I’m a pretty lucky person: I have shaken the hands of some pretty impressive people in my lifetime. Amongst others, I have shaken the hands of three of the past four Presidents. Recently, I was able to shake hands and spend a few moments talking with “The Man” in my industry. I’m referring to Neil Rackham. For my readers who know a thing or two about sales, I’m pretty sure you know who this man is. For those who don’t know the man, let me tell you why spending a few minutes with Neil meant so much to me.
For as long as I can remember, there was one, basic philosophy in the world of sales: “People buy based on needs.” It was not complicated, and it was not challenged. Those five words became the backbone of every sales process, and the mantra of every salesperson. Armed with those five words, a legion of salespeople took to the streets in search of clients’ needs.
“People buy based on needs.” Those five words effortlessly led us to another simple conclusion: “Find out what people need, and offer a solution that addresses those needs.” Once again, this was not complicated, and it was not challenged. The concept was even nicknamed “Needs-Based Selling” and it was written about by authors, and taught by trainers. There was only one small problem; it was a flawed perception.
Those five words, and the techniques designed to support them, created an industry of order takers. I say this because once people actually know what it is they need, they only need someone to take the order to solve the problem.
That’s exactly how I was initially taught to sell. When I sold insurance, I was told this: “Go find people who need insurance, and then take care of those needs!” Even when I sold a policy, the first thing I asked my new client was this: “Do you know of anyone else who might need insurance?”
But then came Neil Rackham. He didn’t fit the mold of any other sales author I ever heard of. He did not posses a wealth of selling experience, nor did he look like a salesperson. As a matter of fact, he looked more like a psychologist… which is exactly who he was. What’s more, he disregarded what had been said previously about sales and he acted as a psychologist: He dedicated himself to the study of human behavior. As a result, he gave us the greatest gift our industry has ever received by changing one word in a flawed perception. “People buy based on problems.” By proving this through research, and showing us that a salesperson’s real job was to uncover these problems, and dig deeper into these problems, we learned to help clients fix these problems before they became big problems.
In 1984, I devoured Neil’s book called SPIN Selling. I utilized the process when I sold. I taught SPIN to new hires for Xerox. I certified other trainers to do the same. It became the backbone of how I sold, and what I write about, and what I believe in.
Recently, I was asked to give a keynote presentation at an awards banquet at the Institute for Excellence in Sales & Business Development. Neil was there to help present some of the awards. Before the event began, we had a cup of coffee together, and I was given the opportunity to do three things. First, I was given the chance to thank him for all he had done for me – both personally and professionally. Second, I was able to thank him what he had done, not just for salespeople, but for clients who desperately need these salespeople to help them overcome their fear of change. That recipe for change is found in this psychologist’s research which taught us to focus on problems, not needs.
Finally, I was given the opportunity to shake his hand and take a picture with the man. It was a very good day.