Discovering: Identify Needs, Wants, and Pain Areas

Guest post by John Naples, Encore Consulting Group

WHEN I FIRST STARTED in sales, I was as green as they come. I entered the field directly after graduating from college and went to work for Lanier Worldwide in the highly competitive telecommunications industry. I was trained to hit the streets in San Diego’s Mission Valley and knock on at least 25 doors each day. Success was determined by the number of calls I made, rather than by their quality. Once I secured an appointment, I was taught to deliver a “feature dump” on anyone would listen. I quickly saw that this method of listing and describing features was all wrong; I wasn’t seeing good results and my competitors were winning. It took some experience and additional knowledge, though, before I figured out how to correct it. The fact is, I was missing a key, critical step in the selling process and I didn’t even know it.

In this blog post we’ll examine why uncovering pain and opportunity is so essential to sales success. We’ll look at how to play the roles of detective, therapist, and doctor, and help you ask the right kind of questions to discover your client’s deep pain.

The Pain Issue

Today’s top sales performers have to be more curious, spend more time discovering needs, and ask the right kind of questions to identify their client’s pain. If you understand your client’s deep pain, you’ll be in better shape to help him or her find the remedy. A strong understanding leads to a strong recommendation.

Pain comes in all shapes and sizes. Some is mild; some is intense. The bigger and broader the pain is, the greater the opportunity. In this context, pain can take various forms:

  • Needs or requirements (“have to haves”)
  • Wants (“nice to haves”)
  • Challenges (headaches/frustrations)
  • Pressure points (staying current with technology)
  • Setbacks (declining sales, layoffs, increase in costs, etc.)

Your goal as a consultative salesperson is to uncover these pains and determine their broader implications. Organizational pain always has a ripple effect; one team or department may be the source, but the effects are always felt on a broader scale. For example, if there are setbacks in the production department, that could affect accounts receivable, shipping, marketing, and sales. You could be meeting with the marketing department about their pain and realize they’re not the source of the problem. That’s why it’s important to analyze an organization from top to bottom.

Here are a few ideas to help you gain a global understanding of your client’s organization:

  • Request an organizational chart. This will give you an idea of key management personnel and how teams/departments interrelate within the organizational infrastructure. Plus, it will give you the names of key decision-makers for additional sales opportunities.
  • Connect the dots. During your initial meeting, ask your client how the various departments, teams, and divisions interconnect. For example, if the client offers a product, you might look at R&D, manufacturing, production, operations, quality control, marketing, sales, and shipping. Determine how these various teams work together operationally.
  • Review the organization’s website. Most websites provide a macro perspective of an organization. You can learn more about their major products and/or services, their executive team, their clients, and the locations of other offices.
  • Do a search on Google. An excellent way to develop a broader understanding of your client’s organization is to conduct a search on Google. You can find information on over 90 percent of the firms in the United States by doing a simple search. You’ll find the organization’s press releases, details on new contracts they have secured, information on new hires, and much more.
  • Check out the competition. If you want to understand your client’s firm, learn about its competitors in the industry. You’ll see how the organization differentiates itself in the market and get a grasp of its unique selling proposition.

Set the Stage

Whether you’re on an appointment or making a phone call, it’s important to set the stage for the ensuing conversation. After you arrive—or begin the call—and exchange pleasantries, state the objective of the meeting (or call) and gain commitment from the client. Your introductory remarks might sound something like this:

“Thank you for your time this morning. The purpose of our meeting is to discuss your 2018 plans to update your employee benefits package.”

After you state the objective, let your client know that you would like to learn more about his or her goals by asking a few questions. You might say:

“To learn more about your objectives, I would like to ask you a few questions. Is that all right?”

Now is the time to jump in and begin to discover the client’s pain. Later in this blog post, we’ll explore the specific questions you will ask.

The Rule on Small Talk

I am often asked, “How much should I talk about the fish on the wall or the photos of the kids on the credenza?” The best thing you can do is to take your cues from your client. If a client is chatty and friendly, then reciprocate. If she wants to get down to business, follow her lead. You can usually tell a client’s social preferences within a few minutes.

Try to mirror and complement your client’s style as much as possible. Never make the mistake of assuming he or she wants to chat. State your objective and see how he responds. If he wants to talk first, he will usually let you know. The key here is to always be observant and follow social etiquette. Use your social intelligence to observe subtleties and nuances.

Observe the Buyer’s Personality Style

Every buyer is wired differently and has a unique temperament and personality. A lot of salespeople make the mistake of approaching all buyers in the same way, without taking these differences into account. Every buyer should be approached on the basis of his or her unique style. If you can determine the type of personality that your buyer represents and respond accordingly, you’ll be able to get on his or her wavelength, make a deeper connection, and build trust faster.

Knowing how to deal with various personalities is critical to sales success. There are hundreds of books and online assessment tools that address personality assessment. Only a few, however, do so from a perspective that is useful to a salesperson . One of these is the personality type inventory developed by Gary Smalley and Dr. John Trent. Here’s a breakdown of the four basic personality types they identify and how to approach them from a sales perspective:

Type of Personality Perceived Assets Perceived Liabilities Selling Approach
Lion Domineering Ambitious Focused Decisive Leader Overpowering Tactless Controlling Forceful Overbearing Present the big picture; be direct
Otter Life of the Party Expressive Outgoing Fun Social Easily distracted Scatterbrained Undisciplined Unfocused Overly emotional Connect relationally; avoid being too serious
Golden Retriever Easy-going Diplomatic Excellent listener Loyal Amiable Lacks enthusiasm Indecisive Stoic Lazy Apathetic Avoid pushing too hard; provide assurances
Beaver Detailed Analytical Great planner Organized Accurate Hyper-sensitive Lacks people skills Distant Disengaged Inflexible Present details; stay organized


How do you determine your client’s personality type? Simple observation will usually reveal sufficient information. If your client is direct and intense, there’s a good possibility that he or she has the style of a lion. If she uses humor and is gregarious, she’s probably an otter. If he wants to discuss specifications and analytical data, he is probably a beaver. If you find your client easy-going and difficult to read, she is most likely a golden retriever.

Remember: Your job is to determine your client’s personality type and tailor your message to his or her unique type. When you do this, you’ll make a strong connection with your buyer and foster deeper trust.

The Dog and Pony Show

I work with hundreds of salespeople each year, and I constantly marvel at how many of them focus primarily on their presentation during an appointment or phone call. Many simply throw their offers on the wall and see what sticks. They’re looking for a positive response from the buyer, trying to see what excites him. They think if they toss enough features at him, one is bound to resonate. Even seasoned veterans fall into the trap of discussing their offer before they gain an understanding of their client’s business or problems. These folks either are victims of their own bad habits or were trained improperly—probably both.

The temptation to pitch your offer is very strong. Many salespeople think, “The client is having me in to present my services; I’d better put on a good show.” Even buyers are programmed to listen to presentations. Have you ever heard a buyer say “So, tell me what you’ve got”? Our natural response is to start presenting right away, even though we have no idea what the buyer needs or wants. Salespeople are to blame for this. Over the years they have focused so heavily on the presentation that buyers have become accustomed to “the show.”

If you’re dealing with a buyer who is pushing for the presentation, simply say, “In order to determine the most suitable package for your needs, I would like to learn more about your business. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” This response accomplishes four things:

  1. It demonstrates your consultative approach. You’re not slinging your offer.
  2. It gives you control of the interview. Too often, salespeople allow the buyer to dictate the direction of a meeting or phone call. You don’t have to yield to the buyer’s every whim. The person asking the questions usually controls the conversation.
  3. It provides a great transition to the discovery phase. You’re making the buyer aware that you’ll be asking questions.
  4. If you’re like most salespeople, you find presenting easier than asking questions. This is particularly true if your presentation is pre-printed or in PowerPoint. Salespeople like to hide behind their presentation media instead of establishing a dialogue with their clients. It’s a lot easier to present a memorized, structured presentation than it is to diagnose pain, discover needs, and probe for problems. Discovering needs, problems, and pain requires:
  • forethought;
  • exceptional listening skills;
  • some degree of creativity;
  • the ability to follow up with additional, appropriate questions; and
  • knowing where to focus your questioning.

Remember: View your presentation as secondary and subject to the results of an effective interview. Make it a byproduct of discovering the deep pains of your client.

How can you present, prescribe, or propose your solution without a thorough understanding of your client’s pain? This would be similar to a physician writing you a prescription prior to conducting an examination. You would think the doctor was a quack! Unless and until you have a crystal-clear grasp of your client’s pain, you’re in no position to prescribe.

When I first began using interviews to discover a client’s pain, I was like a kid in a candy shop. As I asked questions and learned more about his or her problems, I was almost giddy because I knew something the client didn’t—namely, an amazing solution to his or her problems. There were times I wanted to blurt it out prior to concluding the interview. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “He’s going to love this solution!” If you’ve thought that before, you were on the right track.


The Heart of Every Sale—the Emotional Agenda

When I first started selling, I thought that logic, rationality, and objectivity drove most buying decisions. I thought buyers made decisions based on facts and data. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that emotion drives most buying decisions. People buy with their hearts and justify their decisions with their heads; most have an emotional agenda that guides decision-making.

Whenever I introduce the concept of the emotional agenda in live training sessions, I always get a pushback from at least one attendee. In response, I try to demonstrate that what appears to be logical and rational is really emotional. Here’s a chart to illustrate the point:

Purchase Logical Improvement
to the Company
Emotional Benefits to the Company
New Employee Benefits Package Reduced turnover  Healthier employees  Lower costs Greater loyalty Peace of mind Improved profit

The logical improvements are positive and important. No one would discount the importance of reducing turnover, improving employee health, and lowering costs. However, take it one step further; convey the emotional benefits to the client as well. It might sound something like this:

“Bob, the new benefits package will yield healthier employees, reduce employee turnover, and lower your costs. The real benefit to you is greater peace of mind and improved profit.”

During the discovery phase, you’re looking for your client’s emotional agenda. Once you’ve found it, you can appeal to him on a whole new level.

Remember: What you’re really selling are emotional benefits.

In Search of an Inquisitive Mind

It’s been said that “Curiosity is the mother of intelligence.” For our purposes, I would take it one step further and say “Curiosity is the distinguishable trait of all exceptional salespeople.” You have to be inquisitive to gain insight into your clients’ pain. Curiosity should drive you to discover unseen problems that, sometimes, even your clients were not aware of.

To develop curiosity and discover your client’s pain, you’ll need to possess some basic skills. Take a look at this list and see how you fare.

  • Active listening. Are you 100 percent engaged when your client is speaking?
  • Effective questioning. Do you ask open-ended questions to get the client talking?
  • Do you rarely miss anything?
  • Can you ask questions without interrogating?
  • Can you analyze data quickly?
  • Connecting the dots. Do you view things as interrelated?
  • Asking follow-up questions to probe deeper. Do you do more than scratch the surface, or do you simply accept things at face value?
  • Identifying the cause and effects. Do you know there is a reason behind every symptom?
  • Reaching conclusions. Do you trust your data and instincts?

The Roles of Discovery

There are a number of roles we have to play as salespeople. Here are three that are essential if you want to discover your client’s pain:

  • The detective. You investigate, evaluate evidence and find clues.
  • The therapist. You probe and analyze.
  • The physician. You diagnose and examine.

Detectives, therapists, and physicians have something in common. They look for causes.

They want to know the purpose or cause behind the symptoms (or effects). To learn the causes, they ask questions; questions that help them build a case, gain a better understanding, or reveal pain. Exceptional salespeople do the same thing! In fact, as a salesperson you have to take on all three roles. As a detective, you investigate your client’s business challenges, look at evidence, and find clues to solve the case. As a therapist, you probe for background information and history, and identify dysfunction. As a physician, you examine the organization, check the condition of vital parts, and diagnose the symptoms.

Ask H.O.T. Questions to Uncover Pain

When you question your client, you’ll want to ask questions that reveal important information about his or her condition. To help you accomplish this, I have created an easy-to-remember acronym. Ideally, we should ask questions that are H.O.T.

Yield information
H High-Yield for you to better prescribe a credible, meaningful recommendation.
O Open-Ended Begin with who, what, where, when, how and why.
Cause the client to be
T Thought-Provoking intrigued and give deeper consideration.

Here are examples of H.O.T. questions:

H = “If you could change one thing about your current supplier, what would it be?”

O = “What is your biggest challenge at this time?”

T = “How are you using your current telecommunications system to improve your competitive advantage?”

Each of the sample questions above will yield a ton of information. Make sure that you write down what your buyer says in response to each. When he begins discussing his current supplier, for example, listen for and record comments dealing with any of the following:

  • Quality issues
  • Incompetent or apathetic customer service
  • Product limitations
  • Buyer’s remorse
  • Frustrations due to delays or broken promises
  • Poor response from the salesperson

What you’re really listening for are sensitive issues, leverage opportunities, and ways to improve your client’s condition. Keep an eye on her facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Often you can detect discontent or frustration simply by observing non-verbal messages.

Begin to develop a list of H.O.T. questions you can use during interviews. You want to come up with several that will accomplish the following:

  • Provide you with a global understanding of your client’s business.
  • Give you a clear picture of his or her challenges.
  • Reveal pain.
  • Directly or indirectly point to the uniqueness and advantages of your
  • Show you where to focus your presentation.

Know Your Unique Advantages and Differentiators

If you don’t have a clear understanding of the unique advantages of your offer, it’s tough to formulate H.O.T. questions. Great questioning begins from a strong grasp of your value proposition and your differentiators (things that set you apart). Once you understand the unique advantages of your offer, you can begin designing questions that directly or indirectly point your clients to them.

Many salespeople confuse the value proposition and differentiators with product knowledge and/or technical expertise. While it’s important to understand your products, it’s not nearly as important as understanding how your offer improves your client’s business and produces positive outcomes. For example, if you sell ergonomic chairs, your clients are not concerned about the technical specifications of the chair. They simply want more comfort and fewer employees with back problems. In essence, you’re not really selling a chair; you’re selling comfort and reduced medical expenses.

What are the unique advantages of your offer? What makes your product or service special? If this is not clear to you, take the time to create a list of things that set you apart. If a client asks you “What makes you different than the other forty suppliers?” you should be able to answer them with a clear, compelling response:

“That’s a great question. Our clients have told us that our superior products and responsive client services are what they appreciate the most about us.”

Perhaps your offer’s characteristics are not distinguishable and you view your offer as a commodity. For example, salespeople who provide nails and screws to Lowes, The Home Depot, and Ace Hardware might view themselves as commodity vendors. After all, a nail is a nail, right? What these salespeople sometimes forget is that there are a number of unique advantages they can deliver to their clients beyond simply nails and screws. They can provide things such as better service, faster shipping, stronger packaging, and more appealing shelving displays. Plus, in the commodity sales world, the biggest differentiator is the salesperson—not the product.

Move from General Questions to Specific Questions

Once you have a clear understanding of your unique advantages and differentiators, you can begin developing your H.O.T. questions. Start with general questions that don’t require much thought from your client and are easy to answer. Then, transition to more specific, narrower questions that will point him or her to your solution.

To illustrate, let’s assume you’re a salesperson who sells stethoscopes to clinics and hospitals. You have an appointment with the stethoscope buyer from Mercy Hospital. The purpose of the meeting is to identify the needs (pain) of the buyer and see if there is an opportunity to get your foot in the door. Here are some H.O.T. questions, moving from general to specific, you might use to get the conversation started after casual pleasantries are exchanged. You would begin with something like We have a variety of stethoscopes to offer that might meet your needs. To determine which one would best suit you, may I ask you a few questions?”

  General Questions

  • “What type of stethoscope does Mercy Hospital currently use?”
  • “How long have you used the Littmann stethoscope?”
  • “What do you like about the Littmann stethoscope?”
  • “What do you dislike about the Littmann stethoscope?”
  • “How often does that happen?” (follow-up question)
  • “Approximately how many stethoscopes does your hospital currently use?”
  • “How often do you replace stethoscopes?”
  • “What causes you to replace stethoscopes?” (follow-up question)
  • “What kind of complaints do you receive from doctors, PAs, and RNs?”
  • “What effects does that have on hospital operations?” (follow-up question)

Specific Questions

  • “Are your staff members using gold-plated or stainless steel stethoscopes?”
  • “What type of stethoscope are your cardiologists using?” (Or child specialists, general practitioners, respiratory specialists, etc.)
  • “What percentage of your staff uses electric versus non-electric stethoscopes?”
  • “What is the life-span of your current stethoscopes?
  • “What were the criteria or deciding factors behind purchasing the Littmann stethoscope?”
  • “If you could change one thing about the Littmann stethoscope, what would it be?”
  • “When you order a new stethoscope, how long is delivery time?”
  • “Who else, in addition to yourself, will be involved in making the decision to buy the new stethoscopes?”

In addition to open-ended and close-ended questions, you can also use questions that are descriptive, hypothetical, alternative, and confirming. Here are some examples of each:

Descriptive questions

“Can you tell me about…?”

“Can you describe…?”

Hypothetical questions

“If you could design the perfect stethoscope, what would it look like?”

“What does success look like for you regarding…?”

Alternative questions

“Do you prefer the RX300 or 800?”

“Do you like the idea of a network hub or separate servers?”

Confirming questions

  • “So, if I understand you correctly, you’re looking for… Is that correct?”
  • “So, it sounds like we need to take closer look at… Is that correct?”

After you’ve created your H.O.T. questions, take some time to practice with an associate or friend. Role-playing the interview will help you perfect it, allow you to practice active listening, uncover your client’s pain, and discover opportunities to help him or her. As you use this technique, you’ll find that 90 percent of your list will remain the same, but occasionally you’ll add new questions that relate specifically to a particular client.

Secure the Buy-In

There are two final steps you’ll take before you present your solution. These steps are securing the client’s buy-in and recommending the next step (the presentation).

After the interview is complete and you’ve identified an opportunity to assist your client, the next step is to secure his or her buy-in. The buy-in is when your client concludes that it would be valuable to take a closer look at your solution. This step is important, because if your client isn’t convinced that you can improve his condition, it becomes tough to move the sale forward. You want your client on board. You want him to feel that his condition may not be optimal. Ideally, you want him to think there may be room for improvement.

During the interview, your thought-provoking questions should make an impression on your buyer. She should be curious and intrigued at the prospect of improving her situation, whether it’s by reducing costs, improving quality, or simplifying her life.

How do you secure the buy-in from your client? You ask for it. Here’s how you go about it:

“Susan, based on our talk today, I think there is some significant opportunity to expedite channel distribution and reduce shipping costs. Would you like to take a closer look at how we might go about achieving these improvements?”

Don’t worry about the actual wording. What’s important is the message. This statement, if presented properly, should solicit enthusiasm from your buyer. When you’re securing the buy-in, you’re trying to intensify your buyer’s interest and intrigue. Let her know that you think there is room for improvement and that, based on the discussion you’ve had with her, you can recommend solutions. Use this time to pique the buyer’s curiosity. You want her to wonder how you’re going to achieve the improvements.

It’s important not to overpromise at this point, and keep in mind that you’re not presenting your offer now. You’re simply conveying the areas in which you can make an impact. The specifics of how you’ll achieve the impact will come later—during the presentation.

Recommend the Next Step

Now it’s time to direct the buyer to the presentation. Sometimes the presentation will occur immediately following the interview; sometimes it will occur after a short interlude. Whenever possible, try to separate the interview from the presentation. There are three key advantages to doing this:

  1. You can customize the presentation. A good presentation will be based on your findings from the interview. It should integrate all of the issues (pain, needs, wants, etc.) you uncovered. You can further customize the presentation by building in the buyer’s language and products.
  2. You have time to prepare and strategize. It’s always nice to be able to go back to the office, develop a game plan, and determine how you can best present your proposal. This is particularly crucial if you have to present your fees. You may want to collaborate with your team to determine the best approach and fee schedule.
  3. You can build trust, rapport, and credibility. An opportunity to see the buyer again can contribute to building stronger trust, rapport, and credibility. Multiple meetings can help deepen your relationship and build deeper trust.

Finding problems you can solve, pain you can ease, and needs you can fill is one of the most rewarding aspects of selling. When you discover an opportunity to really make a positive impact on your buyer’s business, it gives new meaning to being a professional salesperson.

Actions to Take

  1. Prior to giving your presentation, take time to find your client’s pain (wants, needs, discontents, challenges, headaches, etc.) by asking questions.
  2. Observe your client’s personality type and determine whether he or she is a lion, an otter, a golden retriever, or a beaver.
  3. Play the roles of detective, therapist, and physician.
  4. Discover your buyer’s emotional agenda.
  5. Ask H.O.T. questions to uncover your buyer’s pain.
  6. Know and communicate your unique advantages and/or differentiators. What are the unique advantages and/or differentiators of your offer?
  7. Secure the buy-in from your client, prior to moving to the presentation.