Caution sign that says "status quo"

When an opportunity seems stuck, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost the battle with the status quo.

We tend to think that our biggest competitors are our closest industry rivals and possibly the new disruptors in the market. But just as often, we’re up against a less obvious and even more confounding challenge: the magnetic pull of the status quo.

This might explain why, in a recent webinar, sales leaders told us that their biggest sales challenge is opportunities that initially progress but then lose momentum. As many salespeople have discovered, no matter how great your product or service is, and no matter how perfectly matched your solution is to a client’s needs, the reality for many customers today is that doing nothing is still the easiest and safest choice. All that interest and enthusiasm they showed early on in the process fizzles out, and a once-promising deal stalls out indefinitely.

So how do you compete with inertia? It helps to take a step back and think about what really motivates someone to make a purchase.

Understanding Why Customers Buy

As most salespeople who’ve been brought up in the world of consultative selling know, people don’t tend to buy product or service features; they buy end-result benefits — the specific outcomes that satisfy their needs. But while salespeople intellectually know this, a lot of them still spend most of their time talking about what their solution is rather than the benefits the customer is going to enjoy as a result of having it.

Crucially, we’re not just talking about any benefits. It has to be the benefits that the customer individually wants and needs. And the only way salespeople can really find out what those are is by having the selling skills to interview their customers.

But here again, salespeople can fall into a product- or transaction-focused trap. One obvious clue: They spend most of the time in the first half of their contact talking about their product or service and its features and advantages. Another tip-off: Their main goal is to get the person to say “yes” and buy whatever it is they’re selling.

A customer-needs-focused salesperson, on the other hand, reverses the ratio, with a goal of understanding what motivates that person. They ask questions that focus on the customer’s needs, and they spend at least 80 percent of their time listening. They paraphrase back what customers tell them to make sure they understand them. And they make no attempt to sell anything until the following steps have been accomplished:

  1. The customer admits needs, wants, problems or objectives they want filled, satisfied or solved.
  2. She or he agrees that not only do they have needs, but that they are open to solutions.
  3. The customer agrees to talk about a solution.
  4. She or he confirms that they have authority to make purchase decisions.

And if people don’t admit that they have needs or a desire for a solution? Then that’s a good sign that either they aren’t a good prospect, aren’t the real decision-maker, don’t have a compelling reason to take action, or aren’t favorably disposed to buy from you.

Uncovering a Customer’s Buying Motives

Let’s say the customer does agree to the above four steps, but things are still at an impasse. In this case, the salesperson needs to figure out more about the customer’s main reasons for buying. People are driven by one or more of the following buying motives:

  • Pride: to feel a sense of accomplishment, look good to others, or feel respected and admired.
  • Profit: to increase, gain, enjoy measurable rewards or get a good deal.
  • Pleasure: to gratify a desire, enjoy a better lifestyle or please the senses.
  • Peace: to enjoy peace of mind and security, insure against potential loss, remove possible obstacles or reduce risks.

Knowing what dominant motive drives a customer’s decisions allows the salesperson to explain how the solution will give them the results they desire. The key is to keep the focus on the customer’s reasons for buying, not the salesperson’s reasons for selling.

If the process stalls out here, it might be a signal that the salesperson needs to go back and do some more fact-finding to try to understand their customer better. While it’s not always easy to uncover someone’s true motives, the following questions provide a kind of checklist of the types of drivers that might be influencing the customer:

  • Why do they want what you’re selling?
  • What rewards, benefits or gratification do they want your product or service to give them?
  • What is their level of desire for these end-result benefits or rewards?
  • Whom do they want to please with this purchase?
  • What is their level of urgency to make a purchase?
  • What is their behavior style?

When an opportunity seems stuck, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost the battle with the status quo. But it might mean your salespeople aren’t talking to the right person. Or it can mean they don’t yet have a good enough understanding of what that customer really wants and needs. The more they know (and the better questions they ask) about buyer motivation the better equipped they’ll be to show a compelling alternative to the current situation — and the better positioned they’ll be to negotiate and close a sale.

About the Author
Mike Esterday

Partner and CEO

Mike Esterday first discovered his talent for sales when he ranked number one out of 6,000 sales professionals in his...
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