Finding Your Customer's Motivation

By Cliff Ennico

July 5, 2016 6 min read

Sometimes great business advice comes from the most unlikely source.

Now that summer's here it's time to think about beach reading. I'm not a big fiction reader, but one novelist I always keep track of is Dave Eggers. If you haven't read any Dave Eggers you need to. He makes extremely poignant observations of current world events, and while I sometimes disagree with his political positions, his stories offer deeper insights into what's happening now than most newspapers or TV news programs. Past Eggers novels have dealt with the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina ("Zeitoun") and the way digital technology, especially social media, is changing the way we look at others and the world ("The Circle").

When I heard that Hollywood was making a movie based on one of Eggers' earlier novels, "A Hologram for the King," I went out and bought a copy. It is a funny, offbeat commentary on the decline of American manufacturing and the resulting decline of American influence on the world stage. It centers on Alan Clay, a 50-something salesperson (played by Tom Hanks — a perfect choice) who works for a technology company that is looking to sell a state-of-the-art holographic telecommunications system to the Saudi Arabian government.

Through Clay's interactions with Saudi government officials and locals, foreign competitors (mostly Chinese), fellow expatriates, his uncaring boss and unmotivated millennial employees, we see a perfect portrayal of an aging baby boomer's mounting frustrations and sense of helplessness in a world growing more strange by the day. (A number of reviewers have compared Alan Clay to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman.")

At some point I may write about what "A Hologram for the King" can teach entrepreneurs and business owners. But one passage in the novel deserves a column of its own.

While reminiscing on his start in the business — as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman in the 1970s — he recalls some advice he received from a mentor, namely, the four reasons people buy consumer goods.

The first is money. "Appeal to their thrift," Clay is told, because "Fuller products will save them money by preserving their investments — their wood furniture, their fine china, their linoleum floors."

The second is romance. "Here you sell the dream. ... You put the Fuller products in among their aspirations. Right there next to the vacations and yachts," his mentor says.

The third is self-preservation: "If they're afraid to let you in, if they talk to you through the window or something, you go with this way. These products will keep you healthy, safe from germs, diseases..."

The fourth and final is recognition. "She wants to buy what everyone else is buying. You pick the four or five names of the most respected neighbors, you tell her those folks already bought the products," he remarks.

It's an interesting way to look at sales strategies, and I'm dying to know where Eggers picked this up. It actually dovetails quite nicely with what I've been teaching for many years about customer motivation.

In my view, based on more than 35 years of working with entrepreneurs and small businesses, it all boils down to passions and fears. People will buy an item either because they are excited or turned on by it — it "sparks joy," in the words of decluttering expert Marie Kondo — or because it helps them sleep better at night (it reduces their fears). To view my free 90-minute video on this approach (which I call "How to Sell Anything to Anybody"), visit the Youtube website and search "Cliff Ennico" or "how to sell."

I think Eggers' four sales motivators can easily be broken down into fear and passion. Self-preservation is clearly a fear sell, while the money motivator ties in to a consumer's fear of running out of money or feeling ashamed or embarrassed (known as "buyer's remorse") for spending needlessly or foolishly.

Romance is clearly a passion sell based on a consumer's love of beautiful things and a luxurious lifestyle (or perhaps the desire to outshine the neighbors, in this case quite literally).

Recognition is a bit of a hybrid. Some people want to keep up with the Joneses to be perceived as their equals or superiors. That's a passion. Others are afraid to stand out from the crowd and be perceived as different.

A good salesperson is able to tell whether someone is motivated by fear or passion in any particular moment. That is the lesson Clay learned as a young man. To find out if that lesson still applies in our digitized, globalized economy, read "A Hologram for the King."

Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at

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