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I want, I want!

I’ve spent the greater part of my working life in consultative roles which mean that I have spent it in conversations with people about what they desire (in many contexts) and trying to understand what needs will fulfil that desire.

It’s not always easy for us to differentiate wants, desires and emotional attachments with the actual needs underlying them but from my experience it is good business to work it through.

Let me give you an example from my (distant) past:

Some years ago as part of  a consultancy role I travelled across Ireland with the Sales Director of the company I was working for to do some pre-sales consultancy on a major sale of Firewall software to a potential customer. It was going to be a lucrative sale of many tens of thousands of pounds.

When we sat down with the customer and began to talk with them it turned out that many of the things driving the sale were things they “wanted”, not things they “needed”. As I (eventually) got them to start to talk about the things they actually needed (and the cost implications of their rather lengthy wish-list) they automatically began to edit their own list of requirements to focus on the things which were important and which would bring them benefit.

Once we’d established a good set of needs-based requirements, further discussions revealed that the equipment and software they had was fully capable of meeting those needs it just hadn’t been configured to do so. I advised them (much to the consternation of my sales colleague) not to purchase the software we were selling but to re-configure the equipment they already had to meet their needs and then to give it some time to understand if the rest of the wishlist (things their current software couldn’t do) would be beneficial to add.

I established two things with this approach. Firstly I showed the customer that I had understood their need and could address that in a way which was focused on their benefit and secondly that I was not interested in small term gain at their expense but in a long term, mutually beneficial relationship in which (at least some of) both parties needs are met.

My Sales Director was, of course, livid at losing a guaranteed “big sale” (try as I might to persuade him that we would gain in the long term) and called for my “head on a spike” once we returned (not the most comfortable return journey I ever undertook). Thankfully my Managing Director saw the benefit of the long term view and was very keen to pursue this customer for long term strategic partnership so he backed me up.

Needless to say the customer, understanding where we came from and that we were looking to work with them to address their needs gave us far more business in the long term than they would have had if we’d gone for the quick buck “I want” sale. We made approximately 10 times the sales to them over the subsequent year or so. I was actually called back to them only a fortnight later for a lengthy consultation on how to configure the systems they had which earned us more than the original sale would have. By “cutting off my own nose to spite my face” I established credibility and trust with them which even their original supplier didn’t have and demonstrated that addressing their needs was my first priority.

What’s the moral of this story? Very often in business, as well as life, we cater to and indulge our wants or the wants of others without understanding what underlying need must actually be satisfied. If and when we do so, we run the very real risk of failing to deliver the real benefit the party is expecting and even though we appear to have fulfilled the need, we won’t be thanked for it in the long term. There’s a balance to be struck and failing to understand that we run the risk of failure.

Keep it simple.