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Solving Our Customers’ Problems

by David Brock on May 18th, 2016

At its essence, sales is about finding customers who have problems we can solve, helping them understand why they should solve the problem, helping them commit to that change, and helping them solve the problem.

We wrap a lot of stuff about prospecting, qualifying, deal strategies, pipelines, call planning, presenting, proposing, value propositions, objection handling, closing, negotiating around this process.  We spend billions training people in those skills.  We spend further billions providing tools to help sales people more efficiently execute those things.

But somehow something is missing.

Before I talk about what’s missing, it’s reasonable to challenge me saying, “How do you know something’s missing?”

Basically, a few things point us to the fact that something(s) are missing:

Market data on sales performance.  There’s tons of data on sales performance—percent of people making their numbers, percent of companies making their numbers, turnover, declining win rates, lengthening sales cycles, and more.  Those numbers indicate we could do better–much better.  On the whole, performance is pretty bad.

More market data shows differences between high performers and everyone else.  The gap is widening, again, we could do better.

The coup de gras is what customers think of sales.  In general, they do everything they can to avoid sales people!  Surveys say customers don’t see the value that sales people create, they complain about sales people not understanding customers businesses/challenges, sales people are too focused on selling their products, sales people wasting their time.

Clearly, from a customer experience point of view, something is missing.

A large part of it, I think, goes back to the essence of selling:  Helping customers solve problems (or more positively, address opportunities.).

Think about it, how much training in problem solving had you had in the last 2 years?  How much in your career?  How well can you lead a group to help understand, define, assess, decide, and take action on solving a problem?

What skills do you have in facilitation and collaboration, things critical in group problem solving?  What project management skills do you have in helping the customer manage a project focused on solving a problem?

What tools do you have to analyze, measure, understand the impact of problems, to analyze and evaluate alternative courses of action?

There’s a huge gap in the skills and competencies needed to sell–that is help our customers solve problems.  No amount of prospecting technique, 15 types of closes, 17 ways of handling objections and other related sales skills training helps us with the core issue of selling.

While those are table stakes, we do have to master those skills.  Perhaps it’s time to look at problem solving, facilitation/collaboration, project management, critical thinking as skills we can leverage to help our customers, consequently help us achieve our goals.

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  1. Wow! Great post Dave! This broader perspective on what it takes to effectively sell these days really drives home the point that others skills besides typical sales skills are needed. We talk about the need to help customers identify and solve problems, manage their buying process, gain consensus, etc…but the idea of actually training on these skills is an important concept I think few of us has considered!

    A related point is that good salespeople, who truly create value for customers, are also good business people who possess those skills as well…financial acumen, creating a case for change, industry knowledge, etc., which we do focus on at times. The point is that sales people need to be well versed in much more than the table stakes as you so eloquently articulate!

  2. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Another great set of observations there Dave!

    We’ve just completed another sales boot camp here at Microchip – 64 Field folk from all over the world, here at our corporate HQ for 2 weeks of an experience (rather than training) – and no focus on products and brochures and so on – that comes later.

    The huge ‘ah-ha!’ that these folk take away is that we are truly focused on helping the customer out with solving problems and/or exploiting opportunities. It’s not enough to paper over your real intentions with nicely crafted pitches and elevator speeches etc if you are fundamentally, in your heart as well as your mind, not utterly focused on helping the client out. When that light bulb switches on, you see a real change in that sales person – gone is the trepidation about having a touch conversation with the client about pricing or the usual thing we get hit for – replaced by a strong desire, almost an impatience, to create those tough conversations with clients because THAT is where the client will get the most learning & insights about their situation and clarity on the path to take going forward – which COULD include staying on the path they are currently on. A successful conversation doesn’t have to always end up with us getting an order in the end, but it DOES have to end up with the client getting some true value from the time they spent in discussion with us.

    I get a LOT of emails from people trying to sell me sales enablement and training. I also get on average 507 emails a week (yes, I actually counted & averaged it!), many from internal colleagues, but many from people trying to tell me stuff. They have a lot of work to do to catch my attention! I’m sure for every sales person out there it is the same challenge.

    I have recently had 3 conversations with sales people from some truly excellent organisations. Two we do business with today, and another we will likely do business with in the next 6-12 months.

    What has really caught my attention is the contrast in approaches. In two cases the sales person has pointed out how other clients have really benefited in hard $ terms from adopting some of what they have to offer. In the third, the sales person there was utterly focused on helping me deal with some immediate challenges, which when addressed, will create a real large scale need for his company’s offering, and which we are already using on a limited but big scale. He wasn’t interested at the time in closing a PO, although the start of the conversation had been as a result of looking to sell us more of what we already had. Every conversation I have with him is time well spent, because it is utterly about helping me & my company get to where we need to go.

    The other 2 sales people have made good cases for why other people buy their offering. The problem is, we’re not ‘other people’. We don’t have quite the same issues and challenges, and we aren’t quite so caring about the metrics they cite. Yes, they are having a conversation with me about adding value to what we do, but their conversation plans are clearly rooted in getting me to award the PO soon, because it will soon be end of month/quarter etc. They are focused on how their offering will help me tackle my challenges. And it will, but I have other challenges to overcome before we can be ready to do anything else, with them or other potential partners. And this is what the 3rd sales person realised, I suspect instinctively. He is ALL about helping us, and me in particular, get to where I need. Now his offering is priced the same as a competitor’s offering, to the penny – not down to me saying ‘meet the price of competitor X’. But with the value he is bringing, and the authenticity behind it, I would pay him 2x!

    It’s only when I saw truly an example of a sales person utterly focused on helping me out rather than a veiled approach to get me to buy so they can make their quarter etc, that I could compare and contrast properly. I think most sales people aren’t aware of this, or don’t buy in to it, and so they are doomed to forever look, sound and be like everybody else out there. And with 507 emails a week I don’t have time to sift through their same-old-same old to see why I should even respond to them, let alone spend 30 minutes talking with them. I wonder if truly the sales person’s biggest problem is his/her own self?!

  3. Great article Dave! I also echo everything Martin has said. I think there are some fundamentals missing in the makeup of sales people. Prospecting effectively is a big issue. Listening but really understanding what the customer is or isn’t saying, pushing back, helping, bringing new idea’s, insights into the conversation, asking questions that uncovers challenges, cost, goals, timescales and personal and company-wide consequences, getting emotionally involved in the conversation and adequate coaching to get past the stuckness inside the sales person’s head such as wanting to be respected, gaining commitment, qualifying, bringing the issue of funds into the conversation and closing etc.
    These are huge issues.

    I think a lot of salespeople are great at kicking things off but poor at getting the job finished and I know I’m stating the obvious. There’s a lot of sales people out there who are doing well because the brand they represent is powerful but put them inside a startup and they suddenly become very average. I’ve taken a lot of calls from salespeople this year because I’ve been investing in CRM and other tools and I have to say most of the calls were poor, too many situation questions, no idea how to position their conversational framework to give me some value. Then there’s an urgency to demo. They get emotional if they couldn’t uncover a problem in my business which meant it was pointless to proceed, and some of them relied on email as a medium for the entire conversation. I don’t think any of them checked me out on LinkedIn.

    There were no tough questions, no clarifying questions just pointless questions that offered no value to me or to them. Because I either downloaded a trial, whitepaper or whatever, it was assumed that I had a need and that their website, product lit, had given me sufficient intel to make a buying decision.

    I think there’s a lot of firms out there that don’t care about their people, they hire badly and don’t go deep enough during the interview process to assess weaknesses that can be coached out , they don’t train properly if at all and they don’t model the behaviours they’d like to see their sales people have.

    • Sean, thanks for the great observations and building on Martin’s discussion. You cover a huge amount of terrific ideas. I’d like to focus on your last paragraph. Ultimately, I think it’s comes down to great sales leadership. After all, we are accountable for the people we have, and doing everything we can to maximize performance. That’s our job! Too often, the “bad salesmanship” we see is simply people doing what they have been trained to do, what they are being measured on. So the problem is less with them and more with management (sales and corporate).

      If we are really serious about improving sales performance, we need to get really serious about sales leadership–hiring the right people, coaching them to maximize performance, providing training, systems, tools to help; getting them the support they need; and addressing poor performers — not just burying our heads in the sand. Thanks for the great contribution!

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