Why Salespeople Need to Be Problem FINDERS, Not Just Solvers

October 15, 2015 | Ann Lambert
Why Salespeople Need to Be Problem FINDERS, Not Just Solvers
daniel pink

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is all you need to see things differently—to look at something through a new lens and gain clarity that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. That’s exactly what Daniel Pink is for the sales industry.

In a recent podcast interview with Jill Konrath, Pink divulged that after twenty years writing about business, he realized he had never written about sales. He had, however, spent a lot of time selling—not only books but selling people on ideas. Approaching the sales topic with “fresh eyes and beginner’s mind,” To Sell is Human was born.

Konrath, a huge fan of his work, explained the benefit of a piece not authored from a salesperson’s perspective. He has no preconceptions about what works and what doesn’t; rather, he threw himself into the body of research. And he did so, in his own words, “not only with fascination but with admiration.” 

A Different Selling Approach to a Different Buying Process

One observation that Pink made was the transition from “information asymmetry” to “information parity” and the subsequent impact that has had on the way salespeople need to approach their prospects. Historically, the seller always had more information than the buyer—often a lot more information—which puts them at an advantage. As he points out, this gave way to the “buyer beware” principle—they don’t have many other choices, they don’t have a way to talk back, and they’re at a huge information disadvantage. That world has pretty much disappeared.

Now, as Konrath and Pink discuss, we’re in a fundamentally different situation. Buyer expectations have changed due to the research they can do ahead of time—they are coming to the table more prepared. Additionally, customers now have a voice—a way to talk, engage, and connect: blogs, social media, and other public online forums for conversation, questions, product reviews and recommendations. And, as a result of these changes, it is especially important for B2B sales reps to own and leverage their expertise and approach the selling process from a different angle.

This brought Pink to one of his main points of the conversation: the increased importance of problem finding versus problem solving. He offered the analogy that if the sales process is a timeline that goes from 0 to 100, buyers are coming in at 60 or 70, rather than 5 or 10. “And what that means is that they’re already reasonably well informed. So, if they know exactly what their problem is, they can probably find the solution without you,” Pink explains

“If you’re just solving existing problems that people know that they have, that’s not that valuable,” he adds. “What you have to be able to do is identify problems customers don’t realize that they’re having. Surface latent problems.  Look down the road and anticipate problems. So the premium has shifted from the skill of problem solving to the skill of problem finding. And it’s a very different skill.”

Find the Problem, Own the Expertise

Konrath followed up with the tough but important question: “How?” How can you make that shift? How can you be a problem finder? And without missing a beat, Pink responds: “Be an invaluable resource and provider of expertise. You have to know the other person’s business better than they do. Know it inside and out. Be able to look at their business and say…’let me tell you something you DON’T know. Let me tell you something that I learned elsewhere that’s going to surprise you.’”

[Note: Tim Riesterer of Corporate Visions is one sales expert who would likely agree with this, having recently been quoted, “[As a buyer], the most value a salesperson can add is to tell me about a problem I didn’t know.”]

However, salespeople don’t always recognize that they are experts. They forget that their expertise is derived from the conversations they are having with multiple businesses in the field every day. They are the eyes and ears of the industry they are selling to, while their clients are heads down in the office all day long and not as privy to the daily ins and outs of the greater industry landscape.

The challenge, Konrath points out, is for salespeople to redefine themselves, mentally, as experts. “They need to realize that that is their role. They have to be problem finders, not just solvers. And they have to know their customers inside and out in order to do that most effectively.”

Pink offers some concrete examples of what that conversation might look like:

“In the last month I’ve talked to 7 other CFOs. Here’s the thing that has blindsided them. Are you interested in that?” OR “I just ran into a CFO that used to be a customer, but their company went out of business. He was telling me why they went out of business, and I think that has some lessons for your company.’”

Effectively, the salesperson’s role is to take insights gleaned from conversations in the field and use them to identify areas where other similar businesses might be struggling. “It’s what experts do. Experts help you see things in new ways.” If that’s the case, it appears Pink is somewhat of a sales expert after all!

Hear the full interview, To Sell is Human: Exclusive Interview with Daniel Pink (Part 1), on Jill Konrath’s website.

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