Do You Think CXO Buyers Would Rather Talk To a “Problem Solver” or a “Business Advisor”?


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Once upon a time, a long long time ago, B2B Marketers got it in their heads that “Problem Solving” sales reps are highly-valued by all customers at all levels (from procurement to the analyst level to middle management and up to the C-suite), and therefore CREDIBILITY is earned by being perceived by the customer as a “Problem Solver”.  They probably read a popular book at the time.

Confessions of a CXO Buyer – “I Didn’t Highly Value PROBLEM-SOLVING Sales Reps”

Well, this CXO Buyer (F500 CFO) didn’t fit that mold.  I attempted to delegate “Problem Solving” exercises every chance I could to the expert “Problem Solvers” in my companies.  That was their primary job responsibility, not mine.

I used to be a Problem Solver, earlier in my career, but as you know, responsibilities change when you move up the ladder.  For me, as a CXO Buyer, “Problem Solving” wasn’t anywhere close to the top of my personal agenda.  And before you ask, wait for it, “Problem Solving” never kept me up at night.

As a CXO Buyer I was way more focused on identifying the Critical Success Factors (CSFs) required to implement Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) and achieve Key Performance Metrics (KPIs) targets.  You were in my way as a sales rep if you didn’t want to help me with some aspect of those focus priorities.

Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Unfortunately, not many B2B Marketers seemed to want to talk to me about my personal agenda and focus business priorities.  Seems all most wanted to do was to NARROW the conversation at the very outset (purposely shooting themselves in the foot) and probe for my PAIN and PROBLEMS (perhaps pain is what they were thinking about after shooting themselves in the foot?).

Bummer, what I really needed was a Business Advisor who happened to be a B2B Marketer, not a “Problem Solver”!

What a Waste of B2B Marketing Humanity to Focus Primarily on Problems!

Why did this become conventional thinking?  Hard to tell but the framework was probably passed down by marketing consultants decades ago.  What a waste of B2B Marketing humanity to primarily want to focus on problems and pain with customers.  What a way to “box” yourself in with customers and limit/diminish your perceived value and potential impact on their KBIs, CSFs, and KPIs!  Why would a B2B Marketer with so much value to offer want to do that?

I think many fellow CXO Buyers agree with me, so why do B2B Marketers keep marching to the pain mantra as they continue to struggle engaging customers? It’s 2016!  Isn’t it about time for B2B Marketers to really REFRAME the conversation with CXO Buyers and focus on the things that really matter to them (KBIs, CSFs, and KPIs)?  That’s what customers really want: Business Advisors who happen to be B2B Marketers.

Why “Problem Solving” is the WRONG Conversation to Have with CXO Buyers

In a recent blog post (Why “Solution Selling” (“Problem Solving”) Is the WRONG Conversation to Have with CXO Buyers) I made these comments.

“Solution-Selling” and “Problem-Solving” are a sure-fire way to diminish your perceived value and chance to sustain multiple conversations with prospective executive-level buyers. As a B2B seller, you are not alone: it is a common self-inflicted forced error that has been going on now for decades.  But that fact should not be comforting to you.

The CXO buyer is the RIGHT person to engage, but Solution-Selling is the WRONG conversation to have. If you intuitively believe this to be true (because you don’t have CXO buyers pounding down your door to talk to you again and again), but you choose nonetheless to proceed anyway with the Solution-Selling mantra (clinically that’s called cognitive dissonance), odds are better than 50% you won’t get a 2nd or 3rd meeting with that CXO buyer.

I can’t ever recall agreeing to a B2B seller’s request for a 2nd meeting when the 1st meeting was primarily focused on searching for my pain and problem solving.

Does This Customer Conversation Sound Familiar to You?

Sales Professional (SP): Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.  I understand you spoke to Robert, a mutual friend.

CXO Buyer (Exec):  Yes, nice to meet you.  Robert spoke highly of you and suggested I accept your invitation to meet. How can I help you?

SP:   Well, I know your time is valuable, so I won’t take much of your time.  What I like to do when I meet with a C-level executive such as yourself is to ask a few questions to discover and clarify your needs.  As you know, we have many end-to-end technology solutions that solve numerous problems, lots of different problems, but before I start solving problems I like to diagnose before I prescribe. OK?

Exec:  (Chuckling) Wow, sounds like you like pain.  Are you a doctor?

SP: (Not chuckling) No, this won’t hurt much, I promise.  Just a few questions to educate myself on your situation.  In your position as a Chief Operating Officer, what are your biggest pain points?

Exec: Excuse me?  What is a pain point?  I’ve never heard of that term.

SP: You know, pain points are issues that keep you up at night.  Needs, problems, challenges — PAIN!  Bad stuff.  Tough situations.  If it would help I have a list of generic pain points here that I understand align with a Chief Operating Officer role, if you want me to list …

Exec:  No, no, that’s not necessary.  I’m curious, why are you asking about my pain points?

SP: Because we’ve been trained to probe for your “needs”.  It’s part of our sales methodology.  You know – our motto is “no pain, no change” (chuckles).  As I said early my company is an expert at solving problems, so we need to first discover what challenges and problems you are willing to acknowledge.  This is step one in our sales methodology, you know.  Of course, latent pain is even better, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Sorry for that.

Exec: Wow, you really ARE a doctor … Dr.  Doom N. Gloom.   Just kidding.  Yes, I had another sales person in here last week who asked me about pain and what my ‘wants’ were.  When I asked him to clarify, he said ‘wants’ were more important to talk about than ‘needs’.  I didn’t really understand what he meant by that.

SP:  Oh yes, ‘wants’ are even better than ‘needs’ because they are influenced by FUD factors.

Exec: What’s a FUD factor?  Is that a new computer virus?

SP: FUD, you know.  Fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  FUD really influences customer wants and needs.

Exec: Well, this is all very interesting.  Will you excuse me?  I’ve got to make a phone call.

Pain and Problems Don’t Get CXO Buyers’ “Lips Flapping”

Ouch!  From a CXO Buyer perspective, this conversation is painful.  Unfortunately, many B2B Marketers have inextricably linked pain with solution selling — even when selling at the executive level.  While this approach might be effective at lower levels in the organization, it rarely works as you move up the middle management and executive ranks in your customer organization.

Put yourself in the shoes of the “buy-side” executive.  What’s in it for them to participate in this conversational dance?  Why would they want to answer probing questions about pain from a sales professional who knows next to nothing about their business or organization?  Nothing personal, but these kinds of conversations are reserved for business colleagues or business partners who have already earned a trusted advisor status.

I Feel Your Pain as a B2B Marketer

I understand your dilemma as a B2B Marketer trying to engage customers. Yours’ is a tough profession and I have empathy for you. I EVEN FEEL YOUR PAIN. You want to get CXO Buyers’ lips flapping about an issue that is important to them that JUST HAPPENS TO BE “solved” (how convenient staying on script) by a solution that you offer.

The dilemma is the part about getting “lips flapping”. CXO Buyers don’t tend to be talkative folks, especially with B2B Marketers who are not adequately informed about their company.

Asking a bunch of questions doesn’t work either.  Executives don’t like to be interviewed and they certainly don’t have time to educate.  Throwing a bunch of solutions against the wall to see if anything sticks is a low probability game.  And most certainly, whipping out a generic list of so-called “pain points” and using it as an agenda to guide your conversation is likely a dead end.

You may have only one chance (and a few minutes) to make a favorable impression with your customer, especially with a CXO Buyer.  Hope is not a strategy and neither is planning a “problem-solving” conversation.

Talk About PRIORITIES instead of PAIN and PROBLEMS

There’s a better conversation framework for sales people to follow to earn credibility with CXO Buyers.  It’s a more positive and constructive way to gain credibility and obtain sponsorship for your solution.   It’s not rocket science, but it does require allocating some time for customer-specific pre-call research and role-play practice to gain confidence.

Here’s My Best Advice

Stay focused and keep positive on the business PRIORITIES of the CXO Buyer, NOT PAIN!   Business priorities (such as Key Business Initiatives, Critical Success Factors, and Key Performance Indicators), especially those recently announced, are a favorite subject for most CXO Buyers.  They are the strategies, initiatives, goals, and objectives that promote change environments, which represent real opportunities for your solutions.

Business priorities “move the needle” for CXO Buyers; they are on their personal agenda.  They want to talk about them.  By definition, business priorities are the FUNDED action plans (a good thing for B2B Marketers since they are budgeted) appearing on their radar screen.

Business priorities are UNIQUE to each company and organization – “customer-specific”.  They are not “generic industry insights” that B2B Marketers often use in order to save time in pre-call preparation.  Customer-specific business priorities are frequently publicly-disclosed (even by private entities and public sector organizations), and can be uncovered through a targeted internet search.  In your pre-call preparation routine, you just need to know where to look for these customer-specific business priorities and how to read between the lines.

Start a conversation by briefly demonstrating your acquired “customer acumen” and knowledge of the CXO Buyer’s business priorities.  Validate what you “think you know”.  Ask if there are any other priorities.  But keep in mind you have only a limited amount of time.  Choose your questions very carefully.  An executive conversation is a high-risk high-return moment in time.  EVERY WORD COUNTS.  You will either sustain a two-way conversation or send it into a deadly monologue spiral.

Oh sure, some announced business priorities implicitly address existing pain.  But in those cases, make the effort to reframe the conversation, and re-direct the attributes of your solution and their potential impact toward the CSFs that are associated KBIs being put in place to address that pain.  Purposely steer the conversation to focus on the CXO Buyer’s business priorities in order to set a positive and constructive tone and earn Business Advisor credentials.  It’s a subtle and nuanced shift in tone, but the CXO Buyer is more likely to notice it and cooperate by talking.

Examples of Business Priorities

Let me give you a few examples of publicly-disclosed “business priorities”.  Some of these are a bit dated, but I hope you will get the point.

Reliance Industries, India’s largest private sector company plans to invest $10 billion to $12 billion to expand in the U.S. market.  Their “business priority” is to collaborate closer with local partners who could best help them support their U.S. market growth plans.

NIKE, Inc. is planning to make significant capital expenditure investments ($500 million to $600 million) in the global Direct-to-Consumer business which consists primarily of the NIKE-branded retail store format.  Their “business priority” is to accelerate time-to-market for this channel expansion.

And Walgreens is ramping direct sourcing resources and capabilities in the APAC region.  A new office was opened in Hong Kong.  Their “business priority” is to build the private label business which carries a higher front-end gross margin.

The CXO Buyers of these companies don’t dwell on pain, problems, and challenges.  They are driven by KBI business priorities, and the associated CSFs and KPIs. This represents the best opportunities for your solutions.

What Should I Do If the Customer Acknowledges Pain?

If your customer openly and willingly acknowledges PAIN, go for it.  Talk about it!   This may not happen often (because talking about it might incriminate themselves), but occasionally the “pain” is too visible to hide.

Years ago, Sprint made for a good example of this.  As the 4G race tightened in the smartphone market, Sprint struggled to accelerate the rollout of its Evo 4G phone technology.  In an earnings conference call at the time Sprint’s CEO, speaking about a shortage of phones to sell, publicly acknowledged the CSF that was holding them back from accomplishing their business priorities. “The supply chain issue is a big deal for us.  We can’t get enough phones delivered.”

Now there was an example of a very public acknowledgement of PAIN!  If you had solutions that could have helped Sprint’s supply chain speed the 4G roll out, they likely would have been interested in talking with you.

Remember: Business Advisors Talk About the Customer’s PRIORITIES

So the next time you instinctively reach for a P-word when talking with a CXO Buyer, remember to pull out “Priorities” instead of “Problems” or “Pain”.  I bet lips will start flapping.


  1. Do you agree with my point of view?
  2. How would you REFRAME the customer conversation?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Dean
As co-founder of FASTpartners LLC, Jack brings extensive technology buying experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B technology sales training industry.He has facilitated client-sponsored business acumen training for 15,000 B2B technology sellers representing 150 global technology companies.Participants in Jack’s business acumen training have produced directly-attributed revenue of over $1 billion (in the 3 months after training) and training engagement ROIs averaging 500%.


  1. I do agree with your point of view. I have read a very similar approach in a different context. “Interviewing for Solutions” (Dejong/Berg) refocuses counseling conversations from the sources of problems to developing goals and plans achieve them. I would reframe the conversation by seeking to validate my assumptions about their points of strength and then identify opportunities to help them achieve their critical business initiatives.

  2. Agree on the approach of being a business advisor than a problem solver. Many people will see different problems out of the same situation. But looking at things on a more strategic perspective, like talking priorities and what they want to achieve in a certain time frame would trigger more open and sensible discussions with clients. They know you’re not there just to sell…

  3. Thank you Richard and Roel for your comments. A common thread in your comments is the need to “reframe” the customer conversation in order to broaden the scope of potential solution impact. Getting out of the limited “box” of PROBLEMS and stepping into the wider (more strategic) “box” of PRIORITIES helps the B2B marketer reframe the conversation. Plus, it aligns better with the role, responsibility, and persona of the executive-level buyer. That is the conversation they want to have.


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