The Only Three Steps You Need in Selling

3 steps in selling

When I was a young man, literally at the beginning of my sales career, I had the good fortune to meet a man named Martin Rafferty.  I was dating his niece, and she brought me to his house in Racine, Wisconsin for a weekend, which turned into a summer of weekends, possibly the most educational summer of my life. Why? Because it was the summer where I learned there are only three steps in selling.

Two things became immediately clear:  I didn’t have a clue about business, and Marty was a tremendous mentor.  He taught me two fundamental lessons that remain with me and guide my work to this day.

Marty’s First Lesson:  Questions Teach

The first lesson Marty shared was the power of questions to help people learn and persuade themselves.  Marty was a relentless questioner.  He pulled a lot more insight out of me than he delivered, because he refused to tell where he could ask, and he was reluctant to supply the answer, even when I was stuck for one.  He asked me hard questions that I couldn’t answer without thinking things through and incorporating new data.  I never learned so much as that first summer we spent on his deck, drinking coffee, watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan, and talking about life and business.

Marty’s Second Lesson:  Simplicity Rules

The second, profound lesson I took from Marty is the beauty of simplicity.  Now, Marty worked in complex fields.  When I met him, he was an executive at a healthcare company.  When he passed suddenly at 54, he served as a city administrator.  Marty succeeded in both complex arenas because he had a gift for boiling things down to their essence, for separating the signal from the noise, and isolating the meaningful.  And that gift for simply defining the essence of things was what made Marty Rafferty possibly the best sales mentor I ever had.

That leads me to the moment when Marty Rafferty, this healthcare executive and city administrator, taught me the essence of sales.

We were sitting on his deck one morning, coffee in hand (and, truth be told, cigarettes – remember, this was the early 90s, I was in my early 20s, and smoking was cool then).

I was in the middle of describing a deal I was trying to close, when Marty leaned forward and said, “You’re overthinking it.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“There are only three steps in selling,” Marty said.

  1. Build a relationship
  2. Find a need
  3. Meet the need

“You can build as much or as little relationship as you like, as long as you’ve got enough relationship that you’re in position to meet the need when the customer has the need. Anything more than that, you’re overcomplicating it.”

The Best Lessons Take Time to Sink In

will say, I took some time to get my head around that concept.  You see, I had been ingesting sales books like SPIN Selling and Solution Selling and Conceptual Selling, and all of them depicted sales in much more complex terms.

“But what about objection handling?” I countered.

Marty just looked at me.  “If you do those three steps right, there is no objection. Objections come when you don’t follow the steps. Why do people object to your price?”

Whoa. I thought about it for a moment. As a matter of fact, customers did tend to object to paying for things they didn’t need.

“You didn’t mention closing.”

“Closing only happens when customers need something that a next step provides. Customers close themselves when you’re meeting their need.”

“I deal with a lot of competitive selling situations.”  By this time I was actively trying to poke holes in his theory, but I had the feeling I wasn’t going to succeed.

(Sip of coffee.  Drag on cigarette.)

“Either build the best relationships, or find needs that you meet best.”

At this point, I remember that feeling of the curtains parting a little.  “Negotiating?”

Marty looked at me and said, “What do you think?”


And with that, Marty concluded my most impactful lesson in sales.  I so vividly remember that day, that conversation, and the bemused look on his face as I realized how right he was.  Build a relationship, find the need, meet the need.  If you do those things right, selling takes care of itself. Those might be the only three steps in selling.

Marty’s guidance has served me, and my clients, extremely well over the years.  I get a lot of credit for helping clients streamline and optimize their sales processes, but I’m here to confess that I’m really just channeling some fundamental wisdom I was lucky to learn young and spend a career applying.

My point? I’ve got a couple, actually.

Marty’s Final Lesson:  Use The Three Steps Everywhere

First, I encourage you to think of selling as literally just three steps.  Build a relationship, find the need, meet the need.

Second, observe how often in business, and in life, these three steps apply.  I think they apply all over the place.  Why?  Because that’s how you add value to people’s lives, by building relationships that allow you to find and meet others’ needs.  You’re living right with the three steps.

Sales is a subset of life.  Sell like you love.  That’s it!

Finally, a posthumous shoutout to Marty Rafferty – you were a great man, and you had a profound impact on my life, both professionally and personally. Oh, to grill one more steak with you, my friend!

I wish for all of you the opportunity to learn from someone like Marty this year.  Good luck, and stay safe.