Should Sales People be Problem Solvers or Problem Builders?

The conventional view of a successful “solution sales” person is as a problem solver. But that traditional perspective is being questioned in a number of quarters, not least because of the research that underpinned the publication of “The Challenger Sale”.

You see, the fact that you have a solution to your prospect’s “problem” is probably irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, even if what you have to offer is – by whatever questionable criteria you might choose to apply – the “best” solution available.

Your prospects can’t afford to solve all their problems

Should Sales People be Problem Solvers or Problem Builders? image Puzzle resized 170Should Sales People be Problem Solvers or Problem Builders?Given half a chance, your prospects will always be able to identify more problems, issues or opportunities than they can possibly have the resources to deal with. So identifying a problem and offering a suitably qualified solution isn’t enough.

Before you stand a chance of winning the prospect’s business, you need to help them to the conclusion that the problem is worth solving and – here’s the really important part – that it is more important to solve that problem than all the others that are clamouring for their attention.

Shine a light on that problem!

So being a good problem solver isn’t enough. Really successful sales people are problem builders. Often they are even problem creators or (at least) illuminators. They know how to elevate the importance of getting a problem solved in the prospect’s mind.

And if they can’t, they are smart enough to qualify out or at least to recognise that there’s a lot of work to be done to educate the prospect on the need for change, and on the costs, risks and consequences of sticking with the status quo.

Tell them something they don’t know

I just referred to “problem creators or illuminators”, and it’s probably worth explaining what I mean. Research by the CEB and others has powerfully validated the idea that drawing a prospect’s attention to a previously unrecognised issue, or giving them a fresh perspective on an already recognised problem is much more likely to lead to sales success than the traditional problem-solving solution-selling approach.

In the cut and thrust of the traditional solution-selling world, you need to out-execute all the other solution sellers from all the other competitors in order to win the recommendation, and even then, for the reasons I’ve highlighted above, you may not win the business.

What problem-builder sales people (the CEB identifies them as “Challengers”) do is to develop the problem – and its consequences – to the point where the prospect concludes that they simply have to do something.

Passing the WIIFM test

If you are the sales person that has led them towards that conclusion, it’s clear – and borne out by results in the field – that you’re much more likely to achieve a positive outcome.

By the way, it’s not just your champion you need to persuade. You also need to convince all the other vested stakeholder interests in the prospect organisation that this issue takes precedence over their pet projects as well.

You’ve got to find ways of anticipating and answering the “what’s in it for me (and my department, and the company)” question for all the relevant stakeholders. You can absolutely count on the fact that a number of them are going to ask something along the lines of “tell me again why need to do this?”, and you (and your sponsor) had better have a compelling answer.

The essence of selling = change management

Sales is an exercise in change management. You need to help your prospect answer “why change” and “why now” before explaining “why change to you”. And you had better be spending way more time on those first two questions than a conventional solution sales person might, because you can count on the fact that those are the areas where the really significant discussions are taking place inside the prospect.

Have you built a strong enough case for change?

If you’re a salesperson, I encourage you to ask the following question, honestly and rationally, of your top 10 deals: “have I really done all that I could to build the case for change within my prospect?”

And if you’re a sales leader, dependent on your team’s performance to hit your numbers in this and future quarters, I’d be really nervous if I felt I didn’t know that my sales people knew the answers to those questions, and were doing something about them.

By the way: top sales people aren’t just problem builders – they are also, by and large, superb storytellers. Here’s how you can spread the skill across your organisation…

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