Skip to content

Try Selling Sand

by David Brock on May 14th, 2013

As much as sales people try to sell solutions or sell value, too often they fall back on great products.  They focus on product, features, functions, feeds and speeds.  Recently, I saw a “sales playbook” from an enterprise software company.  It was 121 pages, of feature by feature comparison of their product to competition, “Our date field is structured this way, which is better than the competitors………”

Too often, particularly with organizations with great, hot, or complex products, our selling is really about the product and nothing else.  We limit ourselves, we frustrate the customers.  As great as our products may be, for the customer it’s not about the product.

We work with lots of organizations whose products have become commodities.  Some of them sell sand—well, it’s silicon for semiconductors.  Others sell basic materials like chemicals.

They face the ultimate selling challenge—how do you differentiate your solutions when your product is not differentiated?

How would you change how you sell when you are selling sand?  When your product is not different than the product your competitor sells, how do you set yourself apart, maintain your margins, and win business from someone else that’s selling exactly the same product?

What’s amazing, by circumstance, these sales people understand it’s not about the product.  That customers buy for a huge number of reasons that have nothing to do with the product that you are selling.

These sales people sell differently.  I never see PowerPoint decks proclaiming the features, functions, feeds and speeds about why the beach they got their sand from is better than the beach competitors get their sand from (I can imagine the beaches in Fiji being decimated.)  I never see 121 page playbooks talking about the molecular superiority of their sand.

They realize the customer is buying much more than the product.  There are all sorts of things beyond the product that are important to the customer.  It may be supply chain management, logistics services, reliability of supply, risk mitigation.  They focus on the entire customer buying experience, making it easy for the customer to buy.

They exploit intriguing strategic alliances, perhaps coming up with unique formulations that help their customers better service their customers.  While their product is consumed in manufacturing, they work with design to make sure the product is being utilized as efficiently and effectively as possible.  And often, they realize it’s the sales person herself that’s the differentiator.

When your product is a commodity, you have to create value and differentiation on things other than the product you ship.  How you sell, and what you sell changes profoundly.

How would your selling change if you sold sand?

Now imagine you have a great and differentiated product.  What if you are selling complex enterprise software, a complex manufacturing or design system, professional services, something else?

How would your competitiveness change if you combined the lessons one learns from selling sand, with a great and differentiated solution?  You would become unbeatable!  You will have broken the magic code—one that customers tell us every day, but we don’t listen to, what the customer buys is not just about the product.  It’s about so much more.

Any time you are struggling in differentiating your solutions to the customer.  Imagine your product is sand.  Imagine your product is exactly the same as all others your customer is considering.  Now what do you do?  How do you create value, how do you differentiate yourself, how do you get your customer to buy you?  If you need help, just ask your customer.  They really don’t care about the product, they care about what they are buying.

Could you sell sand?

 (Today, Matt Heinz wrote a related article you should read, The Commodity Sale Is Dead. Thanks for the inspiration Matt.)

Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

Be Sociable, Share!
Please follow and like us:
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Great Blog, Dave. Selling a commodity is NOT easy, but is it a commodity? If the Customer is only going to use three criteria Price, Delivery and easy to buy……..then you had better be easy to buy from!

    As I have been involved in Golf Course Construction, Management and Maintenance, I thought you might like a quick view about Golf Bunker ‘Sand’.

    Or, when is Sand NOT a commodity!

    • Brian, as always, thanks for the comment–and the humorous interlude. On the comment side, the differentiators like being easy to buy from (not in words but in execution) are critical, but too often overlooked — in execution. There are so many other areas critical to truly differentiating yourself when your product is a commodity.

      I appreciate your article on Sand—I learned more than I ever thought I could about the complexity of sand 😉

      Is there a sequel article—When Is Sand A Hazard? (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

  2. Brian MacIver permalink

    Hi Dave,
    your superb short blog “teed” me up perfectly!

    And, just so the key points are not lost, you rightly highlighted that even commodity buying is more than a product spec with a price list.

    Selling is getting beyond the product into HOW the Buyer is going to use it or apply it, that is when Value has to be constructed WITH the Buyer.
    Again, great and timely blog!

    PS I train “Objection Avoidance”, it’s the Sales Equivalent of Golf’s AVOIDING the Bunkers, by taking one more club!
    In Sales find another one more Need and add more Value!

    • Brian, thanks for continuing to “chip” in to this discussion–we need to stop this 😉

      Seriously, it’s such an important lesson Buying is not about the product, but what the customer is trying to achieve–and how we help them achieve it, both with the product and all the other things they are trying to achieve. We build value with the buyer, engaging them in problem solving conversations.

      I may misunderstand the title “Objection Avoidance,” so we will have to get into another discussion–I’ll write a post. I don’t think we want to artificially provoke objections, but I’m not sure we want to be construct our strategies to pre-empt of avoid objections. Objections are very powerful. First they tell us customers care. Second, they give us insight and the opportunity to learn something from the customer–driving the conversations much further and deeper—-your point about finding one more need and adding more value. (By the way the “driving” was unintentional)

      Regards, Dave

  3. Well put Dave. Nice metaphor with the sand.

    What differentiates us in the eyes of our customers and prospects is not what our “stuff” does, but what we can do “for them” with our stuff. I know “stuff” sounds a little demeaning to the great products and services we offer (said with tongue firmly planted in cheek). At the end of the day, it is simply stuff until we make it specific and personal for the buyer.

    We fall back on what our stuff does because it is hard, especially when we first engage, to have insight into the specific, personal value for a prospect. Much easier to fall back on product descriptions. But hard work can be done, and the impact on our selling efforts is immeasurable.

    It also separates the high-performance winners from those that muddle along.

    Thanks for the great insight!

    • Great comment Jim–as always. I think we talk about “solutions” instead of products, in an attempt to look at the broader capabilities of “what our stuff does.” But, I think where we have fallen short with solutions and solution selling is that it is still an inward out driven approach rather than a customer driven approach. What we really need to focus on is solutions buying–what the customer wants to achieve.

      Thanks for the great comment.

  4. Hi David, great thought provoking article. Interestingly, here in Ireland we literally sell sand to the Arabs! The reason being that desert sand not suitable for mixing with cement to make concrete. So the Arabs have a problem making concrete, Irish sand provides the solution.

    • Colly, thanks for the comment—next thing you’ll be telling me it the Irish sell Ice to the eskimos and Guinness to the …. Oh well 😉

      My friend Brian MacIver actually provided a link to a very interesting article on the different types of sand—at least what to look for in building golf courses.

      Seriously, though, I always appreciate your visits here! Regards, Dave

  5. Sand is all in your mind — if you think you are selling a commodity, then you are about to be replaced by an auction device.

  6. If you can have a –

    “121 pages, of feature by feature comparison of their product to competition”

    Put it up on your website and add a “Buy Button”.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Insight, Co-Creation, De-commoditization | Partners in EXCELLENCE Blog -- Making A Difference

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS