Are you selling a vitamin or a painkiller?

Vitamin, or Pain-Killer?

Which conversation would you rather have?

Initial exchange with a friend: “Would you try my new product/service/idea?”

Response: “Of course, it’s great!  I love it!”

2 Weeks later.

Asking the friend again: “Are you still using my new product/service/idea”

Response: “Yeah, it’s great!  I love it!  I can’t imagine living life without it”


Response: “Yeah, it was great.  I remember it was great.  It’s a really neat idea, but I don’t use it that much.”

Of course, you want to be having the former conversation at the end of the 2 week period, where the product, service, or idea that you propose to a friend (or share the value with a prospect) results in filling an unmet need on the other side.  You can do this by providing a painkiller (solving a problem that causes the person pain) rather than a vitamin (nifty idea, nice to have, makes you feel good).  In software land, I need to help customers identify their pain so that we can find the features they want to use (and, ultimately, to pay for) rather than just the features they think would be neat to use.

Identifying a real, rather than shiny/sparkly, need

If the prospect you’re dealing with is lower on Maslow’s needs hierarchy (water, food, shelter, etc) and you’re not selling one of those needs you might think it’s difficult to identify the real needs that person has and to identify their pain.  Asking the prospect about their everyday activities is a great way to find the latent needs they don’t know that they have.  “Tell me about your everyday work.”  “What are the things that you do frequently?”

When you hear that someone is repeating the same process over and over again, it might be a good candidate for a pain-killer.  When you hear that same need from other customers, it might be a common problem that would lend itself to being solved and would provide benefit for a larger number of customers.

Real life examples are sometimes murky and combine both Vitamins and Pain-killers:

  • It would be neat if … your application behaved the same way on the web as it does on my mobile device (vitamin: I like the mobile device and want my data everywhere.  pain: inconsistent UI makes it hard for me to do what I want to do with your application.  )
  • You should definitely export your information to system XYZ (vitamin: the customer wants to know system XYZ is supported.  pain: the customer uses common data in system XYZ 20 times a day and thinks your application can make that process better)

Externalizing the need to make it more concrete: why would someone else use it?

You can make this process more concrete for the customer by asking why someone else would use the information.   The act of explaining why someone else would use the product feature or why it would solve their pain helps to weed out the “nice to have” features from the “must have” features.  Sometimes it makes the need go away — and other times prompts the customer to stack-rank that need more highly among the things she finds important.

The Best Way to Figure This Out: Listen to the Customer

The best way to figure out whether you are selling a vitamin or a painkiller is to talk to customers and understand their pain.  Then, you’ll have a better idea whether you are selling a product, service, or idea what you can do to address the pain and make the customers aware of the solution.  There’s no magic bullet, but the more people you listen to, the better you’ll be at expressing what the customer wants, not just what you think would be useful.

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