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The Greater Need

Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten the meaning of needs-based selling. Everyone in sales seems to agree, in theory, that selling solutions based on customer’s needs is a good idea. But in practice, it seems that many selling professionals have lost their way.

It doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to Solutions Selling, Consultative Selling, S.P.I.N. Selling, Challenger Selling or a whole host of other programs and methodologies that demonstrate the value of identifying customer needs and then offering a value proposition that meets those needs. The problem I’m seeing in the execution of these concepts is widespread.

Complicating the problem is that so many sellers (and sales managers and sales trainers, too) are not seeing that it’s a problem. Look at your own sales practices and those of your co-workers. It seems like everyone is conducting needs assessment before offering a solution, right?

It’s an illusion. What so many sellers are doing in name of needs assessment is a far cry from actually assessing the needs, concerns, problems or interests of their buyers.

What passes instead for needs assessment is a cursory set of self-serving questions. Questions that are designed to identify which product(s) and how much, which delivery date, what specifications, or what contract – all of these are NOT based on the needs of the customer. They are based on the wants of the seller. They are based on an assumption that the buyer both needs and wants your products.

Needs assessment should reach beyond finding out the buyer’s “need” for your product. If all you are talking about are the transactional details, then please don’t call this needs-based selling. It isn’t.

Consultative selling, needs-based selling and solution selling all aim higher. They focus on the buyer’s broader needs, the ones that supersede the purchase of any particular product. For this reason, a customer-centric sales process or approach includes steps related to researching the buyer and to asking questions about the buyer’s business and goals and problems.

Note the difference in these two sets of questions:

Product-based questions:

  • What quantity do you use in a typical month?
  • Who have you been buying from?
  • How are you set up for shipping and receiving?
  • What are you currently paying per unit?
  • Who is the decision maker on this?

Needs-based questions:

  • What obstacles are you facing as you work toward your department goal?
  • What is the impact if you do not achieve the goals set in your strategic plan?
  • In what ways have you prepared for this expansion? What gaps remain?
  • What is your strategy for attracting new business? For retaining established customers?
  • What is the real cost of shipping delays? How does this affect you? Others in the supply chain?

The first set of questions focus on putting the order together. They are appropriate when the customer is ready to buy, after the solution has been accepted. They are premature if the seller has not yet asked questions like the ones in the second set, questions that probe to understand the buyer’s real needs and problems.

Sellers start with product-based questions for these reasons:

  1. They are not familiar with the buyer’s business and would prefer to keep the conversation narrowly focused on their own products. They do not want to be exposed for a lack of business acumen.
  2. They are rushing to close, mistakenly believing that these product-based questions will suffice. They have not discovered the value of time spent in first opening the business relationship, building trust and connecting in a meaningful way.
  3. They do not understand the point of probing the buyer’s problem and needs. They may even feel uncomfortable in doing so, preferring to keep the conversation at a superficial and transactional level.
  4. They do not see the sales process from the buyer’s perspective. They are so intent on making the pitch that they miss opportunities to understand and empathize with their buyers.
  5. They don’t know how to connect revealed needs and problems with solutions they can offer. This happens when a seller doesn’t believe in his or her own products. It also happens when a seller doesn’t understand the way(s) their products work and how their products are part of a bigger picture.

When sellers start with product-based questions, they fail to demonstrate the value of their products. Since they haven’t uncovered a problem, the solution isn’t really addressing a problem. If, luckily, the buyer figures out on his or her own that the unspoken problem could be solved by the product, then a sale may occur – without any real credit to the seller’s efforts.

To truly solve a problem, a seller must first uncover the problem (many need to be surfaced because buyers – like all of us – may ignore the problem or procrastinate about it). Once the problem has been brought to light, it must then be thoroughly understood and examined. Additionally, the seller has to figure out if the buyer is sufficiently motivated to address the problem.

Questions that start with a natural curiosity and seek to understand (rather than sell) will always be more effective in surfacing problems. What’s more, merely asking needs-based questions creates value for the buyer. The rare seller who makes a buyer pause and think through a problem is a genuine resource. This is the kind of competitive differentiation that every seller should strive for.

It doesn’t take long to ask needs-based questions. In fact, most sales processes advance faster when the seller quickly surfaces the need and has more to talk about then their products. Of course, buyers are far more interested in talking about their problem and in hearing about solid solutions than they are in hearing about any products.

If you are avoiding needs-based questions for any of the five reasons listed above, be sure to step back and assess why you are stuck in that mode. It’s holding you back from reaching your true selling potential.

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