In 2006, I introduced in this column the social theory of an American psychologist called Abraham Maslow, who in the mid-20th century decided that in contrast to Jung and Freud, he would study what motivates normal people. His findings resulted in a simple layered pyramid, which he dubbed the "Hierarchy of Needs". According to Maslow, and certainly I agree with him, different people are motivated by different things according to the space they occupy physically and mentally.
For example, a child who is bullied and threatened regularly will find it hard to focus on being nice to other kids at school. Likewise, villagers fleeing an invading army are unlikely to be thinking about how they look on TV when filmed by CNN. Thus, when you are trying to sell a customer a value-added product when they are simply focused on getting a basic solution at the cheapest price, it is highly likely that despite your best efforts and sales talk, they won't be listening to you.
There are many variations on Maslow's hierarchy, but the most common set of layers is:
Maslow's theories have unleashed a multitude of arguments between experts in the psychology field. Succeeding researchers have come up with more variations, definitions, and layers, but no matter what the derivative model, almost always Mr. Maslow's needs hierarchy has resurfaced and survived. In my own entrepreneurship classes, which I do quarterly, I go into some detail about how to use Maslow's theory get the best results from a range of situations involving employees, sales prospects, and even marriage partners.
I try to get attendees to realize that in a sales situation, the person across the other side of the table from them is thinking according to a set of values and needs that are defined by their own circumstances. If only you knew what level in the hierarchy the customer was operating at, you might catalyze all kinds of reactions from that person which cause them to take actions they might not otherwise undertake.
Personally, I think Maslow's theory is a very useful thing to know as a salesperson.
Some years ago, I had an extremely successfully Salesperson working in one of my companies. I asked him how it was that while other people were struggling to hit a couple of million yen a month in sales he could regularly top 10-20 million yen. The difference was so outstanding that I wanted to "clone" him and his system if I could. His answer surprised me. "Baseball" he said.
"Baseball?!" How does that let you sell about ten times more product and services than the next person? It turns out that my Salesperson would identify likely key accounts – those that had sufficient budget to gain his interest – then he would find out which had individual managers who were less interested in screwing vendors for the last penny and instead wanted to have some social contact to break up the stress (or boredom) of their day. Accordingly, my guy had turned himself into an expert on baseball and knew all kinds of interesting trivia, as well as staying up to speed with the customers' team's latest results.
Over time, he developed a strong rapport with each customer and they would ask for him by name. Of course he had to give them the same core products and services as the next salesperson, and at prices that weren't too much higher. But none the less, I would say that the major reason for his success was because he related to his customers at the Belonging level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
I've since realized that the higher up the Maslow hierarchy you go, the more margin you can charge the customer. That is why in law firms, Partners charge out JPY500,000 a day, while regular lawyers might come at JPY250,000. They both do the same essential job, but customers want what they think is the best and will pay for the prestige of doing so. Why? Because the customer is thinking at the Esteem level, the highest level of interaction before such intellectual games cease to have meaning, and therefore is willing to pay to receive the extra attention.