7 Strategies for Identifying Hidden Buyer Requirements – by Ray Collis

These interview strategies that I lifted of a RainToday article can be applied to any interview process where the aim is to identify hidden meanings.


7 Strategies for Identifying Hidden Buyer Requirements

You have read the buyer’s requirements. At first they appear thorough and detailed, but what has been left out? What hasn’t the buyer said that you need to know?

Here are some strategies you can employ to powerfully connect with the buyer’s hidden agenda. These are the unwritten buyer requirements and their more fundamental underlying motivations that can make the difference between sales success and failure.

1. Keep Asking Why

Focus relentlessly on the why of the decision. For every requirement identified by the customer, ask why?


The salesperson says, “The software language used is important to you. Can I ask why?”

The prospect says there is a need for inter-operability. The salesperson asks, “Why is that particularly important to you?”

The prospect says because in the past, systems have been implemented that don’t talk to each other. The salesperson asks, “Why has that happened in the past?”

The prospect says it’s because IT has their own way of doing things.

And suddenly a glimpse into the hidden agenda between stakeholders starts to be illuminated.

2. Build Trust—Show Empathy

The seller needs to make a special effort to uncover the buyer’s underlying motivations. They won’t be found in secondary research in business library reports. They emerge only in personal communication within an environment of trust.

The buyer’s core underlying motivations may not be uncovered by fact-finds or interrogative techniques. Understanding what really makes somebody tick requires an element of empathy, as well as the ability to see the situation from the buyer’s perspective. It requires some of the skills of a counselor or therapist.

3. Make It Personal

Even when we sell to large corporations there can be a very personal dimension to the sale. The same applies for pragmatic and economic business decisions. The buyer often has an emotional reason for buying something:

  • It’s something the buyer cares about
  • The buyer identifies personally with it
  • The buyer’s ego is bound up with the outcome
  • It affects how the buyer is seen or evaluated by others
  • It involves personal or professional risk or reward

Therefore, the seller must make the process personal and connect with the buyer’s sense of self—his self-image and self-concept.

4. Shed Light on Hidden Motivations

Help stakeholders reveal their hopes and fears. Bring them out into the open.

Bring logic and analysis to bear on the buyer’s hidden agenda. For example, a past negative experience with a technology of the type you are selling may impede his decision. As a salesperson, you might help him rationalize the fear by applying numbers and logic to it. For example, in the above situation, you might say:

“The failure rates today are less than 2%, compared to 20% in the early days of this technology. That makes it five times more successful than the other alternatives. We provide a pilot to demonstrate how successfully it can be implemented and a full guarantee, so risk is minimal.”

You must take care in adopting this approach, however, because:

  • The seller can easily come across as insensitive, a poor listener, or even arrogant.
  • Applying logic to emotion can be like mixing oil and water. Underlying beliefs and motivations may be impervious to reason and resistant to change.

5. Look Out for the Messy Stuff

Hidden motivations can sometimes be contradictory and confusing. They may even conflict with the buyer’s stated or on-surface requirements. They may be counter-productive and not in the buyer’s long-term best interests. In particular, this can happen when there is:

  • Un-thinking acquiescence, compliance, or conformity
  • Political tension
  • Unspoken risk
  • Self-defeating behavior
  • A skewed version of history or misinterpretation of reality
  • An unaccepted responsibility
  • A blind shot—an element of self-deception or denial
  • An elephant in the room—an unspoken issue or challenge
  • A previous bad experience or an unaddressed wound
  • Flawed logic
  • Paralyzing fear or limiting belief
  • Complacency or lethargy
  • A short-term mindset

You may or may not be able to change these things. In some cases, you may consider it prudent to “let sleeping dogs lie.” While in other cases, these factors, if left unaddressed, may impact on the potential of the sale or the account. But you need to be aware of them so you can decide how to proceed.

6. Listen to the Language Used

The words the buyer uses may offer a window into his hidden agenda. But more important than the words is the tone of voice, so really listen. Also, pay attention to what they talk about the most—or the least. It may provide a cue to their hidden agenda.

You should also use the buyer’s words in your pitches and proposals. If you take the buyer’s requirements and put them into your own language, something can get lost.

7. Use Projective Techniques

Projective techniques can shed light on hidden motivations. These include asking the person to answer certain questions in stream-of-consciousness mode—without deliberating on the answer.

Perhaps the most effective technique is to help the buyer visualize and imagine the results or the future that he wants to achieve. For example, you could ask, “What does success in respect of this purchase or project look like?”

Other techniques include:

Word associations—For example, “What three words would you use to describe this part of your business?”

Metaphors—For example, “If this project were a sports car, what kind of car would it be? Would it be a Ferrari or a Honda? Would it be going at full speed? Who would be driving it?”

Sentence completion—Some sentences you could ask them to complete:

  • I’d be delighted if…
  • A fantastic outcome would be…
  • When others talk about this decision—project—purchase, they…
  • The worst thing that could happen is…
  • If there is one goal I could achieve this year, it would be…
  • If something were to go wrong, it…
  • In an ideal world…

Unless you uncover your buyer’s true needs and requirements, you are making assumptions that may not be correct. And incorrect assumptions lead to lost business. Use these strategies to make sure you know exactly what your buyer’s wants and concerns are so you can offer the best solution possible.

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Few people know or care as much as Ray Collis about the trends in buying and their implications for deal success. Ray heads up The ASG Group’s Buyer Research practice. He is also co-author of The B2B Sales Revolution™ and QuickWin B2B Sales, and he is editor of Buyer Insights. He is writing a new book (and seminar series) that reveals the latest trends in buying that determine win rates.

What do you think? What strategies do you, or your company, use to manage the risk of fraud and error in your organisation? Are you primarily proactive or reactive in your approach to risk management? Share your experience in the Comment box below.

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