Are You Dealing With The Problem Owner Or The Solution Owner?

Yes, I know a few of you are scratching your heads saying, “What does Dave mean with this title?”

I’ll explain, but first, I need to define a few things:

We–sales people–are solution providers (hopefully). The solution owner is the group within our customer responsible for implementing solutions, but they don’t own the problem, they are helping solve the problem.

For example, many of our clients sell IT solutions–hardware, software, systems. Inevitably, they call on IT, developing deep relationships with IT, responding to their needs to provide solutions to the Problem Owner–but too many aren’t calling on the Problem Owner. In fact they don’t recognize that IT–the solution owner doesn’t own the problem.

Sales people spend a lot of time working with procurement and sourcing, responding to their requests, helping them address the issues their internal customers–the problem owners have asked them to solve. But we fail to meet with the problem owner.

The problem owner is the person or organization who ultimately owns the problem. The results they produce or fail to produce impact the overall performance of the business. They may be sales executives, seeking to drive greater revenue growth and profitability. Manufacturing executives looking to improve quality, reducing manufacturing cycle time or costs. Development executives looking to accelerate new product development, improve development productivity, improve product functionality or performance, improve creativity or innovation. Financial executives looking to improve cash flow, reduce days outstanding, and so forth. They are the people where the proverbial “buck stops,” at least until the CEO.

It’s their problems both we (solution providers) and the solution owners are trying to solve. It’s with them, the true value of the solution must reside. It’s them who set the priorities and framework for the problem we are trying to solve or the opportunity we are helping them address. It’s them who, ultimately, pay for or fund the solution–both for the solution owner and for us the solution provider.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who’s the problem and solution owners. Solution owners may reside in the function that owns the problem, but they are not the problem owner themselves. For example, they might be Sales Operations or Sales Enablement executives looking to provide systems, tools, training, content to the sales teams. They may be work flow analysts within a design, manufacturing, or finance organization. They may be training departments, support groups, or other function. They are responsible for the implementation of a solution, but they don’t own the business problem.

We as sales people may be confused, as well. Our point of initial contact is most likely the solution owner. They are the people interested in understanding the solutions they can implement. They are the people who will be placing the order and may be paying us. So we focus our efforts on them. We think of them as “the customer,” but fail to work with their customers.

It’s important for us to work with the solutions owner. After all, they are held accountable for the implementation of the solution. They have problems themselves that we have to address. For example the implementation risks, challenges, plans, resources, and so forth. It’s critical that we identify and address these.

But too often we stop there and fail to identify and work with the real problem owner.

“But Dave, that’s where we always sell, we’ve been very successful doing this! And they don’t want us dealing with the problem owners, so what should we do?”

It’s critical to work with the problem owners—that’s where the real value creation is! If we aren’t working with them, we aren’t maximizing the value we create and the value we can claim. They are the people ultimately accountable for producing business results. If we are selling business results, we have to be working with the problem owners.

Problem owners and solution owners tend to assess value differently. Sales needs to understand this, creating, developing, and delivering value relevant to both audiences.

Who are you selling to, the solution owner or the problem owner? You need to be selling to both!

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