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Relevance Contextualises Customer Benefits

Most sales and marketing professionals are familiar with the term customer benefit, and use of the word benefit is pervasive in all aspects of sales and marketing activity. Transforming features into benefits is the raison d’etre of everyday sales and marketing activity. We are all implored by textbooks and consultants to ‘sell the benefits’. So, rather than describe what something is, such as a cell phone’s memory size and its operating system, as sales and marketing professionals we are trained to explain what the solution will do for the customer, such as organise your time or help you find a place to eat in a strange town. In the consumer world our products will make you happy; in the business world our solutions will help you compete, get to market faster or make more money.

We believe that the language of benefit inadvertently locks sales and marketing professionals into the idea that value is pre-given by the supplier and exchanged rather than co-created. The idea of relevance adds to this traditional way of understanding products and services by emphasising the process of continual value sense, checking to unlock how the customer determines what they regard as a benefit in the first place.

Relevance-making is something that informs the pre-emptive value calls that salespeople make about customer value but does not determine what that value truly is, because only the customer can do that. Relevancemaking allows the salesperson to engage in proposing value without going as far as being pushy and presumptive and trying to tell the customer what value is.

The issue of relevance-making was brought home by Eric, the CEO of a national facilities management company, when he told us:

Now if we’re not careful and we keep just cookie cutting the same thing out, without ever taking a step away with the client to say is it still relevant, the ultimate worst case scenario is that the property director of the customer sees somebody else’s work and says wow, that’s really sexy and current, I’ll talk to them ’cause my suppliers aren’t adding any value to this process.

With this case in mind we might paraphrase Ted Levitt’s famous statement in his 1980 Harvard Business Review article ‘Marketing success through the differentiation of anything’, where he refers to suppliers who are offering something that is meaningfully different as instead ‘offering something that is relevant’. Only the customer can select what is relevant to them.

Relevance-making is inextricably linked to how people notice things that are new and different. As soon as we become aware of something that gets our attention, we immediately try and work out its relevance to us. This is a deep psychological instinct that originally helped early man decide if some?thing was a threat to life or something that could enhance it. Billy Clark from Middlesex University in London in his book Relevance Theory (2013) says:

as we look, listen to and perceive the world we are looking for relevance.

In more everyday language, software systems account manager Monica told us about how she understood purchasing managers qualifying of contact approaches:

they’re trying to cut out the rubbish and that’s the way they do it.

What this means is that relevance is the way in which customers select suppliers. Back in 1912 Schiller defined relevance in his article similarly titled ‘Relevance’:

Relevance is the product not an attempt to include everything, but of an effort to get rid of the rubbish, to select the humanly valuable part, and to exclude, reject and ignore the rest... The ‘relevant,’ therefore, stands out of a chaotic whole as a selected extract.

In modern marketing language, relevance is what customers use to cut through the noise from the multitude of suppliers clamouring for their attention and identify value proposals that are meaningfully different. Alf, the CEO of an industrial window manufacturer, described to us how he handles initial supplier approaches:

When the value offer gets through to me, then it would be to do with whatever at that moment is going to add value to the company, my customer or the shareholder, it has to add value, to do something.

We can characterise the special nature of relevance as follows:

Customer’s relevance selectivity:

  • • It either is or it isn’t
  • • The offer relates to the matter in hand
  • • The offer is functional

To re-emphasise the point, the supplier cannot impose relevance on the customer. The customer will determine relevance in the following way:

It Is or It Isn’t This means that customers judge if the proposed solution and or the salesperson has value or not. There is no halfway house where the customer thinks ‘that’s almost relevant to what I need’.

Related to Matter in Hand This means that the value proposal made by the supplier has to be related to a significant matter in hand; in that sense it needs to be sensitive to context by being topical and pertinent to a specific problem or issue, not vague. It also allows the supplier to demonstrate market sector knowledge and professional expertise and specialism. The customer’s matter in hand might be an immediate crisis or a long term strategic concern.

Functional This means the proposal has the evident potential to achieve commercial or aspirational goals (it is a means to an end), which in turn requires a clear grasp of the customer’s priorities, which can only be known through dialogue.

In summary, for the customer the value proposition and proposer need to signal to the customer that the proposition contains, as Sperber and Wilson (2012) define it, ‘information worth having’.

Relevance focuses our attention on what is the matter in hand in the customer’s world: what is pressing, and what is strategically important.

 
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