potential customer need. If confirmed by the prospect, the advantage becomes a benefit you should leverage in your written offer. In your written offer, document the confirmed benefits in feature/benefit tables.

2. Develop and evaluate competitive intelligence.

To develop features, benefits, and discriminators, you must gather and analyze data about customer needs, likely competitor approaches, and your own solution. Then, you’ll turn that data into intelligence about key features, corresponding benefits, and true discriminators.

Competitive intelligence is a key element of developing effective features, benefits, and discriminators. It can be gathered by competitive intelligence professionals inside an organization or consultants outside of it. In other cases, competitive intelligence is collected and evaluated by the sales team and knowledgeable resources inside the company. In all cases, the trick is to process the information in a way that drives positive discriminators and highlights features and benefits of your offer in comparison to your competitors.

It is not enough to know what requirements a customer may include in a solicitation. You must also determine why those requirements may be included.

It is also not enough to know which competitors are planning to bid. You must also gain insight into what they will offer, at what price, and most importantly, what the customer thinks of them.

When you have completed this analysis, take the intelligence you have developed and complete a bidder comparison matrix that scores the capabilities of all significant bidders against the “what” and the “why” of the requirements. Try to reflect the customer’s perception of both your team and your competition in your scores. If you do not consider the customer’s point of view, you will likely have the highest scores. Full honesty in this exercise is difficult, but important for success.

The next step is to document the strengths and weaknesses of each player using a SWOT analysis. Many strengths and weaknesses will surface during the bidder comparison exercise to justify the scores selected for each team. Others are known characteristics that may not be directly related to this opportunity. Examples might include recent changes in company leadership, legal actions or judgments, or rumors of merger and acquisition activity. Competitor weaknesses are opportunities for you. Strengths are considered threats. When completed, this SWOT analysis will drive your win strategy.

3. Determine your discriminators.

Maintain a clear focus on the customer’s perceptions when determining your discriminators. Sellers readily fall into a trap of “drinking their own bathwater” when deciding that what they are offering is unique. Relying on your brand as a discriminator is a common mistake in this area. While it is true that no one else can offer a solution with your logo on it, that alone does not constitute a benefit. Your past performance may support your claim, but it is the people, processes, and tools applied to successful customer engagements that are the discriminators, not your brand.

Figure 1 depicts the intersection of customer needs, competitor capabilities, and your own capabilities. Discriminators lie in the single segment where you offer something that no one else does—and it matters to the buyer. No other set of conditions fully qualifies as a discriminator. However, you can convert a feature that both you and a competitor have to a discriminator by offering a unique benefit around it.

Figure 1. Discriminator Sweet Spot.

Figure 1. Discriminator Sweet Spot. Look for your discriminators at the intersection of customer needs and your capabilities.

4. Use feature/benefit tables.

Tradition refers to tools like the following table as “feature/benefit” tables. However, to best demonstrate your understanding of a customer’s needs, place benefits in the first column and features in the second, not the other way around.

Below is a sample feature/benefit table organized to reflect what the customer wants to buy before what the seller is selling (benefit before feature).

BENEFITS THAT MATTER TO YOU FEATURES OF OUR OFFER
Accelerated schedule delivered to your end users 30 days sooner than required 93 percent reusable components from an existing, operating installation
Reduced lifecycle cost of $50,000 per year through shared support services Helpdesk, training, and refreshment leverage existing infrastructure and staff

5. Quantify the potential value of benefits.

Would you rather buy a car with a backseat large enough for a family, or one that seats five adults comfortably?

It is entirely possible that these are descriptions of the same vehicle. However, the second seller has made a measurable value proposition to the buyer, while the first seller raises additional questions in the buyer’s mind. (How big is a “family”? Are these children or adults?).

While customers buy benefits, both tangible and intangible, quantified benefits are more compelling than those that do not deliver a measurable value proposition. You must also be able to prove the quantification. If the seller cannot show a photograph of five adults in the car, the buyer won’t believe other claims.

Quantified benefits can also be useful in establishing performance metrics for contract execution. When the contract resulting from your proposal will be performance based, make every attempt to quantify benefits throughout.

It is not always possible to quantify benefits. In those cases, tying benefits to the buyer’s mission or goals will strengthen their value. Using the buyer’s own language in describing benefits builds customer focus in your offer and reinforces the perception that you understand your customer.

6. Apply the “So what?” litmus test.

To make sure that your benefits are not just reworded feature statements, ask yourself, “So what?” after you read them. A feature statement will not answer the question, while a benefit statement will provide a clear answer. Benefits result from features and are responses to customer problems.

Technical contributors who clearly understand the significance of highlighted features have the greatest difficulty distinguishing the difference. For example, the engineer who calculated the 93-percent reusable components in the table may argue strongly that the reuse alone is a benefit.

For this reason, it’s best to ask someone who does not have a technical understanding of your solution but does understand the customer’s perspective to evaluate feature and benefit statements. To help customers select your offer, you want your benefits to be self evident. Do not allow customers to draw their own conclusions about the value of your features.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Mistaking features for benefits

Applying the “So what?” litmus test can help proposal developers distinguish features from benefits. However, this requires writers to detach themselves from a solution and look at a proposal from the customer’s perspective. Sellers, particularly incumbent contractors, also fall into the trap of thinking they know what the customer really wants, which may be different from what they have requested.

Summary

  • Features are your organization’s capabilities. Benefits result from features and are solutions to customer problems. Ultimately, customers buy benefits, not features.
  • Determine your discriminators by assessing what the customer needs that you can offer better than any other competitor.
  • To ensure that you have distinguished correctly between features and benefits, apply the “So what?” test. Benefit statements should provide clear answers.
  • When possible, quantify the value of proposed benefits.

Terms to Know

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