Focus with the Ladder of Desire

Ladder rising from darkness into a brightly lit openingLike it or not, we’re all human (except for the spiders, of course). You are, your customers are, and I am. As humans, we’re not entirely clear on what we’re trying to achieve, or even if we are, we often don’t articulate it very well. Whether you’re not entirely sure what your clients want, or what you want, I may have an idea to help you bring more of these things into focus: the Ladder of Desire. I’ll first cover the idea itself, then get into how it can help you understand and better serve your customers, and to clarify your own needs.

If you’re confused about the spiders reference above, I recently talked about the “spiders” that crawl the Web in my newsletter.  Subscribe to get a monthly tech term defined, tips for improving your online marketing, and more!

The Ladder of Desire–An Overview

I was reminded of this idea while reviewing notes I took in a workshop a while back. The Ladder of Desire divides the strength and type of desire a person has for something into three broad categories. As you go up the ladder, the intensity of desire increases. Similarly, both the price tag and the involvement of others also increase.

Rung 1: Lowest desire for help/product/service, lowest cost, and lowest involvement for a supplier, consultant, expert, or other person who might be brought in for help. This is the “tell me how to do it” level. If you want a chocolate cake, Rung 1 would be represented by a cake recipe. It’s cheap, requires very little effort from someone else, and depending on your personality, motivation, and skill level, least likely to actually result in a chocolate cake that you can enjoy.

Rung 2: Step up a rung for a medium level of desire, cost, and involvement. This is the “show me how to do it,” or “do it with me” level. When a potential client says to me, “I could use a little hand holding,” I know they fall in this category. With our cake example, this would be a baking class. It’s more expensive than a recipe, and the baker or pastry chef needs to expend more time and effort than they would if they just handed you a recipe card, but most of us would be more likely to achieve a delicious chocolate cake afterward.

Rung 3: The top rung is where everything is cranked up to the highest level. Here’s where people say, “I’m willing to pay for you to do it for me.” If you’re married, did you take a baking class to learn how to make your own wedding cake?  Probably not. Instead, most people pay a lot of money for a skilled professional to take care of it for them so that they just go directly to the goal without worry or mishap.

Here’s where human nature gets funny, though. Lots of people are torn between valuing their money and valuing their time, between wanting the skill and wanting the result of the skill. In my own family, a story often told of my uncle was that as a child he’d complain that he wanted to be a great pianist but without practicing. And this is where the goal setting gets confused, and why the Ladder of Desire helps.

Serving Your Clients with the Ladder of Desire

It is a rare client who comes in knowing, and able to express, precisely what they want from you. Usually there’s some shopping around, or exploration, or asking questions. See if you can estimate which rung they’re on, first, because that is going to help guide the conversation.

For example, I used to work in a tea shop. Some customers were at a low level of desire. Maybe this was their first time into a tea shop at all, or they’d heard tea was good for you or something and wanted to look into it. I’d usually give those people our one-page price list of our most popular teas, including descriptions of each.  But some had specific questions about brewing tea (“What’s the difference between a teapot and tea kettle?” or “How do you use a gaiwan?”), so I would do a little demonstration. Customers could “try out” teapots to see how they felt to pour, whether they dripped, and so on. That’s a Rung 2 sort of activity. And, of course, we put on occasional immservie experiences like tea dinners–where the food is prepared with tea, and other teas are paired with the dishes. Or professional-level tea tastings. These were high-ticket items because they required the most from us as a shop, and only the die-hard tea aficionados (that is, Rung 3) would sign up.

The usefulness of the ladder doesn’t end there, however. In addition to helping identify what a customer might be most likely to purchase, you can also use the ladder to create new products or services. Are you serving each level of the ladder equally well? Are you pricing them accordingly?

Finally, you can also use the ladder as a way to draw people in. People who have engaged with you at Rung 1 are warm leads for Rung 2. After all, if they have your instruction sheet, or recipe, or price list, they have expressed interest in your offering. That’s warmer than random people off the street. Can you find a way to get those people to “buy up the ladder”? Perhaps they’re at a lower rung than they really should be, and the right conversation or the right offer will help them understand that they should be higher up…meaning both that they are better served and you’re increasing revenue.

Understanding Your Own Goals with the Ladder

Your busisiness is also someone else’s customer. So are you in your non-business roles. All of your vendors, suppliers, shops, restaurants, and other folks you do business with see you as a customer, but they may not be thinking with the Ladder of Desire. However, they’re going to love it if you’ve already done so.

When I worked at the Washington Women’s Business Center, we’d often tell people that every business owner should identify an accountant, a lawyer, and an insurance broker that they’d like to work with. (Now, I’d add a digital strategist because the Internet is so important to businesses these days, but as a digital strategist myself, I’m a bit biased.) Let’s say your business is fairly new and you’re still looking for an accountant. What’s your desire level? Are you looking for a book or software recommendation so that you can take care of everything on your own (Rung 1)? Do you want to take a Quickbooks class so that someone can answer your questions as you learn how to use the software package (Rung2)? Or do you want someone to just take all your numbers, put them in, and file your taxes for you (Rung 3)?

What do you really want? Going into a conversation with an accountant knowing that information will be so much more productive.

If you find a conflict in your desires, that can be useful as well. What if you want the Rung 3 work, but can probably only afford the Rung 2 level of service? That’s something you can articulate more clearly now! “I’d really love to have someone who can do all of this for me, but I’m just not there financially yet. How would you suggest I prioritize the services you offer? How have your other clients dealt with this situation? If I can only pay for you to guide me on a few things, what’s going to give me the most bang for my buck?”

Put It Into Action

Here’s your assignment: Go out into the world this week. Whenever you’re in a place where you can watch people doing commerce of any kind, from the grocery store to your own business, try to keep the Ladder of Desire in mind. See if you can develop a “sixth sense” for which rung someone is on. When you’re looking at advertising or marketing–yours or someone else’s–identify which rung is being offered. Is this “tell me how,” “show me how,” or “do it for me”? Raise your awareness and see how it can help you see things differently, be more clear of what you want, and what you might be able to offer your customers.

Image:  Alcove house entrance, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA, by Wingchi Poon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

About Michael J. Coffey

Michael started learning about online marketing as the web store manager for a scrappy little game retailer during the "dot com bubble" of the 1990s. Since then he's helped fitness companies, tea wholesalers and retailers, lawyers, clothing designers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs in many other fields. In his spare time he drinks very high quality tea, writes letters with a fountain pen, and reads literature.

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