What is Demand-Side Sales?

If you’re struggling to be great at sales, you’re not alone.

While seasoned salespeople already instinctively understand the concepts taught here, they had to muddle their way through the ick at first too. We wrote Demand-Side Sales 101, so you don’t have to struggle.

What does Demand-Side Sales help you to do?

The goal of demand-side sales is to reframe the way YOU think of sales—to flip your lens and perspective. Great salespeople don’t walk around in a sharkskin suit, selling for the sake of profit. 

Great salespeople are real people, they ask questions, they listen, they learn, and they help you make progress in your life.  Salespeople help customers solve problems and make progress in their life.

Instead of pushing their product, they represent their product and how it fits into your life.

Sales is about perspective, think concierge, mentor, or a coach, not an order taker.  It’s about looking through your customer’s eyes, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, and understanding what they mean.

What causes people to buy?

My mentor, Dr. Genichi Taguchi always said, “Don’t confuse correlation with causation,” and it’s a concept that’s stuck with me throughout my career. 

For instance, ice cream and sunglass sales are correlated. Does this mean you should open an ice cream shop and sell sunglasses? They are correlated, but one’s about heat and the other is about the sun. Ice cream sales and drownings are also correlated. Ice cream kills people? Obviously, not! Correlation is not causation. Correlation is surface knowledge and causation is truth. 

The world of marketing is dominated by correlation. Once you understand true causation, you have night-vision goggles. 

The Jobs to be Done Theory (JTBD) when applied to sales is a method for understanding what causes people to buy, as opposed to what correlates with your product or service.

The JTBD theory works across industries, products, and services at scale. There really are NOT infinite reasons a person will purchase a product or service, nor is there just one reason. There are sets of causes—probably only four or five, pathways, patterns, or jobs. 

Most seasoned salespeople know the causation of their product or services, that’s what makes them great. This is my hack, so I didn’t have to fail for years before getting better at sales.

Who is demand-side sales for?

Demand-Side Sales is primarily for people who find themselves stuck. They are struggling with the idea of sales.

This is for salespeople selling directly to customers but struggling. It’s for the salesperson trying to sell to other businesses but failing to land accounts. And beyond traditional businesses, it can be applied to healthcare professionals who need to convince patients about a particular care regimen, or non-profits, such as church pastors, on how to increase attendance and donations. 

The title “salesperson” has gotten a bad reputation. People tend to remember bad experiences, such as buying a car and being pushed by an aggressive salesperson, focused on their profit, not the customer’s struggle. One bad apple has ruined the bunch! But great salespeople don’t sell; they help. They listen, understand what you want to achieve, and help you achieve it. A better title would be “concierge.”

There’s this underlying theme: nobody wants to be sold to, but everybody wants to buy. But the reality is that great salespeople help customers make progress in their lives, on their terms. They are helpful, empowering, curious, and creative. They create win-win situations! Salespeople are the lifeblood of any organization. 

Let us teach you how to stop selling and start helping people make progress in their lives.

Two Perspectives on the World: Supply and Demand

There are two dominant perspectives that drive the language and process for a business: the supply-side and demand-side.  

The notion of supply and demand drive how we see the world, what is important, and the metrics of success.  Yet, they are two very different perspectives.  As you will see, we need them both, but traditional sales are mostly focused on supply-side thinking. 

Let’s contrast supply and demand with something we can all relate to—purchasing a new mattress. Traditionally, buying a mattress sucks, right? There’s foam, spring, pillowtop, and hybrids. There are also different sizes, cooling features, and adjustability. 

Commissions-based salespeople approach you in an empty store—it’s just you, them, and hundreds of beds—and they blatantly push their products using confusing jargon. What are they even saying?  So, you stare at hundreds of different models, one costs $1,500 and another $4,000… 

“Lay down and pick one,” they say.
“I have no idea how to pick one,” you think.

It’s intimidating! There’s almost no way to judge; you’re not a mattress expert. How many people want to buy a new mattress but are intimidated by this process?

In 2014, entrepreneur Philip Krim, CEO of Casper, set out to build a different type of mattress buying experience. He wanted to make purchasing a mattress simple. Instead of variety, Krim decided to only build a few, high quality, foam mattresses. Then the truly novel part, he sucked the air out of his mattresses and shipped them directly to customer’s doors.

No big box-stores, no aggressive salespeople and jargon, just a few clicks and voila, a bed-in-a-box sitting on your doorstep. And if you don’t like it you have one-hundred days to return it. And no, you do not have to get that bed back into the box; they’ll come take it away.  At the time, industry experts paid little attention to Krim.

Five years later, Casper now has 3.2 percent of the U.S. market share for mattresses—ranking seventh. They’ve sold to over one-million customers with sales topping $400 million and are at a valuation of $1 billion. Meanwhile, industry leaders are barely increasing their market share, some are even losing market share.

So, how did this startup come into a well-established industry with lots of competition and become an industry disruptor? It’s called demand-side selling, and it’s the basis for the JTBD theory of sales.

Regardless of whether Casper is ultimately successful, their approach is noteworthy. 

Synching Selling to the Way People Buy

Buying is very different than selling. The best sales process mimics the progress that people are trying to make in their lives. Selling is clearly a supply side perspective, while buying sits on the demand-side. Instead of thinking about their product’s features and benefits and asking, “What’s the demand for mattresses?”

Casper entered the scene and sold sleep. They asked, “How many people struggle to sleep at night?” Their ads feature soft, fuzzy bunnies and kittens crawling across their mattresses, tugging at the sheets: “We asked these creatures of comfort what it’s like to sleep on a Casper,” the narrator says. “Some things just don’t need words.” The ad closes with the animals angelically sleeping. Not once do you hear about the features and benefits of a Casper.

What’s so special about their approach?

It’s a worldview of selling from the customer’s vantage point, which we call demand-side selling. Casper understood why people buy mattresses and recognized the anxieties that got in the way. And as a result, designed a better, more simplified way to purchase a mattress. They made buying easy. They gave a few great options, eliminating confusion. They sold mattresses the way people want to buy—risk free and from the comfort of their home. And, in the process, upset the well-established mattress industry focused on their big, empty box-stores with hundreds of mattresses and confusing jargon.

Traditional sales are not in sync with the way people buy. 

We need to flip the focus of sales from supply-side selling to demand-side selling. Let’s contrast the two.

Supply-side: The focus is on the product or service and its features and benefits. How will I sell it? Who needs my product? You define demand through the product. In this scenario, the consumer is usually nebulous—an imaged, personified version of the customer— an aggregated set of demographic and psychographic information. You aggregate and triangulate the consumer around the product through correlative data.

When operating under this model you canvas the world for people who need your product, adding features and benefits along the way, to reach the widest audience. With supply-side thinking the focus is on the profit—the product must make money inside a specific cost structure. Everything you talk about goes through the lens of the product or service. You push your product. The supply-side does not see how the product fits into people’s lives. It’s the fishbowl analogy: You cannot see the whole picture swimming on the inside, only what surrounds you. 

Just because I am 55, live in this zip code and have that income, it does not cause me to buy the New York Times today.

Clayton Christensen, Innovation Expert and Harvard Business Professor

Demand-side: The focus is on understanding the buyer and the user. How do people buy and how do they make progress? What’s causing them to make a purchase? You design your go to market strategy around the buyer’s worldview, not the product. You are looking at the world through a real buyer’s eyes. It’s understanding value from the customer-side of the world, as opposed to the product-side of the world. 

Demand-side selling is understanding what progress people want to make, and what they are willing to pay to make that progress. Our product or services are merely part of their solution. You create pull for your product, because you are focused on helping the customer. Demand-side selling starts with the struggling moment. It’s the theory that people buy when they have a struggling moment and think, “Maybe, I can do better.” 

Traditional economics thinks supply and demand are connected. But we would say that demand is independent of supply. Demand is about a fundamental struggle. Supply and demand are two completely different perspectives in sales.

Most people don’t think about your product or service if it doesn’t address a problem they have. When you’re getting a restful eight hours of sleep every night, you don’t even notice the mattress store when you walk past. But if you find yourself choosing the recliner every night over tossing and turning in your bed, then you begin to look at—and see—other options. When something’s not working the struggling moment occurs. It forces people to stop and ask themselves a question. It’s those questions that spur demand. 

When you study how people buy, you realize if there’s no struggle, there’s no demand—without demand people don’t buy. Once you see sales through this lens, you can help people buy and make progress in their lives. 

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question—you have to want to know—in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

Clayton Christensen, Innovation Expert and Harvard Business Professor

Supply-side and demand-side together make a business work. The key to synching these two world views starts with understanding demand without the product or your solution—just the context and desired outcomes, tradeoffs, and hiring requirements.  

Understanding the consumer at a very deep and empathetic level adds more value to the sales approach, than focusing only on your product and its features and benefits.  Because once you understand the customer, you see patterns and can now define the go to market approach based on causation, not correlation.  What causes your customers to buy, not how many people are available because of their demographics? 

Understanding Your Customer’s Worldview

So, what does it take to become a billion-dollar industry disruptor like Casper?

It starts with listening to your customer and truly understanding their needs. It’s not only what they say, but how they say it, what they don’t say, and what they eliminate.

Greg and I walk through this process every day. We identify struggling moments and then reframe products or services from the customer’s vantage point—demand-side selling. In the process, we learn to help customers and consumers make progress in their lives. 

A perfect demonstration of the transformative effect of a demand-side sales approach is the story of Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). As President he transformed SNHU into a billion-dollar Public (not-for-profit) educational institution through demand-side sales. 

The Frameworks for Demand-Side Selling

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!

Theodore Levitt, Professor, Harvard Business School

Imagine yourself in the Home Depot or Lowes and you need a drill. You go into the drill aisle and there are drills of every color, with different torques, battery life, and accessories. What’s happening here? The guys in Milwaukee are looking at their competitor at DeWalt saying, “They just increased their battery life by three percent, we need to keep up.” This feature creep, or incremental innovation, does very little to help move the product. 

It is more about keeping up with the “Jones” than creating something the consumer can value. This is a supply-side push of technology. Now when you walk down the drill aisle you have side-by-side products that are hardly discernible. How do we break out of this mold? By understanding the progress people are trying to make when they buy a drill. People buy a drill to make a hole, right? We keep trying to sell people the drill, when the reality is, we should be helping them figure out how to drill the hole. 

In marketing and sales, there’s the push to add a bunch of features and benefits that don’t bring any value. We get so myopic on the little things that we don’t realize the bigger purpose of what people are trying to do. We should be asking why, and not just once but several times. We need to get to the root of the progress people are trying to make.

“I need a drill, because I want a hole.”

“I need a hole, because I want a plug.” 

“I need a plug, because I want a lamp.” 

“Why do you want a lamp?” 

“Because it’s hard to see, and I want to read better.” 

Now, we are beginning to understand the customer. They don’t need a drill at all; they need a Kindle. Let’s invent the Kindle. Demand-side sales is about taking a step back to see how your products and services fit into people’s lives and the outcomes they are seeking.

What is a JTBD?

Let’s define JTBD. It starts when people are in a struggling circumstance, and they want to make progress. Let’s say someone needs to cross a river —their circumstance.

So, they can get to the other side—the progress they want to make. There are 1,000 different ways we could help them cross the river: teach them to swim, build a boat or a bridge, fly a plane, etc. But building their solution starts with understanding their situation and why they are thinking about making progress in the first place, as well as what their vision of progress looks like. 

Sometimes people start with a struggling circumstance but have no idea what the other side looks like. Say your parents complain about their house being too big, they hate shoveling snow, and the taxes are too high. It’s not a real struggling moment until they figure out what they want to do about it. What progress do they want to make? Typically, this is where people will bitch but not switch. The best thing to do here is to take them to a condo and show them what progress looks like, not hire a snowplow. Eliminating the struggle is not progress, them overcoming the struggle is progress.

Both pieces are critical; the key to understanding causation is found in the circumstance and the outcome. Value is relative to your circumstance and determined by where you start compared to where you end. Circumstance is a big part of understanding causation. Their circumstance is a reference point for their progress, without understanding their starting place you cannot design their progress. 

Great sales begins with understanding the JTBD by your customer and the progress they are trying to make: What is the situation they are in? What’s the outcome they seek? What’s the tradeoffs they are willing to make?  We do this by interviewing people who’ve purchased your product or services and understanding why. And why is relative to what’s going on in their life that caused them to say, “Today’s the day…” But it’s not an imagined customer or persona, it’s real buyers. 

And the why you are looking for has nothing to do with your features and benefits. It’s about the customer, and the progress they are trying to make in their life. 

To build a meaningful understanding of why people buy we must create language, a story, and a model of their struggling moment. 

3 key frameworks for how people buy:

  1. The three sources of energy or motivations (functional, emotional, and social). 
  2. The four forces of progress (push, pull, anxiety, and habit forces). 
  3. The JTBD timeline (sequence of events and actions to make progress).

Pulling together the forces, motivations, and timeline allows you to see the buyer as a whole person. They are no longer a set of demographics; they are real people. By understanding the buyer in this way, you can begin to design a demand-side sales process.

Learn more by reading the Ultimate Guide to Jobs to be Done.

Finding the Set of Causes that Make Progress

Interviewing for causes is part art (learned through experience) and part science. It’s more based on criminal and intelligence interrogation, than traditional interviewing and market research techniques.  People will lie to you and to themselves; “Buyers are liars!” has always been a saying in the sales world.  

The reality is that buyers rarely intentionally lie, but, for example,  “to get healthy” is not a cause, more a wish or desire versus “I don’t want to die” or “I want to fit into that suit for the wedding next month” are causes.  The key to interviewing for causes is a set of principles and tips that act as guardrails for best practices. 

Learn our top tips for conducting JTBD interviews.

The Five Key Principles of Interviewing 

It’s important to keep these five principles in mind as we move forward with the technique. Think of them as the guardrails that safely keep you on the right path.  

  1. Humility: You’re not smart enough to instinctively know why people really buy.

    Assume nothing! You need to be an investigator to understand the causal events that led someone to make a purchase. There are too many causes and too many different sequences, which makes it hard to see patterns. You can’t sit in a conference room and figure this out. 

  2. Causality: Everything is caused; nothing is random.

    The notion of randomness was created to help us be “okay” with no explanation. But it’s overused and has the side effect of enabling us to waste time and wait. Home builders will sit in a trailer in the middle of a development waiting for people to randomly stop by. That is insanity!  People don’t randomly stop buy – they stop by with a purpose, but we just don’t know when, so we don’t ask why. 

  3. Tradeoffs: Everyone makes tradeoffs to make progress.

    I’m willing to give up this, so I can get that. No one can have everything. What tradeoffs is your customer willing to make? I have a friend who bought a brand-new Audi RS7—beautiful car. It was silver, and he wanted matte grey.  Why did he settle for silver? Because he would have needed to wait another month for the car to get matte grey. He was willing to make a tradeoff to have the car immediately.  Sales is about managing and packaging the tradeoffs the consumer is willing to make. 

  4. Disconnected: Most people don’t know why they do what they do.

    They will tell you a purchase was random, an impulse purchase, or they’ll give a simple answer. You need to dig and not accept their surface response. Most people live their lives in the moment and don’t connect the dots. “I bought a mattress on an impulse.” “So how long haven’t you been able to sleep?” “Two years.” 

  5. Lies: Everybody lies.

    You must be careful not to fall for the lies people tell themselves. If someone says, “I bought this product because it’s important to be healthy.” You should ask them to tell you three other things they’ve done recently to be healthy.  They don’t lie with malice or intent. They build a story that fits their world. We call it the cake layer of causality. Lies are a very complicated thing. This is about getting past the lying, past the cake layer.

Mapping Demand-Side Buying to Supply-Side Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success

Yes, the details will change, but if you conduct enough interviews you will see consistent patterns. Other people buy in similar circumstances. And for every person who bought in these circumstances, there are thousands, even millions behind them who want to make the same progress but can’t figure it out. Let’s look at the big picture again.

The key flip here is to use the timeline as the frame around how people make progress.  Then take each phase of the timeline and make it a sub-system of the bigger process.  By doing this we can then look at the discrete progress people are trying to make at any point on the timeline.  

  • First Thought: creating space in the brain for solutions to fall into.
  • Passive Looking: learning, framing, and prioritizing to know what to do next.
  • Active Looking: seeing possibilities, framing trade-offs, and ruling things both in and out—inclusion and exclusion.
  • Deciding: connecting the dots into alternatives for progress, getting buy in from the group, making trade-off, and setting expectations to measure of progress.
  • Onboarding: first use, doing the job, and seeing both the progress and the metrics of progress achieved.
  • On-going Use: building new habits, identifying new struggling moments, and new feature development.

Meeting the Buyer in the Right Time and Place

Think of each of the six phases in the sales process as a system, like a “black box” problem in math, with inputs, outputs, and outcomes.

As a salesperson, your job is to meet the buyer in each of the six stages—first thought, passive looking, active looking, deciding, and ownership—with an input.

Your goal is to create an input for each of the six stages of buying, that triggers a desired output, which ultimately leads to an ideal outcome for the customer. 

Connecting the Dots Between Sales, Marketing, and Customer Support

Sales, marketing, and customer support must learn to play together! Most organizations treat them as three separate entities but they’re not. And treating them as such makes sales unnecessarily hard. 

First thought, passive looking, and active looking are a combination of marketing and sales. Deciding, onboarding, and ongoing use are a combination of customer support and sales. Sales covers the entire process! But because the three departments don’t talk, customers get mixed messages. 

They are bombarded with value propositions and online tactics that try to push people to decide when they are in active looking. It’s making the consumer frustrated and anxious, while putting salespeople at an immediate disadvantage. 

Moving from Pushing Products to Creating Pull for Progress

Why do people buy a Snickers? Why do people buy a Milky Way? Traditional supply-side thinking says that Snickers and Milky Way compete for the same customers. After all they sit side-by-side in the candy aisle and are made with similar ingredients. 

But what motivates someone to buy a Snickers instead of a Milky Way?  It turns out that people buy a Snickers because they are running out of energy; they need a boost. Their stomach is growling, and Snickers feels like food—the nougat, caramel, and peanuts form a ball, it’s hard.

Snickers does not compete with Milky Way at all. It competes with a sandwich, Red Bull, and a cup of coffee. Whereas, Milky Way slides down your throat, coating your mouth with chocolate and endorphins. It’s a candy bar. People usually eat it alone, after an emotional event, good or bad, and it helps them feel better or acts as a reward. Milky Way competes with ice cream, brownies, and a glass of wine. 

Understanding this dynamic was a game changer for Snickers. They flipped the lens on sales and launched a commercial that spoke to people in this specific moment in time. The advertisement opened on a field with a group of young men playing football with Betty White. Betty’s struggling, everyone’s yelling at her. Then someone hands her a Snickers bar, she takes a bite and transforms back into himself —another one of the young men. “You’re not YOU when you’re hungry,” the narrator says. “Snickers satisfies!”

This ad took Snickers to over 3.5 billion in less than ten years. And it’s a perfect example of demand-side sales. When Snickers reframed their product from competing with Milky Way—supply-side selling—to solving the customer’s struggling moment—demand-side selling—they created pull for their product by helping people make progress. 

Today most sales still operate under a supply-side model. Industry disruptors like Casper, SNHU, and our personal experiences with over 3,500 products and services are still not the norm.  It’s easy to judge sales from the outside, to hold a derogatory view. But, people on the outside don’t truly understand the pressures on the inside: trying to close deals, knowing everything and anything. Salespeople are on the inside of the ring, and it’s a tremendously hard job with few tools and resources. 

Reframing Selling as Serving

If you’re struggling to be great at sales, you’re not alone.

While seasoned salespeople already instinctively understand the concepts taught here, they had to muddle their way through the ick at first too. We wrote Demand-Side Sales 101, so you don’t have to struggle like I did all those years ago selling kitchen countertops.

It’s our hack for becoming a seasoned salesperson without failing for twenty years first.

Now that you’ve flipped the lens, what does sales look like under the demand-side paradigm? Not sales! Sales turns into serving and helping others. You see the world through your customer’s eyes. You’re no longer a salesperson but an advisor, coach, or helper.

The role of the salesperson in a demand-side sales approach is to assist customers shape and frame their progress. Salespeople are the shepherds that help customers go down the path of progress. When you approach sales as a guide assisting customers you stop pushing your product, by adding endless features and benefits, and create pull instead by framing the context, outcomes, and tradeoffs for the customer. People need someone to help them navigate their way to make progress.

The salesperson’s job is to help customers figure out what the options are, by first understanding what’s important to them.

Learn more about Reframing the Sales Process on the Circuit Breaker podcast.


The very foundation of demand-side sales is being helpful, empowering, curious, and creative; you must understand why people do what they do.

Once you truly master demand-side sales, it’s like riding a bike. But, also like riding a bike, you only truly learn it by doing it—practice, practice, practice.

Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress is available in hardback.