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Need/must/want: an offering perception framework

Product and brand positioning exercises construct an ideal. While knowing the destination’s great, we find it more important to understand how your offering is perceived right now.

What’s the problem to be solved? The job to be done? The cheese to be moved or monitored? You’ve implemented EOS, so where are those sales? Are they with the cheese?

All of those questions and methods focus on you. It’s supply-side thinking from your side of the negotiating table and your specific latitude and longitude in a complex market. Your wall of data, army of personas, sharpened value propositions, and protective moat of patents may not be enough. You can have the best solution to the nastiest problem and still fail. Why?

Others’ perception of your offering will shape how you sell and how well you perform. Without understanding customers’ and users’ perception, your unassailable fortress offering will become your prison.

Perception purchases

Perception is every human’s gateway to reality. Your perception of every purchase you make fits into one of three categories:

  1. Needs. Solutions to problems you have that are still voluntary buys (efficient windows, upgraded appliances, cleaning services).
  2. Musts. Purchases required to maintain your existence (medical, housing, and other cost-of-living stuff).
  3. Wants. Products and services you desire (premier products, vacations, toys, vices…).

Most people buy what they want and what they must. However, most businesses sell against needs as they perceive them from their external position, especially in B2B. See the conundrum here?

Isn’t every offering a solution?

People default to problem-solving and solutionizing because it’s how we feel like we add value to a challenge from our outsider’s perception and position. We prefer the intellectual labor of contribution to the emotional labor of understanding because solutions feel conclusive. Tragically, many solutions add effort and uncertainty for their implementer.

Borrowing from Donald Miller, a problem we see from the outside as a unified, solvable construct is often a layered, thorny amalgam. Using Miller’s Moneyball example:

  1. External problem. A tangible problem that needs to be solved. Coach Beane must win baseball games.
  2. Internal problem. An internal life problem exacerbated by the external problem. Coach Beane failed as a player, can he succeed as a coach?
  3. Philosophical problem. Why does the problem matter? What ought to be the case? How should things work? What’s at risk if we fail? Coach Beane believes everyone who works hard can win.
  4. Villain. The thing preventing success. Conventional thought about baseball keeps the A’s down.

If your product or solution addresses any one of these, that could well be enough to generate some sales. However, Miller argues that your offering won’t become compelling until it addresses them all and binds them together in one comprehensible, communicable value proposition.

How valuable is a solved problem?

In Building a StoryBrand, Miller doesn't quite go far enough to explain how an addressed problem affects market perception, so we'll add a little nuance. If X is your product, and Y is what it does, then:

  1. External problem. “X will do Y.” A solution.
  2. Internal problem. “X will do Y, and that does Z for me”. A relevant solution.
  3. Philosophical problem. “X will do Y for me because that’s how it should be.” A relevant solution I am motivated to implement.
  4. Villain. “X will do Y for me. That’s how it should be, but V is in the way.” A relevant solution I am motivated to implement and I know exactly what to act upon.

Now, communicate how your product addresses each specific type of problem highlighted by Miller to someone else and gauge their reaction. You must build the chain, addressing 1–4 in a cumulative manner. When you do, you’ll get reactions like those below.

External problem solved

You: “X solves Y”.

Them: “Cool.”

You’ve just wasted their time and mental energy.

Internal problem solved

You: “X solves Y but that really lets you do Z.”

Them: “Hey, that could help me.”

You’ve addressed a Need. Valuable when your prospect connects your perceived need to their actual need for you, then has the imagination to fill in the missing philosophical problem and villain.

Note that if you just target the internal problem “this lets you do Z”, you’re immediately going to get a “How?” in response.

Philosophical problem solved

You: “X solves Y, you get Z because you shouldn’t have to suffer this anymore.”

Them: “That’s great. You know, I ought to fix that. I don’t know if I want to.”

You’ve found a Must. Valuable when your prospect’s compelled to do something about that pesky Y, but not genuinely motivated to do it just now. A must is important, it’s just not top priority.

If you just talk philosophically, you’ll find agreement but no relevance, specificity, or action.

Villain identified

You: “X solves Y, and with it, you eliminate V, giving you Z so you stop suffering what V causes.” Them: “I want to stop V and get Z, and X could help that.”

This is an offering people can Want, and may want if it’s relevant to them. It’s wantable because it:

  • Solves something relevant
  • They’re internally motivated by the prospect of said solution
  • They’re internally motivated to reach their desired state
  • They know exactly what to do next

Do note the absence of Y in that final perception statement. Once communicable value reaches sufficient levels of relevance, motivation, and actionability, what your X delivers becomes less about its specific problem/solution pair and entirely about what it means to someone else.

Skipping the X, Y, and Z in communication won’t connect your offering to its audience, leading to questions, confusion, and doubts.

Selling based on perception

Very few sellers have the luxury of selling an offering buyers want. I’ve included this section specifically so product and offering marketers, managers, owners, and designers can see exactly what their sales and promotional teams must do to sell a need, must, or want.

Sellers can sell needs and musts without the tailwind of genuine demand, but they’ll usually start from a disadvantaged position. No sales-based cure that can reliably upgrade a need to a must or want in a prospect’s mind prior to interaction, yet many magically-inclined business leaders expect salespeople to spin straw into gold just like that.

Selling needs

If your offering and your message merely address a need by solving a problem, you have a problem: as a seller, you’re working against your product marketing. Not actively in the sense that you have to undo it, but passively because you have to carry the dead weight of its undone work through every single sale.

This situation is where most B2B salespeople find themselves. Despite the toxic stream of vapid rah-rah sales training TikToks, the uphill slog is the primary reason sellers churn. Success with need-based sales isn’t impossible but here’s what it takes:

Step 1: hunt ceaselessly. If your offering meets a prospective need, then by our previous definition, prospects are unmotivated to solve it. They will not search you out. Qualified leads will not show up but weak ones may. Organic demand will never materialize.

Step 2: carefully tend those leads you do find like a bonsai gardener. While you’re on the hunt, you’ll uncover a mix of slippery leads and the occasional hot lead. The hot one’s hot because the customer knows exactly what they want and believes there’s a strong chance you offer it. The slippery ones are slippery because the prospect hopes for a purchasable solution but is unacquainted with what that means (especially its price).

Step 3: bridge the gap to desire with each prospect. Given the weakness of the offering you’ve been tasked to sell, your job is to bridge gaps, connecting your external solution to their internal problem, painting an end state they can sell to internal stakeholders, and motivating them to act now.

Step 4: do the rest of the selling. If you make it here, you have to manage all the other sales things: choice management, objection handling, anxiety quashing, sales engineering, price negotiation, legal hurdles, procurement gauntlets, fulfillment handoffs, staffing fights, executive seagulling, and more.

Selling musts

If you're selling products and services people must buy, people are already “sold”, technically, but they're unmotivated and often positioned to buy something perfunctory just to check the box. Must selling can be lucrative but it will not be pleasant.

Step 1: overcome negativity. Musts feel like compulsory purchases buyers would prefer to avoid, and they're likely to perceive even the slightest impediment as an inconvenience. They’ll find reasons to circumvent, not complete the purchase of your product. You need to become a warm embrace, identifying and neutralizing the villain while being welcoming and easy-going. The more opaque and outdated your sales channels are, the more work you create for prospects, and work prevents musts from being purchased.

Step 2: build trust, then an ending. Your buyer might not want to buy what they must, but they do want to stop buying. This is where a seller’s real and perceived authenticity combined with their personal diligence makes or breaks deals. Trust-building takes conditioning: if you make a promise, keep it; if you set a meeting, make it. The ending necessitates a believable plan—the best plans obviate challenges your buyer has not considered. Remember, your buyer hopes that you’re the solution, so embody the solution.

Step 3: understand the input that success with your offering requires from buyers. It’s rarely just money—even success will create negative consequences. Prospects need your product or service to improve their circumstances/solve their problems, but you’re asking prospects to change. Then, you’re asking them to onboard the ambiguity you and your change create. As the seller, you’ll need an answer for all of this.

Selling wants

If you're selling something people want, prospects are mostly sold. Lucky! Your solution's specifics matter less, except for those specifics that matter to that individual, like the paint color on their new Porsche. This is when the art of selling finally becomes the art of helping people buy.

Step 1: soothe anxieties about choice. Everyone fights with their unlived life (“if I had only gone with X…”). If you're offering’s part of a sea of options, buyers will worry more about whether you're the right choice to fulfill their desire, often to an irrational degree. Help your prospects vanquish the ghosts in their head by pointing out the unique fulfillment your offering provides that they’ll certainly miss if they go another way.

Step 2: heighten anxiety about missing out. Once your prospect’s past a certain point in their knowledge of your offering and willingness to buy, you’ll need to act a bit like a car salesperson: care less about the problem itself, but gently introduce anxiety of a missed desire while confirming the closely-held beliefs driving their desire in the first place.

Step 3: make “later” OK, but not immediately. If you get pushback about timing, that’s fine, but it’s time to stop wasting your time. You’ve effectively completed the sale, but now it’s your job to stay on the prospect’s radar while they go work on themselves. Many deals have to die before they can live.

At Next Mile, we’ve helped clients take digital offerings from nothing to desirable. Contact us if you need, must, or want expert help crafting or executing your digital offering.

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If this speaks to a problem you’re facing, we'd love to see if we can help you further.