29. Sales Process #3: Needs Assessment

The Needs Assessment is a conversation you have with the customer, during which you work to gain an understanding of who he is, what his situation is, and what his thoughts and feelings are around your cause. While the market research conversations you conducted earlier were focused more on general questions of how to reach your audience, now you’re homing in on the specifics of how to reach the individual customer you’re speaking with. All of the information you collect is designed to answer the two most crucial questions you need to address in any sale:

• What needs or problems does my customer have that my cause might help address?

• What’s the best way I can frame my cause so that my customer perceives it as fulfilling his need or solving his problem?

The answers to those two questions are the “gold” you’re seeking in the Needs Assessment, as that is the information you need to straightforwardly make your sale.

The Needs Assessment is a conversation, but buried within the conversation is an interview. You will be asking a lot of questions, but be sure to keep the conversation light and natural so that it doesn’t come across as an interrogation. Use small talk to break the ice, and observe the other social niceties as well. A good strategy is to begin by discussing the many non-political things you and your customer have in common: for example, a sports team you both like, a town you both lived in, the fact that you admire his beautiful garden, or the fact that you both have companion animals. Then, use these commonalities to form the basis of a positive relationship that’s strong enough to accommodate a shift to discussing the “scary” subject of politics or morality.

Simple Questions, Complex Answers

A Needs Assessment lasts anywhere from around a minute to many hours or even days. It’s generally the part of the sales process that takes the longest. Especially if the salesperson is selling something complex or expensive, there are literally dozens or hundreds of questions he can ask, including:

• Can you tell me a little about yourself?

• What do you do for a living? How did you get into that job or career? How do you like it?

• What’s your living situation?

• Do you rent or own? Who else lives with you?

• Can you tell me about your family?

• What is your national/religious/ethnic background?

• What do you like to do in your free time?

• Where were you born? Where have you lived? Did you like those places?

• What is your educational background?

• What do/did your parents do?

• What do you think of Issue X?

• Have you ever known anyone who was [Democratic/vegetarian/gay/etc.]?

• What do you think of that person?

• Do you practice a religion?

• What are your goals, dreams and aspirations—for you and your loved ones?

Note that while the questions tend to be simple, the answers should not be. Since it’s the details of a person’s story that often provide you with the strongest clues as to how to frame an issue for them, it’s important to get at those details. They will also be useful in helping you see the person as a unique individual, and not merely a target or stereotype.

Don’t rush the Needs Assessment: the more information the person is willing to share with you, the better. Rushing can also make the person you’re speaking with feel disrespected, which obviously works against your purpose. Many activists, especially when they are just starting to use sales techniques, rush nervously through the Needs Assessment and reflexively start pitching their solution, i.e., their cause. This inevitably brings on the “glazed eyes” reaction discussed in Chapter 17, and the way to avoid it is to practice doing Needs Assessments on colleagues and friends until you are comfortable enough to take the technique out into the field.

The next chapter offers more tips for doing a good Needs Assessment.