I Can’t Say It Any Plainer: SOLVE the @$%! PROBLEM!

I was having a discussion with an organization I am helping and we gotWorried about money to talking about how to get their desired improvements going. One of the folks at the table declared, “We just don’t have enough money.”

I about fell out of my chair. But instead of yelling the “NO!” that was screaming inside my head, I just said, “You are defining the problem incorrectly. It’s not that you don’t have enough money. Your problem is that you don’t make enough money.”

And in this particular case, that was especially true. Their entire economic model was built on a reality that was most relevant in the 1970’s. THAT’S 40 YEARS AGO! That’s almost half a century. And most importantly, it is not relevant to today’s reality. The current economy, the current value offered, the people they employ, and especially the people they serve are radically different. With different expectations and different alternatives to meet them. And this organization is spending a TREMENDOUS amount of energy, resources, and time to figure how to solve the wrong problem.

Sound familiar?

Which leads me to today’s rant.

In professional selling, we started with emphasizing the selling process (which was an 1800’s invention). Then, we got smarter – as our clients got smarter – and emphasized the buying process (which was a 1900’s invention). Now, in the glorious Information Age, we have a major shift to make in our thinking. We have to emphasize the problem-solving process.

Rabbit holeFollow me down a rabbit hole for a moment.

I understand that you need a solid selling process. Having a process ensures that your selling activity is repeatable. But I also hope you agree with me that your selling process has no value if it doesn’t align with your client’s buying process. Goodness, if your selling process ignores the buying process – well, you’re an idiot. But I said that with genuine condescension love.

Today’s buyer (and the buckets of research that back this up) does not want to “buy,” per se. They want to solve their problems. And they may or may not be very good at that. But if you know how to solve problems, and you are able to understand how they are trying to solve their problems, you will have the best opportunity to sell.  Why?

Because buying is a subset of the problem-solving process. It’s an option that problem-solvers may or may not get to while they are tackling a problem. But if you know how their problem-solving process works, you are setting yourself up for two very important things.

First, you are being set up as someone who actually knows how to solve problems. And to develop your reputation as a problem-solver. Once you tap into your client’s problem-solving process, clients will call you/bring potential business to you because of your reputation and skills. This is the very BEST way to develop new business opportunities.

Second, if you know your client’s problem-solving process, you will then know how to influence their buying process – when that option presents itself during the problem-solving experience. You will be given access to the real problem to be solved, shaping the expectations that fuel it AND highlighting the alternatives that will solve it.

And this is what today’s seller should be focused on. DO NOT start with the selling process. DO NOT start with the buying process. QUIT being so 1900’s in your thinking.

DO start with the problem-solving process. Because if there’s no problem that your client really needs to be solved, whatever needs/pains/worries/concerns you are looking for will be at best misleading and at worst a giant hole that sucks all success from your selling activities.

DominoesOnly then, once you have tapped into your client’s problem-solving process, you can crack the code on their buying process (which, by the way, will be different depending on the complexity and priority of the problem to be solved), so you can then build a really solid selling process (which, by the way, is an oversimplification, because there is never just one, singular process to manage in the selling experience). Now THAT is good selling.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Published by timohai

Father, widower, leader, sales enablement pro

14 thoughts on “I Can’t Say It Any Plainer: SOLVE the @$%! PROBLEM!

  1. Argh!! Don’t get me started, Tim.

    I was sharing my (similar) beliefs recently about problem-solving with a B2B sales rep (complex solution), who told me that he couldn’t quite agree with that. He believes that sales people should be able to “recognize problems and link appropriate solutions,” but sales people should “not be solving problems.” I almost fell off my chair, although I think he was trying to make a subtle point, perhaps (because he *is* a top-producing rep).

    In any case, I’m not nearly as subtle. I think we should be teaching root-cause analysis and problem-solving tools and skills to sales pros, who ought to actually help their clients think through their problems to get to a root cause and killer solution. I realize reps will only want to do that when there’s a chance they can be part of the solution, but similar to the business acumen gaps I see, this is another big one, and a big opportunity for the reps who pull it off.

    1. Unbelievable. That someone would actually avoid solving a client’s problems tells me they are likely selling a great product/service – not being a great sales person. There’s a big difference between the two, isn’t there?

      Thanks for the extra rant, Mike.

    1. I love it, Tamara. I completely agree that problem identification (from BOTH buyer and seller) is CRITICAL to the process. But I have to hold back a touch as the problem-solving process will be my next blog post. Stay tuned…

  2. Great rant Tim! Mike kind of beat me to my comment. We need to be training our sales people (and their managers by the way) on problem solving and how to lead the customer through the problem solving (one might extend it to the problem discovery) process.

    If we want our customers to change, we need to help guide them through the change–problem solving.

    If we talk about collaboration, what better way to collaborate then helping customer solve problems.

    If we want to create differentiated value, what better way to do it, but co-create it with customers through solving problems.

    If we want to be successful with our goals, why not help the customer achieve their goals by helping them solve their problems.

    We need to be teaching sales people how to engage in actually solving problems. I’m a tremendous fan of the lean methods and tools for doing this.

    1. Really well said, Dave. And I love what you posted over at http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com/solution-provider-or-problem-solver/comment-page-1/#comment-17526 to expand on this conversation.

      Too many people think sales is just about solution providing. Well, maybe it was. In the 1900’s. Today’s economic reality, however, demands something different. And I believe that problem-solving provides THE differentiator for professional sellers today. It used to always be relationships. I’m not certain if that is so true any more. If I can solve the problem better than my competition (and get the buyer to agree), today’s generation of buyers are more likely to say goodbye to their current suppliers. I may be out in left field here (certainly not my first time!), but I see that the amount of pressure that our clients are under is so big that they have now made dealing with it their number one priority. And IF I can add some level of relationship/positive regard to my problem-solving credibility, I am a powerhouse of a competitor in the market. But it’s problem-solving first, relationship second.

  3. Tim: oh boy, you’re on to something here. Although I think there are some tenuous assumptions–eg “if you know your client’s problem-solving process, you will then know how to influence their buying process.–yeah, it exists, isn’t bound in red tape, mired in politics and infighting, or otherwise utterly dysfunctional to begin with.

    You have made some excellent points, but as with many great ideas for selling, culture derails it. “If what you sell is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Whoever invented that saying nailed it! (pun intended). It happens every moment of the selling day. Instead, what if sales management followed Einstein’s suggestion that a problem well defined is a problem well solved. I’ve been involved in B2B selling for many years, and have yet to work with a company that guided salespeople in how to be effective at this critical skill. And that goes for sales trainers, too.

    I wrote two blogs on this topic that underscore the points you have made:

    1. “You Can’t Propose a Solution if You Don’t Correctly Define the Problem, http://www.customerthink.com/blog/if_you_don_t_first_nail_the_problem_you_won_t_find_a_solution


    2. “The Problem You Solve Depends Mightily on the Questions You Ask” http://www.customerthink.com/blog/the_problem_you_solve_depends_mightily_on_the_questions_you_ask

  4. Andy, you are getting to the heart of what I am saying. Problem-solving is massively important – and way too many selling organizations have no idea how to do it, let alone harness it.

    I would push back just a bit on culture derailing the problem-solving process. I agree wholeheartedly that culture is part of the equation, but instead of derailing the process it defines the process. If the culture is dysfunctional, the process is likely dysfunctional. If the culture is healthy, the process is likely healthy.

    And that’s why I am advocating for sellers to invest in the problem-solving process of their customers. Knowing how it works provides the kinds of insights that are essential to navigating the problem so that you can position the solution you provide – IF it solves the problem.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. “We have an unhealthy culture” is not a sentiment that most sales executives would candidly profess. In my experience, nearly every sales environment includes an up-tempo, product-centric, “go out and conquer the market” mentality – and that’s not a bad thing, by a long shot. After all, successful salespeople are hardly objective – despite that “trusted advisor” ideal that’s often promoted. But the product zeal that most sales cultures nurture and reward often works at cross purposes for objective problem definition. It’s a very, very fine line to walk, and sales managers must recognize that the messaging that’s pushed to the sales team is often conflicted in that regard.

  5. The toughest part to all this good fodder is what you wrote Tim after the word “First” — to be “known” as a problem solver, to have a “reputation” as a problem solver. That work is hard. People like you and David Brock and Mike Kunkle are seen as those type of people and are sought out to solve and anything that happens after that is a plus. ( And think of all that has gone in to what you’ve done to earn that !)

    Our challenge is– can you teach that with the aaverage or above average staff ? Is it the chicken or the egg? Is it a detailed, specific agenda on building that reputation, that insight, that “known as” quality that gets you the right to “problem solve” or is it the other way around?

    Great post. Good times!

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Mark.

      I was just talking about this very topic with a client today. (Coincidence? I think not.)

      Part of this certainly lies with the recruiting process. Or more specifically, the recruiting criteria. If an organization is not recruiting – and testing – for problem-solving acumen, they are creating their own set of problems. But I put a greater bulk of the responsibility on the typical sales process. If solving a problem is not part of what a sales rep is expected to do, they will not do it. Too often (especially with the client I was talking with today), the sales process is about creating just enough rapport so that the sales rep can launch into “sales” mode, spewing features and benefits until the customer is overwhelmed into submission – er – I mean buying mode. Even in well-meaning organizations, what is preached at company training events is not reinforced by front-line sales managers who just want the numbers to be achieved.

      A completely different way to look at this is also to separate problem-solving skills from problem-solving talent. Skills can be taught. Talent comes from within. I think this is part of what you are talking about when you reference the chicken/egg analogy. Talented problem-solvers who have invested in developing their problem-solving skills will clearly run ahead of their less-naturally inclined peers (and competitors).

      Why is why I never in a million years had a chance to play pro football.

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