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Confusing Wants And Needs

by David Brock on April 29th, 2014

Too often, both we sales people and our customers confuse wants and needs.  They are similar but very different.  The outcomes we get from selling to what our customers want, versus what they need are profoundly different.

As sales people, we’re taught to understand customer needs–in reality, what happens is we focus on customer wants.

When we sell to a customer’s wants, we are primarily focused on a “future state.”  We and the customer talk about new things they would like to do, how they want to change their operations, new capabilities they would like to have.

We can develop tremendous excitement around what they want to do and what they want to achieve.  We can get support from the customer, we can build a business case of sorts, and we can even get the customer to reach a decision–“Yes, we want your solution to help us achieve this!”

But we still don’t get the order.

We may get the customer hot and lathered.  They try to get it into their budget, they try to get approval to move forward.  If they can’t, they put it on the back burner, saying, “Let’s try it again next year, maybe we can get budget then (as if next year the budgeting process will be any easier.).”  In the mean time, the customer can do without it.  Sure there are some things they are missing, some value they can get, but they can work around not having  what they want.

The thing, we and the customer miss, is that however strongly they may want something, do they really need it?

“Need” really starts from a different place.  Need starts from a current state or from missed opportunity.  Needs start with something that is unacceptable about the customer’s current performance, operations, or way of doing things.  Starting with needs means change isn’t an option, it’s mandatory.  The customer has to take action, and everyone in the customer is aligned around the necessity to change.

I often write about a compelling need to buy–really that is a compelling need to change.  Until we and the customer establish a compelling need to change, there is simply no reason to buy.  Addressing their wants feels good to everyone involved, it gets people excited, but when challenged by management, it is difficult to support.  But once we start focusing on “need,” we move from “nice to do/have,” to “mandatory to change/achieve.”

Need may have a different context to different people involved in our customer decision making process.  Need at an operational level may be different than need at an executive level.  We have to help the customer at all levels discover/create that need.

I know I’m playing with words a little, you might choose to use the words a little differently, but the underlying issues are critical to our success and our customers’ success.  Until the need to change becomes mandatory, our solution to what the customer wants becomes optional.  We may be able to get it approved–but if there is a higher priority, approval is at risk.

Moving from “want” to “need” isn’t difficult.  We just need to focus on the issues of, “Why does the customer have to change?”  “What are the consequences of not changing?”  “How do we make ‘not changing’ unacceptable?”

Yes, you can close a deal focusing on wants.  But you can close more deals, faster, by creating a compelling need to change.

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  1. Great article Dave. Reminds me of my economics lessons when I was at school, (many years ago!) the difference between desire and economic demand. The latter is desire backed by the ability to pay. You’ve explained very clearly a similar fundamental difference here between want and need. Such a fundamental sales skill yet found missing so frequently. Best wishes. Al

  2. Great article David. This is a great reminder to me that people are motivated more by fear of failure than will to succeed. We MUST explore and/or link even what seems to be an unconnected pain if we are to use our time wisely and really make a difference in our customer’s and our own lives

    • Cherie, you’ve really hit on the essence of the key issues. Thanks for adding such great clarity.

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