November 12, 2020

How Discovering Needs Virtually Differs from Face-to-Face

Today’s guest post is written by Andy Springer, Chief Client Officer of the RAIN Group.


It doesn’t matter what you’re selling; effective salespeople know people don’t buy products and services. They buy solutions to needs.

It’s your job then, as a seller, to uncover those needs. Unfortunately, many sellers struggle here, especially when selling virtually (at least according to buyers).

In fact, only 26% of buyers believe sellers are skilled at leading a thorough needs discovery virtually. Furthermore, 71% of buyers say a seller’s ability to uncover their wants, needs and desires highly influences their purchase decisions.

This represents a huge opportunity where most sellers can improve. 

Needs discovery done virtually is different in three core ways than in traditional, face-to-face selling. Before sharing these differences, you first need to know the two types of needs that you’ll need to uncover.

2 types of needs

The first type of need is the one most commonly discussed in sales: buyer challenges, their pain. We call these Afflictions. Uncovering your buyers’ Afflictions is a crucial step in the sales process.

The reasons for this are simple:

  • If the buyer communicates her business afflictions to you, then it’s likely she wants them to go away as soon as possible. And she is also likely considering whether it makes sense to invest the time, money and brainpower to eliminate them.
  • Each affliction you uncover gives you the chance to explore it entirely to discover its true and full impact—both from a rational and emotional perspective.
  • Uncovering and discussing one affliction can lead to other afflictions, which the buyer may not have been thinking about in the first place.

But Afflictions only focus on half—the negative half—of the buyer’s needs. If you focus only on the negative, you miss much of your chance to uncover visions, goals, hopes and untapped opportunities.

These positives are your buyer’s Aspirations.

When buyers buy, they often think as much about Aspirations and the future they seek as they do about relieving their Afflictions.

If you only ask questions that focus on the buyer’s pain points—such as, “Where are you unhappy with performance?” “What keeps you up at night?” or “Where is the pain?”—you’ll tend to probe for needs that way, and your responses will be short-term in nature.

But, if you consider a buyer’s Aspirations as much as their Afflictions, you’ll remember to ask future-seeking, problem-solving questions—questions with themes such as:

  • Where do you want to take the business? 
  • What are the possibilities?

If you ask questions and share forward-looking possibilities, you’ll find that, instead of just bringing some aspirin for the pain, you’ll help paint the most compelling, impactful and comprehensive vision of a new and better reality for your buyers. 

Whether selling virtually or face-to-face, you must ask both types of questions to uncover the full set of buyer needs. 

Three ways virtual needs discovery is different than face-to-face selling

To lead the most thorough needs discovery in your virtual meetings, you must be aware of and attend to the differences of virtual and face-to-face needs discovery.

1. Preparation and pre-meeting

  • Face-to-Face: It’s a best practice to prepare questions ahead of time to uncover buyer needs, but many salespeople wing it and still succeed. When meeting face-to-face, a certain amount of meandering in conversation is tolerated.
  • Virtual Selling: There’s less buyer tolerance for winging it in virtual meetings. Meandering, dead air and off-point questions will quickly lose buyer attention—and once that attention is lost, it’s extremely hard to get back. It’s imperative that sellers prepare questions in advance. With virtual selling, you should also take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions before meetings via email or through a needs discovery survey. Having this information ahead of time will lead to more productive meetings.

2. During meetings

  • Face-to-Face: You can take notes in notebooks but typing can be a distraction depending on the meeting and the buyer dynamics. In addition, having planned questions in front of you is distracting, since you’ll look like a rookie who needs a cheat sheet.
  • Virtual Selling: Since you’re already on a computer, it’s much easier to take notes by typing, but it’s best to keep your eyes focused on the right spot (i.e. the camera) or you’ll risk disengagement. 

Some buyers even find it engaging when a seller takes notes with them watching (think a flip chart, but on your screen). In a virtual meeting, it’s also easy to have your needs discovery questions and notes in front of you. If you have a second screen, your cheat sheet can be up so it’s not visible to the buyer.

3. After meetings

  • Face-to-Face: Asking preparatory and follow-up questions by email is a good idea, but some buyers prefer to do everything live, rather than having more involved email discussions. This saves them time and makes the meeting itself more productive.
  • Virtual Selling: Buyers are more tolerant and open to email when everything is virtual because it means less time participating in another video call. This also allows the buyer to share information at their convenience. This provides an opportunity for sellers to be more organized, thorough, and impressive, and to use the meeting time for interaction instead of information gathering.

Make the most of the difference 

Virtual selling may be different, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a lesser experience for the seller or the buyer. Use the opportunities—and the limitations—of the online experience to your advantage to effectively lead a thorough needs discovery, and you’ll be well ahead of the majority of other sellers who aren’t doing this.


Today’s post was guest written by Andy Springer. He is Chief Client Officer of RAIN Group, a Top 20 Sales Training Company that delivers award-winning results through in-person and virtual sales training, coaching, and reinforcement, and bestselling author of Virtual Selling: How to Build Relationships, Differentiate, and Win Sales Remotely. He and RAIN Group have helped hundreds of thousands of salespeople, managers, and professionals in more than 75 countries transform their sales results and unleash their sales potential. Contact him at aj@raingroup.com.au.