“Needs as understood”: How to start sales presentations — and conversations where you want to influence someone

I’ve written before about a student group from Columbia Business School I still contribute to long after graduation called InSITE that promotes entrepreneurship and connects students at several schools including Columbia, NYU, Harvard, and Stanford to entrepreneurs.
A recent post on InSITE’s blog by Lukasz Strozek, Stanford Business School 2014, described a challenge common in product development and entrepreneurship. It reminded me of a great solution I’ll write below applicable to many situations where you want to influence people.

The challenge

Read that post for the details, but broadly it points out

  • We care about products we create
  • We want to get feedback from customers and potential customers
  • Pitching the product gets closed answers, not broad understanding of a customer’s needs or interests

So the challenge is to present our product without discouraging or limiting our customers’ voice.
He recommended not starting with the product and learning to listen, which I agree are great strategies.
Eric Baron, my excellent sales professor at Columbia Business School, taught an incredibly useful tactic to help achieve that strategic goal.

The solution: “Needs As Understood”

Eric recommended beginning sales presentations with the three words “Needs As Understood.”
These three words succinctly and effectively communicate a message that works. They say

  • I care about your needs
  • I care about understanding you
  • I don’t pretend to know your needs, only to understand them, and only as well as I am about to explain
  • I welcome you improving my understanding

While or after you explain your understanding of their needs, you can ask them to help you understand their needs better. If you leave anything out or include something irrelevant, that’s okay, you’re asking for their thoughts.
Now when you get to the pitch part of your presentation instead of describing how great your product is, you focus on how well it meets their needs. Now you’re solving their problems instead of selling your stuff.


You don’t have to use those three words precisely like that and you don’t have to put them as the very first words in the presentation. For example, I try to include things like agendas and time constraints in early parts of meetings, so sometimes I start with them. Mainly, I want to present “Needs As Understood” and the discussion it leads to before pitching my product.

Other applications

Sales presentations are just one situation where you want to influence someone else. “Needs As Understood” helps in other such situations — beyond sales and beyond business in general.
Many times you want to influence someone, the philosophy and effects of “Needs As Understood” help. If you’re arguing with someone, for example, or negotiating a deal, you’ll rarely hurt yourself by saying “Just to make sure I understand you, here’s what I understand your interests are…” or something like that. You can start with it or say it at any other time of the conversation.

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