Why Top Sales People Focus on Priorities – Not Needs

When I started my sales career, I was taught that I should focus on identifying my prospect’s needs. Later, when I started to work for companies that were selling into early-stage markets, I was taught that I should invest in creating needs that the prospect had not previously recognised they had. But I’ve learned that simply identifying or creating needs isn’t enough. Here’s why

You see, no matter how good you are at identifying needs that your prospects already have, or no matter how good you are at creating needs your prospects didn’t previously know they had, your prospects will inevitably have more needs than they can possibly afford to deal with.

Priorities drive behaviour

Why Top Sales People Focus on Priorities   Not Needs image changed prioritiesWhy Top Sales People Focus on Priorities Not NeedsWhenever there are more potential needs than can hope to be satisfied with the resources (time, money, attention, etc.) that are at the prospect’s disposal, they will have – whether they do it formally or informally – to sort those needs into some sort of priority order. And only the needs above the cut-off line are likely to be addressed.

The rest will just have to wait for later or, just as likely, be abandoned. So it goes without saying that if you want to win the prospect’s business, in addition to proving that yours is the best solution, you’re going to have to ensure that your project’s priority is comfortably above your prospect’s resourcing cut-off line.

By the way, in saying this, I’m not implying that this ranking involves a strictly rational process, or that the “cut-off” line is always formalised. On the contrary, many of these “do we go ahead or not with this project” decisions have a strong emotional context that you cannot – and must not – ignore.

Buying decisions are a game of consequences

Of course, it’s not just about the amount of resource the project is going to consume; it’s about the impact that not solving the problem – or not realising the opportunity – is going to have on your contact(s) within the prospect and on their organisation as a whole.

In this respect, buying decisions are a game of consequences. Your prospect will be inclined to stick with the status quo unless the costs and risks of not changing and staying where they are is significantly higher than the costs and risks of change.

You should never lead with ROI

And, as I’ve suggested, even if you have the best solution and you can demonstrate a positive ROI, you still won’t win the sale unless the comparative benefits of addressing the problem are perceived to be higher than those of most of the other competing demands on the prospect’s time and money.

This, by the way, is just one of the many compelling reasons why leading with ROI is a deeply flawed sales strategy – but that’s a subject that demands a blog article to itself.

What’s in it for all concerned?

Here’s the final twist: prioritisation decisions involving large expenditures tend to be layered, one on top of the other. You may persuade your champion and sponsor that he or she needs to address the issue, and they are convinced that they need to implement your solution. But they then need to convince their colleagues – all the way up the decision-approval stack.

You can pretty much count on the fact that your proposal is going to be reviewed by others in the approval cycle that have other priorities, and if you haven’t got their support already – or coached your sponsor to get their support – you can guarantee that they will be asking themselves “how does this fit with my priorities?

The “what’s in it for the company?”, “what’s in it for me / my department?” and “is this the best way of spending our precious resources” will keep getting asked all the way through the decision process until you have the order in your hands. And that’s why, at every level, smart sales people focus on priorities, and not just on needs.

Putting the priority principle into practice

If you don’t probe, you’re never going to know whether the issue you’re attempting to solve is currently sitting above or below the cut-off point on your prospect organisation’s “must do” list.

Here are a few questions you might choose to ask in order to find out:

    • What would happen if this issue wasn’t addressed?
    • How would it affect your department?
    • How would it affect other people, and other parts of the company?
    • Where’s the budget coming from? What else might end up competing for these funds?
    • How does this issue tie in with your corporate priorities for the year?
    • Is this issue on the CEO’s radar? How important is it to them?
    • Have you tried dealing with the issue before? If so, how, and with what results?
    • Why has it become critical to address the issue now? Why couldn’t you wait?
    • In x months time, if the situation hasn’t changed, what would be the consequences?

If the answers don’t seem strong enough, you know that you’ve got to loop back around and sell the need to solve the problem (or qualify the opportunity out) before you’ve got a real chance of selling your solution.

Why change? why now? why us?

You see, it really all boils down to the three fundamental questions – why change, why now and why us? It’s just that you need to have good answers to these at every level in the decision-shaping and decision-making process. Or be prepared to loose the deal.

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