Buyers and Their Elephants

Buyers and Their Elephants

If you have read any of my stuff, you will have noticed a theme, OK unmitigated bias then, my belief that value is far more critical than needs in selling.

Why does so much sales practice, training, discussion, etc., focus on needs rather than value i.e. the desired outcomes/results that created the need?

Where needs are the what of buying, value is the why.

Needs Discovery is integral to every sales model, and it is the essential first step in the Sales Cycle once you have identified Buyers.

However, ‘Value Discovery’? Who even uses the expression?

When value is discussed, it is invariably to qualify or quantify need, as in: ‘solution A is better value than solution B for our needs’.

And so, in this article I want to reinforce the case for value and that needs are substantially irrelevant without a value goal.

That, and the importance of the Buyer's Elephant. Say what? 🤔

Why Are Needs So Preeminent in Selling?

I suspect it is because most buying exercises start from a place of trouble rather than opportunity. A problem that needs fixing to improve the status quo rather than an opportunity to reach beyond the status quo.

That makes some sense anyway, as it reflects the human condition.

Humans have evolved to survive and stay safe. It is our first instinct, and it is only very recently that we have thought beyond that. For millennia, thinking about the future, growth, and opportunity, was pretty much a foreign notion.

And, the last ten thousand years of civilization and social engineering haven’t changed that. That is just a minute in the twenty-four-hour clock of evolution. We still have the survival-oriented brain of our knuckle-dragging ancestors.

Not to put too fine a point on it:

Our brains were not engineered for the world we now find ourselves in.

So, what does that mean for selling?

Well, the same as it means for any situation.

We operate 98% of the time on instinct i.e., not thinking. You have undoubtedly heard the expression ‘Lizard Brain’ that characterizes that.

We operate on autopilot and only truly think 2% of the time, which makes sense when you consider that early man did not need to think to survive. Thinking would have been counterproductive. If they had stopped to think instead of (say) running, our ancestors would likely have become a meal!

How We Think - The Bottom Line

We evolved from those early survivors; the ones that ran away, so the instinct to survive and stay safe is deeply embedded and impacts how we behave in every situation.

That is well-established science. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Fast and Slow Thinking’. It describes the research he and his colleague Amos Tversky did in researching the myriad cognitive biases that reflect the irrational nature of man.

In my view, Kahneman’s book belongs in every Sales library, especially if you agree selling is about people, not products and services. And you do. Right?

Importantly, Kahneman and Tversky’s work is relatively recent, and their findings, published in the 1990’s, postdate much of the original theory on how to sell.
With the benefit of their insights into human behavior, it becomes obvious why so many ‘traditional’ selling approaches don’t work, especially now in the information age.

The Rider and the Elephant

Kahneman and Tversky coined the labels System 1 and System 2 for our irrational and logical thinking styles, the two quite different ways we interpret and process information. How that all works, fascinating as it might be, is beyond the scope and competence of this article. However, how it impacts buying and selling is very relevant to us.

And to make it even more relevant, I will use the more meaningful metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider (instead of Systems 1 and 2) that psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced in his bestseller ‘The Happiness Hypothesis'.

To appreciate the metaphor, imagine you asked a mahout (elephant rider) how to direct an elephant. He would likely reply, ‘in the direction it is already heading’, as given the strength imbalance there is hardly a chance of him making it head in a direction it does not want to go.

And so, to apply that to our thinking styles, our logical thinking Rider mind (capitalization is deliberate) decides where we want to go, but our irrational/emotional Elephant needs to want to go there for us to move in that direction. The Rider thinks. The Elephant acts.

To encourage the Elephant to go where our Rider wants it to go then, the Rider needs to find a Path the Elephant will follow.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the expression ‘we decide on emotion and then justify on logic.’ Well, that is a thing.

That is what happens when our Elephant heads down a path of its choosing, and then after the event, our Rider rationalizes how it got there. And that of course is the wrong way around.

To apply that to selling, It is not just the Buyer's Rider we need on board, we also need to define a Path that is easy for the Buyer's Elephant to follow.


Emotions drive decisions, all decisions. Google the science if you are interested.

You could say that decisions are examples of our Elephant in action.

While we can go through a logical (Rider) process to arrive at the decision point, the Elephant decides. For example, we might logically conclude, ‘I don’t really need a Harley Davidson’, but when the Elephant sees one in the motorcycle shop, it thinks ‘I want that HOG’, and treks down that easy-to-follow path to get it.

No matter the weight of logic to the contrary, the Rider cannot easily overcome the strength of the Elephant.

Now, you might think, ‘but that’s a personal example, and I’m selling B2B. There are multiple decision makers, formal bid processes, RFP’s, Procurement Officers, etc to prevent that happening’


Everyone in that process is a human being, read a Rider and their Elephant. Their Riders will mostly adhere to the logical procedures and their logical brains will convince them that they are doing just that.

However, their much more powerful and in-control Elephant (that they are not the least conscious of) will select the Path that is easiest to follow.

If the Rider wants a different outcome, he must find a different path; one that is easy for their Elephant to follow.

The Path is Value

By now you may be guessing that the Path the Elephant wants to follow is no more than a path to what it values. You have probably been wondering when I would get back to value, the subject of this article.

In simple terms, our Elephants are on a constant quest for value. Not value as you probably imagine it in a B2B sense, like ROI, Benefit for Cost or whatever. Those are Rider expressions and, yes, entirely logical, and the Rider seeks those things.
However, and apologies for mixing metaphors here, they don’t float the Elephant’s boat and are not what compel people to buy. Or rather, they are only compelling when they coincide with the Paths Buyer Elephants want to follow.

And what does the Path look like?

It is made up of the things we value. Remember that our most basic instinct is survival.

Our Elephant is concerned with our personal well-being (becoming happier, healthier or wealthier). In a professional context, that means reputation, advancement, job satisfaction, personal income, achievement, recognition, stress reduction etc.
We can look at all those WIIFM’s as paths our Elephants want to follow. And of course, the nature and extent of those paths varies for each Buyer. Not all Elephants are the same.

Finding the Path

If I were to characterize Value-focused selling, it would be that it is about finding Paths for Elephants. And how you do that will be the subject of my next article.
In the meantime, if you would like free tips on value-focused approaches, you'll find plenty on the Resources page of my website.

And if you would like some insight into how value-focused your sales processes are, try this FREE self-assessment. There are two versions.

Individuals or Sales Teams and one especially for MSP's

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