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How to sell the best thing since sliced bread

July 15, 2013

As headlines go, Sliced bread is made here is perhaps not the most eye catching in newspaper history, but it was splashed across the front page of Missouri’s Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune in July 1928, marking the moment the world discovered the greatest thing since, well, ever.

Its invention, 85 years ago last week, overtaking the wheel as man’s defining achievement (stick with me on this), spelt an end to hacked-up loaves. At the time, it was groundbreaking, the challenge had been to slice bread without making it go stale.

Otto Frederick Rohwedder managed to do this, designing a machine that could slice and wrap bread in one fell swoop, holding the slices together tight enough to keep it fresh. A prototype he built in 1912 was destroyed in a fire and he lost his blueprints;  it wasn’t until 1928 that he had a fully working machine ready and could earn him a crust…

The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company, producing their first slices on July 7, 1928. Still, perhaps the truly greatest thing about sliced bread (apart from sandwiches) is the phrase it created.

W.E. Long, who promoted the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country, pioneered and promoted the packaging of sliced bread commercially. The origin of the phrase the best thing since sliced bread is largely attributed to the marketing of America’s Wonder Bread – one of the first major sliced bread brands Long developed for the mass-market nationwide in 1930.

But what’s so brilliant about sliced bread anyway? Who wants sliced bread when, given a relatively primitive sawing implement, you can hack off doorstep-sized wedges from a lovely hunky loaf? Why have flimsy, feeble-looking slices when you can have vast, rugged chunks of yeastiness?

Clearly, the innovation of sliced bread is one that rocked the bread making industry to its core and must save sandwich companies untold millions every year, but to the average ten-slices-a-day consumer like myself, what difference does it really make?

I admit it’s easier to remove two evenly cut standard sized slices from a plastic packet than struggle with a squashy granary and the prospect of a crushed sarnie with a hole in it that’s going to let your mayo escape, but why is this 85 year old saying still knocking about? Perhaps it’s something to do with the phrasing rather than the meaning. Perhaps best thing since sliced bread rolls off the tongue rather more easily than best thing since the iPod Nano.

We have heard many innovations referred to as the best thing since sliced bread, it’s an idiom similar to selling like hotcakes, but we know that one is a stroke of genius and the other ridiculously marketable. So what, in fact, is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Nothing is, as sliced bread is clearly not great enough to make the idiom make any sense at all – yet we all still use it.

Most entrepreneurs dream of making the kind of disruptive innovation like sliced bread that not only lifts their business but also changes the world. But starting out with a big idea, and then creating a product and selling it requires you to establish your value proposition, a short statement that clearly communicates the benefits that your potential customer gets by using your product. You may believe it is the best thing since sliced bread, but that’s not enough.

A value proposition boils down the complexity of your sales pitch into something a customer can easily grasp and remember. It needs to be specific, simply describing the features or capabilities of your offer is not enough. Your value proposition must focus closely on what your customer really wants and values – your customer wants to solve problems, to improve on existing solutions, to have a better life, build a better business or do more, better, faster etc.

Why should I buy this product? asks your customer, and your value proposition must answer this, in a compelling way. In creating a good value proposition, the trick is to know your product well, know how it compares with competitor offerings and importantly, put yourself in your customer’s shoes to see it from their perspective.

Your value proposition can be created step-by-step, by answering a series of questions. Once you answer these, you have the ingredients to create a value proposition that answers your customer’s question, something like this:

Step 1: Know your customer Thinking from the perspective of your customer, ask the following: Who is she? What does she do and need? What problems does she need to solve? What improvements does she look for? What does she value?

Step 2: Know your product From your customer point of view: How does the product solve the problem or offer improvement? What value and hard results does it offer the customer?

Step 3: Know your competitors Keep on thinking from the perspective of your customer, and ask: How does your product create more value than competing ones?

Step 4: Distil the customer-oriented proposition The final step is to pull it all together and answer, in a few succinct sentences: Why should I buy this product? Try writing from the customer viewpoint by completing the following, and don’t forget to include the numbers and percentages that quantify the things that matter: I want to buy this product or idea because it will…The things I value most about the offer are…It is better than competing products because…

Now, turn around your customers ‘thinking’ from step four into your value proposition statement.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that you sell high-end lawn mowers, and you believe they are the best things since sliced bread. They have rechargeable electric battery powered motors and special blades. Your ideal customers are enthusiastic gardeners, with large gardens, and cash. You’re at the top end of the price range, and there are large brands dominating the market sold via national retail chains. You sell online only.

Step 1: Know your customer Your web site enquiry is from a businessman with a large ornate garden, who enjoys the “relaxing feeling” of cutting his own lawn, but gets bored by the job when it takes too long. He’s looking for a good quality of cut, for the job to be done quickly and enjoyably.

Step 2: Know your product Your product is a ride-on mower with a rechargeable electric motor, 25 horsepower (powerful) engine and 45 inch wide cutting blades.The mower has special die-cut blades that cut wider and also closer than the competition.

Step 3: Know your competitors Your product is the only ride-on mower with a rechargeable electric battery, making it cheaper to run and easier to maintain. You also offer a 5-year warranty when your competitors offer just 3-years.

Step 4: Distil the customer-oriented proposition Our mower cuts your grass in 50% of the time of the ‘big brand’ mowers in its class, it leaves the lawn looking beautiful! It’s environmentally friendly and cheaper from an energy consumption perspective, and easier to maintain.

You can summarise the above into a simple, but powerful, four element framework based on ‘customer value’ as a sales conversation, and again ‘live in your customers world’ when preparing it:

  • Features – the product description
  • Benefits – this is what it will do for you
  • Impact – the return (outcomes) you will get
  • Evidence – proven from other customer testimonials

Of course, selling online and not via a direct retail channel means your web site will have to capture all of the above in an engaging way. However, use of video, with clear product information supported by customer testimonies can create an effective customer experience, supported by efficient payment and fulfilment operations. How you do business is also part of your value proposition, don’t lose sight of that.

Now your best thing since sliced bread product is positioned from the customer perspective, you should be selling based on customer value and not cost. Value based selling means you get a better price for what you do. How do you do this? Here are some thoughts for a Services based business:

  • Don’t sell the Service, sell the outcomes Resist describing your Service as a simple check list of activities, instead use language about outcomes – for example a tax advisor provides knowledge, assurance, reduced risk and compliance – in place of listing functions and hours by members of staff to justify the fee.
  • Always negotiate price before the work begins. This is when you have the most leverage. Many law firms consistently make the mistake of  starting an assignment before a price is quoted to the client.  The time to price a job is before you start on it, because this is when it has the most perceived value with the client.
  • Be willing to walk away. Otherwise, you have no leverage. This is the toughest advice for most firms to accept, but it’s like buying a car, unless you’re willing to walk away from the deal, you have no hope of getting a better price.
  • Ask clients what they think the assignment is worth Remember that value is subjective. Very often, clients believe an assignment is worth more than you would have guessed.  If you price an assignment on value instead of hours, it’s worth asking the question.  You’ll often be surprised. Remember, what’s it worth to them is how they perceive the value of your offering.
  • Provide pricing options Clients will often pick the middle one! I often use a tiered pricing approach, giving my clients price options based on features and benefits, and ‘bundling’ my offering.  For major assignments this is a sound strategy.  Set your pricing based on the assumption that most clients will select the middle tier.
  • Never lower your price or do stuff for free to justify your price Instead, add value. If you’ve done a good job of pricing in the first place, you should never agree to simply discount your services to win a job.  This degrades your standing with the client.  Think of it as pricing integrity.  If the client wants to pay less, offer less, or you could offer some added value for the same price, such as documentation or training – but respect yourself.
  • Be creative in pricing, and be just as creative in setting the terms. Sometimes it isn’t the total price that causes concern, but rather the fact that it will be disruptive to the client’s cash flow.  So be creative in setting the terms, certainly if it’s a new client and the upfront payment terms can be positioned as helpful for them, as a one off, you’ll create a win-win opportunity.
  • Value adding through your personal knowledge, experience and expertise. This is the most important, unique and effective value based pricing asset you have – you are the best thing since bread. The lines between price, quality and performance are blurred, so that your personal expertise must be used to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Position yourself as a trusted advisor and you’ll prove too valuable to lose.

Value is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.  This means determining value is much more art than science.  Selling value is also an art, but one that can be learned as outlined above, so avoid the default to ‘our hourly rates are £x based on our cost’  or’ we’ll discount this by 20%’ – respect yourself and your product or service, don’t discount or give your time for free – ‘free’ has the value perceived by the customer as to what they pay for it, but the opportunity cost to you of ‘free’ is significant.

For a product or service claimed to be the best thing since sliced breadWhy should I buy from you? is one of the most important, yet often unasked and unanswered questions a buyer has on their mind. The best thing after sliced bread is sliced bread, and innovating is not the challenge, making it happen in terms of selling and pricing sliced bread is the key.

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