Demand-Side Sales: Everybody Wants to Buy, But Nobody Wants to be Sold to

Sales is survival. No matter what the mission or the vision of a business is, it doesn’t matter if there are no sales.

Not just businesses. From selling your idea, to selling yourself as a suitor, to selling your friends on this vacation spot vs. that one, sales touches everything.

But the art of selling has got a bad rap. For some reason, it feels icky. Like an unnatural push to get people to buy what you’re offering. Mostly because we’ve got the whole narrative of selling backwards. HBS Professor Bob Moesta calls it, “selling from a supply-side perspective”.

According to him, the best sales processes mimic the progress that people are trying to make in their lives via this activity called “buying”. As it turns out, buying is very different from selling. Selling, unlike common belief, is not about hustling, cajoling, and coercing. Selling essentially is helping people. To achieve that, we must start looking at sales from the point-of-view of buying, i.e., from the demand-side.

We assume supply and demand are connected, but they are not. Demand is about a fundamental struggle, and can exist without supply. These are two completely different perspectives in sales.

In Supply-Side Sales, the focus is on the product/service and its features/benefits. How do we sell it? What kind of people would buy this? The narrative starts with the product, and tries to find a suitable customer persona for it. Along the way we can go on adding more features and benefits to reach the widest audience. This model pushes the product/service into peoples lives, and doesn’t care how it fits into people’s lives.

In contrast, Demand-Side Sales starts off by developing and understanding of the buyer and the user. It’s a people first approach, instead of product first. It’s concerned with when and why do people buy a product or a service? How do they buy? In this model, the sales strategy is designed around the buyer’s worldview, not the product’s.

When you start looking at your product from the point-of-view of the buyer, light bulbs go off! You realise that most people don’t think about your product or service if it doesn’t address a problem they have.

For example, if I’m very comfortable sitting on a chair working 8 hrs a day without any backache, I don’t even notice the furniture store when I walk past. The struggling moment occurs only when something’s not working for me.

It is that continuous struggle (daily backache after sitting for long hours) that forces people to look for better options, i.e. spurs “demand”. When you study why and how people buy, you realise that without demand people don’t buy. Once you see sales through this lens, you can help people buy. Selling, in this aspect, becomes helping.

Getting better at sales is being curious about people. Keeping an eye on people’s behaviours, and taking genuine interest in what they want for themselves; not what you want for them.

This opens you to a world of possibilities. You start noticing that people don’t buy for the reasons you think they buy. For example, you see runners picking up running shoes, but you also see lots of people picking running shoes to wear all day—because running shoes have better cushioning and are generally more comfortable. As Peter Drucker remarked, “The customer rarely buys what the business thinks it sells them.”

Understanding the consumer at a very deep and empathetic level adds more value to the sales approach than focusing only on your product and its features and benefits.

Truth is, everyone’s struggling with something. That’s where the opportunity lies to help people make progress. Just make sure that the things they are struggling with (demand) are what you are solving (supply). For example, people don’t have a “time management problem”. That’s too broad. Time management is a label, not a struggle.

People struggle with procrastination. People struggle to know if their work is on track. People struggle to maintain accountability across projects. People struggle to know if they can take up new work without hampering their existing work. People struggle to take time-offs because everything is all over the place. These are the real struggles that create demands.

They may not consciously realise that they have these problems. But if you talk to enough people, if you observe their behaviour, and tweak your sales narrative to address these struggles, people would start to trust you. They would realise that you are a person of knowledge who is genuinely trying to help. There can be no sales without trust.

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