Why marketing your services using “features and benefits” totally misses the point

How often do we solo entrepreneurs, freelancers, and self-employed pros fall into the same trap that plagues online dating? Me, me, me, I, I, I, my, my, my…

Take Tinder, for instance. For any non-millennials reading this, Tinder is a dating app that connects you with potential romantic partners via Facebook, and you get to pick whether or not you want to chat with that person–based only on the person’s Facebook profile picture.

Love it or hate it, people are using it. To meet the love of their life? Eh, probs not.

It’s like somebody bundled up everything people hate about online dating, social media, and ADD and infused it into an app that drains more time than Minesweeper back on Windows 95 (guilty as charged).

tinder….you’re doing it right

I’ve never met someone whose ideal modus operandi for meeting love interests (or casual acquaintances, let’s be honest here) was online dating. Definitely nobody’s first choice to meet The One. Google “i hate online dating” and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

So many profiles to choose from, pretty much all of them self-focused. In a world of shameless six-pack snapshots and duckface selfies, it’s all about me, me, me, I, I, I, my, my, my. Ugh. We read profiles where guys brag about their conquests inside and outside the bedroom, profiles where girls drone on about the drama of a (terribly recent) past relationship…but they hate drama. Seriously, don’t bring your drama, cuz they hate drama!

Sounds a little dramatic to me. Hmm…

Anyway, so I was deep in thought about this matter of hating online dating. Okay, #1 how deep can you get when pondering online dating, seriously? And #2, the ending of the last sentence rhymed. Totally unintentional (it’s past midnight, don’t hate).

We poke fun at the foibles of online dating, yet how easy is it for us to fall into the same “selfie” trap–where everything is all about us, not our clients.

The other day, I was at a business function a colleague invited me to, and there a web developer introduced himself. As you often see amongst the self-employed, there was a ton of stuff about what he did and how.

My firm develops custom CSS, and we’ve mastered the art of PPC…blah blah blah…premium WordPress plugins we’ll implement for you…blah blah blah…oh, and apps, we develop those too! We do blogs!..blah blah blah.

Gee, was it shallow of me to tune him out totally after less than ten seconds? Probably. Would you have? I noticed the small crowd surrounding me paid the poor guy no mind by the time he’d finished his spiel. Is there something he missed about human nature–the same thing I missed when I set up my Tinder profile and talked about my mad piano skillz and unflappable character qualitiez? If it tells you something, I got like 4 “mutual likes” out of probably thousands of potentials. Ouch. Burn. Tear!

See, this web developer had followed all the rules of self-promotion we hear peddled by the motivation gurus and “dream manifesting” experts (wtf is that even). “Talk about what you do in terms of features and benefits!”

Features and benefits!

Features AND benefits!


It’s like Meghan Trainor taught us, “Because you know I’m all about those features, ’bout those features…and benefits!

Yeah. No.

Since you’re in the world of self-employment–doesn’t matter if you’re a crusty veteran or a toe-in-the-water noob, you’ve heard it by now anyway–what have you found to be the #1 laziest tip to “do marketing”?

Go to business networking events!” And what are you supposed to have prepared for these events?

Your 30-second commercial!” And what are you supposed to talk about in your 30-second commercial?

Features and ben–you get the picture. Boooo-riiiing.

Whether you appreciate my irreverent writing style or not (if you’re still reading this, you totally dig it), by this point you’re probably wondering where all this is going…

If not features and benefits…then what? How are we supposed to communicate what it is we actually do as solopreneurs so prospects will want to work with us?

And therein lies your answer. It’s twofold–“communicate what it is we actually do” and “so prospects will want to work with us.” The unchallenged-til-now assumption is that the features and benefits of your services will make prospects want to work with you.

But what if people hired you for their reasons, not yours? What if the features you offer and the benefits you provide are as “nice” yet irrelevant to your prospects as the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s slogan “Free Smells” is to famished people who don’t have a dime to their name?

Let’s talk about Bob. Well, that’s what we’ll call him. That’s his real name, actually–Bob.

Bob is a recent acquaintance I’m fortunate to have made. He’s an older guy, a real trooper of sales training who knows his sh$t and can outcompete the best of ’em.

I’d overheard Bob telling a friend of mine how he helped a client raise her salary from $30,000 a year to $300,000.

As soon as I introduced myself, Bob restarted the next story he had begun telling my buddy. I’ve found that older folks love to share personal stories to those who’ll give them the time of day, bless their hearts.

Anyway, Bob told of a potential client he was trying to sell an upscale computer software system to. The thing would help the prospect and his entire office improve their productivity, eliminate redundancies in operations, and put bookkeeping processes on autopilot (generic benefits). The thing was $25k+ because of the program’s intricacies and a bunch of other things I don’t remember (over-my-head features).

But Bob was a smart cookie. He had NOT talked about the benefits or the features of the software system. Instead, he asked things like (again, not talked)

  • When things get really busy around here, what do you have employees do to make sure they focus on the really important stuff and not get bogged down in menial tasks?
  • Why do I have the feeling that keeping track of accounting records is not something you want to fool with, but don’t really feel like you have a choice?
  • What would it mean to you to be able to cut your hours here in the office from 60-plus a week to about 45?

Three sentences later, Bob made the sale (and got a hefty commission check).

Want to know what he said? We know he didn’t talk about the software itself. Nor did he say with eyebrow raised and gelled hair slicked back, “You would like to buy a software that saves you tons of money, wouldn’t you?”

And Bob definitely didn’t offer a coupon, a two-for-one, or some other kind of lower-price tactic. Remember, being the cheaper option is neither a feature nor a benefit. It’s a bad idea, just like setting up your pricing plan as an hourly service. You’ll find out sooner or later that clients will want to cut corners just to save a buck, which means less time you’ll spend working on the project, which means a drop in quality which means your portfolio will be “meh.”

Not a game you can win. If the people you’re talking to are that concerned about saving a couple hundred bucks, you’re in the wrong room. Or wrong cafe, as you saw when we realized we can (and should)  charge a LOT more for our services.

So what were the 3 sentences that closed the $25k sale for Bob?

After Bob asked the prospect what it would look like to go from 60+ hours in the office per week down to 45, the prospect said quietly…

“I would never miss my son’s soccer games again.”

Bob smiled. “This software will make that possible for you. Why not test it out for 60 days, and if you’re not standing on the sidelines cheering your son on and telling him how proud you are of him for giving his best shot, you’ll get a full refund, no questions asked.

The prospect waited a few seconds to respond. “Did you bring two copies of the contract with you?

There you have it. “Features and benefits” from the perspective of the software itself had nothing to do with it. Bob listened to his prospect give him his reason for buying, thereby allowing the guy to sell himself! At that point, Bob was offering a chance to fill a major hole in his prospect’s business–and heart.

Features and benefits aren’t evil, of course. You have to know what you do, how you do it, and why you do it. If you don’t have these basics down pat, wtf are you doing being in business for yourself?

At the end of the day, features and benefits aren’t enough. You’ve gotta answer the biggest question every prospect has…

So what?

Fortunately, you don’t have to be the clever one, relying on your experience, intuition, or what that marketing podcast told you to say. All you have to do is ask “them”-focused questions, questions that are totally focused on their situation and have nothing to do with you.

I once heard it said that, when interviewing customers as part of market research, the #1 way to validate your idea for a new product is to not talk about your idea. Same goes with this.

Let’s apply this to you, today. You’re a designer. A copywriter. A coach. A programmer. You create beautiful logos. You write red-hot copy. You help people reach their goals. You command computers with your fingertips to do your clients’ bidding.

Now that’s what you do for your clients. But why did they hire you to do it?

I’ve asked clients this question point blank, and the initial responses are usually along the lines of “you came at the recommendation of a friend, your rates fit my budget, the timing was good to get something like this done finally.” In other words, total BS. That’s why you’ve got to dig.

Just as Bob asked his prospect about the circumstances surrounding his need for the software system–and not try to drum up interest in that software–so you too must ask your clients about the circumstances  that surrounded you working together.

Here are a few questions to get you started. These will help you get into your clients’ heads to uncover the reason why they bought from you–and give you a compass for connecting with future prospects. These also double as instant testimonial-makers, as you can transform their answers (with permission) into glowing recommendations of you and your services.

Questions that’ll help you discover why future prospects want YOU in the first place:

  • What prompted you to commit to us working together on your [type of project] earlier this year?
  • What did you enjoy most while working on this project?
  • Working on this project together resulted in [what they actually got from working with you, a website, a coaching experience, etc.] that enabled you to [how their life/business has improved because of your work]? How is this benefiting you now? What are you able to do now that you weren’t before?

Leave a comment below telling how you’ll go about asking these questions to past or current clients. You’ll most likely be shocked–and greatly encouraged–by people’s responses. Good luck, and hustle on!