What Problem Is Your Customer Really Trying To Solve?


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The majority of sales people, unfortunately are just peddlers—walking, talking brochures. Needless to say, customers are finding digital sources of information much more useful than talking to those sales people. The data consistently shows customers limit contact with these types of sales people to the very end of the buying process.

Some few sales people try to engage customers in a more impactful manner, trying to understand the customer problem presenting solutions to those problems. Inevitably, these sales people create more value and more differentiation for the customer.

But there’s a problem with that, too often, we view the problem to be solved in the context of our solutions. For example, if we sell CRM systems, we view the problem the customer needs to solve as “selecting the right CRM system.”

Before, I go further, this is not an issue just of our creation. Our customers, often, present their problem in that context, for example, “We need a new CRM system that enables us to do this……”

Since that’s what we are expert about, and around which we can create the greatest value, we get sucked in to being “helpful,” and “creating value with the customer.”

Often, this challenge is a result of the people we are dealing with at the customer. If their focus is on CRM, we respond to that focus, but they may be dealing with just a subset of the problem. Inevitably the need for a CRM system is a subset of potential problems the customer may be looking at around sales performance/productivity.

Any time, we (and the customer) define a problem in the context of what our solution do, we probably haven’t identified the right problems. Problems don’t get defined in terms of neatly packaged solutions, they are usually much more complex.

Why is this important?

One might argue, “We can only solve our part of the problem, we can’t solve the rest of the problem!”

Well, yes—-and—-no.

Often our context limits us and the customer we are working with. Think of the story of the 5 blind people trying to discover what an elephant is. Because each of them are focused on just one part, they have completely different perspectives of what an elephant is.

Using the CRM example, if we and the customer view the issue as a CRM issue, we limit how we look at, and how we justify the solution. As a result, several things may happen: 1. We position our solution for only a small part of the problem, but not how it might address larger parts of the problem. 2. We limit our view of the business case/business justification, failing to leverage additional areas of impact or justification.

For example, right now I’m working with a client on this very issue. They bought and implemented a CRM system. In buying the system, they focused their goals on 3 specific areas/problems they wanted to address.

The sales person (from a very large CRM supplier) did an adequate job in responding to their requirements and helping them “solve their problem.”

But he didn’t try to understand the larger context of their sales, marketing, customer experience problems. And the customer didn’t realize they should be looking at the solution in a much broader context.

As a result, the customer wasn’t getting all they could out of the CRM system, and they could have easily justified a much larger implementation (marketing, customer service, and other modules).

Often, we may lose a sale and the customer loses an opportunity to improve because we are looking at the problem incorrectly. Perhaps our shared perspectives are too narrow, as a result we and the customer can’t justify the right solution, instead choosing the solution they can afford. But it may not be the right solution for their broader problem.

Looking at the broader problem (sets of problems) can enable us to dramatically enhance our value and importance to the customer, even if we can only solve a part of their problem.

Not long ago, I wrote, Meet Bob.

It focused on how a client, a semiconductor supplier repositioned itself and how it helped the customer solve their problems.

Rather than focusing on helping the customer select their devices to embed in their new products, my client realized the real customer problem had little to do with semiconductor device selection.

Instead the real problems were optimizing their product design and development, reducing design/development costs and time. Their problems were maximizing the impact and success of the launch, scaling to production as rapidly as possible. Their problems included developing a quality product, both to reduce warranty claims and returns, but also to develop a strong reputation on the market. Finally, they recognized the customer was focused on reducing launch risk and accelerating time to revenue and profitability.

As my client started working with the customer in helping them understand and address these issues, their position with the customer changed dramatically. Rather than being just a supplier of semiconductors, their customers started engaging them in broader issues, buying not just semiconductors but additional capability in improving their design, manufacturing, supply chain issues.

If they had only focused on solving the customer device selection problems, they would not have created the differentiated value possible, they would not have helped the customer identify and solve their real problems. Instead, they would have been in a commodity battle, where many different suppliers could meet the requirement, and the decision would have ultimately been made on price.

As we work with our customers, we need to understand and help them understand their real problems. It is seldom just what we do, but usually much bigger. We create the greatest value, differentiation, impact by positioning what we do in the context of the customer real problems, not just what they think they may be.

Afterword: Tamara Schenk wrote a brilliant article on the same theme: Enabling Problem Solvers, Identifying The Impact Of The Problem.

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. Really liked the article Dave. We’ve all experienced the scripted salesperson that comes at us with a well-practiced pitch (often sounding like it is being read), and then refuses to deviate from said script regardless of what we tell them. The ability to uncover and then solve real customer problems is the key factor in sales success.


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