Solving The Customer’s Problem


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Yesterday, I had one of those “Aha” moments.  I realized that much of what I’ve been talking about for years has been wrong.

Well not completely wrong but off target enough to be significant.  I’ve written and advocated about helping customers buy, facilitating their buying process, or even leading them through buying when they don’t know how to buy.

Now all of that is great stuff.  Far better than what normal sales people do in “showing up and throwing up,” or pitching products.

But, it’s based on the assumption that “buying” is critical to the customer.

In reality, the customer doesn’t care about buying, at least buying is just a component of solving the customer’s problem!  What the customer really cares about is solving their problem or addressing an opportunity.

At this point it probably pays for me to step back a moment.  I’m at the CEB’s Sales and Marketing Summit.  It’s a collection of some of the smartest sales and marketing practitioners that I’ve ever met.  I was watching a presentation by Brent Adamson as he talked about Prescription, which is an enormously important concept.  He described Prescription as:

A credible and influential set of “do this”/”don’t do that” recommendations provided to customers throughout their purchase process, deliberately intended to ease the customer’s movement toward purchase.

My knee jerk reaction was “Amen Brent!”  We create enormous value leading the customer through their buying process.  It’s part of what I’ve been advocating in this blog for years.

All of a sudden I became uncomfortable about it.  The last two words “toward purchase” leapt out at me.

Our focus on the customer buying process and moving them toward purchase is still all about us, not about the customer.  Granted it’s a more elegant and possibly more helpful version of being about us, but it’s not about the customer.

The real issue here, is that buying is always just a component of solving the customer problem or helping them address an opportunity.  But really what the customer cares about is solving their problem.

Let’s look at the case of a CRM system.  Customer buy CRM systems to help drive sales productivity, effectiveness, and better data/knowledge about customers.  The CRM system itself may be a major component of the problem the customer is trying to solve, but there’s all the Business Process Design and other stuff that’s critical the customer to achieve the goals they are trying to achieve.  Over the years, we’ve been regaled with story after story of failures in CRM systems.  It’s probably never because they chose the wrong system, but rather because they couldn’t solve their problem.

Everything we sell is always just a component of what the customer is trying to achieve–but helping the customer buy doesn’t help the customer solve their problem.

Magic happens, when we change Brent’s last two words in his sentence on prescription:

A credible and influential set of “do this”/”don’t do that” recommendations provided to customers throughout their purchase process, deliberately intended to ease the customer’s movement toward solving their problem/addressing their opportunity.

This shifts both our perspective and the customer’s on the thing that’s most important to them–and to us.  Solving their problem enables us to focus totally on the customer.  It maximizes the value we create with* them–not just in this instance, but how we help them over the life cycle of our relationship.

Customers want people to help solve their problem, not just a part of their problem.

Now here’s where it may get a little confusing.  Going back to the CRM example, this doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we have to help the customer do the business process design, implementation, change management, training, and so forth.  What we have to do is guide them through all the issues they have to address in solving their problem.  So we have to help them understand the business process design issues they face and make sure they have a plan in place to implement it.

The really cool thing is by helping the customer solve their problem, we are automatically engaged in easing their movement toward a purchase.  But the opposite is seldom true-moving them toward purchase doesn’t solve their problem.

Some readers may think I’m parsing words, but I don’t think so.  We always have to test what we do by putting ourselves in the customer’s shoes, thinking, “What is it they care most about.”  Buying is just one element in solving their problem–and that’s what they care about.

*This was originally “for,” but as my friend Martin Schmalenbach pointed out we really are engaging our customers collaboratively in this problem solving process.  The value we create together is far greater than the value we create “for” them.  Thanks so much Martin!

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. David, I used to tell people do not focus on selling but on how people buy. You have taken the thought forward: go beyond making it easy to purchase to focusing on the customer’s need.

  2. Thanks Gautam. If we focus on helping them solve their problem, at the same time, we help make it easer for them to buy from us.


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