Skip to content

Leading With The Problem?

by David Brock on July 6th, 2017

I was involved in a twitter discussion.  The following question was posed, “When cold calling, to you lead with the Problem?”

There were all sorts of responses–naturally, some say “lead with insights,” others lead with the problem.  It’s not an easy question, and there is no right answer.

I reflected for a few moments, actually, I went through my prospecting calls for the past two weeks.  I’m not sure it was conscious, but I found that I had been leading these calls with the Opportunity.  That is, I initiated the discussion focusing on an Opportunity for the prospect to achieve, something that would enable them to grow.

But in reflecting on the conversation, embedded in the conversation was a discussion of their problem (or what I thought it was).  Also embedded in the conversation was some insight–the insight actually served to bridge the problem and the opportunity.

For example, I had a conversation with an executive about their Account programs.  I knew the account programs were the cornerstone to their growth strategy.  The majority of their revenue came from a small number of accounts.  However, they were in a market where there were a limited number of customers—they were actually already doing business with the majority of participants in the market.

So developing accounts, driving account growth was key to meeting their revenue/growth goals.

In researching them, I discovered they weren’t achieving their account growth goals (the Problem).  If I had led with, “I suspect you aren’t achieving your account growth goals, would you like to learn how to turn that around?”  Undoubtedly, the response from the executive would have been, “Well duuggh!  Tell me something I don’t know!”  Leading with the Problem, wouldn’t have done much for me.

I could have led with insights.  I had data about what others in similar organizations had achieved in their account growth programs.  I could have started the conversation with, “Several companies in your market are achieving great growth with their account programs.  Here’s two things they are doing…..”

That may have elicited a response, “Tell me more…..”  That would have been good, but it would not have maximized the impact I could have in that first conversation.

Instead, I chose to lead with presenting the Opportunity he and his organization might achieve.  I led with, “In know you are driving growth through targeted account strategies.  Based on what we have seen with similar organizations, I believe if you do these two things, you can drive at least $X in revenue and Y% growth.”

The response from this executive was interesting.  The tone of voice bordered skepticism, interest, and excitement.  He asked, “How did you reach those conclusions?”

I’d planned the conversation to last 15 minutes, we spent close to an hour on the phone and have arranged a follow up meeting.

Here’s what I think I achieved by leading with the Opportunity:

  1. I had to have a clear understanding of his key problems to develop the Opportunity.  I didn’t need to slap him in the face with, “You dolt!  Don’t you realize you aren’t getting growth out of your account strategies, you need to do something about it!”  (OK, I would have been more sensitive and empathetic in my word choice).
  2. In presenting the Opportunity, I could give him a clear vision of an outcome I knew he wanted to achieve.  I suspected he would be excited to see a path to achieving his goals.  I further helped him understand that path by identifying two specific things he could do to achieve those goals.
  3. When he asked, “How did you reach the conclusions,” I was able to leverage a couple of things–first, I could leverage the insight–in this case it showed the results of companies in similar situations and what they had done to address the same problem (the examples I chose were doing the two things I ws recommending for his organization.  But what really capped it, driving the interest, “How did you reach those conclusions,” was that I was able to articulate a specific goals that he could achieve–goals personalized to his company and his situation.  Stated another way, I presented, “You have the Opportunity to achieve at least $X in revenue and Y% growth if you do these two things.”

Many of you are probably thinking, “Dave, that was a special situation, you clearly knew a lot about the company and their specific problems.  You had a lot of internal data about their strategies and performance that most people, prospecting, would not have.

In reality, I knew very little about the company.  I did know a little about their internal strategies and priorities.  A colleague who knew some sales people in the company had introduced me to them.  But the rest of the information I learned came from their website, the investors section of their web site (they are a public company), and their  10K, 10Q, and Proxy Statements.

I did know a fair amount about their industry and markets.  This company is in one of our focus areas, we study the structure, participants, business drivers, and strategies of the key players in their industry.

As a result, i had a pretty good guess about the challenges they faced, the magnitude of those challenges, and what they should try to do to address those challenges.

Finally, I had some analytic tools to help me with an informed “guess” as to the results they might achieve if they implemented the two things I was suggesting.  One of the best tools I know to do this is DecisionLink*

Some of you might be thinking, “Well it must have taken you a long time to prepare for that conversation, I could have made dozens of prospecting calls in the same amount of time.”

It actually took me somewhere between 30-45 minutes to prepare for the call.  I spent some time, skimming the web site and financial reports.  Since they are right in the middle of our sweet spot, we already had built up a lot of expertise and knowledge we could leverage.  It took me a few minutes to run the “model” to guess the results they might achieve through addressing the opportunity.

So, in total, I spent about an hour and 45 minutes preparing for and talking to this customer.  In the time I spent in that conversation, we were able to go much more deeply into the issues, he started asking my advice on the situation and he led in discussing, “How we could go forward together on the next steps.”

So for those that worry about the number of calls they could make in the same time, I’ll come back and challenge, “In that hour and 45 minutes, how many customers would you have been able to engage at that depth with that amount of buy in?”  I suspect we all know the answer to that–I suspect it’s not good.

I’m a good “prospector,” not a great one.  But it doesn’t take a lot to really engage customers in prospecting calls if you know what you are doing and you do your homework in preparing for the call.

You can’t do this alone.  You need help from product management, marketing, and sales enablement to equip you with the knowledge, insight, data, and tools to conduct these conversations.


*Full disclosure, I’m on DecisionLink’s advisory board.  But I don’t know of any tool on the market that enables you to do what they do.  There are a lot of custom approaches or some companies have Value Engineering groups that provide this capability.  If your sales enablement team isn’t looking at DecisionLink, they should be!


  1. Martin Frey permalink

    Customers always have problems to solve and goals to achieve. Determining how they want to address them is all part of the fun. I find that being willing and able to talk about that they are thinking but not speaking about is most valuable. This builds trust quickly.

  2. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Great as ever Dave!

    There’s a world of difference in my experience between a sales person who has clearly done their homework on me and my company, and one who hasn’t.

    I get an average of 507 emails a week from people trying to sell me something B2B. Yes, I actually measured it a year or so back, averaged over a 12 month period, and removing non-work emails.

    In that period I had about 12,500 emails trying to sell me something, trying to grab my time. How many did I end up engaging with?


    That’s not a typo!

    And every single one of them was clearly from a prepared individual who came to me to discuss an opportunity for me to fix, achieve and/or avoid something… and I either was aware of the challenge before me but not a solution, or was utterly unaware.

    More recently Mitch & I had a meeting with some folks – they were very prepared. Very. And in effect showed to us, using us as the ‘target’, how to achieve something that is key for us. Both had flown in from somewhere else in the US, and this was a first meeting f2f.

    So to those people who are stuck in the ‘yes, but in that time I could have made X prospecting calls’, I say yes, you could. And how many of those will convert? How many of those fall in to what I call the “12,500”?

    Do you want quality or quantity?

    Because as a customer or prospect I don’t give a flying whatsit for your agenda, your commission check, your latest offering, what you recently read, or that you’ve worked with Coca Cola or some other tech company that is nothing like mine. I do care about fixing, achieving and/or avoiding something that matters to me… Which means you HAVE to be prepared. Or i’ll be very English, be nice to you, and block your phone number/email from my system. Life is too short, and time is too precious… Go dial for dollars somewhere else!!

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS