Overcoming Benefit Barriers

I was recently asked by a colleague to weigh in with my thoughts on a conversation in the LinkedIn ED 2.0 Group talking about the importance of selling skills in the economic development profession. I was happy to do so, because understanding how to sell effectively in any industry is a key to success.

I recall a panel discussion on branding I participated in several years ago. The panel consisted of myself and two consultants who specialized in helping communities create branding programs. In the audience was an economic development professional from a small community with a limited budget. She asked the panel a simple, but provocative question – “How should I best invest my community’s money?”

I answered first and explained that my experience as a brand builder was that branding takes time and costs money. Without adequate resources to do the job right, it is often best not to initiate a branding effort. My counsel was to take the limited budget and invest it in creating the strongest selling program possible for her community. My two panel colleagues proceeded to disagree and advised her to invest in better understanding her community’s key point of competitive difference.

Even though it was a few years ago, I remember the exchange very clearly and often reflect on it. I still stand by the counsel I gave that economic development professional. But, I have come to realize that there is a genuine under appreciation for the importance of mastering sales skills in the economic development community, and the impact it can make on capital attraction and job creation. Unfortunately, the prevailing belief is that the only way to win a capital investment deal is to provide the greatest amount of incentive dollars. Rarely is there adequate time invested to understand the investors real needs and put together a win:win proposal that leverages the unique strengths of a community to address the investors business challenges and set the company up for maximum long-term success. Instead of establishing a genuine partnership, most community proposals establish a landlord:tenant relationship. Such a relationship misses the opportunity for creating interdependence and instead makes the relationship fungible.

One key to effective selling is in understanding your community’s (or product’s) benefits and how to overcome barriers to accepting those benefits. I authored a blog post on how to identify your community’s (product’s) benefits. You can read it by clicking HERE. I thought I’d follow it up with a discussion on how to overcome benefit barriers.

Overcoming The Three Barriers

There are three typical barriers to accepting a benefit you claim for your community (or product). The key is finding the right kind of insight in each case to help you overcome the specific barrier.

Doesn’t Want What You Offer

If the capital investor doesn’t want the unique benefits your community offers, then you need an insight into how to make the benefit more important and desirable.

Here are four questions to get answers to –

How can the benefits you community offers help the company avoid failure?

How can the benefits you offer help improve the company’s bottom line performance?

When is the most important moments when the benefits your community offers would be critical to have?

Who will notice the presence or lack of the benefits your community is offering?

Doesn’t Believe What You Are Offering Is Real

If the capital investor doesn’t believe your community can deliver the benefit, then you need an insight that will help you understand how to build credibility.

Here are two questions to get answers to –

Is there a clear understanding or a misperception on exactly what the unique benefits my community is offering are?

Who would the capital investor trust or believe better than me that my community can actually deliver the benefits my community is promising?

Believes Already Has What You Are Offering

If the capital investor believes she/he already have the benefits your community offers, you must get them to admit when their current (or a competitor’s solution) may fall short, or who would notice if their current solution fails to deliver.

Here are three questions to get answers to –

When do companies like this one fail and why?

What is the standard of performance this company’s competition is achieving and how can your community help them close the gap?

Who would notice if the company falls short on performance and how can the benefits of locating in your community minimize the risk?

Investor at The Center

The challenge with overcoming benefit barriers is that you need to put the customer needs at the center of your focus. Simply repeating the benefits louder or more frequently in the face of skepticism isn’t going to be successful. You need to see the situation through their eyes and provide the right kind of information to create a perception and behavioral change. It requires work, empathy and understanding. It also requires confidence and the willingness to walk away if it appears you are trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole.


Everything I have shared above can be described as either consultative selling or collaborative selling. In my opinion, this is the selling method most suited for economic development (and any other complex selling situation). Here are a couple links you may find helpful to learn more about consultative and collaborative selling –

Journal of Accountancy  Yes, we can and should learn from the Accounting profession.

A Different Spin

Relationship Selling

Principles of Consultative Selling  

Consultative Selling e-Book (PDF)

What Are Your Thoughts?

What has your experience been with consultative or collaborative selling? Any tips on how to be successful, or watch-outs on some of the pitfalls? What selling method does your Organization utilize? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Al Jones

    December 20, 2011

    Great questions and that’s where skilled selling starts (as opposed to giveaways and discounts. The thought behind incentives, beyond a simple bribe to affect a decision favorably despite the economics for the company and community (in other words really do the wrong thing but personally profit), is to offset what the community is lacking compared to other options. In many states workforce training grants have been used to bring the workers up to 6th grade literacy and 3rd grade numeracy, in others to bring needed roads and infrastructure to a remote site on raw land just as the most influential local citizens could have steered to their own projects and generally did (part of the reason infrastructure networks often make no rational sense, it’s a bunch of unconnected deals.)
    The biggest challenge I noticed was that the serious inquiries sent non-serious people to examine the community so they couldn’t answer even quite basic questions between ignorance (some had literally just started at the company and never been to the operations they now were examining us for) or the high security code of silence to keep the community negotiating and responding in the dark as though that’s a smart way to problem-solve a working location (but it really helps in squeezing out incentives because the town has no idea what does matter to the mystery business.)

    When they have site consultant like Mark Sweeney, the questions are practical and relevant, but often times the consultant is there to pry out incentives and maintain mystery about who the business is being told very little themselves.

    Often the intermediaries are commercial realtors focused on finding a property and making a deal, they don’t know enough about the company’s planned operations to assess supply chain, permitting, workforce training needs, etc. and oddly seem reliably uninterested in the actual availability and quality of workforce housing; thorough ones really stand out because they’re so weirdly rare on major deals…still baffles me after 50+ of these. Just about everyone in these negotiations are less professional than most business deals, same people, so it’s something about the assumptions and structure. That makes real B2B selling skills and fast deep research essential.

    Oh and having someone new to the community trying to sell the community by themselves is a mistake made in most B2B salesforces too, but that doesn’t make it okay. Deep knowledge means they can answer questions with credible specific answers that differentiate the community rather than standard platitudes “Did I mention it’s a great place to live, great place to raise a family, great people, great schools, low crime, lots of outdoor recreation, people here want to work…” (I’m still waiting for “Well it’s as close to hell on earth as you’ll find, but we’ll give you personally a hundred thousand per job you claim you’ll create here and you won’t have to live here yourself!”

    Communities lie, obscure, and exaggerate about what they have to offer to an unbelievable extent. Ed’s point about being able to prove what you say is especially important in this kind of selling.

    Maybe this is more like dating with both hiding their flaws, exaggerating their good points, and hoping the parents and siblings keep their dang mouths shut throughout. Relocation incentives would then be the dowry in return for grandchildren instead of jobs and the local tours the equivalent of dinner and a movie. Hmmm.

  2. […] really isn’t any harder than this. So why do so many marketers fail to communicate benefits? In part, it is because they do not have an adequate understanding of the actual impact their […]

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