Sometimes, when you do research, something happens that you know is important. But it takes a little while to work out what it is. In my case this something important happened when we were researching effective sales behaviour in PC World over ten years ago. The longest interaction we observed lasted 90 minutes. The researcher was dead on her feet at the end. The customer was buying for his business. And the reason he took so long to make a decision? Was he fussing over what spec to have, or what combination of equipment to have that would best serve his business needs? No, the reason it took such an agonisingly long time was down to the colour of the keyboard. He wanted silver, but the only option in the package he had taken was black.

Wants and needs

A couple of years ago I came across the PRIME theory of motivation by Robert West. Personal identity is fundamental to this theory as a core driver of behaviour. In his slide deck on “How to get a horse to drink” he identifies two drivers: make it thirsty (need) and give it beer (want).

My observation about these two drivers is that being thirsty is a key driver to instigate the idea that you might want something to drink. We can also see that being thirsty is quite clearly a problem that the horse wants to solve. Drinking is the solution. But when the horse rocks up to the bar they have a choice about how to satisfy this need. Some horses might go for a beer, others might prefer a gin and tonic, glass of wine, or something non-alcoholic.

The importance of identity

These choices are the same as the customer who wanted silver rather than black. They are based on our personal likes and aspirations. But identity lies at the core of them. It’s based on the idea that whenever we make a choice we are asking ourselves the question: what does this choice say about me? We want to make buying decisions that are congruent with our idea of who we are and what those decisions say about us. Are we a wine-drinker, a beer-drinker or do we choose to identify as someone who doesn’t drink alcohol at all? And it doesn’t matter if it’s a business decision or a personal decision. Because the influence of identity will still be there.

Our sense of identity defines the rulesets that we wish to live by. It doesn’t just affect our buying decisions. In his research into effective collaboration and workload balance Professor Rob Cross singles out identity and the beliefs associated with identity as key drivers that affect our capacity to manage ourselves. People take on too much because they want to feel in control, or they want to enhance their reputation/status. Fundamentally it comes down to what helps us to feel good about ourselves, and what brings us security.

Seeking aspirations

When salespeople talk about understanding customer needs they often focus on business issues. But good salespeople are those who intuitively understand what helps that customer to feel good about themselves. They can recognise the emotional drivers that are linked to that person’s sense of identity. Often this will emerge as aspirations. This matters as much in business as it does in consumer sales. Yes, there will be other factors that come into play. But often it is the aspiration-driven factor that determines the final choice.

An ex-colleague of mine identified the importance of visioning questions when selling kitchens. “What do you want your dream kitchen to look like?” was absolutely vital. This is an aspiration-seeking question. In SPIN® Selling asking what the customer sees as their ideal solution is a useful way to start exploring their wants/needs. But the aspiration-seeking question needs to go beyond what are the aspirations for a business outcome. It needs to tap into what really matters to this customer in terms of helping them to connect with their sense of identity and feel good about themselves.