Jun 15

Web Developers Can’t Sell. Sorry.

I used to work at Dell selling computers to the consumer market. This is the trenches of selling. I could tell you about how your flat panel monitor would reduce eyestrain and cut down power usage and why a Centrino processor would make your computer run cooler and therefore extend the battery life. I dealt with hardcore geeks and some of the least technically savvy people on earth. Needless to say, it was a learning experience.

I’ve also sold ecommerce software to mom and pops and to the likes of the Barack Obama campaign and Crutchfield. That means I’ve had to explain what CSS is to a total newbie, but I’ve also had to explain the exact PCI settings in place for a hosting environment.

I’ve seen too many websites created by web developers and designers who have never had to explain a product to someone. If you are a developer explaining to a developer, that’s one thing. However, too many products on the web are actually consumer products that never seem to escape the echo chamber of the web geek, and that is a shame.

As someone who has been on the phone and answered the questions your website doesn’t seem to answer, here are my tips:
1.) Lead with benefits, not with features. Whether you are developing software or selling it on your website, your focus should be “What problem does my product solve?” Most people don’t come to you looking for specific features. They come to you with a problem. If you lead with features, you are forcing your audience to think in your framework, i.e. software, vs. their framework, i.e. um, fix my stupid problem. It’s like telling someone a car has Fortera TripleTred tires instead of saying “These tires are safer in the rain.” Most people aren’t familiar with that tire so it means nothing to them and you are probable making them feel stupid if you assume they should.
2.) Know your audience. Your app is going to make you rich and famous. You are going to be playing craps in Vegas and drive a fancy car, right? That’s why EVERYONE must buy it. Guess what? Software is really competitive. If you don’t pick a niche and really dominate that niche, your online message AND your app will be a muddled piece of crap.
3.) Don’t get too dumbed down. What is your app and what makes it exceptional? The hardest part to a website is the one-liner, but if you can answer it effectively, you’ll convert a lot more.
4.) Have a brand your employees and customers can be proud to recommend. Yes, this means spending money on an actual designer and forgoing ridiculous stock images of people around a computer. Seriously. Stop it. Even though your app should speak for itself, they rarely do. It’s amazing how many crappy apps have customers because of good branding, and how many good apps have no customers because of crappy branding.
5.) Um, listen. People ask you questions about your software. Guess what? Put the answers on the website. The more frequently a question is asked, the more prominent the answer should be on the site. The better your site is, the less time you can spend on the phone explaining your software to them. Take that extra time to go on vacation. Yay.

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  • pablo

    Geeks are really averse to the idea of convincing, lying or assuming things not evidently true (a screen nicer on your eyes). It’s part of their jobs.

  • http://www.stagirainc.com Jason Stoddard

    Brilliant. (subtitle: Post Modern Formalism 101 in UI, UX and IA)
    .-= Jason Stoddard´s last blog ..The Twitter Birthday Project: Using Twitter Lists to create Project #IamSovereign =-.

  • http://structure.no/ jp

    This is all very true. The problem is that technical people like myself get so “saturated” with technical jargon that we loose the ability to focus on the simple things.

    The phrase “write a book” becomes “ATOM compatible CMS solution with XSLT support”.
    .-= jp´s last blog ..People should really check out the Nokia… =-.

  • http://www.ryancoyner.com Ryan Coyner

    Haha, my thoughts exactly. It’s a problem that also exists in management; a lot of engineers don’t know how to talk business and a lot of managers don’t know how to talk in tech. Being able to explain a technical product in plain English is vital.

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle

    @Ryan Agreed. A great project manager always seems to be the glue between it all.

  • http://www.zideck.com Luke

    If you want to know whether someone is an engineer or a business person, just ask them about their product. Anybody who is a true engineer will immediately start explaining how the product works. On the other hand, a business person will explain what the product is for. It is important, both as an engineer and a business person to be able to adjust your thought process for the situation.

    PS: Great article.

  • http://www.mcsquare.me Charly

    Hi Michelle,
    Great article there, just discovered it trought hackernews, well done on this. I’d bookmarked your Blog and will add it on mcsquare asap, can’t believe, I haven’t discover it sooner.

  • Elena

    Geeks can’t improve their designs because they must keep themselves focused on technical details. You can’t be a genius at mastering both technicalities and usability and marketing.

    Luke, you got it: “Anybody who is a true engineer will immediately start explaining how the product works. On the other hand, a business person will explain what the product is for.” Do switch perspective whenever you want to be the former or the latter.

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  • Doug

    Hi, I’d just like to say that as a consumer, I hate when salespeople “lead with benefits” instead of describing what their product actually does. It’s true that I don’t want to hear about Fortera TripleTred tires, but I ALSO don’t want to hear an unfounded, generalized assertion that “these tires are safer in the rain.”

    This is especially true with software, that is usually a much more complicated user experience than tires, which you generally install and ignore until they go flat. Don’t tell me how it’s going to change my life until you’ve told me what it actually is.

  • Michael Campbell

    And a horse can’t pull a semi trailer, either. Not terribly enlightening.

    And I suspect Web Developers can sell a hell of a lot better than Salespeople can code. =)

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle

    @Michael,

    You are absolutely correct! Most salespeople can’t code and wouldn’t bother to learn. That’s why marketers like me give props to coders for doing a good job at what they do best.

    This was written because I had two clients who were coders who challenged even the most basic marketing studies. It was very painful and is more common than you may think.

  • Sunchild

    I see the opposite trend: web developers are getting better and better at displacing traditional sales and marketing functions every day.

    The web has made it very easy for “geeks” to study hard data about sales and make incremental improvements on ROI that threatens to expose the “dark arts” of traditional marketing (which has no meaningful metric for ROI, BTW).

    Yes, some people can sell anything to anyone. Is that the virtue that is being lauded here? By that measure, late night infomercials are the benchmark for success.

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  • Jonas B.

    My experience is that you don’t need to be “exceptional” in almost all circumstances, “what problem does my app solve” is what’s interesting. Dell computers is actually a good example, hardly anyone can call them exceptional in any way but they work and they are cheap. Hence, commercial success.

  • Michael Campbell

    I feel for your months of pain – no fun to have your work and advice ignored, I know. I hope things are better for you now!