What Did You Sell That For?


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As a preface, I have to confess to a little frustration and some venting. Too often, when I speak to sales people and ask them about what they sell and their customers, I pose the question, “What did you sell that for?” The responses, while logical, are frustrating. Often, the sales person responds with “That was a $ 1 million deal,” or something indicating the order size or revenue. Alternatively, they respond with the product they sold, “The customer was looking to buy some new software and chose our solution,” or “They wanted to buy this piece of equipment, and I sold them ours.”

Just yesterday, I spoke to a sales person. He had made a very large sale of a software system (somehow). I asked him, “What did you selll that for?” He looked at me, wondering why I’d ever ask that question, but was patient and responded, “This is what our system does,” describing the features of the system. To me, it was meaningless that it allowed people to enter transactions on a Smart Phone, what I wanted to know is what result it produced for the person using the system, how it helped them better serve their customers, improve their operations, and so forth. When I challenged him with these questions, he shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I don’t know that. The customer was looking for a system that enabled transactions on a smart phone, thats’ what I sold them.

This isn’t unusual, time after time, in responding to my query, sales people can only describe what they sold. In the end I’m frustrated, I still don’t know “What they sold if for?”

“What did you sell that for” really focuses on what the customer is trying to achieve, the problem they are trying to solve, the result they are trying to produce. Thinking back to the old story–customers don’t want to buy drills, they have a need to create a hole in a wall and the drill provides them a solution to creating holes in the wall.

Too often, I think we engage the customer and respond to them without really understanding what we are selling our solution for. Part of the challenge is we’ve trained our customers too well. To often, our first contacts with customer focus on what we sell. A customer may contact us saying, “we need to buy a new financial system,” or “we need to buy this or that.” They are good enough to present what they want in terms of what we sell.

And naturally, we respond. We may ask a few questions about their needs and priorities, how they will make the decision, the alternatives they may be considering. But the conversation is all about what we are selling, and seldom really explores what the customer needs to buy.

The web makes this even more difficult, customers do research, they determine what they want to buy, then they engage sellers to determine which one they will buy. The subsequent discussions focus on what we sell.

I think we lose a lot of opportunity. It’s critical that we know the answer to the question, “What are we selling this for?” If we don’t know what the customer is trying to achieve. If we don’t understand their goals, if we don’t provide them leadership in improving their business, we are just vendors.

If we don’t know what we are selling something for, it’s impossible for us to defend our value–whether it’s differentiating our solution from the competition or maintaining our price. We aren’t maximizing our ability to create and claim value to the customer. We’re just peddlers and we are creating value for our customers.

If we want to maximize our ability to win, we need to know what we are selling our solutions for. We need to be able to position our solutions in the context of what we help our customers achieve.

What are we selling this for? Do you know? If you don’t you aren’t ready to be in front of your customer!

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. Many years ago at IBM, an exec told a story about a rep being interviewed about a huge sale he just won.

    The exec asked the rep: What did you sell it for?

    And the answer: 20% discount

    The rep (the story goes) had no idea what the customer did with the products, and didn’t talk about the product features either. Amazing.

  2. I remember the story. I actually think it was attributed to Spike Beitzel at the time. It’s at least 30 year old. What’s amazing is those stories still persist across all companies.

  3. Dave: I think what you intended to ask the salesperson is ‘When they bought from you, what outcomes (or results) did your customer want?’

    To be fair, if you had asked me that question just after I sold my home through an agent or my car car on CraigsList, I would reflexively give you the selling price.

    I don’t intend to get mired in the semantics of your question, because the larger point you make is so important: salespeople–actually, vendors in general–are quite weak in how to objectively define problems. The simple reason, as you point out, is that they aren’t objective!

    Why–with all the hoopla about being a ‘trusted advisor,’ and gratuitously sanitizing ‘Sales’ out of job titles? There’s a long list of reasons, but I’ll name three: compensation at risk, sales culture, and sales mentoring. In short, in sales training rhetoric we persist in amplifying how to sell, rather than how to solve problems. They’re related, but they’re not the same.

    In a related story, just last week I visited the home of a friend who was asked to serve as an advisor to a school board in Texas. An engineer by training, he told me “the first meeting, I asked the Board to define the problem they wanted to solve. Two weeks went by, and they couldn’t. So I asked them to give me their goals, and in two more weeks, they couldn’t reach consensus. I turned in my resignation after five weeks.”

    If salespeople are encouraged to define problems, it’s frequently limited to the context of the solution they provide–which isn’t effective, especially for enterprise-level sales.

    If salespeople were as laser-focused on problem definition as my friend, I think outcomes would be improved all the way around.

  4. You make a great point. Sales is much more effective if they define the problem in customer terms, not in the context of their solution. It’s interesting, we don’t train our people in problem solving. Perhaps that would help change the approach sales people take.

  5. Problem solving skills can be taught, but we have to get out of sales mode, and sit down with some engineers and programmers so we can learn from them.

    I believe the reason (THE reason!) my engineer friend cut to the chase with the school board so quickly was that objectively defining problems is central to how he thinks about things–quite possibly, how he thinks about everything. When the answers weren’t compatible with his problem-solving style, he got out. “I can’t build that structure, because I don’t know what you want it to do, and you don’t either!”

    As salespeople, we don’t exercise the walk-away option because we’re conditioned to salivate over the revenue opportunity, so we end up accepting confusion, ambiguity, and indecision in the hopes that the prospect will come around and “be convinced” to buy from us.

    The engineer doesn’t see it that way. To him, it’s just another project that has a high probability for catastrophic failure. I believe it’s that difference in perspective that hinders us as salespeople from learning the fundamentals of problem definition.

    One conversational approach to address this challenge would be to initiate the face-to-face discussion this way: “If I could ask you that for the next hour to focus our conversation exclusively on collectively obtaining a crystal clear definition of the problem you want to solve, and to put aside any expectation that my product or service applies to that problem in any way. That would help me to most objectively assess whether or how I can bring value to your company. . . ”

  6. When I worked in a sales team, I thought I knew what being “consultative” meant. I’m analytical and like solving problems, too. You have problems, I got solutions!

    But when I joined the IBM Consulting Group and got trained on real consulting methods, I realized just how naive I was. There is a world of difference between real consulting and sales consulting. And real problem solving vs. sales problem solving.

    This is not a knock on sales or sales support. They can be consultative and indeed solve problems. But are they really the customer’s problems? Or are they the most convenient uncovered needs/problems that will result in a sale?

    I don’t think sales professionals should try to camouflage selling as something else. Selling is a noble profession. Great sales professionals add value, solve problems and even consult. But let’s not confuse it with real consulting or problem solving, which is the domain of professionals trained to do so, for a fee.

    A simple test: If you’re not billing the customer for your services, it’s not real consulting or problem solving.


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