711: The Value Sale: How to Simplify Your Message and Close More Deals | Ian Campbell

Podcast Cover Image: The Value Sale: How to Simplify Your Message and Close More Deals Featuring Ian Campbell
Podcast Cover Image: The Value Sale: How to Simplify Your Message and Close More Deals Featuring Ian Campbell

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Are you ready to unlock the secrets of proving ROI and winning more deals in the digital age? Join us as we dive deep with Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research and author of “The Value Sale: How to Prove ROI and Win More Deals.” Ian spearheads the company’s investigative research approach, product set, and overall corporate direction.

Renowned for his expertise in technology ROI and TCO analysis, Ian is a sought-after speaker at both industry and business events. His insights have been featured in prestigious publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.

Ian’s influence also extends to academia, where he teaches an executive course at Babson College and is a guest lecturer at institutions such as Stanford University, MIT, and Harvard University.

Join us as Ian shares his invaluable insights and expertise, providing actionable strategies to help businesses thrive in the digital age.

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The Value Sale: How to Simplify Your Message and Close More Deals


Jeff Tomlin: Welcome to the Conquer Local Podcast! Our show features successful sales leaders, marketers, thought leaders and entrepreneurs who will inspire you with their success stories. Each episode is packed with practical strategies, as our guests share their secrets to achieving their dreams. Listen in to learn the highlights of their remarkable accomplishments and get tips to revamp, rework, and reimagine your business. Whether you’re a small business owner, marketer, or aspiring entrepreneur, the Conquer Local Podcast is your ultimate guide to dominating your local market. Tune in now to take your business to the next level! 

I’m Jeff Tomlin, freshly back from the Dominican Republic and rocking the plaid because I’m home and freezing my butt off!  And on today’s episode, we’re pleased to welcome Ian Campbell.

Ian is the CEO of Nucleus Research, where he’s responsible for the company’s investigative research approach, product set, and overall corporate direction. A recognized expert on ROI and Total Cost of Ownership analysis of technology, Ian frequently speaks at industry and business events. He’s been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and the Financial Times.

Ian teaches an executive course at Babson College in Massachusetts and is a frequent guest lecturer at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, MIT, Harvard University and Boston College.

Get ready Conquerors for Ian Campbell coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local Podcast.

Jeff Tomlin Welcomes Ian Campbell, a Data-Driven Economist, to the Podcast. 

Jeff Tomlin: Ian Campbell, hey, it is a special privilege to welcome you to the Conquer Local Podcast. How are you doing today, sir?

Ian Campbell: Doing well, Jeff. Really appreciate it, thanks for having me on the show.

Jeff Tomlin: Hey, you know, there’s a special place in my heart for people that are data-driven scientists when it comes to the world of sales. And by the way, looking at your history here, I also have an economics degree, a fellow economist, or at least economic degreer. 

Ian Campbell: Yeah, I like to say there’s a physics to economics, that economics drives everything, ultimately. So it’s sort of the pure science that’s really just sort of fun to watch. But yeah, economics, deep down in my heart, that’s the true science.

Consider Value and ROI when Adopting New Technology. 

Jeff Tomlin: You know, when I got out of university with my economics degree, the only thing I knew for certain about what I wanted to do is I knew I did not want to be an economist when I got out into the real world, but I think it gave me a good foundation. Hey, let me jump into the conversation here. There’s something that’s been at the top of my mind. You know, at Vendasta here, we’ve been going through a number of the different systems that we use. Typical business, if you look at a small business or small- to medium-sized business, you use several dozen pieces of software, you get up into a company that’s up in 100 more people, you can easily have over 100 different pieces of software driving different aspects of your business. And changing it is the last thing I want to do, and considering new pieces to build in and integrate together is a headache. So I know that you have a process for thinking about these things. So what are some of the top things that you consider in your process, but how to get people to consider, think about, and adopt new technology in today’s world?

Ian Campbell: So we really look at value, does something deliver value or not? And look at things like payback period, how long until you achieve value? So if we take a look at a lot of companies that traditionally have big software deployments and they’ve got a lot of different software pieces like you point out, and they’re trying to figure out, “Do we do the next thing? Do we continue to integrate? Do we layer on new software? What do we do?” The first thing we tell our clients, and really anybody we work with, is, “Take a look at the software you have and realize that most of it has already covered its payback period. Most of it’s already covered its cost.” So you can think of it all as a sunk cost. So rather than think about, “Do I integrate something, do I try to fix it, do I try to continue on with something that may not be perfect for me?” one of the things to really use is financial metrics, and say, “This thing, this piece of technology I’ve already delivered, it’s covered its cost.” So I can start to look at new things and say, “Will I get back a positive ROI if I consider something new?” It’s not a bad thing to scrap your current CRM system, for instance, because something better has come along, the old one doesn’t fit anymore, because that old one already covered its cost. So, really, the idea of sunk cost, don’t think about layering and building. Think about whether it’s time to destroy and rebuild, because often, that’s a better long-term decision for you, and that’s sort of a barrier a lot of companies really have to get over. “I’ve already spent the money, okay, because we already covered my cost, think about something new as potentially being a good strategy.”

Value Sells more Effectively than Pain Points in Sales. 

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, I like that a lot. You know, in one of the discussions that I was having with one of my colleagues the other day, we were talking about pain, and you have to be really good at quantifying pain, but I know that one of the things that you note is that a lot of buyers that you talk to don’t actually have a pain point. And so in those types of situations, how do you help buyers, or sellers, rather, create value in the conversation?

Ian Campbell: Sure. Well, if we think about the traditional, that sort of old-school sales strategy, it would say, “Find a pain point.” And that’s great if the customer knows what the pain point is. You know, “I’ve got somebody who’s already thirsty so I can sell them water.” Well, okay, but you’re hoping they’re already thirsty, and they know that they’re already thirsty, and they’re already in need of water, and you happen to have that product, but that’s sort of a haphazard sale. You’re hoping that somebody comes along that has a pain point. Now, the more sophisticated part will say, “Well, help the customer identify what the pain point is.” So that’s like telling somebody, “You’re not sick, but I’m going to tell you why you think you should think you’re sick.” Well, you’re sort of hoping that the customer continues to engage with you. Another sales rep pointed out, she said to me once, “It’s like trying to sell TVs by calling everybody in your city each morning and asking if their TV is broken.” Well, your hit rate’s going to be pretty bad, because for the most part, everyone’s going to have a working TV and not think about buying a new one. So selling on a pain point is really not the most effective way to sell. When we talk to salespeople, one of the first things I say is, “If I told you that you could make money raising baby alligators in your bathtub, would you do it?” And every one goes through the same cycle. First, they say, “No.” Then, they say, “Wait a minute.” Then, they say, “How much money?” If I say 5 million, $10 million a year, you’re in, you’re buying as many baby alligators as you can. You’re raising them, even if you can’t use the bathroom, and if you have to go down the street to use some other one. And the point there is, I didn’t tell you anything about the product. I didn’t look for a pain point. I didn’t tell you the features of the product, I didn’t say, “Look, they’re fun. They’re green, they make great watchdogs. Alligators are fun to play with,” nothing like that. I just told you that you could make money raising baby alligators and you bought from me. So it wasn’t, “Do you need a baby alligator? Do you realize you need somebody to watch your house? Do you realize what these could do?” It was simply a value sale. And once I turn it into a value sale, that funnel becomes where I’m pushing somebody through to one where they’re pulling themselves through, because they see the outcome and they want to get there. So with alligators, I’ve sold you a bunch of value. I probably sold you a whole bunch, and you’ll buy as many as you can from me because I’ve changed the topic of the conversation from, “Let me show you why I need this,” to, “Let me show you the value you’re going to get from it.” That makes it a much easier sale. So pain point is interesting. Value always sells. Pain sometimes sells. It’s not the best way to do it. There’s two other ways too, what we call obligatory and emotional. So emotional would be, “I’m trying to sell you a Ferrari.” Well, there’s no ROI from that. You probably just want it, but there’s no way to justify buying it. Obligatory is being told to do something, in which case there’s no reason. There’s no business case there at all. You’re just being told you have to do something, so you’re doing it. Pain points, fine. You know, “I feel pain in some way,” but value, value is the one that always sells.

Simplify the Sales Process and Focus on Value and Benefits. 

Jeff Tomlin: That’s an interesting way of thinking about things. You know, I find oftentimes, when young sellers get into their process, they try to start following the steps. And when you follow the steps, you fall into that trap that you just sort of described. And oftentimes, the remedy and the right way to do things is sort of a simplified approach. And from what you described to me, it’s a simpler way of thinking about things to me than always thinking about pain, and, “How do I exploit the pain?”

Ian Campbell: It’s an easier way for the customer to consume it, your prospect. And think about the sales situation today. We have salespeople that are selling, and selling to someone who is probably already motivated to buy or understands what I’m trying to do. But that person has to turn around and make the pitch to someone behind them, and that person behind them doesn’t feel the pain. That CFO that’s signing off on the contract for your big piece of software that you’re trying to sell to somebody, well, the person’s trying to buy it wants to buy, but the CFO wants to know, “Why am I buying this, again? And the CFO doesn’t feel the same pain. So it’s not a strong sale to teach your prospect, your champion, “Here, here’s the pain you’re facing.” The better sale is for your champion to say, “We’ll save half a million dollars a year. The CFO will buy that, but the CFO won’t buy, “We’re under pain in some way.” So if you’re selling through, that financial sale becomes a much easier way to do it. And you’re right, salespeople, if they don’t know, very often they’re just taught, “Here are the features of the product.” So when the sale starts to go astray some way, they fall somewhere, they’ll fall back to the features: “Oh, here’s what we do,” rather than, “Here’s how we deliver value.” So you have to sort of catch yourself and say, “Oh, right, with this new human interface we have, we’ll increase the productivity for your employees,” and that has value. So try to turn that sale back to that value message from the features/functions message, which tends to be the traditional way that salespeople will fall back if they don’t know what… If the sale starts to go sideways in some way.

Jeff Tomlin: By the way, one of the things that sort of resonated with me there is one thing I find, when sellers focus on features, and benefits, and value added services on top of that, they often layer a lot of complexity into the sales discussion. And it’s nothing that kills the sales discussion more than complexity. And what I liked about your approach as well is it seems like you’re leading with the punchline, and so the value is out there first, easy to understand.

Ian Campbell: Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly it. Here at Nucleus Research, we’ve done thousands of ROI case studies, and if you look across all of those case studies, there’s a consistent theme: There are never more than five benefits in a deal. There are two that drive the deal, three that support a deal, and that’s it. So think about your deal. When you start talking about a lot of things you do, you’re not making it better. You’re just making it more confusing. One or two things are going to clinch it for you, two or three things are going to be supportive, that’s it. Once you talk past five, you probably made a mistake or you’re throwing on things that are so small, they won’t move the needle in the deal. So think about, “What is it this customer is trying to accomplish?” And here’s a good rule of thumb, there are only three things I can actually do for somebody: I can increase productivity, I can reduce cost, or I can help them be more profitable. That’s all I can do. So everything you do drives to either increase productivity, reduce cost, or increase profitability. So when you think about that, you say, “Okay, what am I trying to do for this customer by selling them a new CRM system? Well, I’m trying to increase the salespeople’s productivity.” “Cool, let’s focus on increasing salespeople.” Now, does it do a lot of other things? Sure, but the big thing that’s going to move the needle on the deal is salesperson productivity because I’m trying to sell somebody the CRM system. So focus on that, that’s what’s going to drive the deal. You know that’s going to be a big driver of benefit for the customer. Once you say, “Oh, by the way, the customer, the salespeople will be happier, and that’s going to reduce your turnover, so it’s going to reduce your hiring costs,” well, yeah, but that’s not going to make a difference in whether the sale goes through or not. The sale is going to go through based on increased salesperson productivity. The other stuff is just added on, and it’s really just going to confuse the message. Don’t do it. It might be good, but don’t do it. Focus on the big stuff, and that’s what’s going to help you drive the deal.

Salespeople Need to Focus on ROI and Lead with Payback. 

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, I love it. Love it. Let’s talk a little bit about the product, then. I know a lot of sellers, and I see this, they have challenges in describing the value proposition, and it seems like it’s increasing problem. And so with all of your research that you’ve done and the experience that you have, from your perspective, what are some of the biggest mistakes that sellers are making today when they’re trying to describe the value of their product or service?

Ian Campbell: Right. So the value sales, the book that we published back in June, the end of June, and it’s been fantastic. It’s built on the sales strategy that we’ve been using in Nucleus Research, with all of our sales training and all of our clients. And it’s really around building a value message that’s tight, that a customer can understand, that’s consumable, sort of easy for a salesperson to implement. The first thing that we see is that salespeople are often afraid. They’re afraid to talk about ROI. What is ROI? It’s math. It’s not something they necessarily learned during sales training meetings. “I spent three days in sales training, went through all the features, but we never talked about how to build a business case,” pretty common. So if you think about ROI, it’s a relatively straightforward calculation. You already know it. If you’ve been in a bank, you gave them money, they gave you back interest on this money, you know what the return on investment is: Give them $100, and they give you back $10 a year. The ROI of your $100 is 10%, easy calculation. It’s not more complicated than that. That’s all it is. So once you understand that ROI is an easy calculation, it’s just a matter of saying, “Okay, what are we going to charge you as a vendor, selling to you? And then what are the kind of benefits you’re likely to get back? And what are the magnitudes of those benefits?” So what we also hear is look at the expected case, “What do we think the benefits will be?” Look at the worst case, “What’s the worst case for benefits?” And then, you can get an idea of what the ROI will be for the customer. I’m going to tell you a secret, a trick: Lead with payback, don’t lead with ROI. So a lot of people will say, “Well, we want to calculate ROI. We do this big consulting effort.” But in fact, what we find is that most people understand payback. If I tell you that you’re going to get a 300% ROI, you sort of know that that’s a good number. But if I tell you, “This product will cover its cost in four months,” you feel that. That’s something that’s easy to consume. So as a salesperson, while we talk about ROI, a stronger metric for you is “lead with payback”. Always say… Your final sentence to every deal should be, “And we’ve calculated that this product will deliver, will cover its cost in three months, with a 300% ROI.” That should be your closing statement to whatever if it’s those numbers or not. But that should be the kind of closing statement you have, that you give to your champion, that they can turn around and use that internally. Focus on those one to two benefits, calculate ROI, calculate payback, lead with payback, you’re going to be far more successful. But it’s when salespeople say, “Gee, ROI, I’m not sure. Let me not talk about it till the very end of the deal and hope they never ask,” that’s when they get in trouble, because then you’re introducing the topic too late in the deal. You’re introducing at the bottom of the funnel when you really should have been talking about value from the very top of the funnel.

Unpacking the Value Sale and Maximizing ROI for Customers. 

Jeff Tomlin: Nice, I like that. Maybe unpack the value sale a little bit more. You’ve got the book out, and give people a glimpse into some of the takeaways that you’ve gotten there.

Ian Campbell: So it really goes through all of those steps that we find have been successful, the idea of topics like breadth and repeatability, for instance. Now, you may not really think about it, but if you think about breadth and repeatability, the more often I touch somebody and the more people I touch, the higher the potential ROI. So if you walk into a deal, just quickly say, “Breadth and repeatability, will my product touch a lot of people, a lot of times?” If it will, you’re likely to deliver a high ROI, and high value for the customer. If it won’t, you won’t deliver high value. So a good example would be, to stick with CRM, if I try to sell a CRM system to a company with a 1,000 people, well, that’s good. 1,000 people probably use it every day, that’s great. Potentially high benefit. If I’m selling it to just one person, a company with one salesperson, well, not a lot of people. High repeatability, but not a lot of breadth, I’m not touching a lot of people. So the ROI might not be there, the value might not be there. So I’m going to have to work a little harder in that deal to show how they’re getting more value out of it. And now you can see why, if I’m selling you a CRM system or accounting system I use every day, versus a system that maybe helps you onboard new employees, okay, onboard new employees, I do it every time I hire a new employee once. Well, that’s going to be a tough return on investment, compared to the accounting system I’m using every single day. So you can see how just two different products are going to deliver wildly different value, just based on that. So take a look at breadth and repeatability and say, “How can I use that as a tool to set up my deal? As I’m walking into the elevator, I quickly go, “Breadth repeatability, high or low, how’s this deal going to work?” And then I look at, “Well, how can I calculate benefits? Am I cutting this down to just the top two benefits? What are those benefits?” And really look at the sales funnel. Let’s talk about the sales funnel for a second: You think about the sales funnel, when somebody comes in and starts talking, you start talking about value. Remember I just said, don’t introduce the bottom start talking. The first conversation should be, “What do you do?” and then, How do you deliver value in general?” Then, in the second conversation, when you start to bring the person down the funnel, “How are other people like you achieving value and how will they achieve value?” So if you ignore value, the value discussion at the end of the funnel, you’re in trouble. But if you start to talk about value from the very beginning, “Here are all the different ways to deliver value, here are all the different ways people achieve value like you, here’s how you will achieve value,” those three stages, you’re going to be a lot better off on the funnel. So we talk about the funnel, we talk about, “What are good benefits and bad benefits?” because when we say a first order to a fourth-order benefit, benefits aren’t hard and soft, and break into a habit. Always use “direct” and “indirect”, and never use “hard” and “soft”. If anything, just call them “direct” and “indirect”, because nobody trusts soft benefits. Just call it a direct. You’ll do yourself a better favour, just doing that. But then, there are really four types of benefits, and how do you look at them from being really good benefits to really bad benefits, and how do you talk about them, maybe throw away benefits? So really, an idea of, “How do I make this simple?” The book sort of talks you through each of these stages and says, “How do you start to tee up that business case, that value proposition from the very first contact with the customer, so that customer, by the time they get to the business case, that prospect already understands the value they’re going to get?” And that business case becomes super easy to do.

Simplify Business Case, Focus on Payback, and Talk about Value.

Jeff Tomlin: Ian, I really appreciate, as you walk through these things, you’ve got very simple methods that people can follow. And one of the things we try to do in the Conquer Local Podcast here is to give people things that they can take away and implement into their business practice. And I find the whole process is easy to follow and makes a lot of sense. If you had a couple of takeaways that you wanted to leave people with, what would those takeaways be?

Ian Campbell: So simplify your business case, focus on those one or two things that are going to drive the deal. If you’re talking to somebody about the value of what you do, remember there’s only one or two things that really drive it. Focus on that. The other one is focus on payback. “How long till I cover my cost?” As the economy tightens, as people become more unsure of their investments, they want to know they’re covering their costs first. They don’t want to see the big ROI. They want to see how long they’re underwater before this project delivers value. So think about the payback period as being the strong metric. And then think about breadth and repeatability when you walk in: “Am I likely, is this going to be a good deal? Is this going to be a good situation or is this not? Am I touching people a lot of times, touching a lot of people, or is this a very infrequently-used solution which may not deliver the same value?” Payback, always payback. Always payback is probably the number one. And then don’t be afraid, talk about value from the beginning. If you do, and the end of the discussion, business case, the end is so much easier. So what are the value points that you’re delivering for the customer? It’s going to be different for each one. What are those one or two things that’ll drive the deal? And then what’s the payback period from that? You’re going to be better off because you’re showing the customer why they should buy alligators from you. And if you can do that, they’ll buy alligators from you all day. 

Ian Campbell shares Insights and Offers help with Sales Strategies. 

Jeff Tomlin: Love it. Ian Campbell, author, speaker, CEO, and lecturer, it’s been a privilege having you share some of your insights on the Conquer Local Podcast. If people wanted to continue the conversation with you and reach out, how do they contact you?

Ian Campbell: So really easy, thevaluasale.com has a lot of great research up there that you can just download and read if you want more about things like IRR and what’s good and bad about it, a lot of the technical things that we sort of left out of the book. But you can always get me at ian@nucleusresearch.com, which is my day-to-day job. So just send me an email. Try to respond to everybody, so please reach out. We’re very friendly here. Happy to help you. If you’re a salesperson in the middle of a deal and you’re getting stuck on MPV or something, send me an email. Happy to help you out.

Jeff Tomlin: Thanks for taking some time to join us here in the podcast today. Wish you the best, sir.

Ian Campbell: Thank you very much, really appreciate it.


Jeff Tomlin: I’ve got a couple of takeaways from our talk.  The first takeaway is to focus on value, not features or even benefits, broadly speaking. Traditionally, salespeople highlight features and benefits of a product, hoping they address a customer’s pain point. Instead, Ian suggests leading specifically with value by demonstrating a positive ROI or Return on Investment. This makes the sale easier for both the seller, coming from a clear message, and the customer, facilitating a buying decision that is easily justified.

The second takeaway is to simplify your message. Don’t overwhelm potential customers with a laundry list of features & benefits. Instead, focus on the top 1 or 2 benefits that directly address the customer’s needs.  This clear and concise approach makes a value proposition easy to understand and increases the chances of closing the deal.

If you’ve enjoyed Ian Campbell’s episode discussing The Value Sale, keep the conversation going and revisit some of our older episodes from the archives: Check out Episode 704:  Unleashing the Secrets of Sales Success with Doug C. Brown or Episode 701: The Sales Doctor’s prescription for $100 M Success with Chet Lovegren.