Selling that Technology: Functions, Features & Fools

We got a lot of pitches from technology companies at the recent HR Technology show in Chicago. Each of us asked vendors “What are the top 3 things we should remember about your firm?” and often we were met with blank stares; a litany of functions and features; or, that rarest of all, a polished set of messages any analyst or prospect would love.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

Post 2 – What we saw at the HR Technology show

Katherine Jones and I got a lot of pitches from technology companies at the recent HR Technology show in Chicago. Each of us asked vendors “What are the top 3 things we should remember about your firm?” and often we were met with:

(a) blank stares, (b) a litany of functions and features, or, (c) that rarest of all, a polished set of messages any analyst or prospect would love.

Since Katherine took the lead in yesterday’s post, here’s my take on what’s wrong with function/feature selling. Does any of this apply to your technology firm?

The Pareto rule usually applies here as 80% of the technology pitches I get aren’t that good. The solutions are derivative, unoriginal or packaged poorly. Sometimes, the presenters are pretty bad, too. But, thankfully, 1 in 5 might actually have a couple of good nuggets within them.

I like vendors that understand who they are, the customers they serve, how their solutions add value and what direction/vision these companies have for the future. Their stories aren’t just interesting, they’re engaging and relevant. Marketers and sales people love these companies as it’s easy to sell something that sells itself. Marry great positioning with talented sales people and you’ve got a potential best seller on your hands.

Technology marketers often sell functions and features. Their copy and presentations are choked with TLAs (three letter acronyms). You’d get a headache reading the stuff if only you could understand it. Here’s the way many of you start your pitch with me:


Vendor: “Brian, glad you could make the call today. We’re introducing a revolutionary new upgrade to our 37-year old data center management product: B-Zerko. This tape backup and punch card scheduler now has a virtualized human interface that permits remote SOA in a non-SQL platform on quad-core processors. Additionally, we’ve added support for flat-files, virtual tapes and semantic scheduling of off-line paradigms. We think customers are really going to see the value these new capabilities bring to this product.”

Me: “Really? You think customers will go crazy for this?”

Vendor: “Absolutely – We’re even telling our VCs to get the IPO ready! This one is going big time!”

Me: “Does this upgraded product have a new name?”

Vendor: “When it was in our development lab, we called it Project Boring. But, now that we need to sell this baby, we’re calling it the B-Zerko Annihilator!”

Me: “Does it slice, dice and make julienne fries? Does it come with a bamboo wok steamer?”

Vendor: “Better! It now comes with 44% more acronyms. Several of which we’ve invented just for this product. For example, we’re telling customers about IVD – Infinite Value Delivery – that’s the time it will take for customers to get any real value from this solution. We’re also discussing Q-squared. This stands for Questionable Quality. This software is still in pre-Alpha so we’re not sure it’s working yet. However, Q-squared lets our customers take advantage of our most dangerous, unsupported and dubious products as early as possible.”

Me: “I get it that you’re excited about this. But how do you know that customers really need this now?”

Vendor: “Brian, baby, we’ve been collecting user requirements for over 34 years. This new product version incorporates some of the features people have been wanting for over two decades.”

Me: “Such as….”

Vendor: “Like a stable release, like a release that works on the customer’s technical platform. Do you know we sold over 22,000 copies of this to customers with CICS/VSAM environments and our product didn’t support this? Now it does – sorta.”

Me: “So you’re just getting around to honoring commitments made decades ago?”

Vendor: “Hey, it’s not like we lied or anything. Every vendor does it. But, now we can say that we have tested this product for over 30 years. Most of the bugs have got to be out of it by now”

Me: “So what’s next? What’s the future hold?”

Vendor: “Glad you asked. Lately, we’ve been hearing there’s a lot of buzz around two new, emerging technologies. I don’t know if you’ve heard about them but they’re called the Internet and cellular phones.”

Me: “Are you sure they’ve got staying power?”

Vendor: “We’re still on a wait and see status for them and this other thing called Unix. We’ll schedule another briefing when we think they’re gonna pop.”

Me: “Well, be sure and do that then. Oh, look at the time! I’ve got to run to another call”


What technology marketers need to do is steal a page from the consumer products marketers. They need to sell the ‘experience’ of using a great technology not its functions and features. They need to cultivate the ‘feeling’ one has once they strap on the industry leading accounting package. That sort of marketing is called ‘experiential’ marketing.

Here’s how it works.

McDonalds did the ultimate function/feature ad years ago. It featured a hamburger’s bill of materials set to music. Who doesn’t remember: “ two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun”? Later, they went experiential. Those ads showed scenes like a dad and his son near the store window, having breakfast. The sunshine is beaming in through the window, the son is thinking about the soccer game he played and the dad is beaming with pride. What McDonald’s isn’t doing is touting the calories in that sausage biscuit the dad is eating. They are trying to connect their product with good memories.

Coca-Cola did the same thing with the young folks on top of a mountain singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”. If Coca-Cola was sold using the function/feature approach, we’d get an announcer proudly declaring the percentage of corn fructose syrup, caramel coloring, caffeine and other ingredients found in the 20 oz. polycarbonate container replete with a reusable, plastic screw top fastener. Try and convince me that function/feature advertising for soft drinks sounds appealing. It isn’t for soda pop and it isn’t for technology.

I saw a car ad that simply showed a good looking, 40-ish couple driving a convertible down California’s Pacific Coast Highway in the twilight hours. They were enjoying the drive and the creature comforts of this vehicle. Not a word is spoken during the ad. Only the car maker’s logo appears at the end of the spot. If a technology marketer got to do this pitch, it would be a loud recitation of the function/features of the car’s engine. We’d hear all about the engine’s gaskets, its chrome/moly piston rings, its 4-valves per cylinder, etc. and we’d be bored to tears. Mind you, some of us might want to hear it but most want to live the life of the good-looking guy driving the hot car with the hot babe down that highway.

So, you’re going to call on your next technology sales pigeon/prospect. What’s your approach going to be: function/feature or experiential? I sure hope it’s the latter.

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