SI Review: October 2011


Less Talking Please

Why listening is your best sales tool

The staffing game is more complex and competitive than ever, and making dazzling sales presentations is no longer enough. Rather, successful sales is more about listening to what the customer actually needs rather than talking up your selling points. Through more listening, you’ll transition from a selling-focused company with limited opportunities to a marketing-focused company for which opportunities abound.

It’s All Conceptual

There are basically four orientations organizations fall into when it comes to their approach to business: the Production Concept, the Product Concept, the Selling Concept and the Marketing Concept.

The Production Concept. Companies manufacture products that are in high demand from consumers, while concentrating on high efficiency, low costs and mass distribution. Product categories include appliances, PCs, auto parts, and just about any other tangible item that is mass produced and mass distributed. With little room for differentiation, most products end up as some kind of commodity — a label staffing firms desperately want to avoid.

The Product Concept. This theory holds that the product or service — whether through quality, performance or innovative features — will so outperform the competition that it will be an irresistible buy. Additionally, product research and development may take years, making it hard to amend once it hits the market. Managers at such companies often focus so much on the product or service that they completely ignore the customer’s needs. So, while your staffing firm may very well have the best talent, never forget the number of competitors you face, the sometimes razor-thin margins and the fact that, despite how great your candidates are, they may not actually be what the customer needs.

The Selling Concept. Companies in this category aim to sell what they make rather than what the market demands. Selling for the sake of selling might get you some immediate results, but it likely won’t result in long-term customer relationships. You need a better way.

The Marketing Concept. This should be the goal of staffing firms. Developed in the 1950s, the idea behind the marketing concept was to move away from the aforementioned “make-and-sell” philosophy to a customer-centric “sense and respond” orientation.

The late Theodore Levitt, a renowned marketing scholar at the Harvard Business School, described the Marketing Concept perfectly when he wrote, “Selling focuses on the needs of the seller; marketing on the needs of the buyer.”

Levitt expressed his ideas in his seminal 1960 article “Marketing Myopia.” The general point of the article is that companies always need to be two steps ahead in understanding their customers’ needs and wants.

Needs vs. Wants

Exploring the spectrum of needs and wants is one of the most basic, yet complex, aspects of marketing — and one that needs to be fully understood in order to serve customers most effectively. Needs are the basic requirements. People need food and shelter. Businesses need employees.

Needs end up becoming wants when they are directed to specific objects that might satisfy wants. So while all businesses need employees, some might want the smartest and best trained, while others might want capable, reliable workers. So though the primary need is the same, the customer’s wants dictate the method of fulfilling the need.

And that is where differentiation and thoroughly understanding your customer comes into play. Let’s explore how. In most American cities, an automobile can be considered a basic need, and there are countless choices available to fulfill the need. Some people may want an expensive car because of added features. Others might want a car with good gas mileage or low maintenance costs. Buyers of contingent labor are the same way.

Understanding the following five types of needs will be the first step in understanding your customers’ overall needs.

  • Stated needs. The customer requires employees to perform certain tasks.
  • Real needs. The customer wants employees with certain skills and training related to the task.
  • Unstated needs. The customer expects outstanding service from its staffing firm.
  • Delight needs. The customer would like all the assigned employees to be college graduates with at least five years’ experience.
  • Secret needs. The customer wants a sense of satisfaction (e.g., he made a “good buy).

Many customers don’t really know what they want or need, so investing time in the process is valuable in raising their comfort level. If you don’t follow up, you’re missing an opportunity to supply more services and help the customer understand some needs it didn’t previously realize.

Ideally, you’ll want to move beyond a vendor-customer relationship to a true partnership. In the Selling Concept, you’d simply place idle temporary workers for the sake of placing them. But when the customer realizes the candidates are not really fulfilling an essential need, your chances of expanding your relationship with that customer have diminished greatly. Taking a little extra time to fully understand the customer’s needs — and possibly sacrificing short-term sales — will likely yield the greatest long-term payoff.

Ask, and You Shall Receive

Let’s transition to a front-line tactical discussion of how staffing companies actually meet their clients’ needs and wants.

“Needs are not optional,” says Scott Wintrip, president of StaffingU and the Wintrip Consulting Group. “Wants are optional, or negotiable. Companies will get their needs met, but their wants may not always be met.” Recruiters and talent evaluators, need to narrow this down and get a clear understanding of the customer’s true needs and wants.

An example could be a certain type of degree or certification. Consider a candidate who has plenty of experience, but no degree. “Is he or she still unfit, or is there room to compromise?” Wintrip asks.

As Wintrip terms it, “finesse” often comes into play when distinguishing between needs and wants. “The job of the staffing professional is to hear and understand what the customer needs, but also challenge when appropriate.” For example, say your client needs a certain type of candidate, but is unable or unwilling to pay the market rate. “You’ve got to explain that, in reality, it’s not going to happen. If we don’t educate in this way, part of our job goes unfilled,” he says.

Under the Selling Concept, this might be a closed door. The customer needs something, but nothing in your “inventory” meets that need. In the Marketing Concept, though, one seemingly closed door opens another door. “Good staffing professionals will present alternatives that are even better than what the client originally requested,” Wintrip explains. “You’ve got to be able to present enough options so the customer feels it is having its needs met, even if your solution to meeting those needs differs from what you both originally thought the solution might be.”

So how do you go about unraveling what the customer really needs? It boils down to a simple strategy: Be consultative by asking questions. “For too many in staffing, selling is telling,” points out Wintrip. “When you do this, you limit yourself in two ways. First, you’re sending the message that it’s all about you.”

“Second, by only talking about yourself, you’re limiting the opportunities that might be available to you. If you let the clients do the talking, they’ll usually end up spilling their guts and telling you everything you need to know,” explains Wintrip.

Buyers will talk with the person who hears them, Wintrip asserts. Asking questions and listening is one of the most powerful things staffing salespeople can do to distinguish themselves.”

The best route is to ask open-ended questions. Is this selling scenario really any different from a recruiting scenario? Essentially, you are interviewing the prospect to see if your services are a good match for its needs. Therefore, you’ll want to pose deep, probing questions that get to the heart of the buyer’s true needs.

Such an approach will completely change the prospect’s attitude during the meeting, Many of Wintrip’s clients have found that, though they may have had only 10 minutes scheduled, the prospect insisted on continuing longer because he or she was so wrapped up in the conversation. “Executives tend to have more time when they’re doing the talking,” Wintrip comments.

The question-based approach, though, doesn’t mean that you glean information, then go back to the office and tailor a perfect solution. You’ve got to be prepared to counter with an on-the-spot solution. Going into the meeting prepared to talk about five to 10 key candidates who you anticipate could meet the customer’s needs is a good idea.

“Whenever possible, present as many details as you can about a potential solution,” advises Wintrip. “When you have a captive audience, share as much as possible because getting in touch with them again can be a big hassle. … Additionally, one of the things customers hate to hear is, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ When customers hear that, they are immediately on the phone with your competitors as soon as you leave their office.”

With such an approach, you’ve enhanced your brand and made your marketing director proud by differentiating your firm from the competition. Additionally, provided the competition isn’t asking questions, the staffing firm could have gained a competitive advantage because it is privy to an enhanced level of detail and the opportunity to provide a superior service has increased.

A question-based approach is hardly unique or revolutionary, and it’s actually quite well known in the industry — but not often executed effectively.

Winning them Over

Challenge the sales personnel to be honest with themselves in analyzing how many open-ended questions they truly ask. Sometimes, third-party intervention is also effective, such as “shadowing” a phone call or sales meeting. That way, the salesperson and a coach or manager can really break down the interactions and use the conversations as learning experiences.

“We need to be consultative and we need to understand our customers,” Wintrip says. “Dr. Phil is successful because he lets people be heard. And people want to be heard. That’s true as well in business, especially staffing.”

Mark Hersberger is a freelance writer who covers the staffing industry, employment and human resources issues. He can be reached at


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