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What’s The Diagnosis?

by David Brock on August 2nd, 2012

My wife hates going to Doctors—I actually think that’s a basic intelligence test, I don’t think anyone likes going to Doctors.  It’s impossible to get appointments, costs are skyrocketing, and the experience–well, I’ll stop there.

About 6 weeks ago, I noticed her limping, so I asked if she was having problems with her leg or foot.  She said she’d tripped earlier in the morning when she was on the golf course and her foot was bothering her.  We both thought it would go away, ignored it for a few days, but then the pain was getting worse.  I said, “Go to the Doctor, have him check it out.”  She refused, making some excuse and saying terribly disparaging things about them being worthless and wasting her time.

I did notice she was doing a lot of web research, and we started to talk about what she was discovering.  She was narrowing in on identifying the problem.  She found some articles where the symptoms seemed to match hers.  She thought, back; years ago she had a similar problem.  That time it had been a neuroma (Don’t ask me what that is), the doctor had treated it with some medicines and it had disappeared.  Based on her web research and the alignment of symptoms with what she found on the web, she called the doctor and went in to see him.

As she describes it, she told him that she had done a lot of research, as well as having had a similar problem years ago.  She described the problem and the treatment, asking him to prescribe the medicines she had before.  I know if she could have, she would have bypassed the doctor, but she needed to see him to get the prescription.

The doctor nodded saying he understood.  He asked if she would mind if he asked a few questions about her pain first.  She replied impatiently, “I know what the problem is and what you need to do.  Would you just prescribe the medicine!”  The doctor must have been a saint, he persisted.  He said that he didn’t doubt that she had a good understanding about what was going on, but he just wanted to verify it for himself.  He went on to ask a few questions about her pain, and inspected her foot.  He pressed a certain spot on the top of her foot,  she let loose with a flood of screams, threats, and invectives that apparently made everyone in the office blush.  Patiently, he responded, “I guess that hurt.”  He asked her forgiveness but said, I’m going to take an X-Ray.  My wife’s a tough character, she said, “You’re just trying to run the billing up, I already know the problem.  It’s a neuroma, just stop wasting my time and give me the medicine I need.”

The doctor responded, “Well if it was a neuroma, the pain you would be experiencing would be at the bottom of your foot.  It turns out the pain is on the top of your foot, so it can’t be a neuroma, it has to be something else. I’d like to examine the problem a little more just so that you get the right treatment.”  It turned out she had a minor fracture of one of the bones in her feet.  Apparently when she tripped on the golf course, one of the bones had fractured.  The medicines that she thought would fix the problem would do nothing, she would have to wear a soft cast for a number of weeks to let the bone heal.  It tunred out the problem could have gotten much worse if she hadn’t gotten the soft cast.

My wife’s story is not different than most others.  With so many good web sites, and so much information, we always try to research and self diagnose.  We aren’t experts, but it’s easy to find information on the web, so we think we can do a large part of the diagnosis ourselves, reducing the amount of time (and money) we spend with the doctor.  We only need them for the treatments that we have already determined from our research.

We are seeing much of the same thing with the “new buyers.”  As with many of us dealing with doctors, the new buyer doesn’t want to see a sales person–for many of the same reasons, the experience may not be very good.  Some data indicates that buyers can complete 60-70 percent of their buying process before first seeing a sales person, narrowing their consideration to a few alternatives based on their diagnosis.  The new buyers believe they can correctly identify their problems, pains, and needs and define the needed solution.  They believe through web research, they can eliminate or minimize the need for sales people.

In many cases, this trend is probably appropriate.  But these are probably limited to the simplest types of situations, areas where the risk is very low, or situations the buyer has been through frequently, so they are very experienced or knowledgeable.  Alternatively, they may be buying products that are commoditized so the variation in solutions might be very small and their knowledge is very high.  (By the way, this isn’t new, Neil Rackham and John DeVincentis wrote about this in 1999 in Rethinking The Sales Force, but the trend may be increasing.  By the way, the book offers great advice for sales in dealing with these situations.)

However, complex B2B solutions may not be that easy to diagnose, particularly if you have never had any experience in solving these problems, buying these solutions, or there is rapid change and innovation in a particular category of solutions.  Just as with people self diagnosing medical problems, B2B buyers may not know the right questions to be asking.  They may reach incorrect conclusions.  They may be relying on bad information or data.  The customer may think they know everything, but they actually may not.  Or they may not know it at the level of detail that is critical for them in solving the right problem in the right way.

Just as it is irresponsible–even malpractice for a doctor to blindly accept the self diagnosis of a patient, it is irresponsible for sales professionals to blindly accept the diagnosis of the “new buyer.”  Because buyers believe they can defer seeing a sales person until they are 60-70 percent of the way through their buying process, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for them to do.

Sometimes we have to disrupt the buyer’s thinking, regardless of where they are in their buying process.  We can disrupt them before they are even in a buying process with new ideas, we can disrupt them at any point subsequent to that.  It is never easy to get people to think differently.  It is never easy to get them to slow down, shift directions, consider alternatives, or even think they may be wrong.

But great sales professionals do this!  They do it because they know it’s where they create the greatest value for their customers.  They recognize that “teaching moments,” may occur at any time.   They do it because they want to see the customer achieve their goals and produce results.  They do it because they don’t want to see the customer make a mistake–something that may cost them tens, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars — or even the viability of their businesses.  They do it because they don’t want to see a customer miss an opportunity–with opportunity costs that could be millions or more.

Customers are anxious to have sales people who have earned the right, correct them and make sure they are properly identifying and diagnosing the problem.  They want to rely on the sales person who has proven they can expertly identify, diagnose problems and provide solutions.  Sales people earn this right through their credibility–their expert knowledge of their products,  of the customer’s  business, of their customer’s markets, of their customer’s customers.  Great sales people earn this right through building a track record and a trusted relationship based on performance and results — not golf games.  Great sale people earn this right by creating a great customer experience–creating great value in every interchange with the customer.

Perhaps like the bad experience many of us have with doctors, customers are deferring the engagement of sales people until they are 60-70 percent of the way through their buying process not because they want to, but just because the performance of their sales people has been so bad and they do  not create value.  Perhaps it’s because of those sales people who do not know how to identify, diagnose and solve the customer’s problems, but can only respond to the customer requirement.

But does it have to be that way?

  1. harri permalink

    Dave, Jill Konrath suggested I read this article, as I was describing more or less the same medicine elsewhere, and yes indeed, I totally agree with you. However, there are couple of things I would like to mention. I am of the opinion that for the large part of the sales force population, things will never be the same. They are those who never really committed to sales work, never really cared that much about the client, just wanted the money, and that is all. Unfortunately, it really covers a vast number of our colleagues. How was it possible, or even today, how can these people still keep selling goods? Mostly because people are ill informed and simply do not know which is the best product for their particular need. And we know this to be the fact because there are so many customers, unhappy with their purchase and unhappy with the sales person.

    However, internet has changed things considerably, and really for the better, I might add. What happens now, is that buyers are able to judge salespeople and the products they are offering a lot better, and if they are left with a feeling that the salesperson was not up to job at hand, they will move on. And they will look until they find someone who really knows his/her product, and knows how to sell. So while it may be a bit of an “exercise” when clients tend to think they are experts, in my view, I welcome it, because invariably, it helps me to complete the deals quite easily, and come out smelling like rose, because clients realize how much authority I brought into the deal.

    So, kind of a happy ending, due to the internet, customers are smart enough to know when they are dealing with less than ideal sales person, then naturally gravitating towards us, committed and professional sales people who are experts in their chosen field.

    Perhaps for the first time in history, if a person wants to become an average or maybe even a little bit better, sales person, she/he must take it seriously, good looks and a motormouth will not be sufficient anymore. (although I suspect we will still see these folks too for some time to come) As far as being an excellent or superb sales person, I don’t think much has changed.

    • Hari, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with almost everything you say–in fact I would tend to take it further. More has changed in selling in the past 5 years than ever in the past. The rise of the self educated customer has raised the bar for everyone, forcing us to change our game and become better sales people. As you point out, the informed customer helps them identify and work with the best sales people and companies. Sales people who don’t raise the game will become “road kill.”

      One of the points I was attempting to make in the article is that despite the vast availability of information available on the web, buying is not becoming simpler, it’s becoming more difficult. This creates an opportunity for great sales people to create greater value for customers in helping them navigate their buying process, improving the quality of their decisions.

      There is a trend for sales people to think they are being forced to engage later in the buying process, because the buyer can self educate. I think this is dead wrong and dangerous, both for the customer and the sales person. The need to engage early in the buying process has never been more important, but to successfully engage the sales person has to raise their game, otherwise they create no value.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      • Dave, one of your best posts yet. I tend to agree with Harri on a lot of points but your point about salespeople becoming roadkill is right on. The changes in the last 5 years (IMO) doesn’t only mean that the role of sales has changed…most companies just don’t need as many salespeople. The days of servicing accounts by stopping in is long gone. My belief is that companies will have an “elite” group of sales professionals that rely more heavily on marketing to do the work of the old “sales guy” is what’s coming. Good for sales professionals…not so good for everybody else.

        • Keith, it’s good to have you commenting here. I think the role of the marketing professional, as well as the sales professional, is changing–we will see each more actively involved in the entire relationship–from the inception of the relationship (in nurturing) through the entire life cycle. The old world is long past, we need to figure the new roles to support our customers and achieve our objectives!

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