4.14.23 – CI
The truth is, solutions simply aren’t needed unless there’s a problem to solve.
With tongue only slightly in cheek, I say that everything in AV sales centers on “problems.” Problems might be internal to our own companies or external with our customers, but Problems ‘R’ Us. Many of us think we’re still living in the age of solutions sales, but here’s the truth: Solutions are not needed unless there is a specific problem to solve. Think cart and horse; the solution can only follow the problem.
Neil Rackham, the iconic researcher who is author of the bestselling sales books SPIN Selling and Major Account Sales Strategy, states it most simply. According to Rackham, “If you can’t solve a problem for your customer, then there’s no basis for a sale. But if you uncover problems you can solve, then you’re potentially providing the buyer with something useful.”
Don’t confuse uncovering generic problems with discovering a burning, immediate need. There is a sales journey, and it goes from understanding the situation or current condition to problem exploration and identification. Problems are revealed by questions, which lead to a statement by the customer of their explicit needs and problems, which you can help to solve. Then, the seller — you! — shows how your solution best solves the identified problem. It sounds easy, but it’s not as simple as employing a formulaic approach. It’s important to be patient throughout…not to rush.
Asking Thought-Provoking Questions
I want to briefly focus on what the data shows is the importance of asking thought-provoking, open-ended questions. Then, we’ll take a more detailed look at problem-solving approaches and barriers (or impediments) to problem-solving. The more we understand about what defines a problem, how to approach it and how to overcome barriers that stand in our way, the more we understand a customer’s pain points and see ways to address them. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, problems are in the eye of the buyer. Both the buyer and the seller must understand that and try to zero in on them. As Rackham’s extensive research shows, “People buy from you not because you understand your product but because you understand their problems.”
“No problem!” you might say. “We just need to ask a customer what problems they have.” But it’s not so simple! In Major Account Sales Strategy, Rackham’s research tells us, “Successful people ask a lot more questions during sales calls than do their less-successful colleagues.” However, it’s not as simple as the volume of questions. It’s also the type of questions asked. Those are really the keys to the kingdom of how to unlock a sale at the right time and level.
In SPIN Selling, Rackham’s research shows that the most important category of questions centers on those surrounding implications of problems or potential problems. He writes, “Implication questions take a customer problem and explore its effects or consequences. As we’ll see, by asking implication questions, successful people help the customer understand a problem’s seriousness or urgency.” Our future success relies on asking the right questions, uncovering and clarifying the problem, and then exploring the seriousness/impact/implications of the problem. Only by coming to a consensus on explicit needs can a salesperson move on to the solution.
Defining Our Terms
Now that we understand the importance of the type of problem-related questions to ask, let’s explore some proven problem-solving approaches, some helpful traits for problem solvers and some impediments that might stand in the way of solutions.
As usual, I like to define my terms. There are hundreds of definitions of the word “problem,” but a few should really resonate within our commercial AV community. So, just what constitutes a “problem”?
- A problem is a situation that is unsatisfactory and causes difficulties for people.
- A problem is a puzzle that requires logical thought to solve.
- A problem is a question, matter and/or situation that is perplexing and/or difficult.
- A problem is a matter that causes one difficulty and needs to be dealt with.
Synonyms include words like “challenge,” “trouble,” “dilemma,” “predicament,” “quandary” and, at the extreme end, “quagmire.”
Overall, a problem is something that already is — or soon will become — troublesome and difficult to deal with or control due to its complexity. An identified problem becomes a question posed for solution. The solution requires examination and proof. In each case, a problem is considered a matter that is difficult to solve or settle…a complex task that involves doubt and/or uncertainty. The role of a commercial AV salesperson is to clear up customer doubt and uncertainty.
Suffice it to say that it’s important for everyone to understand the problem-solving process and develop problem-solving skills on both a personal level and a professional level. That applies both inside our own commercial AV companies and outside with our customers. All problem-solving begins with establishing the need at the heart of the problem. Then, we state the problem clearly and concisely. At this stage, it’s important to focus on all elements surrounding and affecting the need; we mustn’t allow ourselves to jump to a solution prematurely. More important at this stage is to define the scale and scope, as well as to identify the desired outcome. Whenever possible, this need/problem statement should be addressed qualitatively and quantitatively.
How do we wrap our arms around problem-solving? Here is a look from a 20,000-foot level. There are far too many lists of problem-solving steps to recount, but, in most cases, it boils down to a few basic things:
- Start by asking, “Why is this current situation a problem?” Once you’ve boiled it down, you will be able to better assess the situation. Identify the problem, explore the situation and expand on it to try to get to the bottom of it. Draft a problem statement. Reduce the problem to the simplest possible terms.
- The next step is to create a list of possible solutions to the problem you’ve discovered. Brainstorming individually, as well as brainstorming in group settings, is the best way to think of a potential answer. The more input, the better! Different perspectives can lead to new and different solutions. There are models for this that can help you create solutions, including means to end and/or root-cause analysis.
- Next, it’s time to choose the solution. In order to find the best solution for the problem, analyze every possible resolution and decide which one is best for the situation you’re in. You should consider many elements and alternatives before choosing any solution.
- Now that a solution has been chosen, it’s time to implement it, which should be followed by evaluating the results.
People solve problems, and most companies seek candidates with excellent problem-solving skills. What follows represents a consensus of subject-matter experts on some of the most important problem-solving skills. I might add parenthetically that these are very similar to the skills necessary to be a good salesperson!
- Active listening: When they actively listen, participants gather valuable information for problem-solving. This encourages stakeholders to get involved, provide different opinions, share their understanding of the problem, diagnose its root cause and devise workable solutions.
- Analytical thinking: This helps in research, as well as in understanding a problem and its causes. The ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships is also essential to anticipating the long-term effects of a course of action. Those with strong analytical skills can evaluate the effectiveness of different solutions and choose the best one.
- Creative approach: Problem-solving requires finding a balance between logic and creativity to get to the cause of the issue. Creativity leads to innovative solutions.
- Communication: Regardless of the stage of problem-solving you find yourself in, you should be able to communicate effectively.
- Decision-making: Decisions must be made at every stage of problem-solving. Here are a few examples of key decision points: What methods should you use to define the problem? What is the problem? Which solutions should you use? How should they be implemented?
- Teamwork: Problem-solving involves teamwork. You ask stakeholders for their perspective on the problem and involve them in developing effective solutions. You also lean on them for feedback on the chosen solution, as well as to implement the process. It is essential to involve and motivate all members of the team for effective problem-solving.
Common Roadblocks and Impediments
We would be remiss if we, at the end of our little journey, did not recount several common roadblocks and impediments to finding a solution to a problem. Let’s explore them.
- The biggest disconnect is probably the difficulty of recognizing when there’s a problem and the implications of that problem. Basically: What is the problem? Is the problem big enough to take the time to find a solution? This is the entry point. Those questions can lead to cognitive dissonance and egocentricity getting in the way. If you can find a way to diminish those negative traits, the path to a solution will be far easier and clearer.
- Sometimes, the problem is just too big. The best approach is to break it down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Identifying the involved parts and getting to the root cause provide focus and credibility in devising a solution.
- Another issue is timeliness — that is, not acting too quickly or waiting too long. Subject matter experts suggest establishing a “problem maturity.” This requires assessing the best time to act.
The point of all this is to look at problems in a new light and recognize that this is now our path to success in commercial AV. Our jobs have evolved. We’ve transitioned from being the sole source of information for our customers, to being solutions providers with widgets and “speeds and feeds,” to now becoming experts at solving problems. Yes, we still provide information, but the buyer is now more informed — whether for good or for ill — than ever before. Yes, we still provide the widgets, but as Neil Rackham (and so many others following his lead) told us, “The people buy from you not because you know your product but because you understand their problems.”
Problems ‘R’ Us — get on board!
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About the Author
ALAN C. BRAWN
Alan C. Brawn CTS, ISF, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE. DCME, is the principal of Brawn Consulting.