What Is Needs-Based Selling?

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The fast-talking brand of salesmanship is largely a fading memory. More modern approaches to salesmanship attempt to make the salesperson an "assistant buyer" instead of breaking down the customer's resistance through brute force. This approach is typically referred to as consultative or needs-based selling, because it focuses on identifying and fulfilling the customer's needs.

What It Replaced

The conventional model of selling that prevailed through the late 1970s had an appealingly logical structure. It presented the features of a product or service, explained the benefits of that feature and then amplified on the advantage those benefits provided. Consider the example of high-quality artisanal pasta. The feature is that it's extruded through a brass die, rather than the stainless steel dies used in mass-market pasta. The benefit is that a brass die creates a relatively rough, porous surface on the pasta, and the advantage is that sauces adhere to it better than to slick, shiny commercial pasta. When used skillfully, this remains an effective sales technique in many situations.

A Different Approach

The problem with the feature-benefit approach is that it leaves the focus on the product rather than on the customer's needs. With pasta, for example, no amount of skill can save the sale if you're speaking to a celiac sufferer who can't eat gluten. In needs-based or consultative selling, the salesperson establishes what those needs are through a series of open-ended, relationship-building questions. The answers to those questions clarify the customer's needs -- for the customer as well as the salesperson -- and enable the salesperson to offer a solution to those needs.

The Practical Details

Those open-ended questions are the central skill required for needs-based selling. They should require an informative response, not just a yes or no. For example if you're selling industrial equipment or services, you might ask about the rate of manufacturing flaws on their current machinery or the time it takes to restore production after their current service provider is called in. This approach is especially useful if you're genuinely knowledgeable about their industry. Couching your question in those terms -- "Some of my customers find they run into problems when they're using 4-millimeter stock. Have you noticed that too?" -- establishes your credibility and positions you to successfully make the sale.

The Limitations

Like any technique, needs-based selling has limitations. For one thing, its heavy emphasis on relationship-building sometimes leaves salespeople reluctant to risk their efforts by actually asking for the sale. It's also time-intensive, which can be maddening for customers such as physicians who are already time-stressed and have little incentive to indulge your attempts to be their friend. In those situations, you'll need a quick presentation designed to show an understanding of their needs -- any cardiologist using drug "X" will face the same potential interactions -- and demonstrate why your product meets those needs.