Leaping To Solutions! Are We Solving The Right Problem?


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Sales people are trained to be problem solvers — we ask questions, probe — once we find a problem we attack like a pit bull and don’t let go until we’ve wrestled the problem to the ground and gotten the order.

So what’s the problem with that?  Too often we leap to solutions before we understand what the “real problem” is.  It’s a real problem, I wrote about it in a post almost a year ago: “The Evolving Role Of The Sales Person–The Sales Person As Diagnostician”  It addresses the issue of sales people leaping to solutions and not solving the right problem.  Customers get frustrated with this approach, they complain, “they aren’t listening, they don’t understand my real issues.”

There’s another aspect of this problem — often, our customers leap to solutions.  Like sales people, business people are trained problem solvers–that’s what we learn in the university, and every aspect of our jobs reinforce that.  Customer are often certain they know their problems and tell the sales person, “this is what I need.”  And we tend to accept that and sell to that need.  The problem is they aren’t solving the right problem.

A friend of mine, Steve Bowles, had a great example of this.  He was meeting with the CEO of a small company, and the CEO said, “This is the issue I’m having with the sales organization and this is what I need you to do…”  And as CEO’s are prone to do, he said it with great authority and certainty.  Steve could have done what the CEO asked and gotten the order.  Instead, Steve did something else, he asked the question, “What do you think is causing this issue to happen with the sales organization?”  Steve resisted the temptation to take the leap with his customer, get the order, and provide the right solution to the wrong problem.  Instead, Steve decided to probe.  He wanted to understand if the CEO was describing the real problem or if there was an underlying issue.  He got to the underlying issues — it wasn’t pleasant, in fact to a large degree the CEO was creating the problem himself.  Steve politely pointed that out and suggested a different solution.  Oh by the way, Steve got the order.

Mediocre sales people let the customer dictate the solution, only responding the the needs the customer outlines and the solution they want.  That’s often why it’s difficult to differentiate.  The customer has determined the solution and everyone is fundamentally providing the same thing.

Great sales professionals–those that create real value for their customers and stand out are those that find and solve the right problems.  They take the time to probe and understand.  They care enough about doing the right thing for the customer that they challenge the customer’s preconceived notions about the problem and solution.  They get the customer to think differently, to see and solve the real problem.

It takes great knowledge of your customer’s business, it takes great knowledge of your solutions, it takes the patience and diligence to probe and understand.  Finally, it takes great courage to suggest to the customer that there might be a better way.

Too often, inertia, time pressures, the push to do a deal quickly, or simply our conditioning as problem solvers push us to leap to solutions.  We as sales people do this, our customers do this. 

Our greatest value add as sales professionals is to help our customers solve the right problems.  Are you taking the time to work with your customers to do this or are you leaping to solutions?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: I agree. But I once had a boss who (annoyingly) chided me in similar circumstances, saying “yes, Andy, and I’d like to be 6’2″ and ten years younger.” His way of saying that he had to deal with realities that he couldn’t change. Gnashing of teeth, but point taken.

    Similarly, while I agree with you idealistically, many salespeople don’t have the luxury of outlining the real question when they’re faced with the opportunity to bring in revenue this month versus help the customer redefine what he or she is really grappling with. Management pushes them for numbers, and yes, reality does bite.

    In IT sales, this issue comes up frequently. One famous prospect quote: “Our goal is to get to 100% barcoding!” “Nooooooo! Barcoding is only a tool to achieve another objective. Let’s clearly understand what that is, so you’re not flamingly disappointed after you install all this hardware and software!” But what rep, teetering on the edge of being fired, achieving goal, or receiving a quarterly bonus check wants to go through those machinations when the customer is ready to sign? Might sound heretic in the name of Value of Customer, Customer Experience, Giving the Customer What he/she wants, but as Walter Cronkite famously said, “that’s the way it is.”

    Clearly, management and compensation have a role to play in all of this. Sales organizations that work on longer planning cycles, and that reward salespeople for outcomes such as customer satisfaction and value over time will do a better job of creating a culture in which effective problem definition can become a finely honed skill. Otherwise, it’s “go for the jugular, pal!”

    A blog I wrote on this topic, The Problem You Solve Depends Mightily on the Questions You Ask

  2. Great point Andy. I should have been clearer in my discussion. I think the job of the sales person is to seek great clarity with the customer in defining the problem correctly, but—and here’s the tricky part—within the context of their ability to solve the problem.

    Consultants like you and I have great luxury in solving a wide scope of problems and can redefine endlessly. Sales people can only represent their solutions and should be advising their customer in the context of the best application of their solutions. In some cases, the sales person will need to suck it up and say this is just the wrong approach and back out.

    Using a very simplistic example, if a customer says to a tool salesperson “I need a hammer to get this screw in the wall, the sales person responds–a better solution to your problem is a screwdriver” This represents the best solution the salesperson can provide for that problem.

    Another sales person, who sells glue, might advise the customer a different way to solve the problem.

  3. Great points. There’s a lot of rhetoric in the sales world about “solving customers’ problems,” and “selling solutions.” Your blog is a reminder that these are not necessarily congruent goals. Think how much more productive salespeople could be if they were coached to rigorously define a prospect’s problem in the context of the prospect’s strategic needs, and not just on “how can I get my product in the door?” Charles Kettering said that a problem well defined is a problem half solved. That alone is a huge productivity boost.

  4. Outstanding! We’re absolutely on the same page. I’d add–though not the topic of this post. Sales people must first viciously disqualify—focusing there activity on customers who have problems the sales people can solve in a superior fashion. Then rigorously exploring the problem with the customer, solving the right problem.

    Productivity would skyrocket, customer experience would sky rocket, customers would start seeing sales people as a true value added partner to their buying process. What could be better?

  5. Great points by both of you. I also think it’s important to remember that we want to acquire and RETAIN the customer. Jumping to the wrong solution in the interest of reaching sales goals or organizational resolution deadlines is a good way to ensure a dissatisfied customer and the loss of any future business from that customer, although it might appear to “look good” to the customer and the sales person at the time of sales. We need to think long-term when offering solutions to customers because that is where the true value lies for any organization. Remember that the cost to acquire a new customer is far greater than the cost to keep those you already have. Therefore, sales people and their managers alike need to think about making an investment in time – the time it takes to truly discover the problems customers face and then provide the best possible solution, even if it means missing a quarterly sales deadline. This is what will create trust and customer loyalty, and that can be quite profitable in the long run.

    Our recent blog entry addresses this common problem, check it out


  6. Samantha–thanks for adding another dimension to the discussion. We want to create customers for life, it means solving the right problems, focusing on problems that we can solve and create value, and doing it time after time in building the relationship.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  7. Samantha: Thanks for your comment. Salespeople and managers must consider carefully whether their timeframes and priorities match up. But without management promoting the objective that selling includes doing what is right for the customer, the benefits of a salesperson’s efforts toward that end are ephemeral, at best. Unfortunately, I have found that bottom line, even the most ethical, honest, well-intentioned salespeople will wind up fired for their idealism when it doesn’t square with management’s goals.

  8. Years ago when at IBM, our team was frustrated that a customer wouldn’t consider ideas that might be better in the long run. Instead, we were asked to focus on a narrowly defined “problem” that wasn’t the real problem. At least in our opinion!

    Well, what we came to realize was the sometimes you have to sell what customers want before you earn the right to sell what they really need. Relationships have to be earned. It’s unrealistic for a new rep to think his/her ideas to expand the problem will be immediately accepted.

    And let’s face it, expanding the scope can be just a sales tactic and savvy buyers know that. Big software vendors are famous for expanding requirements so that the “point” solution vendors are squeezed out.

    My point is simply that trust has to be earned. Solving the problem the customer puts in front of you is not a bad place to start. But as the relationship matures, the rep should start offering other ideas for consideration, so that the right problem is solved.

  9. Bob, you make a great point. Even today, often the sypmtoms are so distracting or painful, we must first address them before getting to the root issue. Regards, Dave

  10. Dave – agree with comments here, including paying attention to what client is telling you what they want to buy and have run into situation many times.

    A quick way to bring viewpoints together and expose differences and need perception is to quickly mock up time line and/or play solution forward using customer’s perception and words.

    This often exposes more opportunities and yes risks, but is truly solution selling.

    Alternatively, good to have a related story around best practices that exposes potential issues by averting risks.

    Check out story here http://tiny.cc/two2v as an example of playing solutions forward so that client can see solution in context – This is the idea around Customer Worthy – providing a framework to engage clients to build customer centric solutions.




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