If you want the right clients to buy from you, you have to give them a reason why.

I am a big fan of TED Talks. If you aren't familiar with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), it is devoted to sharing "Ideas Worth Spreading." On its web site you'll find short videos of live presentations on some powerful ideas and perspectives.

I recently watched one of their featured presentations titled "How Great Leaders Inspire Action" by Simon Sinek. There were several great takeaways from this 18-minute video, but one idea in particular really resonated:

People don't buy what you sell; they buy why you sell it.

To help explain, Sinek identifies the three critical elements of a complete sales message: the Why, How, and What.

  • What – Everyone understands what product or service their company sells and can usually describe it reasonably well.
  • How – This is your differentiating value proposition, your unique process. Your How is what allows you to have a competitive advantage over everyone else selling the same product/service. Not many truly understand this concept, and even fewer communicate it effectively.
  • Why – Why do you exist? The answer isn't to make a profit; that's a result. Rather, what's your purpose, your cause, what is it that you do to make a meaningful impact on the business and lives of your clients? It is the rare individual/company that understands and can communicate this message.

Let me get back to the idea that resonated so strongly: People don't buy what you sell; they buy why you sell it. As insightful as this statement is, it wasn't really the "aha" moment. In fact, this is an idea we have already been coaching around. What really struck me was the biology behind it.

As Simon explains, most marketing and sales messages are all about "what we are selling." You know: a long list of features, benefits, facts, figures, and descriptions of your product or service. This type of message is processed by a specific part of the brain called the neocortex, which is involved in functions like spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language. Unfortunately for the typical salesperson, the neocortex has absolutely nothing to do with making decisions or changing behaviors, which are critical to sales success.

This explains why, even after being given an unbelievably clear description of something you are considering buying, you can't pull the buying trigger. Sure, it all sounds terrific, but the purchase "just doesn't feel right."

This is where biology comes into play

Whereas higher order thinking takes place in the neocortex, making decisions and changing behaviors happen in a completely different part of the brain: the limbic system. The primary functions of the limbic system involve motivations, emotions, and the storage of memories.

I know, that sounds touchy-feely. However, when our two primary goals as sales organizations are to keep the clients we have and get the ones we don't yet have, connecting with feelings of trust and loyalty is critical.

It is the limbic system that is engaged when we are hearing a Why message. So when we start with a Why message, we are speaking directly to the part of the brain that drives decisions and behaviors. If we then follow it with our messages of How and What, we help the buyer to start validating the decision they are already making emotionally.

Simon used Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as an example of a Why message. Talk about a powerful Why! It is easy to see how people passionately buy into that kind of message.

Now compare that to a politician who stands at the podium and brilliantly points out that "things are broken" (really?) And then lays out his 12-Point Plan to fix them. The typical reaction is that eyes start to roll and cynicism starts to build.

Which would you "buy": Dr. King's dream or the politician's 12-point plan? No comparison!

Lead with the What and, most of the time you lose. Lead with the Why and then complete the message with your How and What messages, and you'll fnd the right clients lining up to work with you.

And the right client is an important idea. Our goal shouldn't be to try to do business with everyone who needs what we're selling (for us, that's every business owner out there). Instead, our goal should be to do business with those who believe what we believe (share our Why), who value what we have to offer.

What does that look like in the world of insurance?

Here is a typical What message that you would see on the typical industry Web site and hear in a typical sales presentation:


"We have been in business for 72 years. We have access to the best carriers. Our team is so dedicated to our clients. And we can help you with all of your insurance needs: medical, dental, voluntary, E&O, work comp, etc. How about if you give us a chance to quote for you?"

Do you feel compelled to buy? Me either.

Now, compare that to a Why message:

  • Why – "We transform our clients into 'employers of choice': businesses where the best talent in the market is knocking down the door to work there; businesses that have the highest level of employee morale and engagement; businesses that are the envy of their competition."
  • How – "We accomplish this through our unique process of evaluating the key areas that contribute to being an employer of choice. We evaluate whether or not a business has the necessary resources, processes, and results. If we find something is missing, we build a customized plan to address the affected areas."
  • What – "Through our dedicated and educated team, we effectively implement solutions for insurance, communication, employee engagement, etc."

Which of these two approaches is more likely to get you to buy? No comparison, right?

Selling is harder than ever before. If you want to sell more effectively, you have to communicate more effectively.

Look at your own Web site and think about your sales message. Are you selling the same What as everyone else, or are you selling a Why that can change the business of your clients?

Be honest with yourself. Would you buy from you? Challenge yourself hard because that's the question every prospect you call on is asking him- or herself: Why would I buy from you?

Leading with your Why isn't just good strategy, it's biologically necessary.

 Defining Your Business Brand 

Originally published in Rough Notes magazine, April 2014.

Photo by Britany G.