Driving Action With Prospects: Distinguishing Between Interesting, Important, and Critical Needs


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This is the second contribution to the series about “B2B sales excellence in the customer age.” I’m going to focus on distinguishing between your customer’s interesting, important, and critical needs.

Here’s why the distinction is so important. Your prospects and customers will inevitably have many needs they regard as “interesting,” and worthy of investigation. They will have a smaller number of needs that are important enough to merit serious evaluation. But they will only have a very limited number of needs that turn out to be so critical that they will inevitably drive action.

That’s not to say that your customers won’t sometimes buy in response to interesting or important needs. But they are only guaranteed to take action when the need is so critical (and so urgent) that delaying the decision or choosing to stick with the status quo are simply not viable options.

This distinction becomes progressively more important as the size and significance of the project increases. When decisions are regarded as “significant” by the customer, more stakeholders tend to be involved and the burden of proof required to get a yes decision from all concerned is that much higher.

Recent research by the CEB concluded that high value complex buying decisions involved an average of 5-6 significant decision makers, and that the figure often ran into double figures when the decision was particularly significant. The research also concluded that when consensus could not be achieved, decisions tended to get deferred or delayed.

If any of those decision-makers regard the need as anything less than critical, they are likely to be less enthusiastic about pressing for a decision and more likely to want to review the specific reasons for action and the tangible advantages of the preferred option before they give their approval.

So how can you determine whether the opportunity you are working on addresses an interesting, important or critical need? And how can you ensure that you understand the position of all the stakeholders that are involved in the decision?

You’ll probably want to ensure you know the answers to these questions:

  1. What caused your prospect to recognise the issue in the first place?
  2. What are the symptoms and consequences of the issue?
  3. What is the impact of the issue on the organisation?
  4. What might happen if the organisation failed to address the issue?
  5. Have they tried to deal with the issue previously? With what result?
  6. Who within the prospect is championing the need to address the issue?
  7. Who else is likely to be involved in the decision making process?
  8. What is your sponsor’s relationship with the other stakeholders?
  9. How powerful is your sponsor’s influence on the other stakeholders?
  10. How is each stakeholder (and their department) impacted by the issue?
  11. What is the impact on each stakeholder of not addressing the issue?
  12. How does this issue relate to an existing corporate priority or initiative?
  13. What sort of dynamic exists between the various stakeholders?

You’re unlikely to be able to gather all these insights directly — some stakeholders will be inaccessible or unwilling to share their thoughts. So you’re probably going to have to rely in part on your primary sponsor, and work with them to determine what the consensus is across the decision team.

Of course, this will in turn depend on whether your current sponsor is a genuine mobiliser who is capable of aligning the various stakeholders in a coalition of the willing. And if they aren’t capable, it’s best that you know this sooner rather than later – because it will significantly prejudice your chances of getting a positive decision from your prospect.

What if the need currently turns out to fit into the interesting or important category? Your prospect may still make a decision, and you may still win – it’s just that the chances of both are reduced.

Critical needs have consequences. If you sense that the need isn’t (yet) that strong within your prospect, by exploring the impact on both the sponsor and other stakeholders, you give yourself the opportunity to help them identify as yet-unrecognised consequences that could turn an interesting or important need into a critical one.

This ability to accurately determine just how important your prospect’s need really is turns out to be a critical aspect of B2B sales excellence in the customer age, as is the skill to enable the prospect decision team to see why the organisation needs to take action. Which only leaves one more question: how skillful are your sales people in this critical area?


  1. These are all important questions, but they are “inside-out” customer needs, that is making sure the product/service value proposition offered works, or fits, for the prospect. What about “outside-in” considerations, making sure that the prospect being targeted/pursued is a good fit for what the organization has to offer, such that massive modifications don’t need to be made in order to bring the prospect on board as a customer? Some time ago, I wrote a blog (later a LinkedIn post), entitled “Avoiding The One Night Stand: Targeting Customers Who Will Stay with You”. Customer lifetime value potential needs to be actively considered when targeting prospects.

  2. An excellent point, Michael, and one that I will turn to in the next article in this series: “How can we systematically identify, engage and qualify the organisations that are most likely to turn into our most valuable customers?”


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