Don’t Meet Your Customer’s Needs

By Lain Ehmann

It may seem like a dream sale: Your customer gives you a laundry list of product numbers, you give him the prices, and he signs. But the surest way to erode the value of your product – and your own value as an expert – is to sell something your customer needs. When you let customers determine their needs, you’re actually setting them up for unfulfilled expectations and, at the same time, you’re commoditizing your product, says Josh Costell, author of The Science of Sales Success: A Proven System for High-Profit, Repeatable Results (AMACOM, 2003).

Allowing customers to drive the sale by what they think they need pushes you from the driver’s seat. “You’re giving up your expertise,” says Costell. “Then it becomes a question of price and delivery – and that means commoditization,” he explains.

Rather than selling to customers’ needs, your intent should be to help customers meet their goals. When you focus on their goals, you’re focusing on what customers want to achieve in the long run, not on what they think they need in the short run, says Costell. “I don’t really care what they think they need. I want to understand what they want to accomplish,” he says. That larger understanding allows you to create value for the company through your knowledge and experience.

Here’s how to tell if you’re focused on needs:

  • Needs usually are very specific. The customer may request a particular model or item, as in: Give me a dozen RX-9000s.
  • Needs are almost always product-oriented.
  • Needs are short-term.
  • Needs are unpredictable.

Customers are conditioned to talk about their needs, but moving them towards examining their goals is straightforward, says Costell. When they demand a specific product or state a particular need – I need a new server – ask them what they’re trying to accomplish. “When you get customers to focus on their goals, you get them to think out loud,” says Costell. When you know what their goals are, you can position yourself as the expert, suggesting alternatives your customers may not have thought about when they created their wish list.

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