For a salesperson, landing a plum deal feels fantastic. Many salespeople are driven by the thrill of the chase and feel on the top of the world when the prospect they’ve been working on for months finally signs off on the deal.

I believe there’s something much better than that, though. It’s knowing you’ve helped someone sleep a little better at night.

Maybe your prospect owns her own business and has been losing sleep over the lack of new business coming in the door.

Or he’s worried that he’s spending too much time in the business rather than working on the business, and fears that he’s not spending enough time with his family.

Or she’s watching her profit slowly but surely decline and has tried several things to reverse the trend, but nothing seems to be working.

Or he’s continually stressed out by someone who isn’t working well with the rest of the team, who is causing friction and unhappiness amongst other employees.

Looking beyond the stated need

Often, when I’m talking with people for the first time, they have a particular problem or need they’ve identified that I might be able to help them fix. For example, they may have a vacancy they need to fill because someone is leaving their business. Or they know that one or some of their people have performance problems, and they want to try to diagnose and fix them.

We start by talking about their specific problem – which of course we’re happy to help them with – but invariably, the conversation turns towards the real, underlying issues behind the issue. In many, many cases, the issue they’re seeking help for is actually a symptom of a much bigger, underlying problem. And that’s what’s keeping them awake at night.

It often turns out that they have a vacancy for a particular reason: perhaps the salespeople they’ve been hiring aren’t able to perform to the standard required. Or they’ve moved someone into a management role and people are leaving because they can’t work effectively with their new manager.

We then start to discuss how we can work together to fix the immediate issue. Once that’s taken care of, we collaborate to develop solutions that will help them remedy the underlying causes and get their business back on the right track.

As a result, they should be able to sleep better at night, spend more time with their loved ones, reverse their downward trend and lower their stress levels and blood pressure.

Successful selling requires understanding

Why am I talking about all of this? It’s because it epitomises what I believe is the most basic and fundamental principle of selling:  listening to your customers.

In many, many cases, I’ve seen salespeople say, ‘Sure, I can sell’, when what they actually mean is they can present their product to a prospective client. These are the kind of people who tell prospects all about what they do, what their business does, and why they think it’s a great product.

The problem with this approach is that it’s all about them: the salesperson. Sometimes it’s based on a sketchy understanding of the prospect’s needs, but more often than not it’s based on assumptions: that the prospect is in business Y and therefore should use product Z.

Successful salespeople know that selling is all about understanding their prospects’ needs. Their role is simply to uncover what’s important to their prospects: their pain points, their vision, their goals, their barriers. Unless they do these things, they won’t be able to offer a genuine solution or provide value to their customers.

And in this ‘age of the customer’, where it’s easier than ever for customers to switch from one provider to another, it’s more critical than ever to have a holistic understanding of what your customers need and want.

How to learn about your prospects

There are many techniques out there to help people sell solutions by understanding their customers – enough to fill another blog post. I’d like to outline a few of my favourites here.

  1. Do your research: learn as much as you can about their business, their industry, their role, their environment
  2. Ask intelligent questions: the purpose of a prospecting call or a first meeting is not to present a ready-made solution that may or may not meet their needs. It’s all about finding out what they’re currently doing; what’s working and not working; what they hope to achieve by speaking with you (and probably others like you also wanting to sell their solutions).
  3. Listen carefully: Often when others are talking, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next. Active listening is all about focusing on what the other person is saying, ensuring you understand, and encouraging them to speak further about the issue.
  4. Seek to understand what drives them: everyone has personal and professional goals and sometimes, if you develop a strong enough relationship with your prospects, they’ll trust you enough to tell you about them. This is where we begin to learn about what’s keeping them awake at night; how they hope to progress in their role; what’s sending their stress levels through the roof and so on.

It also relates back to listening and observing carefully: people may not feel comfortable telling you they’re losing sleep, but often the signs are there: they might look tired, sound weary when talking about a particular topic and display body language the reinforces their tiredness and stress.

Only when we take the time to really learn about our customers and understand what success means to them can we begin to sell them a solution that will genuinely help them achieve their goals.

The best salespeople understand this: it’s never about them or their product. And it’s always about understanding your customers and helping them become more successful.