Basic Instincts

Appeal to your customers' primary needs, and you're one step closer to closing the sale.

Why do your customers buy? The answer is simple: Because they have at least one motive, and you appealed to it.

A motive is an aroused need, drive or desire. Psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs is still a good gauge for discovering what people want. Maslow ranked people's needs, stating that the basic survival necessities (food, clothing and shelter) must be satisfied before the higher-level needs (education, pleasure, fulfillment) are felt.

Before Mrs. Fields turned us all into cookie monsters, founder Debbie Fields set out to appeal to our basic appetites for her scrumptious treats by passing out free samples at her shop. Understanding buyers' motives and appealing to our senses were critical to her sales success. Ditto for you.

So how do you get smart on the subject of motivation? I keep it simple, buying into the theory that we all have certain needs in common. Thus, we all behave relatively the same when we want a need satisfied. If you want to know more about your customers' motives, study your own first.

Don't most needs boil down to a basic few? Allow me to prove my point with a personal story.

Recently, I went from being a 30-year resident of Southern California to living in a small mountain town in Idaho inhabited by the fittest of the frozen chosen. I moved there in the middle of summer, so initially I was unaware that I was on the brink of becoming a highly motivated prospect.

At first, I felt like I was living in an Olympic village, rollerblading, ice skating and hiking with fit people of all ages who love being outdoors no matter what the weather. I've always enjoyed sports, so I didn't foresee
any problems keeping up with these die-hards. Until the temperature dropped--then I dropped out.

I turned into an outcast as I walked into the local espresso joint to order my morning "bowl of soul," wearing my powder ski pants, Ugg boots, jacket and stocking cap on what my new neighbors thought was a pleasant 38-degree fall day.

How could I get warm and stay part of the group? This burning desire brought about the onset of genuine buyer motivation. Willing to pay the price to get what I wanted (rather than freeze to death), I went on a mission to find warmth.

Experts have a big influence on motivated buyers. Enter my neighbor--Greg Taylor, the Ironman. Greg placed 1st in the Master's category, ages 40-45, in the Ironman competition in Hawaii in 1996, and he's hard at it again this year. This guy runs, bikes, skates--you name it--all year long, in any weather. To me, he qualifies as an expert on staying warm.

"Greg," I whined, "I'm freezing my Southern California tush off."

"By January, you'll be sweating to death," Greg replied. "You just need to learn about layering and fleece."

"Fleece," I screamed. "How and where do I get it--NOW?!"

Greg gave me some referrals, and I ended up at a shop called T.D. Bambino, owned by a local who makes anything you want out of fleece.

I walked in mumbling something about the fact that this was my first fall in the cold weather and I didn't think my veins contained warm-enough blood. The salesperson did exactly what she should have done--internalized my experience--and uttered the magic words that put me in a deep state of readiness to buy: "Nobody hates being cold more than I do. When I first moved up here, I panicked just like you did when the temperature dropped. Put this on, and walk outside. You will never be cold again."

She handed me fleece tights, a long-sleeved fleece shirt and a sleeveless fleece vest. This salesperson was what we all should be to a buyer with a motive--the answer to a prayer.

I walked out of the dressing room feeling warm, soft and cuddly. (No wonder the owner named the place after an Italian baby.) I ventured out the door into the crisp and clear mountain air, but the cold no longer had the power to penetrate my formerly wimpy hide. I was officially a mountain woman.

"I'll take it," I said. "Wrap up my old clothes, and here's my American Express card. What else have you got?"

This story, true but slightly exaggerated, has many built-in lessons you can use as you investigate your future prospects' real motives for buying. Here's a simple two-step approach for appealing to your customers' motives:

Step 1: Awareness, awareness, awareness. Know thyself. Forget about pigeonholing certain personalities and then responding with a manipulative ploy. Merely ask yourself: "How do I behave when I want something?" Then respond accordingly.

From such self-observation, you will discover creative ways to appeal to your propects' motives. Notice how focused and single-minded I became when I needed to get warm. Nobody had to convince me of what I needed. Assume from the get-go that your prospect is talking to you because you have something they want badly enough. You will find yourself speaking with more authority knowing you're selling something your customer has a desire to buy.

Step 2: Choose the appropriate appeal to arouse desire. The saleswoman knew I wasn't interested in color-coordinating at that point. So she concentrated on finding my size and worried about style later. As Maslow knew, we tend to want basic needs fulfilled before we start thinking about making a fashion statement.

Often several desires are working simultaneously. Research studies indicate that prospects frequently buy based on the following emotional buying motives. Let's see if I fell into one of these categories:


  • Sex appeal: Form-fitting fleece tights feel and look pretty sexy. My husband seemed to think so: "It's nice seeing that figure of yours again," he commented, "now that you've shed three pairs of sweats."


  • Social approval: I was new in town and felt suddenly isolated because I was too cold to participate in outdoor activities. The desire to be socially accepted in my new town motivated me to buy the proper attire.


  • Status: There is a certain status in being fit. We boomers take pride in running marathons, skiing or hiking with our twentysomething children. Advertisers use this appeal to motivate us to stay in shape.


  • Comfort: My number-one priority was warmth, and the saleswoman cut right to the chase, using her experience for impact: "I hate being cold."


  • Credibility: Greg the Ironman knows what to wear. A recommendation from him made my buying decision easy. One word from the expert eliminated any need to compare prices or quality.

Customers buy because good salespeople know how to discover their motives by asking questions, listening and observing. In my salesperson's case, simply observing a woman with chattering teeth desperately trying to pronounce the word "fleece" while frantically waving a credit card gave her a pretty good indication that a live one had just walked through the door.

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide and is the author of seven sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Check local bookstores for her latest book, Seven Figure Selling (Berkley Press). Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.

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This article was originally published in the February 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Basic Instincts.

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