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Understanding Customer Motivation (Startup Founder Sales Series, Part 2)

Understanding Customer Motivation

We all know the routine when seeing a doctor. You walk in and a nurse takes your vital signs. Then the doctor comes in to ask a series of questions, checks a few things pertinent to your condition, and wraps up by providing a diagnosis and prescription (if necessary).

But what if you walked into a doctor’s office and were offered medicine without an examination? You could rightly accuse the doctor of malpractice and deem him or her unqualified for their position. Believe it or not, but this is how most companies sell their products. They prescribe without knowing the condition.

In sales, it is difficult to know upfront what challenges a customer may be facing or the impact of that challenge. This lack of knowledge results in a lot of unnecessary and spammy prospecting that leaves the recipients of this outreach with negative perceptions of the company’s credibility and trustworthiness.

In this post, we want to narrow the knowledge gap and help startup founders prospect with a better understanding of their potential customers. When done effectively, prospecting results in higher success rates, which in turn leads to more opportunities and revenue.

So how do you know what customers care about if they are not reaching out to you?

Most startup founders have an idea about what their customers care about if they’ve invested in customer development. This concept is from “The Lean Startup” and informs the product development process by gathering feedback from potential customers. If you are building MVPs (minimum viable product), then you are doing customer development.

When I launched my first startup in the HR analytics space years ago, my co-founders and I had mapped out 12 use cases for our product. We then built a product around these use cases and went out to pitch Fortune 500 companies. Every time we had an opportunity to present, we ended up confusing our audience and getting told “not interested.”

The problem was that we were thinking about the use cases and our solution from our own perspective. Our first mistake was trying to solve 12 different problems, causing us to waste time, money, and resources chasing the wrong opportunities. The more important lesson was that if we had simply done customer development research beforehand, we would have learned that what Human Resource departments were looking for was a quantitative mechanism to build hiring profiles in order to improve recruitment and retention results.

Even using the feedback from the customer development process alone does not provide a full view into what customers care about. The value of customer development is that you identify a small group of people that acknowledge the problem your solution proposes to solve. They have expressed extrinsic needs and some willingness to solve those needs.

The problem with only working with people with extrinsic needs is three-fold. One, finding people that have that specific need fulfilled is much like finding a needle in a haystack. Two, even if you connect with people with this extrinsic need, the organization may not find it important enough to pursue. Three, you cannot build a business of any scale based exclusively on finding a small number of people with an extrinsic need.

The answer therefore is to find people that have an intrinsic need. In other words, the need exists, but it has not been realized as important enough yet. This is where true selling happens and the power to influence matters most. By tapping into the deeper motivations, the seller can begin to shape thinking by learning and being curious, build credibility by diving deep, and eventually earning trust that leads to a deal.

How do we identify these intrinsic needs however? By tapping into what motivates people to take action. This is often referred to as WIIFM, or “What’s In It For Me.” Things like key performance indicators (KPIs) and management by objectives (MBOs) that are tied to goals, promotions, and compensation are good places to understand the relevant motivators that move people towards a decision.

Motivations can have two dimensions, either problems to be fixed or opportunities to be gained. With this framing, we can begin to consider problems and opportunities from the perspective of different people (personas) you would encounter during a sales cycle. The best way to capture personas and WIIFMs is to use a whiteboard and then capture the most relevant ones in a tool called the Motivator Matrix. The example below is geared towards selling into engineering teams of large companies:

shows motivation matrix

The point of this exercise is to identify specifically what pain points or opportunities would cause a prospect to take notice if mentioned. We start with what the customer cares about first, then work backwards so that sales efforts align with how a customer wants to engage and buy.

Because most prospects are likely to have their first interaction with your startup through an outbound sales interaction, having a message that shows a connection to motivations will demonstrate a higher degree of credibility than simply talking about your product or company.

The Motivation Matrix is not a one-time activity. Go back to this document often as you gain more insight into the types of people that are involved in your sales process. Focus on the business and technology decision makers and users. Groups involved in the vendor process such as sourcing / procurement and legal / risk management should not be included since they are just facilitating the buying process. As you review, also look to see where assumptions about motivations were wrong, because that is useful information as well.

The benefit of the Motivation Matrix exercise is not only in aligning your sales efforts with what customers care about. This insight becomes the foundation for crafting better sales messaging and building internal support for your solution since most corporate decisions require input from many people and teams.

Sales messaging and internal selling are topics discussed later on in this series. In the next post, we will dive into the topic of target markets and how to determine the industries and segments on which to focus your sales efforts.

Mark Birch

Mark Birch

Mark is a community builder, software entrepreneur, business development expert, and startup advisor. He currently works at AWS as a Principal Startup Advocate advising founders and sharing the stories of how startups across Asia-Pacific successfully build and scale their startups on AWS. Previously, Mark founded the Enterprise Sales Forum, a global community of 25,000 B2B sales professionals, and DEV.BIZ.OPS, a newsletter and blog. Mark was also with Stack Overflow to help launch and commercialize their Enterprise Q&A platform and then led efforts to expand business in APAC working with C-level executives to help them understand how to build internal tech communities in order to improve software delivery performance. Before that he launched an HR tech startup, invested in numerous B2B tech companies and worked at a diverse group of leading technology companies including Oracle, E.piphany, and Siebel.