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The Big Idea: Solve Your Customers’ Big Problems

by David Brock on March 14th, 2009
Customers are looking for something different these days. Our traditional approaches to selling are no longer appropriate. As a friend and colleague, Niall Devitt, states, “Buyers are looking for something new!” Other people are saying the new paradigm is “Provocative Selling.”

I’m not certain I buy into more consultant speak about a more advanced form of selling, but I think the underlying idea is interesting. I think the great challenge to sales professionals in helping their customers is to help them solve bigger problems—or even their BIG problems. This requires shaking up how we think and sell, as well as maybe shaking our customers up a little. Let’s look at a couple of ideas:

1. I think we and our customers tend to fall into a comfortable complacency with each other. We know our products/solutions well, as do many of our customers. We may fall into the trap of thinking “we solve these problems,” or our customers pigeon-hole us into a certain space of solutions and we don’t look further — I’ll talk more about this later.

2. I think our customers may not be seeing the BIG problems, either because it is out of their experience base, or because they are so busy fighting the alligators they forget to drain the swamp. This is where true sales professionals can really make a difference for their customers.

Moving ourselves and our buyers out of our comfort/complacent zone, going after bigger problems/opportunities:

Recently, I worked with a very large successful client. They had achieved large share in the industry and were looking at how to grow—both with new customers and within their major accounts. They had great and deep relationships with the buyers of their products and services, but were struggling with how to sell more.

We created an initiative, the Big Idea! The objective of this was to discover new needs, problems and requirements that my customer could solve. Initially, we thought much of this would drive new product development, but we learned something new. We found problems we could solve, that the customer didn’t know we could solve! With no or little change to the solutions, we found new sets of problems we could solve for our customers.

How did we do this? It seems so obvious, but even the best professionals tend to forget. This client’s buyers were on the operations side of the organization. We started talking to their customers—VP’s of Sales, Strategy, Product Management, Business Development. We asked them, “What problems do your customers have that you cannot currently solve?” We got way too many ideas, but it now gave our client the chance to start solving more and bigger problems for their customer—the operations guys. Problems—opportunities they were not aware of. (I would note, you have to be cautious in how you do this—remember they are already busy fighting alligators—I’ll save this for another post).

This simple initiative had a number of derivative impacts for this client:

1. The sales people did the work themselves! We just guided them, but they engaged new people in new conversations about new issues. They developed far deeper and richer relationships with their large customers, and met new people in prospective customers.

2. They discovered problems they didn’t know their customer had—and to some degree didn’t know they could solve. This created opportunities to expand the relationship and value they brought to the customer.

3. The customers started to think about them in entirely new ways. First, my client was able to reposition themselves from the way the customer had traditionally viewed them (and their competition) into a new role—with far broader solutions. Second they engaged their customers in non-traditional conversations—conversations that pushed both the customer and my client out of their comfort zones but looking at new things—things that were important to the customer!

4. They discovered new ideas about products and services they could get into their product plans. Product management saw new opportunities and started engaging with the sales people and customers in looking at these longer term opportunities.

5. The client found new opportunities to sell stuff! They created new revenue opportunities they and their customers had been blind to in the past.

What about the BIG problem?

Sometimes we try to focus on the BIG problem, the grand slam home run. Geoffrey Moore (et. al.) seem to allude to this in their HBR article, Provoke Your Customer. I like their idea about going beyond “what keeps your customer awake at night,” to “what should be keeping your customer awake at night.” But, I think they miss the real opportunity in their discussion. I’ll talk about this in a separate post.

The BIG problem is not the customer equivalent of “solving world hunger.” We all become prisoners of our own experience. It creates blinders for both our customers and ourselves. Solving the BIG problem is about removing those blinders, looking at things differently.

Becoming aware of the BIG problem is easy—I won’t be pretentious claim solving it is easy, the answer to that is, it depends. The BIG problem always starts with a customer—someone’s customer. The best sales people look not only at their customer’s problems, but they look for problems and opportunities in their customer’s customer. If we want to help our customers, we need to help them help their customers. Restricting our view to our customers—the buyers we deal with narrows our focus and abilities too much.

There’s another way to identify BIG problems, look in a different industry. Too often, we look at our competitors and try to one up them. Frankly, I’m too lazy to do that. It’s nice, every once in a while to look at a completely different industry to see the problems they have and how they have solved them.

Many years ago, the EVP of sales for one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company taught me this. I screwed up the courage to ask him, “Jerry, why did you hire us, we had no experience in CPG?” His response taught me a lesson, I have never forgotten, “Dave, we hired the best CPG consultants in the world, they didn’t bring us new ideas. Your experience in the High Tech world gave us a fresh perspective and ideas we never would have seen. These ideas give us fresh ways of working with our customers and bringing them new solutions.

Jerry’s observation is something all of us can learn from. Other people may have solved our customers’ BIG problems, but our customers never see them, because like us, they are looking within their industry. By looking outside, we can stop being prisoners of our own experience and get fresh ideas for things that we can solve for our customers.

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One Comment
  1. Niall Devitt permalink

    Hi Dave,

    Ive just posted my take. I decided to go with an Irish theme seeing that tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s day.

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