The idea behind needs-based selling is knowing what your client needs. Once you understand the client's needs, you position your solution by explaining how it meets the client's needs. While it is important to understand what your prospective client needs and why they need it, your solution may only be a part of what they require to reach their goals.
An update to this idea would recognize your prospective client may need more than your solution to achieve their desired outcome. They may need a different conversation with a consultative salesperson. It's often true that the client may also need to make significant changes inside their company to produce the results they need. One that is truly consultative will provide a better conversation, while also providing advice and recommendations outside of their own solution.
The New Needs-Based Selling
Eliciting the client's needs by asking questions is relatively easy and rather pedestrian. It's something else to be able to recognize when the client isn't aware of what they really need. In our current environment, many decision-makers need more help in the sales conversation. Just like you and I, our clients don't know what they don't know.
A large percentage of the time, your contacts believe they can improve their results by buying a new solution from a new supplier. When the company only experiences a marginal improvement, it's often because the salesperson didn't do a deep enough discovery and didn't identify the root cause of their challenge. What clients need now is more help understanding what's changed, and an updating of their beliefs. Your contacts may not believe they need to remove and replace the assumptions that drive their decisions but lack an understanding of the root causes of their poor results.
How I Learned What Clients Need When
I first called on companies who needed employees, I was focused on explaining how my service could improve the client's results. I was a true believer, and occasionally, I improved the client’s results. But the longer I worked in the industry, the more I realized that the greatest threat to being replaced was often something the client was doing. To ensure I could keep my clients, I had to speak truth to power, explaining that the client was to blame for their poor results.
The first time I recognized this phenomenon was a large division of a retailer. The leaders were unhappy that they had high turnover on second shift. Their theory was that we were placing poor employees. After running reports and exit interviews, I showed the senior leader that the attrition was all on one shift and one line. The supervisor wasn't mature enough to be a leader, and his name showed up on every exit interview.
Another client changed their schedules from five days a week to seven days a week. At first, people liked the overtime pay, but eventually they burned out. Because they were not given any days off for two months, the employees took time off. This client, like the first client, would have done no better by replacing my company.
As you stack up these experiences, you understand that being a consultative salesperson means addressing the obstacles that the client creates. Your understanding of what your client really needs allows you to provide counsel, advice, and recommendations.
New Needs-Based Selling is Proactive
After recognizing the mistakes my clients made, I made two changes to the way I sold. First, I would disqualify any client I was certain we would fail because of something they were doing. Sometimes they paid too little, other times they had undesirable shifts. The worst were companies with bad cultures, ones that didn't appreciate their employees. At one point, I fired my largest client for mistreating my people, at the time, they spent $3M with my company.
Second, I looked for the root causes of the client's needs and addressed them as soon as I recognized them. Some were easier to suss out than others. Sometimes I helped the client change. Other times, the client had obstacles and incentives that prevented the client from changing. Over time, I used a more data-driven approach to help them recognize the need to change. I showed one client that their culture was costing them money by showing them that their neighbors had lower pay rates and higher retention. Their internal incentives prevented them from changing.
What Clients Want Isn't Always What They Need
The concept of being One-Up means you have greater knowledge and experience. Your clients believe they are doing what is best for their results, even when it is harming their results. Because you are leading your client, you must ask the questions that would shine a light on the things your client is doing that harm their results.
Sometimes what your client wants isn't what they need. It is not uncommon for a client to want the results they need without having to make internal changes. This is one reason it is difficult to build consensus. When people are forced to change, some dig in their heels and resist. A new needs-based selling approach requires being comfortable with conflict, and a candor tempered by diplomacy, something Churchill described as "telling someone to go to Hell and having them look forward to the journey. "
You don’t do your prospective client any favors by leaving their real needs unspoken. The sooner they recognize their part in their poor results, the sooner they can make the changes that improve their situation. Those who would be a trusted advisor will need to handle these conversations and help their contacts to deal with the internal obstacles to a better future.
Like most of what I write and recommend, I don't pretend this is easy. It seems to be the price of admission for a consultative salesperson.