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Stop Giving Customers Choices!

by David Brock on March 5th, 2014

Henry Ford was rumored to have said, “The customer is welcome to buy a car in any color they want, as long as it’s black.”  I think there’s something to that concept.

Now before you jump all over me, let me explain myself.  The other day, I was meeting with a great sales team.  We were discussing some tough deals.  One person asked, “How do you handle a customer that asks you for 3 alternative solutions, for example, ‘good, better, best?'”  I really try to avoid in my final proposals giving customers alternatives, I believe it’s our responsibility to provide the single best solution that enables them to achieve the outcomes they expect.

This requires some more clarification, so suspend your judgment for a few minutes.

I think it’s great to discuss alternative approaches and to give the customer some choices early in the sales process.  It helps both you and the customer evaluate alternatives and helps them lock in their requirements and what they are trying to achieve.  Presenting alternative solutions is very helpful in getting the customer to understand trade offs.  It helps them better understand their own goals, requirements and objectives, and clarify their own thinking about potential solutions.

But as we get to the end of the customer buying process and they haven’t finalized on what they are trying to do, what they want to achieve, their own priorities, and how they will gain support for the solution; they aren’t ready to make a decision.  If they as still asking for alternatives, we need to help them buy by helping them determine what they really want to do, how they will measure success.  We need to provide the single best solution to meet their requirements.  We need to provide a value based, business justified solution.

When the customer knows what they want to do and achieve, there is simply no “good, better, best.”  There is the single recommendation that is the best solution we can present to achieve their goals.

Think about it from the customer point of view.  Presenting alternatives creates very different outcomes and results.  So how is it even possible to consider ranges of solutions?  It’s an apples/oranges comparison?  Are they going to go to management seeking approval for a “good, better, best” outcome?  They are held accountable for producing results, for achieving certain goals.  They are tasked with buying the solution that enables them to achieve that goal.

If we have alternative solutions, solving the same problem, producing the same outcome and results, it’s our responsibility to make a single recommendation for the solution we think is best for the customer.  We shouldn’t confuse them–after all, we are supposed to be the experts in our products and solutions, so we should present the single solution that enables the customer to achieve the desired outcomes.

The customer already has choices–they can choose our solution, a competitor’s, or they can choose to do nothing.  Let’s not make their buying process more difficult or confusing.  Let’s not let them refuse to lock in on their goals and the outcomes they want to achieve.  Let’s not abrogate our responsibility to provide them the solution that is best for them.

I know I seem pretty hard nosed about this, but if we have done the right job in helping the customer lock in on their requirements, priorities and what they want to achieve, there can only be one solution we can recommend that provides the best outcomes for them, and which enables us to win.

Am I off base on this?

  1. Tim Ohai permalink

    Provocative post, Dave. And I’m struggling with it a bit.

    We have to give alternatives as part of the process of determining the solution. I encourage it in my deals and the ones that I coach. It helps the client prioritize their requirements (which are often fluid until the final decision is made). It also gives the sales pro a sense of where the highest value is.

    At the same time, I also agree that there comes a point where the ideal solution needs to be presented as one choice to help the client understand what you think, as an expert resource the client is tapping into for support.

    Where it gets tricky is when you are dealing with highly complex problems. The solution will never be perfect in these situations. It can’t be. The complexity of the problem dands that the requirements are going to shift over time – usually within just a handful of months. And this doesn’t even begin to address the depth of understanding for the situation we all get after we begin implementation.

    I think the idea here is to present a core solution that has placeholders for other options already built into it, with the purpose of those placeholders explained to the client as they are making their final decision. This is both presenting a final, best recommendation and presenting alternatives at the same time.


    • Tim: I’m right with you on this. With very complex solutions, there are a whole number of variations and options in the implementation. But there is an underlying core solution (as there is the underlying core business problem and anticipated outcomes from the customer point of view). We owe it to our customers and ourselves to commit to that core solution as our best recommendation to the customer.

      The issue I’m really addressing is the situation where the sales rep doesn’t present a core solution, aligning it with being the best solution for what the customer is trying to achieve. Sometimes it’s driven by the customer–not committing to the business problem they want to solve, sometimes it’s just bad execution from the sales person’s point of view.

  2. Paul Hastings permalink

    Dave, couldn’t agree more with your comments and logic. When it comes to providing business outcomes, we must recommend the best solution we know works based on experience and references. If they are talking about alternative levels of outcomes, say to save investment cost or speed ROI, then that can be considered though it sounds like that there is no critical reason to act from a business perspective. We do see some alternatives requested such as delivery platforms like cloud-based versus on premises which effects initial investment. Or recommendation on staging the solution delivery which could have a cost and/or resource dependency. But back to your thesis above, if alternatives of good, better, best were requested I would want to talk to the business owner(s) directly impacted with the current situation and will be impacted through the solution being considered. Will they not want the best business case being presented to meet their goals. We have an obligation to deliver this as our recommendation.

    • Thanks Paul. I completely agree. Tim Ohai, in his comments, provides great insight. We really have to commit to the core solution. There will be a number or alternatives or options in the implementation, but they all derive from the core solution. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Dave, excellent blog post and great comments!
    In my experience, a customer’s problem solving and buying process is never linear, especially not ina complex environment.
    Even if a future solution has been defined, people’s concepts can change the more they learn about the situation and the impact they create. So, sometimes, they evaluate scenarios and alternatives again. Sales professionals should be aware that they are in a loop or an iteration of the customer’s journey. Lead them along the way and orchestrate again a buying vision, one that helps them to achieve their goals.
    Until the next iteration comes…

  4. Mark McNamee permalink

    Dave i am not sure about this. My Dad often reminds me that ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’. I wonder if there is not a bit of this in your blog.
    I can agree that we should have developed our understanding of the customers needs to the point where we make a recommendation. The best fit recommendation, one that has been tested and adjusted so we know and the client knows it will work. Done well the right conclusion comes naturally to all stake holders.
    However, the flaw in making a single recommendation is that if not delivered well, it runs the risk of not satisfying a fundamental human need, that is the right to choose. Sometimes called agency, the right to choose is so strong as an inate human need, that if not addressed by us, propects may seek to satisfy it in a way beyond our influence, perhaps by taking some or all of our proposal down the road.
    I have found that offering some wiggle room can satisfy that need to choose. After all, clients need to feel that they are in control, as indeed they rightly are.
    As always love your work and the contribution of your readers. Mark

    • Mark: Thanks for the great comment. I think we are saying similar things. If we have engaged the customer correctly, though their buying process, we may have started with some choices and alternatives. As we go, together, through the process, we narrow the alternatives, until we reach a point where, with the customer we decide on a single best solution from us that achieves the customer’s goals.

      It the customer is still asking us for alternatives, then they really haven’t completed their buying process. They haven’t understood their own requirements and priorities sufficiently to, with us, determine the solution that best fits their alternatives.

      Naturally, with complex solutions, as Tim has outlined, there is a core recommendation we have arrived at with the customer–naturally, there are implementation alternatives.

      Mark, thanks for helping me flesh out my thinking. Regards, Dave

  5. Dave – You make an excellent point about separating several choices to a final recommendation. What I have found that clarity specific to the desired results is where many potential clients have difficulty. By evaluating what is said and sometimes even what is not said, allows me to make one recommendation.

    People start out with choices,several ideas and a top sales performer has the capacity to render those choices down to one while aligning that choice to the desired result without upsetting the client. And sometimes, the client even thinks it is her or his idea.

  6. Hi Dave, too many options can lead to procrastination and slow down the sales process like you say. But remember that we need alternative options in planning our ‘gives and gets’ in the negotiation phase. So you will want to plan different options, but actually using the different options will depend on the negotiation that takes place, or not. Nice post 🙂 Al

    • Thanks Al, I absolutely agree, that we can adjust the options we offer to our core solution recommendation based on the negotiation. Sometimes, we may, in fact, completely change the recommended solution in the negotiation, but I tend to view this as “sales error,” since we probably didn’t understand the requirements and decision-making criteria correctly.

  7. In the past, I’d give the good, better, best scenarios.

    Today, I listen to what the client wants to achieve, then provide the best solution.

    I might propose an alternative. If, and only if, I think it will help the client move forward.

    The hardest step the client has to make is the first one. I try to make it easy for them to get started.

  8. You are half-right. It all comes down to communication styles.

    Opinion-oriented people, aka Amiables and Expressives, are emotionally (sometimes intellectually) confused by too many choices and need someone to boil down their choices to one or two options. Their choices are often based on other people’s opinions.

    Fact-oriented people, on the other hand, aka Analyticals and Dominants, really don’t care what other people think and want the personal power to make their own decisions based on facts and data. If you try to withhold information from fact-oriented people in order to limit their choices, you will lose their trust and their business. Furthermore, if you don’t respect an Analytical’s lengthy decision-making PROCESS and try to close the deal before he/she has made a decision, you will end up the looser.

    The best course of action is to study interpersonal communications so that you know whether you are dealing with an opinion-oriented client or a fact-oriented client and then do what salespeople are paid to do: give `em what they want in terms of communications and solutions.

    • Steve: It’s important for us to understand our own and our customers communications styles to improve our effectiveness in communicating and connecting with the customer. So as we engage the customer through their buying process we want to be sensitive to the communications styles. At the same time, we can’t forget these customers are looking to reaching a decision and solving their business problem. So narrowing the alternatives, based on shared understanding of the alternatives, what the customer is trying to achieve, and how they might best achieve it is a natural part of the buying/selling process with each communication style. At the culmination of the process, we have a single “core” solution that we have to offer the customer. Within that, we still provide a number of options or implementation alternatives, but we have to choose and recommend the best core solution for the customer.

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