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How to grow your software business with the perfect balance of sellable and valuable features

In the first article of our product roadmap mini-series, Glenn Elliott, explains how to balance your product roadmap. In this follow-up article, Glenn deep dives into two specific types of software features that will help you drive even more sales, renewals and profit. 

About 15 years ago, I met a Founder whose company developed exceptionally good online workplace surveys. The software was about ten years ahead of the market; it was incredible. But, despite their ahead-of-the-curve technology, they were struggling to make sales. We both knew that if clients could get it installed and working, they could get incredible results, but it was failing at the first hurdle, and no one wanted to try.

While the product was definitely what people needed, it was so ahead of its time that no one truly understood it. The complexity of what it was trying to do was overwhelming, and implementing it just felt like too big a step for most people. As a result, the company had a beautiful product that could deliver amazing customer ROI, but nobody wanted to buy it.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a great example of what happens when a software company fails to get the right balance between what customers want and what they need. Over the years, I’ve used a simple matrix to decide which software innovations to deliver and which to ignore. But before we get to that, let’s make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to sellable vs valuable features.

What is a valuable feature?

Valuable features are the things that make their lives easier or increase usage, engagement and customer ROI. Sometimes, they are things your customers only know they want after they’ve used your product for some time. 

Sometimes, these valuable features will also be things you can use in a sales presentation or mention on your website. Take the “web browsing” feature on a smartphone. It’s valuable – we all spend hours each day browsing the web on our phones. And it’s also sellable “browse the web on your phone” is an easy message, and we all get it.

But not every valuable feature is sellable.

An example of a non-sellable feature from my time at Reward Gateway is the tech that we used to import employee data from the client’s HR or payroll system. It was a critical part of the product – without it, nothing would work. In our sales pitch, the message was easy “We’ll sync with your HR or payroll system and import the data from there – daily, weekly, whenever you want. Easy!”

However, the reality was a lot different. Client data was often awful – duplicate payroll IDs, employees moving jobs between divisions and therefore moving between payroll systems, employees sometimes getting new payroll ID’s for no explicable reason, some employers changing payroll numbers when people got married and gained a new surname. It was painful and time-consuming for my team to sort, and it caused pain for the clients too. And it had to happen for every customer every month. 

So, we spent six months radically improving how the whole thing worked and giving the tech a lot more intelligence. This was a big investment in time and money. It was right to do because it reduced client unhappiness and lowered our support costs. But it wasn’t something we could sell as a feature because clients who hadn’t started with our service couldn’t imagine that this behind-the-scenes problem would even be an issue. The original sales message “we take the data from your HR or payroll system” was all they really wanted to hear in the initial sales pitch.

You have to dedicate a good part of your product roadmap to valuable features – things that actually get used and create value, because without them, your renewal rate will suffer, and you’ll have excess customer support costs.

But while valuable features are essential, you have to remember that many of them don’t move the needle in the sales pitch. So you need to also have enough sellable features to attract the client and win the deal in the first place.

What do we mean by sellable features?

For something to be a sellable feature, it needs to pass two tests:

  1. The client must be able to imagine they need it before using the software.
  2. The feature must be simple enough for the salesperson to clearly explain it during the sales process.

Lots of valuable features that positively impact customer ROI and engagement don’t make it into the sales process because they don’t pass these two tests. 

Many sellable features are also valuable if they are implemented well. But that can be a big if…

Let’s take an HR system as an example. One with lots of sellable features seems to have everything you need – from an onboarding workflow, recruitment and HR modules to a dashboard. But when you get into it, the reporting dashboard is so simplistic you can’t get the insights you need. Or you can only run ten standard reports, but you can’t configure your own. Which means you can’t get any meaningful data out of the system. 

When software is sparkle over substance, customers often buy the product but quickly realise it doesn’t do what they hoped. When your product doesn’t give customers what they really need – rather than what they imagine they need – your renewals will take a hit producing high levels of churn.

“In software development, not everything that glitters is gold. And not everything that’s gold, glitters.”

Glenn Elliott

Finding the software feature sweet spot

Successful software companies find the right balance between sellable and valuable features for their particular company and market. 

I’ve developed a useful matrix to achieve this equilibrium. It works by assessing the impact of each potential product innovation on sales and customer engagement, and ROI.

You can use this matrix to assess which potential product innovations to deliver and which to ignore. Here’s how it works:

Bottom left – don’t do it

Features that have a low impact on sales and low or uncertain impact on customer ROI will sit here. There’s little point in pursuing these developments.

Bottom right – needs careful assessment and light-touch development

A feature that will have a low impact on sales but a high or certain impact on customer ROI falls into this sector. This might be something that’s a meaningful development for clients but is too complex or strange to make it into your marketing materials. When deciding whether to pursue these kinds of features, consider items like lifetime costs, unexpected impact and complexity. If the feature isn’t that important, but the customer thinks it’s going to be fun or helpful, you might decide to implement it. Just don’t spend too much time and money making it fantastic.

Top left – run with it

If the feature will drive sales but has a low or uncertain impact on customer ROI, implement it and see what happens. At worst, it will drive sales. At best, it will also be a major hit with your customers moving it in the top right sector and making it ripe for further investment.

Top right – run with it and then some

If a feature is exciting for both your sales and your customers, this is something to implement, promote and perfect. These are your real winners because they’re sellable and valuable, so they’ll attract and keep customers. Particularly if you continuously improve the feature so it keeps people’s interest.

Achieve balance, improve profit

We’re often told that life is all about striking the right balance. I think the same is true for software businesses. By balancing sellable and valuable features, you’ll develop your product so it captures new customers and provides the quality and service levels to keep hold of their business. Giving you higher sales, lower churn and a better bottom line. 

Want to get into the details on balancing your product roadmap? Take a look at my first article in this mini-series.


Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn is a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of CEO experience. He sold his last business, Reward Gateway, to PE three times. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing, and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.
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