Selling Versus Buying

The Premise: The “psychology of purchase” dictates that a person’s drive to buy is heightened in direct proportion to their perceived personal need for something. A buyer also reacts much more readily to specifics than to generalities. By bringing a prospect’s deeply-felt concerns to the surface, the seller can help them see the concrete, specific benefits of a product or service.

Selling the Product vs. Selling the Prospect

It has been said that people don’t buy life insurance; they’re sold life insurance. This is true in almost all sales environments including the sales of life insurance. The buy/sell dynamic typically works this way: 1) the prospect mentions a need, 2) the sales person pounces on it and 3) makes an all-out effort to convince the prospect that their solution is the only thing that can address that need.

Whether the “need” is sales training, management development, supervisory training, or something else, the seller’s immediate response is to explain to the prospect why this is a problem they should attend to, with the close being something like: “Don’t you feel it’s important to address this issue?”

Thus, the salesperson immediately attempts to “sell” both the problem and the solution. If we applied Pareto’s 80/20 rule to this scenario, the seller would probably be doing 80% of the talking and 20% of the listening. While this approach might engage the prospect, instead of promoting a sale it tends to promote an image of a fast-talking, foot-in-the-door “salesperson” rather than someone interested in understanding what their problem really is before coming up with a solution.

What the seller should be doing is engaging the prospect on an empathetic and emotional level so that the buyer can not only recognize the problem, but can also personalize it as a need. This internal perception is what gives the prospect the incentive to commit to the solution that the seller is proposing—in other words, to become a buyer.

From a trainer’s perspective, one the hardest points to get across to sales trainees is that identifying the problem is just the first step toward a sale. The most important part of selling is the sequence of events that, while not obvious to the prospect, are intrinsic to a successful close:

1) Understanding the importance of solving this problem from the prospect’s viewpoint

2) Enabling the prospect to convince themselves of this importance, and then

3) Gaining their commitment to take action to solve it.

The prospect-to-buyer transformation is a chain reaction; it’s up to the seller to set it in motion, but conducting a monologue about the problem is not the best way.

Creating a Buyer, the Outside-In Way

Telling the prospect what you think they should do doesn’t guarantee a “buying” mindset. In the Outside-In approach, the prospect tells you what they perceive as the problems that are important for them to address. Good salespersons are like good detectives. They’re keen observers and good listeners. They know the right questions to ask, and when and how to ask them. Getting a prospect to do this is akin to getting a witness to give a clear, albeit personal account of an event. It involves an effective interaction to accomplish one or more of the following:

  1. Uncovering the Real Problem

  2. Revealing the “Why” behind the facts

  3. De-coding the Throwaway Remark

Uncovering the Real Problem

First, flip your Pareto talking/listening ratio from 80/20 to 20/80. When you do speak, ask questions that elicit the data you need: “What do you see as the area in which your salespeople need the most help?” “What have you been doing up to this point to provide this help?” “Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently to improve the situation?” “ “What do you see as the consequences of not providing the support you feel that your salespeople need?”

By the time your prospect answers these questions, you’ll have a sense of how important the issue that they feel needs to be addressed is to them.

For each problem area (e.g., sales training, management development, supervisory training), you should have a prepared set of questions similar to these so that you can keep probing until you have a handle on whether this is a problem that is important to the prospect to resolve.

Revealing the “Why” Behind the Facts

How often does your fact-finding session go something like this?

Q: “What was your total amount of sales last year?” A: “$10 million.” Q: “What was the makeup those sales? A: Most of it came from our base products. Q: “Do you anticipate the same products making up your sales for this year?” A: “Yes”

You record each item and move on to the next question. But what if you also asked: Q: “What was your total amount of sales last year?” A: “$10 million.” Q. “What has been the trend of your sales over the years?”A. What if the answer was, “Actually, it has been flat over the past three years.” Q. “Why has it been flat?” A. “Our product is more expensive than our competitions”. Q. “What is stopping you from lowering your price?” A. “if we lower the price, we will reduce the quality of our product which we have no intention of doing.”

Where could you go with this information? You might ask: “If you have no intention of lowering your price is the quality of your product enough of a differentiator to get a customer’s attention?” Or, “How effective are your sales people at communicating and selling the differentiators of your product which make it more expensive?”

As you develop your presentation, think about where you can go with this information. Insight like this may provide a reason for the prospect to “buy” as opposed to needing to be “sold.”

De-coding the Throwaway Remark

Morrie Shechtman, a respected expert on selecting top performers, talks about the seemingly insignificant “throwaway” remarks that a candidate might make during an interview. Comments like, “I’m really looking forward to a fresh start,” or “Well, you know how bosses are,” should be explored, not ignored; the underlying facts or attitudes they hint at could be crucial to the hiring decision.

Pay attention to “throwaway” comments that your prospect make, such as: “We may expand at some time,” “Things could be better,” or “It will all work out”. Ask about the expansion, what things could be better, or what do you mean by it will all work out —you might discover that they represent a significant part of the prospects business and philosophy, and something that will lead them to “buy” your solution.

The Bottom-Line

Turning a prospect into a buyer the Outside-In way isn’t hard. It doesn’t take much more time or effort than the old way of pouncing on what you consider their so-called “Hot Button” and trying to talk them into addressing that problem. It’s just less about talking, and more about asking the right questions and really listening to the answers.

In his book, The Game of Numbers, Nick Murray says: “There is no higher, finer, more important ‘sales skill’ than asking great questions and listening intently to the answers – not just to what is said, but to what it means. And especially to what is not said.”

So what does it take to accomplish this? Here’s a three-step approach that works:

  1. Temper your sense of urgency to get to the close. Invest the time to ask questions and listen to the answers. Let the prospect tell you about what problem they are motivated to address, and why they want a solution for it.

  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Newer salespeople may find it difficult to ask the types of questions that I am suggesting because they’re afraid of losing control or betraying their inexperience. Actually, the ability to do what we are suggesting increases control and implies a level of confidence that overcomes a lack of time or experience in the business.

  3. Be prepared. Preparation is a key differentiator in any position, but especially in sales. For every situation or opportunity, you should have a set of What, When, Where, How and Why questions that you can use to get at the reasons why that person will buy. In effect, these questions will help ensure that by the time you suggest a solution for them, far from having to be “sold” on your solution, your prospect will be eager to “buy.”

About the author…

Frank W. Sarr, MAT is Owner/President of Training Implementation Services, founded in 1990 on the premise that the real genius is not in building training programs, but in getting them used. His approach to implementation has produced extraordinary training performances in the financial services, managed care and other industries for his client companies. Frank’s professional career has involved associations with Wilson Learning Corporation, Independent Financial Services, and CIGNA, where he was responsible for field training and management development for the National Sales Organization. Frank’s passion for the value of creating lasting learning experiences with “real-world” application is reflected in the book Performance Counts and Accountability Pays – Holding Learners Accountable in a Business Setting, which he co-authored with Dr. Tony Alessandra and Pamela Larson Truax.

Visit Frank’s website at or view his profile on LinkedIn. To contact Frank or request his book, email