Needs analysis: Study shows top performers win by digging deeper
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Needs analysis: Study shows top performers win by digging deeper

New research shows there’s a high payoff if you do a bang-up job of analyzing customer needs at the start of the sales cycle. In fact, it may be the real key to top sales performance.

Recent research by SEC Solutions shows that high performers (the top 15% to 20% in terms of sales results) spend twice as much time on front-end needs analysis as ho-hum performers do.

Sales pros who prod customers to think deeply about their business and challenge old ways of thinking outperform other salespeople three-to-one, on average.

The temptation is for salespeople – eager to make a sale – to stop at the first need they uncover when they have a solution that can help. But digging deeper forms stronger relationships, deepens trust – and leads to more business.

Do homework upfront
If your pre-call planning amounts to rehearsing what you plan to say in the car on the way to the sales call, getting connected with your buyer is going to be tougher than it needs to be.

Front-end detective work makes a lot of sense, and is much easier these days thanks to the Internet and social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, where you can find out plenty about your contacts, their company, and the problems they may be facing.

Time spent educating yourself about the person and the company is well spent, for three reasons:

  • Customers don’t want to waste time answering surface-level questions about their business or industry.
  • It helps you project a sense of your own expertise.
  • You’ll connect more easily if you can figure out more about the type of person you are calling on. Are they formal and bottom-line types, or more relaxed?

Ask the right questions
Customers get engaged in conversations best when the questions you ask pique their interest and drive home the consequences of failure to address open and unsolved issues.

The needs analysis questions you should ask fall into three broad categories:

1. What is really going on here? The idea is to understand where they are experiencing pain and how long it has been going on. Some questions: How long has this been a problem? Is it getting better or worse? What has kept you from fixing it? Are there other issues that need to be addressed first?

2. What is the cause? Questions in this category take the conversation to a deeper level, and may uncover issues that buyers had not considered. Sample questions: Why do you think this problem has gone on for so long? Who or what is responsible for it? What bothers you the most about this issue? Tell me more!

3. What is the impact? These questions aim to create a sense of urgency about fixing the problem. Probe for details: How has this issue affected the company in terms of profitability, productivity, or customer relations? What is your educated guess about what it is costing you? How is your performance evaluated in relation to this problem?

Dig for root causes
To avoid offering a band-aid solution that falls short, it’s important to find the root cause of a problem. The Five Whys technique can help with this.

Developed at Toyota and now used extensively in Six Sigma, it involves repeatedly asking “Why?” Often the first answer will prompt another “why” question, the second answer will do the same, and so on – hence the name.

In reality it may take more or fewer than five “whys” to peel away the layers of symptoms and find the root cause. Ask as many “whys” as you need. An example:

  • Why do you miss scheduled delivery times? Because jobs take longer than we think they will.
  • Why do jobs take longer than you think? Because we underestimate the complexity of the jobs we take on.
  • Why does that happen? Because we make a rough estimate without listing the individual stages.
  • Why don’t you do that? Because we are running behind on multiple projects and don’t have the time.
  • Why are you chronically behind? (root cause) Because we don’t allow enough manufacturing lead time when quoting projects to customers.

In other words, what started out as a delivery problem (with the potential sales solutions limited to fixing delivery) turned out to be a much richer problem, offering more opportunities for a salesperson to propose a solution: a manufacturing solution, a forecasting solution and so on.

Your role is to help your prospect or customer to dig deeper into what is really needed. That will get you beyond vendor status and into trusted advisor territory.

Sources: Based in part on “Rainmaking Conversations” by Schultz & Doerr, and a post by Stu Schlackman. For more from Stu visit

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