Over 154 Years of Service to the Furniture Industry
 Furniture World Logo

Maslow's Hierarchy And Customer Needs

Furniture World Magazine


Maslow's hierarchy of needs may be the key to successful selling!

Centuries ago in ancient Greece a philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic, was in the habit of shouting out in the bustling agora or marketplace, "Look at all the things I do not need!"

My point in bringing up this bit about Diogenes is that it relates to what I'd like to discuss in this article. Do customers buy because they need or because they like our products? Sales trainers have been divided on that question for years. I'd like to offer those on either side of that debate the conciliatory olive branch in the form of the late Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as shown in the diagram below.

My thesis is that Maslow was thinking of both needs and likes when he put together his famous hierarchy. Even when we consider the lowest of his five levels, the basic or physiological needs, it seems clear that we are dealing with needs and likes. We need to eat, but we like to choose our foods. We need to drink, but we like to drink purer, better tasting water. We need to breathe, but we like to breathe cleaner air. The same holds true at the level of security needs. We need to feel secure, but we like to choose the kinds of security that appeal to us: health and life insurance, alarm systems, fire and police protection, etc. Needs and likes also permeate the remaining three levels. We have social, ego, and self-fulfillment needs, but we like to go about realizing those in the way we choose.

According to Maslow we must be reasonably well satisfied as to our lower needs before we can be motivated by our needs at the higher levels. For example, a person who lacks the food to stay alive, won't be motivated by social needs. A person in dire need of security won't be motivated by ego needs. But Maslow realized another principle just as important. Once we are reasonably well satisfied as to a lower need, like job security, that fact will cease acting as a motivator if we feel a higher social or ego need.

The dynamics of Maslow's needs would seem to apply to selling as well as they do to life in general, with one exception it seems. A basic need in furniture is never a physiological one, that is, a matter of life and death. No one ever died because he couldn't buy a mattress or a recliner or a dinette set. When it comes to furniture, a basic need should be defined as a need for the item itself. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, when applied to selling furniture, is outlined at the top of page 15.

Let's apply Maslow's two principles about needs to selling retail. Principle one: we must be reasonably well satisfied as to our lower needs before we can be motivated by our needs at the higher levels. Let's say a customer has had a disappointing experience with his dinette set. Despite the fact that the set was under warranty as to materials and workmanship, the chairs have not held up. Now, even though the store has done its best to fix the chairs at no additional cost and has even replaced three of them, the buyer is angry, disgusted, and frustrated. He decides to shop elsewhere for a new set. His salesperson, without any qualifying at all, takes him to the dinette section. The customer soon sees a set he seems to like, and without saying a word sits in one of the chairs. At once the salesperson breaks out with a rash of kudos: the set, he says, is their best seller; they can hardly keep it in stock, the chairs have casters and also adds that the wives just love the set. He then asks the customer if he is married. The man replies he is not, asks the salesperson for his card and leaves the store.

What went wrong? This is a classical example of Bene Canis Sed Extra Chorum-You Sing Well But You're Not In Harmony With The Chorus. In this example the customer was at one level of need... the security level, and the salesperson at another...the social and/or the ego levels. The higher levels cannot motivate as long as a lower level... the security level, has not been fully assured or satisfied.

Let's also apply Maslow's second principle: once someone is reasonably well satisfied as to a lower level of need, that fact will cease acting as a motivator. For example, a customer is shopping for a dinette. For years she has owned a well-constructed wooden dinette, a table and four chairs. The set has held up remarkably well, but she's tired of it. She is a highly successful executive at a high tech company and a single woman who often has several of her co-worker friends over for dinner. She is a gourmet cook and loves to show off her culinary skills. This woman ends up with the same salesperson we met in the last scenario. Again, without any qualifying, he escorts her to the dinette section. As soon as she stops to look at a dinette set, he breaks out with his ready made featurettes: "This set will wear like iron, it's warrantied for as long as you own it; it's very affordable. Your husband will love it." She frowns, looks at her watch, and says: "I'm on lunch break. I'll have to get back." The salesperson hands her his card and says, "Make sure you ask for me when you come back." She leaves shocked to have met a totally inept salesperson.

What went wrong this time? Again, another example of bene canis sed extra chorum. This time our soloist and the chorus were nowhere close to one another. Was it that this customer did not want a durable dinette? Of course not? But it was not all she wanted in a new set because she already had a durable set. She now needed something at a higher level, at the social and ego levels for sure, and perhaps even at the self-fulfillment level.

Obviously we're talking about qualifying, which in my opinion is the ability of the salesperson to find out quickly at what level or levels the customer has the most pressing needs. Within that definition lies the explanation of successful or win-win sales and of unsuccessful or lose-lose sales. Successful sales are always the result of the salesperson's lining up at the same level or levels of need as the customer; unsuccessful sales are always the result of the salesperson's failure to line up at the same level or levels of need as the customer.

I'd like to suggest a principle of selling at retail which is entirely mine. It has to do with the basic level of need. I believe that every customer who shops for a given item of furniture is always, at the very least, at the basic level of need, but seldom at the basic level alone. That every customer looking for a specific item of furniture is always at least at the basic level, is easy to prove. Were that not so, a salesperson could show a lamp to the customer who asked to see a chair and not irritate the customer. That few customers are only at the basic level is just as easy to prove. Were that not so, selling would not be selling at all. Stores could hire clerks to take the customer to an item, a lamp for example, and the customer would automatically buy it provided it was a lamp. Clearly, selling is not that easy, although there are salespeople who behave as if every customer were at the basic level of need alone. No one has described that kind of salesperson better than John F. Lawhon.

Professional salespeople, to echo Lawhon, must have specialized knowledge and skills and want to help customers make the best buying decision. Among those skills, salespeople must have that of qualifying each customer's levels of need.

One more important point. Psychologists consider social needs, ego needs, and self-fulfillment needs as the higher needs, and basic and security needs as the lower. The higher needs never quite cease acting as motivators; the lower needs, because they are easier to satisfy, often end up being reasonably well satisfied, and therefore cease acting as motivators. In other words, it is our higher needs that never cease to be potential sources of motivation. If this is true, does it not follow that salespeople must be missing the most productive sales at the level of their customers' higher needs? In short, the greatest failing of salespeople must be that they're not selling enough better sleepsets, better dining rooms, better living rooms, better dinettes, and lamps, and occasional furniture and every kind of accessory. This would seem to give new meaning to the following statement: Most salespeople who fail do so not because they aim high and miss the mark but because they aim low and hit it.

Until salespeople become masters at qualifying, would it really matter if every customer walked into their stores and like Diogenes shouted out, "Look at all the things I do not need"?

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.