B2B sales: The 3 levels of customer needs

B2B sales: The 3 levels of customer needs

Here’s one of the most common mistakes I see startups committing when doing B2B sales. They assume that selling to businesses literally means selling to businesses. It doesn’t. Selling to businesses is multidimensional. You’re selling to:

  1. The company
  2. The department
  3. The individual person

In an ideal world, you’d focus on selling on all three levels. In the real world (where you’re operating with limited time and resources) you’ll often have to prioritize.

What do you think, which is the most important level to sell on?

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When you’re qualifying the needs of the buyer, whose needs exactly are you eliciting? Do you learn about the company’s needs? The department’s needs? The individual’s needs?

Let’s look at these three in more detail.

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The company level

These are the needs of the company you’re selling to. Here are some typical examples of company needs:

  • Big strategic initiatives
  • Launching a new product or major feature
  • Total revenue numbers
  • Cost savings
  • Large-scale marketing and brand campaigns
  • Competitive game plan
  • Etc.

The department level

These are the needs of the specific department you’re selling into. Among these needs are:

  • Specific KPIs that the department is measured against
  • Projects the department has to complete
  • Strategic initiatives this department has to see through
  • Company politics (e.g. company internal “wars” with other departments, competition for budgets and resources, internal power struggles, etc.)
  • Potential changes in management of that department
  • Desire to solve particular problems the department is charged with
  • Circumnavigating externally imposed constraints
  • Etc.

The individual level

These are the needs of the actual decision maker—or the internal champion who will “help” the decision maker to make the right choice. Among the needs of this person are often:

  • Personal career goals like getting promoted, getting a raise, securing their position, etc
  • Deliverables that person wants to be credited for
  • Personal life goals
  • Family goals (e.g. wanting to spend more time with their family, moving elsewhere, providing their kids with a better education, spending less time with their family, etc.)
  • Getting hired for another company
  • Etc.

I recently talked about this with Gary Vaynerchuk:

You can watch the whole segment of the interview on B2B sales here.

There’s a great story about the importance of individual buyer needs when selling to large organizations in Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things:


In this case, they ended up buying a whole company just to meet one of Frank's needs. If you haven’t read the book yet I recommend you do so now.

How to deal with conflicting needs

Sometimes the needs of the individual buyer are aligned with the company and department level needs, but many times they are not. Many times what the company wants and what the individual buyer wants is in conflict with each other. What do you do in a situation like this?

If your product/service actually provides massive value to the company, then by all means do give the individual buyer what they need to make the decision in your favor.

Let’s say the buyer wants to get a job at another company. If he’s a talented employee, that’s obviously not in the interest of the purchasing company. If the overall value you deliver outweighs the downside, you should still make it happen.

Again, Gary put it clearly:

If you’ve got a good steak, make the spark and the sizzle whatever it needs to be.

Focus on the individual needs first and foremost

When you’re selling, adjust your value proposition so that it fits the individual’s needs best. It’s harder to do this because you need to establish some real rapport.

You have to get the person to open up, which requires a deeper-level conversation than talking just about company needs—but that’s exactly why so few people do it, and why it will give you an advantage over other vendors.

Have a question or comment? Tweet at me! :)