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Making the Sale: Wants vs. Needs


Making the Sale: Wants vs. Needs

When selling homes, does desire or require have the most pull with prospects?

By Scott Sedam, Contributing Editor February 27, 2019
head vs. heart
Wants are fleeting, ethereal, and subject to momentary whims or even long-term, perhaps unattainable, dreams. Needs are more direct, compelling, and permanent. So, how does that factor into the selling equation? (Illustration: Georgerod /
This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Pro Builder.

Tim Rethlake is one of the most insightful people I’ve met in home building over the past several decades. He heads the market development team at fireplace manufacturer Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT), a great company that, by implementing Lean principles and practices years ago, has kept two large factories in Minnesota and Iowa producing to this day. 

Tim began in sales and worked his way up to a variety of key management and strategic roles at HHT. Sales and sales management are his passion, and he publishes a daily social media post on sales and other topics, achieving something few others can pull off: publishing daily and keeping it interesting. His posts are short, thought-provoking, and on-point. I encourage you to follow him. 

Out of several hundred Tim Rethlake tweets I’ve read, only a couple have compelled me to send him a “Yeah, but …” message to debate a point. While Tim is so often right on the money, one of his recent tweets gave me pause:

“Pretty easy to create an ad to get someone to buy something they don’t need. But there’s not an ad budget big enough to get someone to buy something they don’t want. Focus on wants not needs. Aim for the heart, not the brain.”

I clicked “like” for that one but later found myself thinking more deeply about it. “Wants versus needs, which is more important?” To me, wants are fleeting, ethereal, and subject to momentary whims or even long-term, perhaps unattainable, dreams. Needs, to my mind, are more direct, compelling, and permanent. Really, does anyone want car insurance? But we damn well need it. Sometimes the difference between wants and needs is simple practicality. 

Last spring, I had my eye on a new fishing boat. I stopped by Cabela’s/Bass Pro Shops and I attended the big boat show where 30 dealers put you under hot lights. Oh baby! So many great boats, beautifully built, with great accessories. Amazing rod and tackle storage innovations, fore and aft foot-controlled trolling motors, and those whisper-quiet 4-cycle engines. No more mixing gas and oil for me! And did you know your fish-finder can link directly to the trolling motor, map your route around rocks, weed beds, drop-offs, and other fish “structures,” then, next trip they conspire to motor you around automatically while you do nothing but fish? I want that! 


What Would Memi Do?

Yes, but what did I need? In truth, all I really needed was my late grandmother’s old Alumacraft with the 15 horsepower, pull-start Johnson outboard, oars for backup, complete with a vinyl seat (split in several places) that clamps on to the metal bench. “Memi,” as we called my grandmother, fished in that boat until she was 100 years old (I would not lie about that), and she caught more fish than anyone I’ve ever known. If the Alumacraft was good enough for her, she’d say it is surely good enough for me. Another reality nudge warned that I’d be so busy working on the house all summer that I wouldn’t have much time to fish, anyway.

Those thoughts led me to confront what I (actually “we”) really needed: a nice pontoon boat with a canopy, which could hold at least 12 people. The fishing boats I pondered could carry up to six, in marginal comfort, but their use was limited to fishing and perhaps taxi service to the public docks at the town on the north end of the lake. With the pontoon, however, we could be out on the lake for evening dinner cruises, watch sunsets on the water, quietly spy on the nesting loons in the nature preserve, and take the family plus visitors up to that little town to get ice cream, Michigan fudge, and did I mention the very cool local distillery? I would, of course, be designated driver, for the sake of my friends. 

I’ve seen the wants vs. needs issue played out in my own business over the years, as well. I’ll never forget a Friday afternoon a decade ago, when I received consecutive phone calls from two of my favorite clients, emphatically telling me the same message, “Sedam! You’re selling this Lean stuff all wrong!” Both had been through one of our LeanBuilding Blitz implementations four or five months prior; both were credible and smart, winners of multiple prestigious industry awards.


Scott Sedam pull quote 1.png


To my “Huh?” each gave me the same feedback. Yes, they loved the waste the process identified and the remarkable margin improvement per house averaging $12K to $15K per unit. Yet that wasn’t why they were so excited about Lean. Rather, both talked at length about the huge impact Lean process had on their internal culture and their relationships with suppliers and trades. 

They were thrilled with the outcomes and utterly sincere in their admonitions to me. TrueNorth should sell its Lean implementations not based on our guarantee of dollars saved, but on the invaluable improvement in culture and supplier/trade relationships. Interesting, indeed. 

After listening to my clients, I asked each the key question: “OK, I hear you, but be brutally honest; if I tried to sell you our highly structured process involving your team and 23 suppliers and trades, taking the better part of a week, saying it would improve internal culture and supplier/trade relationships—with no mention of the large guaranteed dollar return—would you have bought it?” In each case there was a long pause, some nervous laughter, followed by a, “Well, probably not.”


Needs Trump Wants?

I’ve met countless builders that want to improve their margins, but I’ve found those that can articulate a clear need to do it are generally “easier sells.” I’ve met few builders that openly express wanting to improve culture or relationships, especially those builders that need it badly. Few act on that until the want becomes a need, such as in response to today’s shortage of skilled construction trades. Strong relationships will help you attract and keep the best trades—and earn the best crews—thus the want becomes a need and with it comes a sense of urgency. 

Thinking about selling homes in this way, it’s sometimes difficult to sort out wants versus needs. My wife and I have purchased six homes over the years. There was a combination of wants and needs in each of them. As I think back, the first four purchases favored the “needs” side of the equation. Number five and six were more influenced by wants than needs. Does this have something to do with getting older? Or perhaps having more disposable income that we could allow our emotions to factor in more and accept greater risk? In truth, the latest buy, No. 6, was almost totally want, as opposed to need. That was a second home, however, not the primary, and perhaps therein lies a clue. Are second homes more of a “want buy” or is this simply one aberrant data point?

HHT sells fireplaces. Between our two homes we have three fireplaces, two made by that company. Great units. We want those fireplaces. We love them and we’d be quite unhappy if you took any of them away. But do we need them? No, and it’s a rare home built in the past 75 years where a fireplace qualifies as a genuine need. A furnace, however, is definitely a need. But no one curls up with a book and a glass of wine in front of their furnace. Yet the need takes priority over the want. Perhaps that’s where Tim’s and my ideas diverge. HHT is clearly providing a “want item” for its customers, and you have to sell it that way. What I deal with in my daily work with home builder operations is more oriented toward needs.

I’d love to hear from salespeople on this. How do you sell? Is this “wants versus needs” thing something you think about and consider with each prospect? I was taught years ago that sales is really about solving and preventing problems for the prospect. That’s what we do at TrueNorth. A builder comes to us with a problem. If we have a process to help solve it and, ideally, prevent it in the future, we get the business. That feels more like meeting a need than a want. 


Scott Sedam pull quote 2.png


In housing, however, I think you can sell on both levels. Some buyers show up with a clear sense of need—so many square feet, number of bedrooms, baths, appliances, size of lot or garage—to satisfy their family and lifestyle. Then come the wants. Yes, they want a nicer master bath, upgraded appliances, quartz countertops—and don’t forget the fireplace. These things that appeal to the heart more than the mind, as Tim puts it, can indeed make the sale. Yet I believe if price is an issue, they’d choose the builder that better meets their essential needs as opposed to the hoped-for wants.

To make it worse, sometimes it’s hard to decide which is which. Take a highly rated school district. Is that a want or a need? Could that depend on the family? One family may say it’s a want, but not a deal breaker, as both parents graduated from average high schools and did just fine. The need to be closer to work trumps the want. For another family, however, that top school feels like an absolute need—not an option. Education for their kids, at what they believe is the best school, takes precedence over everything else. Which is more compelling? Seems to me it all depends on the family.

I have probably muddied this issue even more, but I find it fascinating. My guess is, if we really watch salespeople, observing how and when they go after the wants versus the needs, some gravitate toward one approach, some the other, but the best use both as the situation requires. With apologies to The Rolling Stones, let me suggest, “They can’t always buy what they want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, they’ll buy what they need.” 

While writing this column, I had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I written about salespeople before? I launched a search and yes, fully 15 years ago I wrote something I called “A Tale of Two Elizabeths,” trying to capture the differences in salespeople and how they operate. I described two salespeople I had met and observed while working for a client. After my review of the old article, I actually felt I captured the two well and presented some very different approaches to selling. I think next month I’ll go back and revisit “Liz and Beth”—my two Elizabeths—and see what, if anything, has changed since the boom times before the big crash. 

Meanwhile, back to the boat. Bottom line, the new fishing boat met my wants. The pontoon, heavily favored by wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, as well as visiting friends and relatives, met our needs. Of course, the pontoon won out. The needs trumped the wants, in this case by a pretty large margin. We got very good at pontoon dinners, sunset cruises, ice cream runs, and artfully docking the beast at the public docks. (You don’t want to screw that up with all of the locals watching from the beach nearby.) Yes, you can fish off the pontoon, and I do, although it’s a bit of a pain. There is also a rumor that now and then you’ll see a gray-haired guy on a pontoon, out in the middle of the lake, motor shut down, just drifting, furiously typing on his tablet with what may be an adult beverage. So they say.

Written By

Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve products, process, and profits. A senior contributing editor to Pro Builder, Scott writes about all aspects of the home building business and won the 2015 Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's most prestigious prize, for his commentary in Pro Builder. Scott invites you to join TrueNorth's Lean Building Group on LinkedIn and welcomes your feedback at [email protected] or 248.446.1275.

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