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Are customer needs assessments dead?

As we navigate the changes in our world right now, I think it’s important to focus on the Customer Needs Assessment and breathe new life into it.

If you’re in a leadership role, right now you might be saying, “No, Ryan, don’t talk about not doing a Customer Needs Assessment.”

Ryan Dohrn
Media sales expert Ryan Dohrn.

Here’s my point, though. We’re living in a world where people are limited in cash, limited on funds, and certainly limited on patience. For the most part, I think everybody right now is actually limited to some degree in their cognitive abilities. So how do we expect someone we’re selling to, to understand what they need vs what they want?

Think about this regarding the Customer Needs Assessment. Very often it focuses in on what an advertising customer wants, and not what they need. Think about all the questions you ask:

  • “What’s your budget?”
  • “What are your goals?”
  • “What keeps you up at night?”
  • “What’s the biggest business challenge for you?”
  • “How can we help you overcome that?”

It’s all focusing on what they want. They want paying customers, they want new business, they want to retain business. Want, want, want.

It really should be called the Customer Wants Assessment, right?

Think through this with me before you shut down on the idea. Be open-minded. I sell every day, just like you do. I’ve been in sales and marketing for 30 years. I didn’t stop selling to become a media sales consultant; I love the media sales business.

So this Customer Needs Assessment, where we ask them what they need — it really focuses on what somebody wants.

So if we don’t actually guide them toward what they need, they’re going to come back to us in the coming weeks or months and say, “I didn’t get any ROI.” They didn’t get the return on investment that they needed. And so a lot of the time they didn’t get what they needed because we gave them what they wanted.

So here’s what I want you to consider in addition to the Customer Needs Assessment: putting forth powerful recommendations.

Let me give you some background on my thoughts here, culled from my media sales training.

There are a lot of impatient people out there right now. How many of you feel cranky right now? I feel cranky. I’m cranky about the world, I’m cranky about politics, I’m cranky about COVID-19. I’m just cranky. And it’s difficult to deal with cranky people you’re selling to. They try to tell you what they want, and you’re trying to convince them what they need, so I’d like to talk to you about recommendations instead.

Were you aware that Nielsen, the TV ratings and audits company, reports that recommendations are the most trusted form of information?

This is a tool we can use as media salespeople, and this is something I stress in my ad sales training. We can coach our customers on why they need something, and what they need to buy. And then we can get them to a point where we not only fulfill their wants, but we actually get to the heart of what they need.

Harvard Business Review did a review of 600 top sales professionals, and here’s what they found out: most sales reps rely on a customer to coach them through the sales process. Now, the superstar sales reps that I work with: we coach the customer. We know the questions we need to ask the customer to find out what it is they truly need beyond what they want.

But still, most customers are going to struggle to identify an exact need. For example, they might say, “I need more customers.” So I may say, “When you say ‘customers,’ can you be more specific? Tell me more. Give me some detail about that.”

So, to guide customers to a recommendation, I’m doing a great deal of comparative selling.

Creating a comparative conversation helps you draw out ego, helps you draw out emotion, and helps you draw out logic.

Sometimes in the advertising business, where I spend a lot of my time, I’ll say things like, “Who do you feel does a great job of marketing here in our community or industry?” I suppose they could say, “Nobody does.” But typically they give an example of somebody.

And then I’ll say, “Do you want to be like them, better than them, less than them? Do you want to be competitive with them, or do you want to dominate them?” I work to determine their circumstance.

I don’t ask them their budget. Because if you ask them what their budget is, they’re probably going to give you a number based on their reality. Not the reality of marketing in the community where you live or the industry they serve.

My next tool to guide customers to a recommendation is sharing success stories through comparative selling.

When you create a comparative conversation, you’re actually comparing the customer that you have on the phone to other happy customers that you’ve had in the past.

Here’s an example. “Bob Jones has been advertising with me for six years. Do you know Bob? Every time I talk to Bob he says he loves working with us.” I share what they love about me, what they love about our digital options, what they’ve loved about the company, what they’ve loved about the experience – and I can begin to compare customers.

I use these comparative conversations so I can recommend products based on the happiness of other customers, realising that other customers’ happiness will oftentimes translate to the happiness of this new customer that I’m trying to get.

It’s easy — and it’s all about sharing success stories.

But sometimes we salespeople don’t like to do this, and the reason we don’t is because we feel like we’re talking about a customer behind that customer’s back. But we’re not. What we’re actually doing is shouting from the mountaintop how happy our customers are with us.

And if they’re happy, then this new customer probably will be, too. And happiness is ultimately what we’re seeking.

Now, you might get really technical about this, and you might say, “Well, Ryan, I’m not looking for happiness, what I’m looking for is making sure they have the ROI that they demand.” But I am here to tell you: when push comes to shove most people want to be successful.

Just last weekend I was talking with a friend of mine. She said, “I’m having some great luck losing weight.” I said, “Cool! I would love to drop 15 pounds. I think it would make me happy. What are you doing?”

And she told me about her weight management plan. So I immediately went home and looked it up online to find out how I could get involved in this.

The point is, her success story led me to make a purchasing decision. This is a simple buying example, but it can resonate through everything you do.

Consider that when you have a linear conversation – a one-way conversation with a client – you are keeping them inside their own bubble. 

And it’s not until somebody gets out of their bubble — OUT of it — that they realise: “Oh, other people out here are happy, they’re being successful, and I want to be like them. What are they doing? What is their weight loss plan? How did it work for them? What made them happy?”

As a media salesperson, if I can help customers be happy — happy like other advertisers – then all of a sudden they start buying what it is that I’m selling. It’s a simple sales concept that works and that resonates with customers.

I’ve had the opportunity to walk through and be a part of almost every sales training program in America, from Carnegie to Sandler. And a problem that I often see is that the sales process focuses on a one-way conversation that identifies a client’s pain with a solution.

That’s great in theory, but as a salesperson you can actually take it to the next level by telling them about other happy customers whose pain you have eliminated. It’s about proving that you have done something for other people.

It’s about getting beyond the old fashioned Customer Needs Assessment to start recommending products, sharing success stories, and creating comparative conversations.

And remember, in these conversations, be mindful of the questions that you ask. Make sure those questions take you to a better place.

So, what are the questions?

I try not to ask the same questions that have been asked for the last 10-15 years, the ones that make you sound like all the other salespeople that have shown up either face-to-face, on Zoom, or on the phone.

I strive to ask the questions that other salespeople don’t. In that vein, I don’t ask, “What keeps you up at night?” I would rather ask something along the lines of:

  • “If we could help bring you one perfect customer, what would that customer look like?” or,
  • “When you agreed to meet with me, was there a business challenge you were hoping that I could help you solve?”

Instead of asking, “What’s your budget?”…especially in the ad sales world where I spend a lot of my time in the advertising business, I’ll ark:

  • “If we could help you be bigger and better than your nearest competitor, what would that look like?”
  • “In the past, what have you done to solve these types of problems?”

Or I might use something back from my good old Sandler days like:

  • “What is the biggest challenge that you’re facing right now that you think I can help you solve?”
  • Then: “How long has that been a challenge or a problem for you?”
  • Next: “What have you done in the past to fix that problem or remove that problem from the greater equation of your business?”

When you ask your questions, remember these ideas I espouse in my ad sales training program:

  • Most people want to be led.
  • Most people like recommendations.
  • Most people don’t like a linear conversation — they want to know what others are doing and what you have done to help other people.

So, in closing, the Customer Needs Assessment isn’t dead, necessarily, but if we don’t breathe some new life into it – if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done – we’re going to get the same result.

If we want to see a different result, we’ve got to do something different.

That’s why we’re advisors…try to be an advisor, don’t be a salesperson. Breathe some new life into your Customer Needs Assessment.

And managers out there — sales directors, sales leaders — look at the questions your media salespeople are asking prospects and customers. Make sure that they’re updated. Make sure they reflect the current situation that we’re in.

Then finally, always remember. If ad sales was easy, everybody would be doing it. And they’re not. So we’re either crazy…or we’ve found a career that will feed our families for a lifetime.

Ryan Dohrn is the creator of the 360 Ad Sales training system and an internationally recognised media revenue consultant. Dohrn runs a popular You Tube channel and podcast.

Written by Ryan Dohrn, Founder, Brain Swell Media

Ryan Dohrn is the creator of the 360 Ad Sales Training system and is an internationally recognised media revenue consultant. Ryan actively sells print, digital, broadcast, event sponsorships, exhibit space and radio. He has trained and coached over 15,000 ad sales reps to date and speaks over 60 times per year. Ryan loves teaching ad sales reps his simple and effective way to achieve ad sales success. Ryan has media clients in Australia, Spain, UK, Holland and the USA.

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