Overcoming Seller Deficit Disorder


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Early in my career as a sales professional, I remember feeling like most of the time when I walked into a prospect’s office, I was at a disadvantage. At first I thought it was my nerves or my inexperience, but after about a year of feeling it, I knew it was something more.

Do you ever feel that way? Like you’re at a disadvantage with a potential buyer the moment you shake hands? Have you ever wondered why? It would be easy to blame it on the economy or the fact that you’re running neck and neck with the competition.

But many times I found that the disadvantage I felt was not because of me, but because of my prospects, and the preconceived notions they had about me before we even started the sales call.

The real reason many sales pros are at a disadvantage these days is because the prospects, even before you start the sales conversation, are probably thinking a couple of things about you. “This man doesn’t really understand my business,” or “This lady isn’t going to listen to me.”

And unfortunately for us, 90% of the time, it’s the truth. These preconceived notions are the main cause of what I call Seller Deficit Disorder and many times it’s a disadvantage that can keep you from achieving sales success.

In this five-part series, I’ll explore the top five symptoms of Seller Deficit Disorder and give you tips for overcoming it.

Symptom No. 1: Buyers Don’t Believe You Understand Their Pain

The bottom line in sales is:
Without business pain, there is no business. Meaning, if your prospects don’t have a problem that needs solving, they won’t be buying anything.

It’s your goal to listen to your prospects, understand their pain and establish a direct correlation between their pain and your product or service solution. By showing your buyers that you understand their pain, they will work harder to understand the solution you’re presenting.

So, how do you show prospects you understand their pain? First, ask the right questions. Two-sided discovery questions allow you to learn more about your prospect’s business and give the prospect the opportunity to learn by answering. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead ask open-ended questions that start with “Tell me,” “Explain for me” and “Describe for me” (called TED questions) to uncover a prospect’s main pain points.

Second, really listen to their answers. By demonstrating your understanding of the customer’s business, you demonstrate integrity and genuine concern for their situation. You’ll earn credibility and the right to ask tougher questions such as, what happens when things don’t go well, and how much the problems are costing the company in time, money and missed opportunities.

If you do these things, you’ll create successful onramps for your customer conversations and increase your chances of driving a successful sale.

The next time you make a sales call, know that you may be going in with a disadvantage. Overcome it by asking the right questions, listening to the answers and creating successful onramps to customer conversations that overcome Seller Deficit Disorder.

What are your best tips for making sure you understand your prospect’s pain points and that your prospects know you understand? Leave a comment or contact me directly with your ideas, feedback and questions.

John Kaplan
John Kaplan, Managing Partner at Force Management, LLC, has over 2 years of experience as a sales executive for large multi-national corporations in sales leadership and execution, corporate strategy, training and development and national account management. Force Management offers customized sales consulting and training services.


  1. John, welcome to CustomerThink.

    I really like your term “seller deficit disorder.” Even in a good economy, it’s not easy being in sales, what with prospects arming themselves with information from web sites and using social media.

    I’m glad you wrote that buyers don’t believe sales reps understand their pain. I suspect that in many cases reps may have a good idea of what key problems are, but don’t know how to communicate that knowledge.

    Another word for this might be having and showing empathy for buyers and the problems they face.

    If a real long-term relationship is ever to develop, the buyer has to perceive real understanding and real caring on the part of the rep.

    Look forward to reading your other symptoms of SDD.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  2. John, Great topic that could or should bring on lots of discussion . . . at least I hope it does.

    As one who has been on both sides of the desk, from being behind the desk as a buyer, I learned due to many sales men and women who called on our store that when I went out to sell my consulting services, the things you’ve pointed out that I didn’t like, I had to make sure I did not make the same mistakes.

    When I first came into our family’s jewelry and giftware business, the Peddlers who call on us had been doing it for years. Many became very personal business friends so I was more than just a business relationship. We did not have to worry about their Seller Deficit Disorders as you so aptly have named it. But, as many vendors’ management changed to be MBA’s and they got rid of the Peddlers and sent lambs (nee rookies) to face the wolves. No longer could I rely on the fact that they know our business and our problems/pains, many did not really know their own lines.

    This was not a phenomenon with vendors, as we hired younger salespeople, our customers often did not believe anyone younger than they knew when up was up and down was down. As I sensed this, I started for my departments (giftware and tabletop) classes – twice a year 3 nights for three weeks – covering the history of the goods, makers, uses, etc. and we put small certificates stating they had training in ________ (as applicable to their jobs.)

    An aside, It was not unusual for customers to attend these sessions. I told my staff that there was nothing I was going to tell that I would not tell customers. They suggested to their friends that they should attend. For us it was advertising that when customers came into these departments, they would be talking to young and knowledgeable salespeople.

    Out of these experiences and efforts, during one session, in responding to a questions about what caused customers to be wary of salespeople, off the top of my head, as never had thought about it before, I wrote down the three fears that keep people from buying – the fear of their own alck of knowledge, the fear of the salespersons lack of knowledge and the fear of being criticized for buying from someone who did not know their products and how they are used and cared for . . their pains.

    So, when I changed sides of the table, I took all those things I saw lacking in those who called on me and made sure that I did just the opposite. When I talked to the fast growing high tech industry, it was a common to be asked, “what do you know about hi tech when you were a retailer?” Because I had been a radar technician during the Korean War, I know enough terms that I was able to use their terms in our beginning discussions and when I did the seminars and workshops.

    I also found that it is much easier to train a technically trained person how to sell than to teach a salesperson how to be technical.

    Thanks again, for bring up something that is not often thought about –sellers deficient disorder.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network
    Member, US Delegation, 1980 International Olympic Academy
    Member, International Society of Olympic Historians
    Member, Ice Dancers On-Line Forum
    Member, Linkedin.com

    You are invited to suggest to your associates, acquaintances, family, friends, customers/clients to visit http://www.sellingselling.con to learn why they, just like you and I, have something to sell.

  3. Alan,

    Thanks for your comments. I think your perspectives from “both sides of the table” are dead on. It does not matter what you are selling, if you do not understand your customer’s pain (why they are buying) then you will not be successful. A former mentor of mine used to say to me all the time, “No business issue; no business”.


  4. John: great topic. Many salespeople deflate their own sense of worth when they say “I’m just the salesperson.” For anyone who holds that sentiment, my recommendation is to find another profession–you will be much happier.

    Similarly, many salespeople self-define their role based on titles. “Gosh, how can a Marketing Associate hold a conversation with a Chief Financial Officer?” It’s not hard to understand the feelings of intimidation, especially for entry-level salespeople. But such feelings are not logical. There’s no social protocol or mandate in business that requires a person to have parity in a job title just to hold a conversation.

    Sales managers can help salespeople address these issues by having them ask these questions:

    1) What is your intent in talking with this prospect? Salespeople have full control over their intent. If your motives are honest, you will project that to your prospect.

    2) Have you earned the right to speak or communicate with you prospect? Do you know your prospect’s name–and how to pronounce it? Do you know the target organization’s overarching strategic issues? Do you know the industry? Did you gain the opportunity honestly, or through chicanery?

    Self esteem requires a balance. Without it, there’s little chance of a successful outcome. Too much of it projects as arrogance. If you can look yourself in the eye and say “my motivations are honest and I’ve earned the right to speak with my prospect,” age and title won’t matter–you’re in the club! Go ahead, make the call–and don’t apologize for doing so.


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