Understanding Your Customer Should Be Your #1 Priority

Or you’ll never sell anything.

Does anyone like receiving calls from telemarketers?

Unless you use the opportunity to set up a prank and get a good laugh, odds are these calls annoy you just as much as me. These over-the-phone salespeople are frustratingly persistent as they interrupt my day, and they also missed one key step when they dialed my number:

Researching whether there was any chance that I would want their product.

The problem with this sales method is that there is often no defined target market, or rather, the target market is anyone who will answer. Whether I have a genuine need for their product doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the top of the requirement list. (Obviously some telemarketers use targeted lists based on demographics or other key traits, but it certainly seems to be the exception and not the rule. I once received a call from someone trying to sell me male enhancement drugs. Cue face palm.)

Now, I feel for the people dialing the phones. I really do. It must be extremely disheartening to work a job where you spend the day getting hung up on, yelled at, or just simply shot down — probably more than 92% of the time. It’s not helping their case that we’re living in a time of privacy obsession, and that many of the “customers” they call end up angrily asking how their number ended up on the list.

It’s hard being a telemarketer, and it’s annoying being on the receiving end.

Let’s learn from this.

Everyone has customers

No, seriously. Even people outside of business have customers. As Daniel Pink said in his book To Sell Is Human,

To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources — not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.”

If we think of sales in this way, then it’s simply convincing a person to give up something they have in exchange for something you have (e.g. money for services, time for a paycheck, etc). We all do this every single day. Therefore, we all have “customers” of some kind, and if we don’t understand what their needs are, then we cannot effectively convince them to “part with resources” — specifically whatever it is we desire to receive from them.

For example, lawyers have a wide range of customers: the plaintiff or defendant seeking legal assistance, the judge they must sell their opinion to, or the jury who makes a big decision at the end of a case.

The plaintiff and defendant’s “need” is to win the case.

The judge’s “need” is to provide a fair and just trial for all parties.

The jury’s “need” is to come to a consensus they can feel good about, and leave with a healthy conscience.

Whether you’re selling products or selling ideas, you have customers — and understanding their needs is the only way to make your case.

Needs vs. Wants

My parents always loved to bring this up when I was a kid and would insist that I “needed” whatever the latest thing was. “Do you really need it, or do you just want it?” my dad would say. “Will you die without it?”

While we can look at that quote as being an extreme example used to quiet down a persistent toddler, it’s a helpful benchmark. Unless someone is trying to sell me a basic human need (food, water, oxygen, shelter, etc.), odds are I wouldn’t die without their product. However, distinguishing between something that a customer may halfheartedly wish for (want) vs. something that would drastically change and/or improve an aspect of their life or business (need) is of the utmost importance. Knowing the difference means you can better target those who will feel that intense pang of desire when you explain what you’re selling — a great sign that they need you as much as you need them.

If a customer doesn’t really need your product but you convince them to try it anyway, odds are that they won’t stick around very long. They’ll realize that the marginal benefit just isn’t worth the money, and they’ll leave. The time and resources you put into developing the relationship will have been wasted on a customer that was never going to turn into a loyal patron. Was it worth it? Or should we be putting our efforts toward understanding needs and how we can help them, thereby finding the right customers?

My vote is for the latter. The investment of time, money, and effort is worth the payoff; and on top of it, the positive word of mouth marketing (WOMM) you receive from loyal customers who truly need and love you is the most effective marketing tactic there is.

The business value of human connection

Everyone wants to be understood. It’s a very simple human desire: we want to feel like who we are and what we need is not only relatable, but understood by those around us. It extends far beyond our personal and intimate relationships — anyone we come in contact with who seems like they “get it” will be far more likely to earn our trust (and in this case, our business).

When a customer feels that you understand and acknowledge their needs, they will inherently tend to trust your advice more. They won’t feel like you’re trying to upsell them just to make an extra buck, because they know how well you have proven to know them.


It takes time to understand a person, and even more time to be able to articulate their needs. That being said, it’s worth the extra resources: we all have customers, they all have needs, and they just want you to recognize them.

Get out there and get to know the people you’re selling to. Telemarketing might work sometimes for a few products, but there are far better — and more personal ways — to go about it. Your customers will thank you.