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Unfortunately for you, this prospective customer hasn't been thinking about you or what you might have to offer, no matter how great you and your products or services are. Instead, he or she is thinking about the problems that are creating cost, stress, and negative customer impact in the business. This preoccupied potential buyer does have needs - but they are latent, in the background.
The shift in thinking that's required for him or her to make the decision to buy from you is the shift from latent needs to active needs - ones upon which they are ready to act. Fortunately for you the salesperson, there are tools for helping this shift occur. This is client-focused communication. It doesn't persuade or pressure. It helps the prospect think through the situation and understand the urgency to solve the problem. Then the prospect wants to buy - and right away.
If you want to uncover latent needs, there are a few prerequisites for the needs discovery process:
1. Favorable attention – take time to make a friend. In order to discover the latent needs, some trust and a perception of your credibility in being able to address the issues at hand is necessary first. If you don’t have this, save your breath on the probing questions, because the prospective client won't reveal the uncomfortable (and most important) information. Instead, he is likely to tell you that everything is running swimmingly, and before you realize what happened you'll be out the door.
2. Time and setting – an introductory phone call or networking function is not the appropriate place to ask needs discovery questions. Remember the favorable attention that you need to establish? That won't be instant . In addition, if this individual is going to share sensitive information they won't do it without privacy. Set an appointment and find a quiet spot where you and they can be uninterrupted and comfortable.
3. Direction and pacing – commit to an agenda and a time frame and stick to it. This is a busy person who will not be happy about wasting time. If you don't handle this properly you might never earn the opportunity to present your solutions. If you need more time, ask for agreement to continue, and either do it now or set aside a later time slot. (Hint: a second, later conversation will give you time to absorb the information so far and to construct good questions for the next meeting.)
Tools for discovering latent needs:
· Open ended questions – allow the prospect to think out loud without over-steering. This will help to ensure that the conversation is on the prospective client’s agenda. “It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction that it’s already going.” Set aside your own opinions about their situation or you risk eroding their trust
· Goal oriented questions – what is the desired outcome or result? These questions establish the context for the questions that follow.
· Prioritization questions – which of the topics or problems is at the top of the prospective client’s priority list? (You want to go there first if you want the momentum of the customer’s own motivation to pull you along)
· Implication questions – what happens if the situation improves and what happens if it doesn't? If the customer hasn’t already identified this item as a priority or activated this need, the implication questions will help to create a sense of urgency. These questions also assist the prospective client in calculating the potential return on investment (ROI) associated with buying from you.
· Connection of the implications to key business results – impact on customers, impact on finances, impact on ability to manage, impact on ability to grow and innovate. These are often dotted lines that are not connected (and the full impact revealed) in the foreground of the prospective client’s thinking unless you ask.
· Obstacle questions – what’s in the way of the desired outcome? This is where you match your products and services as solutions to overcome the customer’s identified obstacles.
Wait – don’t present solutions yet!
It might be tempting to jump to solution as soon as you hear something that contains even a hair’s connection to your products and services. Stop going there in your head, and continue listening to your prospective client.
A general test of whether you have “enough” information upon which to base a recommendation is to see whether you have helped the business owner identify implications in each of the key business results buckets (customers, finance, management and growth) for the issue at hand. If the implications can be quantified in dollars, great – that makes it a more straightforward process to determine the ROI on the potential investment. It helps you make the decision to set a follow-up meeting and construct an appropriate solution to present then on the basis of generating a positive ROI.
The rush to recommend creates a risk of not addressing the “right” issue in the mind of the prospective customer. (And by the way, they – not you – determine what the right issue is for you to be addressing at this point in time.) In addition, given that your prospect has been up all night thinking and/or worrying - if you come in off the street and outside of this business’s context with an instant answer you will
- destroy your credibility. It is probably not that simple.
- risk making the prospect feel stupid or inadequate for not seeing the answer himself. And that feeling of self-doubt won’t help him choose to move forward with you. It generally causes him to slow way down or even stop, and it will especially do so if he perceives judgment or evaluation coming from you.
Latent needs are the salesperson’s best friend if they are, through an effective process of helpful inquiry, identified (converted to active status). This is not necessarily the low-hanging fruit, but the door to an ongoing relationship as a trusted advisor.