Are You Selling a Shovel – Or a Way to Dig a Hole?

I’ve learned a lot of things from my colleagues over the years. One lesson that sticks with me was from Sanjay Dholakia, the former CMO of Marketo*.

Sanjay used to say, “No one goes to Home Depot to buy a shovel. They go to Home Depot because they need a hole in the ground.” I love that – it nails the difference of presenting your features (the shovel) versus your customer’s need (the hole in the ground).

Don’t get me wrong – being fluent in what your product does (the shovel) is important in selling. Unfortunately, that’s where many companies stop. They fail to explain their product’s value – and specifically, they fail to explain a product’s quantifiable value. I mentioned this in an earlier blog post about building your value messaging. That post explores a key tenet of the book Selling Above and Below the Line by William “Skip” Miller. The idea is that you sell “below the line” to users who need specific features to perform tasks, but you also sell “above the line” to executives who are looking for results. Both types of sales are necessary, but too many companies – particularly early-stage startups — spend their time pointing out what the product does, not what value it creates.

When I was at Marketo in the early years, we pushed a lot of features. Our prospecting calls unfortunately highlighted this. Here’s an example of how they’d often go:

Hi Stacey, this is Bill from Marketo, a marketing software company. We help companies build landing pages, create nurture campaigns and score their leads. I’d love to show you a demo, please call me to arrange.”

Sound familiar? This message always left me feeling flat. We were just talking about ourselves and what our product did, with zero linkage to the business problem or pain that a buyer might have. That’s a shovel sales pitch.

Here’s a pitch that focuses on the hole the customer needs to dig:

“Hi Stacey, this is Bill from Marketo, a marketing software company. I was researching your website last week and downloaded an eBook, signed up for a demo, and registered for a webinar…. Yet, in the last week, I haven’t heard back from your organization. That’s a business problem that Marketo helps our customers solve.”

If possible, we’d also try to mention a Marketo customer in the prospect’s industry or space to show we’d solved the problem for a company like them.

Of course, not every software company has the unique ability to “mystery shop” their prospects to deduce whether the target is experiencing a specific pain point. But with some background research, especially with the help of generative AI, it’s easier than ever to align the specific value that your products provide to a pain your target buyer has.

Here’s a test – listen to your own team’s prospecting pitch. Is it talking about what your product does or what kind of outcome your product creates? If it’s product-specific or filled with jargon, then maybe it’s time to think more clearly about the holes your customers are trying to dig.

Remember, your pitch should always answer three classic questions: Why buy? Why buy now? Why buy me?

  1. Why buy assesses the problem itself. My buyer is struggling with a current situation, and I can articulate the various problems arising out of that situation. Be specific about all the pain points, especially any future implications of ignoring this pain. Chances are good the customer has been ignoring the pain for a while before even seeking out your solution. Help them fully appreciate the opportunity cost of inaction.
  2. Why buy now assesses urgency. Is this a big enough problem that I can quantify its impacts? Think about all the potential impacts, from unnecessary costs to inefficiencies to missed opportunities for topline growth. Furthermore, can I demonstrate (and ideally quantify) the value of making a change?
  3. Why buy me addresses your competitive differentiation. Why is your solution the best one available on the market? Make sure the pain points you articulated in “why buy” match up nicely with the points supporting the “why buy me” part of your sales pitch. You want the prospect to see how your product meets their needs point for point.

See if you can succinctly answer these questions about your product. What does your customer’s hole in the ground look like? And does your shovel help get them there?

Later in my career, I would get trained by Force Management, which has a nice model for this – their “current state” defines the negative consequences of doing nothing or staying with your current solution (similar to the Why Buy part above). Force uses the term “positive business outcomes” to define the “Why Buy Now” part – where you quantify the impact of the current state versus the desired state that your solution provides.

A lot of sales training and methodologies focus on a simple, concise pitch, but you have to know the outcome that your solution drives. Use the simple three-part test above to see if you’ve invested enough into your messaging to make this easy for your buyers to understand, as well as your sellers to deliver.


*Denotes a Battery portfolio company. For a full list of all Battery investments, please click here.
The information contained herein is based solely on the opinion of Bill Binch and nothing should be construed as investment advice. This material is provided for informational purposes, and it is not, and may not be relied on in any manner as, legal, tax or investment advice or as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy an interest in any fund or investment vehicle managed by Battery Ventures or any other Battery entity. 
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