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In client needs analysis, the sales team understandably expects the client to volunteer his/her most important and urgent needs first; after all, the things that matter most become top-of-mind, dominant thoughts.  Yet research shows that clients will often purposely hold back the key issues— delaying them in their dialog  an obvious threat to mutual understanding and optimal client service.

It’s called “discretionary disclosure,” and it works like this.  Both in business and social situations, adults often resist the urge to blurt out their most pressing thoughts and feelings because of anxiety about the response they’ll receive in return.  Will the listener be understanding, supportive and empathetic, or will he/she be disinterested, distant, and unsympathetic?  Faced with such uncertainties, the speaker may “test the waters” by leading with less important issues withholding the “big stuff” until the climate feels right.

Applied in a business context, it can cause the salesperson to undervalue or completely miss the client’s most important needs.  Here are three ways to avert this impediment to our client understanding and selling skills:

  • Listen equally carefully to all our client’s needsnot just the ones she/he reveals early on in the dialog.  Because of discretionary disclosure, the most important issues may only be broached later, when the client has become comfortable with our receptivity and responsiveness.  Admittedly, paying full attention throughout the entire needs-analysis discussion is a formidable challenge to our listening skills. (Also see Listening, Part 1 and Part 2 for techniques to meet this challenge.)
  • When playing back the client needs at the end of our situation analysis, we shouldn’t be reluctant to ask the client to prioritize and rank  the importance of the needs we’ve discovered.  Now that everything’s out on the table (and we’ve been supportive and understanding in receiving it), there’s no longer any reason for the client to be reticent about telling us, straight out, which things matter most.
  • If the client habitually  “saves the best for last,” it’s a sign that we need to redouble our efforts to reduce the anxiety and perceived risk that the questioning process can create in the client’s mind.  What can we say and do in every client conversation to make this clear: the sole purpose of our questions is to understand the client and his/her issues well enough to be able to produce effective, on-target advice and recommendations?  (For more selling skills technique in this area, see our December 26 and December 18 blogs, directly below.)

In summary: the sales team should never make assumptions about which needs matter most to our clients.  Listen carefully to it all; ask the client to rank and prioritize the needs; and do everything we can to build our client’s trust—  so that he/she won’t have to resort to “discretionary disclosure.”

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