Improve Sales Performance – Sell the Problem, Not the Solution

How do you get your message out to the right customers? What does it take to brand your company effectively? How can you speak the customer’s language if every customer’s problem is just a little bit different? If you can answer these questions, you will improve sales performance, manage sales productivity, and even control the cost of sales. Here’s how: Sell the Problem and NOT the Solution!

If you’re selling business-to-business, then you understand that buyers rarely buy because they want the product. They buy to solve a business problem. They buy because they recognize that Business Problem X will cost them money, time or competitive advantage if they don’t address it. Rarely do buyers buy because the product itself is glamorous, popular or even priced right. Such considerations may be used to justify a buying decision, but they don’t create the buyer’s motivation to buy. So if you want to improve your sales performance, learn how to sell the problem before you sell the solution.

How do you sell the problem? You figure out what itch your buyer wants to scratch. Even in the best of economic times, buyers will only buy if the pain of opening their wallets is LESS than the pain of having the problem, i.e. not opening their wallets. Your best chance to make that wallet-opening experience painless is to become an expert in your buyer’s problem. Brand your company around your knowledge of the problem. Design your messaging and qualification efforts to diagnose the problem. Use testimonials to prove that you understand the problem and can solve it. When you start with the problem, you can move quickly to the solution. But when you start with the solution…who knows how long it will take.

Recently, I was hired to help the Alliance for Performance Excellence improve its overall sales performance. The Alliance is the national consortium of state and local initiatives that help organizations to improve performance results through the principles and Criteria for Performance Excellence. Although all Alliance members base their work on the criteria of the Malcolm Baldridge Criteria for Performance Excellence, each program operates in a different geography, serves different types of organizations, and provides different types of supplementary programs and services. What we have discovered illustrates the notion of “selling the problem.”

Members of the Alliance for Performance Excellence may deal with a school system today, a major manufacturer tomorrow, a county government this morning, a technology startup this afternoon. There are few apparent similarities among these business profiles. But what is similar is the problem they face. “Problems” that need a prescription of Performance Excellence are relatively easy to define – declining profit margins, difficulty controlling costs, poor levels of productivity, underwhelming sales performance, high employee turnover. There may be additional “prescriptions” that go along with the Performance Excellence medicine, but if these problems are not on the minds of decision makers, then the Alliance member probably won’t make the sale.

Identifying the problem you solve is not too difficult. Follow a few simple steps. First, ask yourself what major business problems your solution solves.

Next, talk to some of your best customers. Ask them what problem they had been attempting to solve when they bought from you. Don’t forget to ask them if you solved the problem to their satisfaction! Try asking at least ten customers. Keep track of their answers.

Third, collate the answers and find out what themes emerge. You will begin to identify the common problem statements that motivated your best customers to buy from you in the first place.

Final step, craft those answers and themes into your value proposition. Work it into your branding. Include it in your qualifying efforts. Constantly refer to the problems you know how to solve. You’ll be getting the right message to the right customers in their language, and branding your company properly as you do so.

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