Five Key Elements of Problem-Centric Selling

When it comes to winning over customers, sales teams need to adopt a new approach.

Reading Time: 5 min 


Many companies are just like us, and the start of the new year means making their own resolutions as organizations. Often these revolve around increasing their sales metrics and implementing new technologies. But one of the most effective goals is much simpler — something they can, and should, start doing for free.

After 20 years of working in sales, including eight years running my own consulting practice, I’ve discovered that a simple test can help transform how sales teams operate. In fact, I recommend that teams encourage their managers to give them this test.

You may be wondering why we should add a test on top of what are often already heavy burdens for sales teams. The answer: because many teams miss their quotas. In fact, in 2018, Salesforce found that more than half (57%) of sales representatives expected to miss quotas for the year.

The Challenge

The test involves having a manager look at a salesperson’s notes about prospects listed in the salesperson’s customer relationship management (CRM) platform. Without providing names or any identifying information, the manager reads back the notes to the employee.

The employee then tries to identify each prospect based just on that information alone.

I often find that salespeople can’t identify many or most of their clients. And it’s not due to a lack of effort or engagement with the clients. Rather, it’s most often due to a lack of asking clients the right questions and getting the right information to drive sales.

Problem-Centric Selling

Often, managers are directing their sales teams to focus on determining their prospects’ needs. This advice often boils down to: Ask the client questions, listen to what they say they need or want, and recommend a solution.

The problem is this traditional method is not enough. In many cases, the first thing a client needs or wants doesn’t necessarily solve their core problem. This new method means salespeople must first diagnose the real problem, as in many cases the potential buyer cannot yet articulate it themselves.

An experience I once had as a customer helped open my eyes to this phenomenon. In the early 2000s, I had a then-popular PalmPilot. While in Boston for a conference, I realized the battery had died, and I didn’t have my charger. I walked into a store and asked whether they had one. The salesman said yes, then asked whether he could interest me in something else, such as a case. A bit annoyed that he was trying to upsell me, I said no.

But just as he was about to ring me up, he looked me in the eye and asked me a question: Was the device out of power because when I put it in my pocket or briefcase, buttons got pressed, wasting the battery?

“Yes!” I yelled, excited that he had guessed it. “That’s exactly what happens!”

He then showed me a case specifically designed to prevent that. I bought it.

I had thought I needed only a charger, but I also needed a case. I wasn’t focused on the real problem and didn’t share it with him because I didn’t know what my options or solutions were. But with his problem-centric approach, the salesperson was able to diagnose my issue and make the sale.

Buyers aren’t as similar as they appear. By taking the time to diagnose problems with as much specificity as possible, salespeople discover important differences among potential customers that are crucial for tailoring offerings and pitches.

Take, for example, two buyers who say they need new productivity systems at their businesses that will allow employees to delegate better and spend more time away from the office. Most salespeople would simply offer them the same solution.

But that solution may require the buyer to contact their manager frequently for approval. This may suit a customer whose motivation for the new technology is to save on gas and avoid road congestion. But it does not suit the other customer who is about to adopt twins with special needs and needs to work off-hours, when the manager isn’t available.

The Five Elements of Problem Diagnosis

To enable problem-centric selling, managers should focus their teams on five critical elements:

  • Know key facts about the customer. This include descriptions of the environment in which the buyer works, the processes they use, the structure of the organization, the tools they have, the current goals of the business, etc. Getting to the facts that go beyond basic names, size of company, and industry helps establish the context for where customers’ problems live.
  • Understand the problems the buyer is facing. Don’t just go by what they think their problems are. Ask so much about their process that you help them discover what their real problems are. Help to identify the problems before they do.
  • Measure the impact of those problems. How does this problem affect their business, their team, and their own work in terms of productivity, revenue, and other important metrics? By applying measurements to the problem, you can help the buyer understand the benefit they’ll get from addressing this root issue.
  • Help identify the root causes. Dig deep to find out what’s behind the problems. Offer ideas about possible causes, as a different perspective may help the customer problem-solve in new ways.
  • Employ empathy. How is the problem making the customer feel? By cultivating an emotional connection, the sales representative can come to understand and empathize with the client, building trust.

Of course, customers don’t have endless time to spend with your teams. So it’s important for managers to train their employees to get this critical information early on in the process. This is also an opportunity to use customer data that the teams may already have. For instance, user-generated content can provide your teams with great insight into customer needs.

In my experience working with all different kinds of sales managers and teams, I’ve found that when you put problem-centric selling into action, customers are so happy to have someone who “gets it” that they’re ready to spend more time on the phone and, much of the time, more willing to invest in your solution.


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