What Maslow’s hierarchy of needs teaches us about selling

To thrive the salesperson must make the discussion, not about the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the levels above it. And the levels above it are all emotional. The progressive salesperson plays in this emotional space.

The Chairman of a renowned multinational manufacturing concern once startled his staff when he said that,”Anyone can make what we make. We are not in the business of manufacturing; we are in the business of marketing”. This is not a marketing column-it a sales column. Still, I cannot agree with him more. Selling purely on the features of a product invites the client to compare apples for apples- a debate which the salesperson will most probably lose. He makes it difficult to lose however when he makes the prospect perceive his apples as oranges. To do this he must make the discussion not about the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but the levels above it. And the levels above it are all emotional. The progressive salesperson plays in this emotional space.

First a quick reminder from Google: Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy progresses from basic, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization needs. Unless you are a hunger victim awaiting relief food, you don’t eat because you are hungry; it may feel that way but it’s not-if it were true you wouldn’t be choosing what food to eat and where to eat it and with whom you do so. These secondary reasons are the reasons we eat. It follows therefore that the food establishment does not sell food-it sells the service, the ambience, the surwa (extra). Food is a basic need that is no longer a motivating factor to buy.

So profound is the need to employ Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in selling that institutions whose salespeople must be technically competent (e.g. those in agribusiness selling beneficial insects or chemicals to large scale farmers), are quickly finding themselves in need of training them to have a sales orientation. Now that the farmer concedes the demo has worked, it does not follow he will keel over and ask to be shown where to sign. The salesperson, after having established all the facts, must still play in the emotional space if he is to make a sale. He must remove his technical cap and don the salesperson one.

In a sales workshop I recently conducted, I learnt that there are 60 publishers in Kenya. This means, size aside, there are 60 companies who can print books. All the public primary schools in Kenya share one curriculum and national exam-and they use books as diverse as the publishers print; therefore, the salesperson of a publishing firm must find a unique way of approaching the market if he is to thrive, and not just survive. Especially because it is not the book that matters so much as the delivery by the teacher. The book is a given; a basic. The publishing firm’s reputation is a welcome boost but does not offer sufficient thrust to get the sale! To flourish, the progressive salesperson operates at the levels higher than basic: the emotional zone. For instance, depending on which part of the country he is based, he may opt to hold a monthly mbuzi for the various decision-makers from the schools and book shops in his region. I’m willing to bet most of his sales would be closed at the”goat-eating”events and visits to the school would dramatically diminish to mere formalities.

When the salesperson rattles off the features of his service or product that he is selling, he is doing little more than verbalizing the brochure which in itself is an inanimate basic on Maslow’s hierarchy. Consider the saleslady selling credit cards who says”this card has chip and PIN functionality; and the interest is only 3% per month; the Card enables the Cardholder to obtain the Funds in cash by withdrawal from ATMs and/or ascertain information as to the balance on the Card at ATMs or Points of Sale terminals or make payments at Merchant Establishments through Points of Sale terminals”. All that is good to know madam but, hey, which credit card doesn’t do all that?

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