Understanding the real need

OK, so getting people to talk about themselves their iobs and their problems is generally not too difficult.

(Just as an aside to that, and to balance this, I must report on a meeting, one of the most uncomfortable I have ever attended, with a senior person who came to the meeting because her boss had told her that my software product had potential for applications within their organization. Have you ever seen anyone absolutely determined to be unimpressed by a product? My open questions about her major issues were met with a blank refusal to discuss them with me. I finished the demo and came out resolving yet again never to go into a meeting to demonstrate a product unless I knew something of the real needs and issues of the other person. I still make this mistake after all these years.)

Finding the real need is a question of further thought and probing. Your product or service is there to solve a problem for the customer or to allow them to exploit an opportunity. Sometimes the solution may be part of something bigger that is more difficult to describe. Here is an example of a team of managers misunderstanding the fundamental strategy of their own business, let alone someone else’s.

The CEO of Parker pens who was in post while the company was having a bad time, asked his senior team who their competition were. They replied, as you would expect, with Waterman, Bic, Biro and so forth. ‘No,’ says the CEO, ‘Here is our competition,’ and produced a Dunhill lighter. ‘We are not in the pens business any more,’ he said, ‘We are in the executive gifts business.’


Sometimes the solution may be part of something bigger that is more difficult to describe. The next complication to understanding real needs in business-to-business selling is, as we have said, that you have to divide the needs into two types—institutional and personal. In fact, it is a very good sales technique to draw this up as a matrix, with the organization’s needs across the top and the personal needs of the key people down the side. Then look for places where they might coincide. Where there is a tick you find your most straightforward opportunities, where there is a cross or mismatch you know the areas where you have, in one way or another, got to work hard and change something. Doing this also helps with demonstrating how a service you are selling not only solves a client problem and gives a good return on investment, but also supports the overall strategy of the organization as explained to you by the high level board room contacts which you should have.

One other example of this—I was selling a training programme to help a company to get its sales force to emphasize in their sales proposals the customer’s business problems rather than the merits of their products and services. They plainly needed it. Senior customer managers were ignoring the salespeople and their proposals and the hit rate of proposals tendered to orders received was going down. The person who was responsible for sales development programmes was an ambitious man who had not been in the job long. It was plain that he wanted my solution but equally clear that he had some reluctance to go ahead with my proposal as it stood. I suddenly realised the real personal need. He wanted to kick-start his reputation in the new job by appearing in front of a lot of salespeople and sales managers early on and impressing them with a new idea for a process that would obviously increase sales. My programme offered this, but he felt it was rather lame for him to appear as the owner of the idea but not its implementer. That is, he felt it unsatisfactory that I would be the obvious front man in the training.

I changed my proposal, selling him the system and a ‘train the trainer’ event for him so that he could go round the sales force doing the actual training. Organizational need and personal need were now in sync and he went ahead.