The “Problem” Is Different Depending On Where You Sit

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Imagine a customer with a problem. But that problem, is very different depending on where you sit. Let’s imagine an IT technology challenge, though we can apply this thinking to just about any problem.

IT views the problem in a certain way. It sees the challenges in a certain way, the value of solving the problem in a certain way, the risks in choosing and implementing a solution, and the importance of addressing the problem in a certain way.

The end users, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at customer service, will see the problem in a different way. The problem impacts the way they get the job done. How much it impacts them on a day to day basis; what it keeps them from doing; the personal hassle factor; and meeting their day to day goals. They see the problem in a different way than IT or others, they see the risks of choosing and implementing a solution in a different way; and the urgency of changing in a different way.

Finance will see the problem in a different way than IT and customer service. As will procurement, and so forth.

Likewise, depending on where you sit in the organization how you view the problem is different. At the user level, for example the customer service agents, the perspective of the problem is how it impacts how they do their jobs on a day to day basis. In IT, at the implementation level, it may be how they fit this project into everything else they are doing.

At one level higher, let’s say front line or middle management, the issue may be “how do I find the money to solve the problem, how can we afford it.

Then we can look at the perspective of top leadership. Their perspective is very different. They don’t worry about how it impacts their ability to do their jobs on a day to day basis. They worry about how the problem impacts their ability to achieve their strategic goals. They worry about how they grow, profitably, how they address new opportunities, how they maximize the performance of the organization, and the business risk of doing nothing.

So the same problem looks very different depending on where you sit in the organization. To some it may be a hassle factor in their day to day performance of their jobs, to others it’s a strategic opportunity or threat. To some it’s “how do I find the budget,” to others, it’s “how can we not invest?”

Unfortunately, as sellers, we treat the problem the same, with everyone we talk to. If we traditionally deal with IT, we focus on implementation, costs of support, stability, and so forth. Yet when we talk to other people in the organization, we tend to talk about the same things–even though they view the problem differently.

Or if we traditionally focus on end users, we look at the problem in terms of how it impacts their day to day performance. They can handle more calls, more easily, they can deal with the increase workloads, they can achieve their daily goals and metrics, or it reduces their frustration and hassle factor. And we tend to focus on the same thing when we talk to other people or other levels in the organization.

As we work with managers trying to find the budget to justify a solution, we focus on finding the money through cost avoidance, productivity improvements, and so forth. Again, when we talk to others, we focus on the same things.

If we have traditionally sold these solutions at the executive level, we talk to them about opportunity cost, growth potential, competitive advantage, the ability do address new markets, disrupt markets, and the ability to accelerate their abilities to achieve their strategic goals. We focus on the investment, the return on that investment, and risks of choosing not to invest. Yet when we talk about the same things to the end users, they look at us with their eyes crossed.

Everyone sees the problem differently, based on where they sit.

So what does this mean for our customer engagement strategies, maximizing our ability to create value with the customer, maximizing our ability to win?

Well the answer depends. Some things to consider.

Who is the problem most important to? With due respect to clients in the office supplies/services business, the PCs we buy, the toner we buy, the soap and disposable towels we buy, or the office maintenance services may not be an important problem to the top executives of an organization. We might categorize these as basic “hygiene” types of problems. Things that are important to the individuals in the organization, perhaps their management, and in which cost is an important factor.

I’ve shared the story of being a CRO at a technology company. As important as we thought the products were, for the most part, they were “hygiene solutions.” One of my regional managers knew I had a relationship with the CEO of a major US telecom company. This regional VP thought he should call at the top, asking me to arrange an intro to my friend the CRO. My friend did me a favor and met with us. The RVP talked about our solutions–fortunately he didn’t pitch products. He wanted to expand the relationship.

The CEO, as gently as he could, said, “I really don’t care about those issues. They don’t have a significant impact on our ability to achieve our goals. He went on to say that in anticipation of the meeting, he did some research, identifying the most senior level person that would be interested in the problems we solved. That person held a VP title, but was 5 levels below the CEO.

And, in truth, for the areas we were focused on, while we could offer millions in productivity improvements and cost savings, that was not on the CEOs radar, he was concerned with billions in opportunity. And in those product areas, we couldn’t see how they solutions could create strategic advantage for the company. So it was right the CEO and his top management didn’t care. And we were wasting our and his time trying to get them to care.

So, the first thing is, not all problems are important at all levels. Sometimes, they are unimportant.

But what about the case where multiple people at multiple levels care about the problem? Let’s say, the CEO sees the opportunity for strategic advantage in driving growth. And an end user see’s it as making their job easier.

This is probably the most difficult challenge, particularly in driving a consensus decision. The reason is we are really dealing with different problems! The way the top executives see the problem is different than the way and end user sees the problem. It’s virtually impossible to sell to this scenario, because the way these differing group see the problem.

The decision process to address a problem because of strategic advantage is very different than the decision to address a problem to optimize day to day performance.

Let me go back to my customer service opportunity. At an executive level, we may give the customer the opportunity to reposition themselves leveraging customer experience as a strategic differentiator and competitive weapon in acquiring and growing the customer base. At an end user level, we make it easier for them to do their jobs and achieve their performance goals.

See, these are really different problems and opportunities. As a result they are different decisions and decision-making processes.

Now here’s where the situation becomes a little complex. Which problem should the customer be solving; which problem do we want the customer to solve? The tactical day to day performance problem or the strategic repositioning problem?

Sadly, too many of our go to customer strategies focus on the transactional issue–the tactical day to day problem faced by the end users. And if we let the customer define the problem they want to solve in this manner, we will never enable them to solve the strategic repositioning problem. This is simply because it’s a different problem with the same solution.

We create the greatest value with our customers when we help them choose the right problem to solve. But that requires us to sell differently. We will never convince the end user and their management to address the strategic repositioning problem. That’s not their job, that’s not where they have experience, that’s not where we create value for them.

Likewise, we will never convince senior management to focus on the transactional performance issues, that’s not their job or what they care about (remember my CEO friend.)

The strategic repositioning problem is a senior management problem. It’s their job to identify the strategic growth opportunities, putting in place the people, resources, tools, processes and programs to achieve those strategic growth opportunities. As you might expect, this is also where we have the opportunity to create the greatest value, differentiation, and to maximize the deal value.

And, ironically, when we help senior management solve the strategic repositioning problem, we also help the end users with their daily job performance problem.

Unfortunately, too many of our go to customer strategies are focused on the smaller, tactical problem. We don’t maximize our value creation or the value we realize by doing this. We aren’t providing the leadership our customers value the most. Many of our solutions can solve both the strategic repositioning problems, yet we don’t position them as such. We are undeserving our customers and our own companies with by failing in this way.

We, also, leave ourselves exposed to those who are disrupting the markets by focusing on these strategic repositioning issues. They are solving the problems the executives seek to solve. We can, but fail to.

Which problem do you want your customer to solve? Which problem to you want to be solving?

Afterword: Thanks to Jack Malcolm for helping me clarify my thinking on this.

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