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We’ve Trained Our Customers Too Well!

by David Brock on February 4th, 2014

I was reviewing a large deal with a sales team recently.  They were struggling to develop a winning strategy, so we were doing a deep dive into the situation.

At one point in the discussion I asked, “What is the problem they are trying to solve and why is it critical to solve it?”

There was a silence in the room.  I looked around and got blank stares in return.  Sometimes I ask questions obliquely, though I didn’t think the question was that difficult to understand, so I rephrased the question.

“Why are you proposing the solution you’ve selected?”

I got one of those, “Well duuh Dave” looks, though they were polite enough not to express it.  Instead, they responded, “Because that’s what the customer asked for!”

At that moment, the problem we were having became crystal clear.  We had trained the customer too well!  And it probably happens more frequently than we like to think.

Here’s the problem the sales team faced.  They had done a lot of business with the customer in the past.  When they got involved with the customer, the customer expressed their requirements and needs in terms of solutions.  They said, “We need a new CRM system!”  Since that’s what my client sold, they were ready to hit the ground running.

All the conversations focused on the solution, because that’s where they started.  They were locked into a feature, function, feeds, speeds, and–you guessed it—pricing discussions as the customer evaluated my client’s solution with several others.  Yes, the customer did need a CRM system, but the conversations were all wrong.  All conversations with the customer had been in the context of solutions, “does your system allow us to do this, do you have this feature, we need these capabilities, can we do this, does it do that,…..”  There was never a conversation initiated by the customer or the sales team on the problem the customer was trying to solve or why it was critical to solve it.

In our meeting, we determined we needed to understand what was driving them to look for a solution, the problems they were having and what they were trying to achieve.  Only  then could we shift the conversation to focus the customer on how my client’s solution would help them address those issues.

It happens all the time.  We talk to a customer with whom we’ve done business with for years.  They “know” our products and solutions so tend to engage us in conversations about our solutions.  Or they have “self-educated” through research on the web.  They’ve spent time on our website and those of our competitors, so when they finally engage us, they tend to talk to us in terms of our solutions.

We all do it.  The other day, I noticed a strange squeak in my bike.  I went into the bike mechanic, and said, “I think the bearings in the bottom bracket are going, can you pull them and replace them?”  The last time I’d heard that noise, it was a bottom bracket problem.  Thankfully, he asked me to describe the noise I was hearing, asked a few more questions, looked at the bike…..  To make a long story short, instead of paying $100 plus dollars for a new bottom bracket w/labor, he determined the problem was with the seat post, greased it, sent me on my way with a handshake and a smile.

It’s human nature for us to think in terms of solutions.  Sometimes the more we have educated our customers, directly or indirectly, the more we both start the conversation in the wrong place.  Think about it, our customers are trying to solve problems they may be having.  As “problem solvers,” it’s natural for them to be thinking in terms of solutions.  Consequently, they describe their needs and requirements in terms of solutions, rather than the problems they are trying to solve.  We, as responsive  sales people or in wanting to rush to pitch our solutions, are excited to continue the discussion from that point.

We spend a lot of time educating our customers and prospects.  We have great web sites, we have great content, we nurture the customer over time, educating them about our solutions, and so forth–waiting for the point when they have a need to buy.  We also know customers are self educating, they are doing their homework and research on the web.  They probably will be informed when they engage us.

It’s important for both us and the customer, but we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of educating our customers too well.

As sales people we need to constantly be aware of this problem.  Our customers will have a tendency to describe their needs in terms of solutions.  They may even choose the right solution–but that’s not my point.  Until we understand what they are trying to do, why, what problems it creates for them now, or why they need to buy, it’s impossible for us to develop and execute a winning strategy.  Despite where our customer starts the conversation, we owe it to them and ourselves to always start with the problem they are trying to solve.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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