Drilling into the need beyond the need


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Theodore Levitt was the first to introduce us to the idea that “people don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole” - and this observation has surely now become one of today’s most relevant and widely quoted sales aphorisms.

It reminds us that our primary purpose, if we are to achieve lasting success in complex B2B sales, is not to sell our products or services but to reliably solve our customer’s problems and satisfy their needs.

But what if the need isn’t that obvious - or if the customer’s perception of their current need is that it isn’t critical enough to justify the case for change?

Interesting or important needs will often be enough to stimulate the prospect’s interest in searching for a solution. But - particularly if they see change as potentially risky or costly - they are only guaranteed to commit to action if they regard the need as critical.

And, let’s face it, our customers will inevitably recognise many more “needs” than they have any realistic ability to address. They will prioritise, and they will choose to abandon many buying journeys that might appear to us to have started so promisingly.

That’s why we need to systematically drill into the “need beyond the need”. Whether the customer approaches us with an already-recognised need, or whether we create the need as a result of our actions, we need to go beyond the obvious.


If we stay on the surface of the problem, there is a very real possibility that the customer will conclude that although the problem is undoubtedly an irritant, they can live with the consequences and conserve their resources for dealing with other needs that they believe have a higher current priority.

We need to resist the temptation to rush in and prescribe our solution at the first indication of a potential need. Instead, we need to hold back and invest in uncovering the detailed implications and potential root causes.


In doing so, we will either succeed in making the problem bigger than it at first appeared, or come to the conclusion that the problem simply isn’t important enough to justify the investment required. We will either qualify the opportunity out or make it stronger.

This approach isn’t just helpful to us: it’s also of tremendous value to the customer. With our help and support, they can sharpen their own thinking about the issue and either make a stronger business case for change or avoid perpetuating a wild goose chase.

Here are some of the initial questions we might want to drill into:

  • How did they become aware of the issue in the first place?
  • What are the obvious symptoms?
  • How is the issue impacting their role, department or organisation today?
  • How might the issue impact their role, department or organisation in the future?
  • Who else is affected, or could be affected?
  • What impact is the issue having on them?
  • What would happen if they decided to stick with the status quo?
  • What’s the relative priority of this issue compared to other projects?


Our discussions will be much more valuable to the customer if we share experiences of other similar people in similar organisations and - most powerfully of all - if we can introduce a series of unconsidered implications that are associated with the identified issue.

These unconsidered implications, once recognised and acknowledged, can often make the difference between a need being seen as merely interesting or important and one that is recognised as being so critical that it must inevitably drive action.


This exercise establishes the foundation for creating the widest possible value gap between their current situation and the better future that we alone could help them achieve. It also cements our position as a problem-solving adviser, rather than someone who is simply looking for a sale.

Despite our efforts, the hole may prove to be a shallow one - or as a result of our efforts, the prospect may come to recognise that they actually have a far deeper problem than they might have first imagined.

By drilling in, we change the dynamic of our relationship with our prospective customer. We give ourselves the opportunity to more accurately qualify whether the prospect is really likely to act, and whether we have a realistic chance of winning.

There’s another oft-quoted phrase that suggests “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”. I’m inclined to propose the following variation “when you find a customer who needs a hole, get drilling”.

I can't resist adding this final thought: this may well be the only scenario when it is socially acceptable for a sales person to be boring... 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


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