Maslow’s Hierarchy of Sales Success

Anyone who took at least one Psychology class has at least a passing familiarity with the above. Created by Abraham Maslow in 1943, the pyramid shows the building block order in which a human’s needs have to be met before they are able to focus on the levels above. No one is worried about self-esteem or finding love when they are worried about where their next meal, water or air are coming from.

But can we extrapolate this theory to things beyond just individual self actualization? That one must cover the basic needs, followed by the next most complex, then further complex needs, before ultimately the most complex and rewarding ones. What if we tried to use this model to predict the success of a salesperson or organization?

Let’s explore what that looks like. First a few base assumptions:

  1. One must assume first that the basic levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy (Physical Needs and Safety Needs) are already covered. For most people living in the developed world with jobs those are pretty much a given.
  2. A sales organization is only as healthy as the aggregate of it’s individuals. Having one person out of 15 on a team at the top of the chart and 14 struggling to get past the 2nd level will make the organization reflect the lower level. An organization is only as good as it’s weakest link

Now that we have those out of the way, let’s lay out the basics for a Sales Hierarchy of Needs. Given #1 above, let’s look at what the most fundamental need a salesperson will need to be successful.

1. Sellable Offering

Photo Credit: najjie via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: najjie via Compfight cc

A salesman has to have a sellable product or service. No amount of talent, lead generation, list buying, lying, cheating or stealing will help a salesperson sell something that either can’t be bought or there is no market for.

I’m not talking about things that are creating a new market (ie the Walkman, or the first automobiles etc). I’m talking about something that a large majority of the marketplace has no need for. Screendoors on submarines, vomit flavored toothpaste, those kinds of things. I’m being just a bit hyperbolic here, but there are product ideas that I’ve heard that literally have no market outside of their owner’s head. I’ve watched friends and colleagues ignore all of the available advice and wisdom and chase thousands of dollars after a product with no future.

Anyone tasked with selling such a product will ultimately fail. They may have brief moments of success, but it won’t be sustainable and it won’t be something that they will be able to learn from and apply going forward.

2. Organizational Support

A salesperson without a team that believes in what he is doing, or a sales team who has lost the faith of the rest of the business has a hard road ahead. An organization needs to provide responsiveness, marketing (top of the funnel support), and in actually holding up the promises that he’s selling. When the salesperson knows that the team behind him will provide what he’s promising his clients – services OR products, life gets much easier.

As a part of this, the salesperson and his team must have a plan in place for what success looks like for both of them – ensure that goals and measurable signposts along the way are planned and monitored.

Support goes both ways, if you’ve got a professional salesperson, wind them up and get out of the way unless they’re asking for help. Over-management is just as damaging as under-management.

3. A Network

Photo Credit: subarcticmike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: subarcticmike via Compfight cc

Once you’ve got a sellable product and support from your company, you should be able to start being successful. The next thing to actualize your sales life is to have a network to lean on for help. This isn’t just your LinkedIn connections that you can mine for data, but for people who can actually make introductions, provide feedback, and be an extra voice talking about you in the community.

I’ve always suggested tracking not only the raw number of prospects you reach out to or create in a week, but also the numbers of “friends” and “neighbors”. Friends are those people who can be referral partners, business partners, or lead generators for you. Neighbors are people in the community who can speak to you being “good people” even if they don’t have any real value to you and your product.

*note – This actaully requires you being “good people”. Practice giving before getting or asking and be a resource for those around you, it’ll build your reputation in the neighboorhood.

4. Compensation

Many people assume that salespeople are primarily or even only motivated by their paychecks. While that may be the case for some people, I feel like this is becoming less and less the case. Hence why it is so far up the pyramid here. I’ve written and spoken on this before (most prominently on episode 54 of the Don’t Sell Me Bro Podcast) – but the lowdown of how a professional salesperson should be compensated goes as follows:

  • Cover the basics – a base salary that allows them to live (ahem.. perhaps solving the first levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy…) but doesn’t let them live the good life.
  • Commissions based on attainable goals – Goals that they can reach if they work, but not coast to. Set a quota, carry that quota and you get paid nicely. I’ve described it before, I want to be able to drive to work on my base salary. If I want a Mercedes to do it in, I better be selling my ass off to get there.
  • Bonuses for blowing goals away – If you really go above and beyond your numbers, you should be handsomely rewarded. Take care of that on the compensation side and everyone wins.

5. Stability

Photo Credit: JH via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: JH via Compfight cc

If you’ve got all of the above sorted out your salespeople should be making happy clients appear almost at will. One of the quickest ways to pump the brakes on that is by having a shifting environment around them. If any of the above change rapidly or repeatedly it’ll pull the rug out from under your sales success. I’ve worked in organizations where I’ve had 4 different pay plans in 6 months, where the main product we were selling changed significantly over a 30 day window, or where there was a high level of turnover within the team (at all levels). In each of those situations sales ground to a halt for a time until the sale team was able to feel some stability again.

I’m not saying never change things, but communicating the reasons and implications of such changes becomes paramount to keeping your sales team actualized and ready to make the most of their efforts. Make those changes too often, and your credibility runs out quickly.


Can a salesperson or sales team make a ton of sales success without the above? Maybe for the short term, but if you want to build a long term prosperity, you must build a solid foundation to allow for that to happen. Start with these guidelines, adjust to fit your specifics, but keep these in mind when looking to take your team to the next level.