The year was 1957. Imagine for a moment a humble family living in the Midwestern United States: a husband, wife, and four kids under the age of twelve. Struggling to make ends meet, the father, desperate to earn a better income and a better life for his family, decided to start a door to door, vacuum cleaner business.
After a slow start, including visiting a lot of houses and receiving plenty of rejection, he went on to become one of the best in the vacuum businesses. He even had salesmen working underneath him. The father was on the road much of the time, leaving his wife home alone to tend to their four children. His career had its ups and its downs. Even in those hard times, when asked how things were going in the vacuum business, his common and upbeat response was, “It sucks, but it’s always picking up.” At times, he was making a small fortune; at times, he was nearly broke. After sixteen years of hard work, building a business from scratch, he saved enough to invest in real estate. In 1975, he purchased a recently closed vacuum store and reopened the doors, calling it “All Vacuum Center.” This man’s name was Jim Cain.
His youngest son, Steve, the family handyman, went to work for him fresh out of high school that same year. Steve made an agreement with his father: “Dad, you’re the salesman; I’m the handyman. You sell ’em, and I’ll fix ’em.” Steve confided in his Dad, saying, “I like this job because I have no idea how much money I will have made until the end of the year.” Just like his father, another entrepreneur was born. With that comment and in that opportunity, Steve Cain, the second generation of All Vacuum Center, envisioned the opportunity to be as successful as he wanted to be and to one day take over the family business.
Unfortunately, that day came much sooner than he expected when his dad passed away only a few years later, at the age of fifty-nine. That left Steve, still in his twenties, to take over the family business and to become the primary source of income for his widowed mother.
As a legacy to his father, Steve kept All Vacuum Center at its original location for many years before opening two new locations. Since the passing of his father, Jim, Steve has sold thousands of vacuum cleaners and air purifiers. The company prides itself in selling only the “best in breed” of vacuum cleaners. Steve loves to joke with his clients by saying, “Thank goodness for Walmart, Target, and Sears for selling the cheapest vacuums known to man.”
Steve’s heartwarming story certainly endears people to him and gives them a reason to do business with All Vacuum Center over the big-box stores, but it’s not enough. Steve still has to educate people about his superior products. As an example, let’s cover the features of one of Steve Cain’s top-of-the-line vacuums. If you were in the market to buy, he’d tell you that this machine has the highest suction rating J. D. Power gives, with “level suction,” which means the vacuum’s suction will be as good in the tenth year as it does in the first. Steve could say it has a nonbreaking belt, top speed brush roll, and soft rubber wheels that swivel 360 degrees. Plus, it’s equipped with a 99 percent efficient HEPA-filtered exhaust, and finally a personal guarantee.
If Steve told you all this, would you be “moved” to buy? I wouldn’t, either. But what if he explained that these features lead to the best benefit of all: a doubled life expectancy of your expensive carpet because the vacuum cleaner won’t leave dirt behind? Your toddler can eat animal crackers off of the floor without eating dirt and pet hair. Your expensive hardwood floors will remain in perfect condition. Your entire family will breathe easily in a dust-free, allergen-free home. Finally, if anything goes wrong with your vacuum, you can rely on the fifty-five-year legacy and reputation of Jim and Steve Cain, who have always done right by their customers. Sound better? Even Steve, with an amazing back story, needs to explain how his vacuums enhance the lives of his customers, not just recite a litany of product features. When all of these elements come together, customers want to buy. And they’re not really buying a vacuum cleaner—they’re buying a clean and healthy home.
Features tell, but benefits sell. Inspirational language packaged with a great benefits-focused message helps create binding relationships with others.
By Ivan Misner, Ph.D., founder and chief visionary officer of BNI.