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Solving The Customer’s Problem

by David Brock on October 21st, 2015

Yesterday, I had one of those “Aha” moments.  I realized that much of what I’ve been talking about for years has been wrong.

Well not completely wrong but off target enough to be significant.  I’ve written and advocated about helping customers buy, facilitating their buying process, or even leading them through buying when they don’t know how to buy.

Now all of that is great stuff.  Far better than what normal sales people do in “showing up and throwing up,” or pitching products.

But, it’s based on the assumption that “buying” is critical to the customer.

In reality, the customer doesn’t care about buying, at least buying is just a component of solving the customer’s problem!  What the customer really cares about is solving their problem or addressing an opportunity.

At this point it probably pays for me to step back a moment.  I’m at the CEB’s Sales and Marketing Summit.  It’s a collection of some of the smartest sales and marketing practitioners that I’ve ever met.  I was watching a presentation by Brent Adamson as he talked about Prescription, which is an enormously important concept.  He described Prescription as:

A credible and influential set of “do this”/”don’t do that” recommendations provided to customers throughout their purchase process, deliberately intended to ease the customer’s movement toward purchase.

My knee jerk reaction was “Amen Brent!”  We create enormous value leading the customer through their buying process.  It’s part of what I’ve been advocating in this blog for years.

All of a sudden I became uncomfortable about it.  The last two words “toward purchase” leapt out at me.

Our focus on the customer buying process and moving them toward purchase is still all about us, not about the customer.  Granted it’s a more elegant and possibly more helpful version of being about us, but it’s not about the customer.

The real issue here, is that buying is always just a component of solving the customer problem or helping them address an opportunity.  But really what the customer cares about is solving their problem.

Let’s look at the case of a CRM system.  Customer buy CRM systems to help drive sales productivity, effectiveness, and better data/knowledge about customers.  The CRM system itself may be a major component of the problem the customer is trying to solve, but there’s all the Business Process Design and other stuff that’s critical the customer to achieve the goals they are trying to achieve.  Over the years, we’ve been regaled with story after story of failures in CRM systems.  It’s probably never because they chose the wrong system, but rather because they couldn’t solve their problem.

Everything we sell is always just a component of what the customer is trying to achieve–but helping the customer buy doesn’t help the customer solve their problem.

Magic happens, when we change Brent’s last two words in his sentence on prescription:

A credible and influential set of “do this”/”don’t do that” recommendations provided to customers throughout their purchase process, deliberately intended to ease the customer’s movement toward solving their problem/addressing their opportunity.

This shifts both our perspective and the customer’s on the thing that’s most important to them–and to us.  Solving their problem enables us to focus totally on the customer.  It maximizes the value we create with* them–not just in this instance, but how we help them over the life cycle of our relationship.

Customers want people to help solve their problem, not just a part of their problem.

Now here’s where it may get a little confusing.  Going back to the CRM example, this doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we have to help the customer do the business process design, implementation, change management, training, and so forth.  What we have to do is guide them through all the issues they have to address in solving their problem.  So we have to help them understand the business process design issues they face and make sure they have a plan in place to implement it.

The really cool thing is by helping the customer solve their problem, we are automatically engaged in easing their movement toward a purchase.  But the opposite is seldom true-moving them toward purchase doesn’t solve their problem.

Some readers may think I’m parsing words, but I don’t think so.  We always have to test what we do by putting ourselves in the customer’s shoes, thinking, “What is it they care most about.”  Buying is just one element in solving their problem–and that’s what they care about.

*This was originally “for,” but as my friend Martin Schmalenbach pointed out we really are engaging our customers collaboratively in this problem solving process.  The value we create together is far greater than the value we create “for” them.  Thanks so much Martin!

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  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Don’t you ever sleep Dave!?

    You know I’m with you on this – we chatted about that over lunch yesterday!

    Just one minor addendum… we talked about creating value WITH the client, rather than FOR the client.

    It sounds petty and all about semantics etc, but you know Dave that we take this distinction seriously.

    When the client is intimately involved in creating the value for themselves, we avoid the usual conflicts and disconnects (think ‘consensus’ here!) and the focus is utterly on the client.

    When people think about creating FOR the client it tends to have the kind of mindset you’re seeking to avoid in your blog today. It tends to limit the kind of engagement that we’re very passionate about where I work.

    I’m looking forward to this time tomorrow to see what blog you have based on today’s sessions at the CEB Summit!



    • Martin, my bad. Your comment is very important and these words are very important. Just as the shift from “buying” to “solving their problem,” the shift from “for” to “with” changes perspectives in such an important way, opening whole new areas in how we engage our customers.

      I’ve gone through and updated the post. Thanks!

  2. Nice article, thank you Dave. Food for thought indeed.

    Whilst I agree, it strikes me that an important issue around helping customers buy is also largely associated with helping the relevant stakeholders within the business ‘realise’ the value of the product or service and to ensure alignment across the organisation so that the problem is deeply solved.

    So I make a slight distinction between solving the problem and realising the value. I am going through this now with a large software sale initiated by one business unit, where in the end the needs of 4 business units had to be met in order to ensure a successful outcome

    Often solving a problem in one part of a business can cause several problems in another, and this is the reason for many sales failures. i.e. viewing the solution through too narrow a lens. CRM provides a very good example here.

    So helping to buy is the crucial stage of demonstrating how the right level of value is delivered and ensuring the change issues across the business are all understood, keeps the sales person in the game. After all, this is the bulk of the work buyers have to undertake internally, normally without the sales person knowing, in order to get agreement to purchase.

    The idea that buying is a critical activity is not an assumption, it is a reality. No?

    Thanks for the stimulation. Good stuff!

    • Glen, thanks for the outstanding observations. I think we are conceptually aligned, but there are some nuances that I think are very important:

      1. The customer never realizes the value of what we sell until they solve their problem. While we offer the potential of great value, until they solve their problem they don’t actually receive the value. I’ll stick with my example of CRM. CRM vendors have been pilloried because customers haven’t gotten the value they expected from their CRM systems. The issue was not that the CRM system could or could not perform, but because selecting a CRM system is just a component of solving their problem. Both the customer and the vendor bear responsibility in this. Customers don’t know and shouldn’t know all the issues they have to confront in realizing the value from their implementations. The CRM vendors have tons of experience at this, and co-create huge value in making sure the customer has put in place the things necessary to realize the value. If the customer fails, the vendor has failed in very real terms. The customer will seek to return product, they will seek to recover investments, in the least, they become so unhappy, they are not likely to do business again and will serve as a negative reference.
      2. The problem you cite where one department gets all the value and others have problems is very real. We see real performance issues with organizations when one part of the company optimizes their outcomes at the expense of other units in the company. This is not a sustainable strategy, ultimately the organization becomes dysfunctional and doesn’t perform. If the customer is to be successful, the problems of all stakeholders must be resolved in some way. Or the problem may have to be reframed in a way that doesn’t adversely impact others.
      3. We no through research (for example Challenger Customer) that customers left to their own devices are more likely to come up with no decision made than to make a decision for any vendor. If the sales person focuses on getting selected as the vendor, but fails to help the customer solve the problem, they will have won the battle but lost the war. The preferred solution for customers is to do nothing. As they start to look at solving the problem, encounter difficulties in aligning, resolving differences, etc. it becomes easier and far less risky if they do nothing.
      4. Buying is a reality, but never a reality unless the customer sees the complete path to solving their problem. It’s actually quite easy to get a customer to make a choice. It is far more difficult to collect revenue, build a long, loyal, repeat customer if we don’t solve the problem.

  3. Dave, your distinction between collaborating to solve the problem vs. facilitating a purchase brings to mind Geoffrey Moore’s “whole product” concept. Also, sellers who recognizing that no value is realized by the customer unless the problem is solved and that it takes a broader perspective than simply focusing on selling one’s product have an opportunity to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    • Great point Don! Moore’s whole product concept is a very powerful idea. He said it wasn’t just the product, but the service, support, power of the brand etc. Since Moore came out with that concept it has expanded far beyond his original intent to include the total customer experience. So sales facilitating the buying process, helping the customer solve their problem is a very broad manifestation of his whole product. Thanks for the great observation.

      • David, an extremely helpful and insightful response, thank you. I have enjoyed reading your other high quality blogs too. Brilliant!

        • Glen, you are too kind. It was only provoked by your thoughtful comment, which caused me to push on the idea a little more. Hope to see you keep commenting–hopefully we push each other to be even better.

  4. mitch little permalink

    Your view is perfect. I like to simplify it as all of this is very complex, and too complex to teach and scale easily. Simple is difficult to frame, but here is my perspective. To me the real single and empowering guidance to a sales person is….

    Make a DIFFERENCE…. with the PEOPLE you serve!

    A lot of discussion goes into HOW, and that is a structured process, and the key is the simple focus. It takes massive “understanding” and diagnosis before you prescribe. It is the PEOPLE part of this that drives a perspective that is not about selling or the company entity that you are serving. DIFFERENCE as measured by the client is all encompassing, beyond problems, opportunities, issues, etc. because it may be much more than simple work related problem resolutions. I think that we may have defined all of what is needed well beyond the ability of mere mortal sales teams to execute. Too complex makes it un teachable and not scalable. Too simple makes it not effective. Making a DIFFERENCE is powerful and compelling and the PEOPLE side of the discussion is critical to make this a very personal journey and not a “process” that is executed. Sounds like you and Martin had great conversations. I look forward to a chance to chat.

    • Mitch, brilliant, the base concept is making a difference for our customers, making a difference for our people, making a difference for our organizations, making a difference for our communities. Oddly ironic, this blog is called Making A Difference, and I didn’t make the connection. Thanks for the great insight.

      Had great discussions with Martin and the team. Look forward to our conversations. Regards, Dave

      • mitch little permalink

        Great minds think alike… hence the tattoo.

  5. Pete permalink

    Dave, your article and the subsequent excellent comments have warmed my heart. That there are folk out there who are really thinking through much of the sales received wisdom, questioning it and offering alternative (and in my view better) approaches. It seems to me that the ideas advocated in your article and commentary mean that there is a different emphasis on the skill set requires to be a successsdul sales exec. I have seven unread books in my library, when I get through those I shall definitely be acquiring you book. (My wife has banned me from buying any more until I actually read some of the recent Amazon drops!
    Keep going

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