Four is The Magic Number

ISE Magazine Volume : 49 Number: 09
By George F. Brown Jr.

Winning others over with four sentences

The “four-sentence structure” grew out of research from nearly 30 years ago when my company had decided to try to target a new job function with a set of information and technology products. Knowing the value of insights into customers and prospects, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask existing clients in customer companies to introduce me to their counterparts in the to-be-targeted job function.

In interviewing those prospects, I asked them to describe how they reached a recent purchase decision for a product similar to what my company was contemplating. What surprised me was that over and over, their description was provided using what was eventually recognized as the four-sentence structure.

While some descriptions were well-stated and others rambled a bit, in case after case, they followed the same structure:

  1. They started off discussing their motivation, the need that ultimately triggered their purchase decision.
  2. Next came a quick summary of what they had bought, more often emphasizing attributes of importance rather than the product characteristics themselves.
  3. The third message translated that product into the benefits that their company expected to enjoy, ones consistent with their description of the underlying motivation provided earlier.
  4. Finally, the descriptions included a justification for their choice of a supplier, typically emphasizing what their chosen supplier offered of importance that stood out from competitors.

Sales initiatives

The initial motivation for the interviews that led to the foursentence structure involved a company’s hope to expand its sales to prospects in a new job function. And after hearing those prospects provide examples using that structure, it seemed reasonable to expect that introducing a company’s offerings using that same structure would resonate.

It did. I didn’t always get the four sentences right, but when I did, it provided the foundation for a constructive discussion with my prospect, often leading to a sale. For decades since then, that practice has continued, resulting in a huge roster of proposals that are started with the four-sentence structure. Many clients have also implemented that practice, and the feedback continues to be positive. Let’s examine some of the lessons learned in working with such corporations.

One sales team has developed a stage-gate process involving four key stages:

  1. Awareness of the opportunity
  2. Go vs. no-go decision
  3. Formal proposal
  4. Pursuit of the opportunity

This team’s process includes numerous actions and decision criteria at each of these stages. After being introduced to the four-sentence structure, the team injected it into two important decision points. In the go vs. no-go decision stage, members required that the team and champion involved develop what they believed to be a winning four-sentence structure. They mandated that if there wasn’t clarity as to the four sentences, or if the executives reviewing the recommendation weren’t convinced by the four sentences, the default decision would be “no go.”

The second point at which the four-sentence structure was involved was in the review of the formal proposal. Again, the guidance was that if a winning four-sentence message wasn’t clear from the proposal, the decision would be (at minimum) to send the team writing the proposal back to the drawing board. There were specific tests defined as part of this review process to determine if the four sentences were likely to be winning ones or not, some of which are outlined in the following paragraphs, along with lessons learned from other firms and experiences involving the use of this structure.

Writing a winning four-sentence structure is hard work. But in many ways, the simplicity of the structure creates a focus that enables those that use it to know when they are on track and when they still have work to do. And that is part of the magic. The insights gained from working with sales teams also apply elsewhere, such as in product development, telecommunications, manufacturing, investments and other sectors. Let’s take a look.

Product development

This organization implemented a requirement that those wishing to advance a new product concept do so with a document that began with the four sentences. Conversations with scientists and engineers in this company repeatedly uncovered the observation that in the past, their advocacy was internally focused, emphasizing what they could do (the roots of the product/service concept sentence) and why they could do it (the roots of the qualifications sentence). These individuals also stated that the other two sentences took them into new and unfamiliar territory, ones that created a lot of hard work and challenges. In a milestone review about a year after this requirement was implemented, the organization learned that the number of new product concepts that were advanced had dropped by about 30 percent. On the other hand, the quality of ideas that were advanced was dramatically higher, with a near doubling of the number that were funded.

One of the insights that came from the work with product development teams was that the four-sentence structure helped to identify possible targets for the concept under consideration. This involves working backward within the structure, going from the product/service concept to think about which possible customers have an important motivation that connects to that concept. To some extent, this idea goes against solid advice to ensure your product development spending emerges from customer-written plans, but the backward approach can work, particularly with breakout concepts that customers may not have on their radar scopes.

One concept advanced by an engineer in an engine manufacturing enterprise offered the potential to materially reduce the weight of the company’s product. Asking the question, “Which customers care about weight and will reward a supplier who offers a lighter-weight product?” resulted in identifying two groups of customers served by this company where that could really matter, as well as many other segments in which the benefits from doing so were unlikely to be rewarded with either a share or price premium. Knowing the niches that would be targeted allowed the development team to expand its efforts to address several other considerations important to those customers. The company involved moved from being one of the pack serving customers in the targeted segments to becoming the segment leader after its new product line was introduced.