Do you know what your clients really need?

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By John Doerr

Ray Kinsella: So what do you want?
Terence Mann: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.
Ray Kinsella: No, I mean, what do you WANT?
[Gestures to the concession stand they're in front of]
Terence Mann: Oh. Dog and a beer.
- From the movie Field of Dreams, 1989

All too often it seems I am stuck in this great scene from the movie Field of Dreams (one of my all time favorites) when I ask professional service providers what needs they fill for their clients.

Me: So what do your clients need?
Service Provider: They need an organizational assessment followed by an intensive training program. A six-stage customer research evaluation survey. They need a communications review. They need a detailed tax evaluation.
Me: No, I mean what do they NEED?
Service Provider: Oh. Profitability and a good night's sleep.

The tendency is to think of what prospects need in terms of what services we have to offer. Even though we know prospects do not think of our service set, we retreat to the familiar in describing what we do in our marketing messages and sales conversations. As a result, we try to "convince" a prospect to buy our services. Meanwhile the prospect's eyes glaze over as her thoughts turn to her own worries and dreams, which usually have little if anything to do with the services listing we are babbling on about.

We should never be "selling" anything when we talk with prospects about our services. Instead, we should seek out conversations about their needs. When we hear a set of needs with which we can be of assistance, we can then offer to help. No hard sales pitch, just a connection of our skills and services with someone else's set of needs.

So if prospects don't explicitly need our services, what do they need? Most of your prospects' needs can be broken down into organizational and personal. Both sets of needs drive prospects to seek your services.

Organizational Needs

What is the organization trying to accomplish or avoid? These can be categorized as:

  • Strategic – The need to increase revenue and growth. The need to expand into a new market. The need to reduce expenses. (Not a strategic or marketing plan or cost reduction analysis).
  • Technical – The need to have their servers up and running at all times. The need to operate more efficiently. The need to launch a new product. (Not a new monitoring service or time / motion study or new logo).
  • Financial – The need for ideas on how to become more profitable. The need to sell the business. The need to improve sales results. (Not a tax return or valuation or sales compensation study).
  • Political / Environmental – The need to bring a new acquisition into the fold. The need to allow a new store to be built. The need to avoid bad publicity. (Not an employee survey or a grass roots campaign or a series of press releases).

Individual Needs

What is influencing the individual or individuals who will decide to engage your services? These are the needs that are often unspoken and less obviously connected to your services. While you cannot always uncover these types of needs directly, by being aware of what may be going on, you can be alert to the obstacles that can keep you from connecting your services with your prospects needs.

  • Professional – To get a promotion. To prepare for a new job. To become well-known. To gain experience in new areas. To do a good job.
  • Social – To impress the neighbors. To be accepted and respected by peers. To have a nice place to hang out.
  • Psychological – To avoid risk. To take risk. To have someone to talk to. To please the boss. To gain recognition.

Determining Your Client Needs Set

When talking with clients and prospects you must first uncover their true needs and then you can position your services as the solution rather than rattling off all of your services and hoping they choose one. I suggest the following exercise to get you thinking about how your clients view your services and how you can define them in terms of your clients needs.

  1. Bring your key principals, partners, or business developers together for a brain storming session.
  2. Think of all the clients you currently have. Why did they seek you out? What needs did they have that caused them to look for a third-party service provider?
  3. Think about the last sales conversations you have had. How did your prospects speak about their needs? What specific terminology did they use?
  4. Try to use the words that your clients and prospects used, not the marketing speak you use to describe your services.
  5. On a flip chart, write all the needs that your clients have expressed down the left hand side.
  6. On the right hand side, write the services you provide.
  7. Connect the needs to the services. Which ones satisfy the most needs? Are there any needs you have listed for which you have no services? Should you have those services?
  8. Develop the questions that will help you uncover these needs in future conversations.
  9. Continually refine and reshape your needs list as you engage new conversations and new clients.
  10. Repeat the process as needed.

So the next time you are asked what your clients need, you will be prepared to answer with the real reasons they seek out your services. You will make better connections, develop stronger relationships, and most likely find new clients in the process, even if all they need is “a dog and a beer.”

About the author

John Doerr is president of the Wellesley Hills Group, a management consulting, marketing, and lead generation firm focused on helping professional services firms grow. He is also the founder of, an online source for insight, advice, and tools for service business rainmakers, marketers, and leaders. Doerr can be reached at [email protected].

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