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The Evolving Role Of The Sales Professional—The Sales Person As Diagnostician

by David Brock on September 6th, 2009

We all know the role of sales professionals is changing.  The sales person used to be an important channel to educating and informing customers about products and services.  The wide availability of information on the internet changes this–though it doesn’t eliminate this.  Most customers are more informed about products and services.  They do their homework, searching the internet, leveraging the opinions of others to select a few alternatives they will consider.  What does this mean for sales professionals and their evolving role?

Lately, there have been lots of articles, some contributed by yours truly, about Provocative Selling, improving questioning, creating greater value in helping customers identify opportunities and solve problems.  In different ways, I think all these articles point to the future of sales:  Sales Professionals Must Become Diagnosticians.

I really like this model.  Think about your experience with a doctor–at least a good doctor.  Like sales people, they try to identify the pain—but they recognize the pain may be just a symptom–not the real problem.  They ask a lot of questions.  They perform some tests.  They may get some experts invovled.  They are searching for the “real problem” and want to propose a solution to that problem.  Often, they identify problems we don’t realize we had–but are critical that we fix.  Sometimes, they suggest things that can dramatically improve the quality of our lives—things that we may not have been aware of .  (I know the cycnical among you are chomping at the bit, this is not a commmentary on our health system, I’m just using an idealized analogy.)

Personally, I’d be frightened of any doctor, that prescribed a medicine or recommended surgery immediately after we “established rapport” in the examining room.  rather than pitching/prescrribing a solution, I’d like him to look at me and ask some questions first.  Thank goodness, my doctor didn’t accept my self diagnosis of Restless Leg Synrdome (RLS) and prescribe whater miracle drug is advertised on TV.  He told me the reason I constantly tapped my foot and shook my leg in meetings was that I was too impatient and recommended I chill out.

Doesnt’ a similar model make sense for sales people?  Shouldn’t we be acting more as business or customer diagnosticians?  Shouldn’t we be questioning, probing, and testing before we prescribe?  If we diagnose a problem that we can’t solve, shouldn’t we be sending them to someone who can?  Shouldn’t we focus on the real issue and not just band-aids—after all, we don’t need Doctors for that.

The Sales Professional as Diagnostician means some big changes for the profession.  We may need to look for different types of people to be sales people.  I think the best are those that are very inquisitive, they are analytic and systematic in making their diagnoses, they are deeply interested in their customers and helping them “get well,”  We certainly have to train them differently.  We have to build their diagnostic skills.  We have to build their business, indsutry,  and customer skills—after all, how can they diagnose if they don’t understand these things, how will they be able to diagnose the problem?  We will have to evaluate sales people a little differently, we’ll have to look at their ability to correctly diagnoze and treat customers—“killing customers” is certainly bad for business.

Perhaps rather than adopting the Hippocritic Oath, the Diagnostic Sales Professional will adopt the Hippocratic Oath:  Salesperson, do no harm.

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17 Comments
  1. In my own perspective, the idea of sales people transforming into diagnosticians is a very feasible one. We have witnessed so many developments in the marketing scene lately that we — as marketers — also need to adjust, adapt and become better with the craft that we are practicing.

    • Paolo, thanks for taking the time to comment. Great salespeople are doing this as a normal part of doing business. We need to develop the capabilities in other! Always great to hear from you. Regards, Dave

  2. This process was called Qualification.Nothing really changes just the terminology

    • John, thanks for the comment, I appreciate you taking the time. I think qualification is just an aspect of the issue. As we qualify the customer and they qualify us, too often we are not dealing with the root issues and the next step of the process enables us to drill down, with the customer. Sometimes the customer thinks they are describing the problem, but in my experience, most of the time they are describing the symptoms (not meaning to puch the analogy too far). Qualification typically doesn’t get us into this, but the goal of discovery is to do this.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Regards, Dave

  3. The idea of a sales person as a diagnostician is a great one and one I fully adhere to. No matter what situation you are in, whether you have years of experience and expertise there is nothing more off putting than someone who prescribes a solution before asking questions and looking for clues as to the problems you are facing. In simple terms that is just arrogance… and not something that sales people are uniquely guilty of.

    I have met some doctors who have fallen into the trap of thinking that they know the answers or that they know best – they may do, but that really isn’t the point. Attitude in any business is projected on the client and any attitude that ignores the customer isn’t going to be recieved well. No matter the profession I think it is healthy that there be the attitude of constant learning, which means that we have to constantly ask and learn from our customers.

    Great article Dave.

    • Nesh, thanks very much for the thoughtful comment. I think it may be part of human nature to jump to solutions, based on symptoms. Sales, like medicine, and like so many other things is about problem solving. To really help our customers–in a sustainable way, we need to address the real issues, not the symptoms.

      I appreciate your views. Regards, Dave

  4. Your post reminded me of an article I read recently that said in many cases, prospects may know more about your product or services than you do thanks to the power of the Internet. It makes sense, then, that your value as a diagnostician rises accordingly. I use the Internet extensively and when I need with a purchase, it’s because I have a problem that needs solving. Salespeople who can identify the pain and diagnose appropriately are good in my book.

  5. I agree that this is not merely about qualification, that it goes deeper. While some of the best salespeople do act as consultants, looking to solve business problems, I think that they do it in spite of, not because of the training that they’ve received and the compensation plan they operate under. Paul’s point that prospects now may now more about your products than you do is an accurate one. Salespeople have always been trained to ask good questions. They must now be trained and incentivized to ask questions that lead to solid business outcomes for all parties.

    • Keith and Paul, thanks for your outstanding points. They really expand the discussion. I appreciate your participation! Regards, Dave

  6. I agree with the premise of the salesperson as a diagnostician but see it as a repackaging of the philosophy of the salesperson as a problem solver. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing wrong with presenting a valid concept in a new and intriguing manner, particularly if it opens the mind of people to a better and more professional way to sell.

  7. Isn’t this approach the same thing that Jeff Thull has been preaching for years – including the physician analogy?

  8. Dave Sweeting permalink

    Some very interesting points being made here. However, in my opinion there are only 2 motivating factors that trigger the “sales mechanism”. 1) Need and 2) Want. Therefore it is imperative the salesperson quickly establishes which motivation is involved and THEN starts to “diagnos”/”qualify” it. Need tend to be the hard of the 2 because the prospect doesn’t neccessarily “want” the solution. Want however…..well, you have a very captive audience and ask almost any question and gain a positive response.

    • Dave, thanks for the nice comment. All of what you discuss is part of the “thought-full” approach to sales that I am advocating. Also, I think the focus should be less on “sales-mechanisms” and more on “buying mechanisms.” The more effectively the sales person can understand the customer buying process and help facilitate it, the more effective they will be.

      Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting and contributing! Regards, Dave

  9. Hi Dave, thought provoking post yet again. I believe that the depth of a salesperson’s skill to sell their product is needing to go deeper because the clients are so much more educated therefore the buying strategies are different that in the past. This leads me to two different thought patterns – one being the salesperson must choose to educate themselves even more and shift their selling strategy in order to not just help the client find out their needs and wants, but understand them.

    • Great comment Bernadette. The old methods won’t work—even the solutions selling approaches are limited. Sales people have to really understand their customers businesses and provide real leadership in helping them improve their businesses. Thanks for your continued contributions. Regards, Dave

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