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Solution Provider Or Problem Solver?

by David Brock on June 19th, 2013

As sales people, we are supposed to provide solutions to our customers problems.  We either lead with Insight, making customers aware of opportunities/problems and incenting them to change; or we find a customer that knows they have a problem and is looking to solve it.  At some point, we present the customer a solution to their problem–hopefully they accept ours, implement it, and we’re all happy.

But that doesn’t mean we’re problem solvers!  I was suddenly struck by this in reading Tim Ohai’s post, I Can’t Say It Any Plainer: SOLVE the @$%! PROBLEM!

I think we confuse proposing and providing a solution with problem solving.  But it’s not really the same thing.

The customer is going through a completely different process in problem solving.  They are going through scoping, defining, analyzing, establishing goals for what they are trying to do, aligning everyone involved impacted by the problem, determining requirements, business process analysis, business process re-engineering, prioritizing issues, modeling alternative approaches, assessing alternatives (here’s where we raise our hands and pitch in), assessing risks, developing a business cases, contingency plans, developing implementation plans, assigning resources, aligning everyone in the change process……….   It goes on.

A number of things strike me as we look at this.

  1. We only participate in a very small part of the customer’s problem solving process—they have to go through so much more.  Perhaps, so much of what we see as “no decision made,” or painfully long selling/buying process is the result of the inability of the customer to solve their problem.
  2. The customer buying process is only a small part of their problem solving process.  If we focus on aligning with their buying process, we still only working on part of solving their problem.
  3. The customer is doing this, all while holding down their day jobs.  Their primary function is within an operation.  Maybe they are engineers, so they design and develop products.  They may be manufacturers, so they build things, and so on .
  4. Finally the customer may not be expert at solving problems–or at least these types of problem.  But we are!  At least we should be.  We help customers solve these types of problems every day–or at least we provide solutions to these types of problems.  So we probably have greater familiarity and capability to help the customer in their problem solving process.

We never will be able to participate in the entire customer problem solving process (unless we are in that specific business as consultants or service providers), but we can participate in a much larger part of that process than we currently do—creating and claiming much more value.

We want to align with our customers, we want to collaborate with them, we want to partner with them.  What better way than help them in their problem solving process?

We do need to develop new skills to participate and provide leadership in problem solving.  We need to understand problem solving.  We need to know more about project management.  We need to understand change and change management.  We need to understand collaboration and how to collaborate effectively.

There is a tremendous gap between what we go through in presenting solutions to our customers, even in providing insight and what our customers go through in solving problems.  It seems a terrific opportunity to do more for and with the customer, creating, demonstrating, and claiming value.

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5 Comments
  1. Thanks for the mention, Dave.

    As you know, I am a big proponent for being a problem-solver. In addition to the key points you already listed, may I add a couple more that I see in my consulting practice?

    The first addition is that by knowing/understanding the client’s problem-solving, I can more easily navigate their organization. I know who the key stakeholders are, how to advocate on behalf of my client internally, and customize how I communicate value to fit the context of the person I am talking with.

    For example, one of my client’s kept talking about a “leadership gap” – but no one had a definition of what that meant. I dove into how they identified the problem to begin with and came up with a definition everyone could not only agree to, but be strong enough to generate a sale. For me and my team.

    The second addition is that being a genuine problem-solver is, in my opinion, THE differentiator 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.

    Because they still gotta like ya… right?

    • Great additions Tim–from a great starting point–your original post.

      I do want to comment on ‘relationship.’ I think the concept is misunderstood and misapplied. Too many focus only on the “relationship,” the friendship piece, the social piece. That’s not the relationship that’s important in today’s selling, (though I consider many of my clients friends–but the developed over the course of what we did together.

      Relationship presents us with a chicken/egg quandary. Some level of relationship–that is trust, credibility, must exist to be able to engage the customer in problem solving. And the relationship must evolve over time–it may or may not ever become a close friendship. It may be transient as in “I trust working with you on this issue, we later go our separate ways.”

      So I don’t think we can be a genuine problem solver without a minimal form of relationship—trust, credibility, etc.

      • Yes, I totally agree. One could easily argue that the word relationship is the right word – it’s the definition that has changed. Sadly, I talk to way too many sales people who define “relationship” in terms of lunch, golf, and fishing trips. So you can understand my level of frustration. But I do mean to say that problem-solving is first and relationship is second. The problem is the door. In other words, if there’s no problem, there’s likely no opportunity to build a relationship (on trust, credibility, etc.). Would you agree with that?

  2. I think one of the key differences between being a solution provider and problem slover is the scope. As a solution provider your scope is broader than just solving a specific problem client has. You need to bring in your experience with other clients and provide solution based that not only solves the problem, but brings in much more value. That is what client is expecting, although he may not have specified it explicitly.

    • Great comment Harry, there’s a lot of “flexibility” in the way we look at this issue. Perhaps redefining the problem, solving a component of the problem, etc. We have lots of opportunity to look at how we create value by how we help the customer look at and solve the problem. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Regards, Dave

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