Chapter 9: The Problem with Problems (and too many Assumptions)

There is more to the problem of assumptions than making sure that all parties have mutually agreed upon terms.  I have found that there are many different kinds of assumptions that can keep you from giving your client a great solution to their problem.

For instance, your client may assume that there actually is a problem when there isn’t.  Maybe there once was one, but for whatever reason, it is now gone, or that there never was a real problem in the first place.  It is also possible that the client may be focusing on a single problem, when there are really several problems.

While every salesperson may believe that his or her company has the best solution to the problem, there is a chance that there is no solution to the problem.  Alternately, the client may believe that there is only one solution to the problem when in fact there may be many. Or what if the reality is that the solution may be worse than the problem?  (Insert your favorite “the government made the solution worse than the problem” story here).

What if nobody cares about the problem?  While your contact may think that the problem is a mission-critical issue that could affect the very survival of the company, there is the possibility that nobody else believes him.  And if the person who signs the contracts and writes the checks for projects doesn’t think there is a real problem, then you have a very steep road ahead of you.

As more companies focus on ROI as part of their purchasing decisions, it may be a poor assumption that the problem and solution can be measured in a way to prove ROI.  In fact, it may be impossible to measure any aspect of the problem or solution.  Also, if the client has many people involved in the project, there is a great chance that each of them will have their own perception of the problem and the solution.  How do you handle this if your client has a team of twelve people who all want a piece of the decision?

One of the worst assumptions is that your client perceives your solution will solve the entire problem.  While it may be true that ultimately there are only two kinds of problems (people problems and money problems), the world of large, complex, or technical sales usually means that many problems within the client’s organization are causing varying amounts of influence and these can greatly affect any solution you may be proposing.

Let’s go back to our cloud-based CRM example from Chapter 8.  After lots of questions (Chapter 7), we all agreed that the client’s problem was that they couldn’t keep track of key data for their staff and customers, and they didn’t have a large budget to solve this problem.  In reality there would be much more to this, but let’s agree your product or service met the client’s stated needs.  How could this project possibly fail?

While your solution may solve your contact’s problem, it may cause real or imagined problems elsewhere, creating friction within the client’s organization that could  result in a failure of your solution.  For example, the IT department may not like the fact that your cloud-based CRM stores sensitive data offsite instead of on their servers.  The HR department may not like the additional responsibility of training staff on how to use the new system.  The finance department may not like the monthly software license costs, preferring to make a one-time purchase of a software program that the company would then own.  The CEO may not like spending any money at all.  And those always annoying, whiny salespeople?  Instead of efficient data management, they see management asking them to do more reports.

How do you overcome all of those problems?

Don’t get too overwrought by all of this.  Everyone involved in your project will have problems with assumptions – that’s just human nature.  However, if you are  aware of the multitude of assumptions that are being made, on both sides of the table, you can better navigate the sales process, keep qualifying, and reduce the possibility that some of those assumptions will have a negative impact.  Keep your eyes and ears open to these issues and you will walk a straighter path towards a successful sale and implementation of your solution.

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Chapter 8: How do you spell ASSUME?

We all know the “to assume is to make an ASS out of U and ME” line, but how far are you willing to go to reach an understanding on the facts of the problem you are trying to solve?  In Chapter 7 we talked about creating trust so that you can mutually discover the full set of facts, but there is actually more to this than asking great questions.

The first assumption problem involves terms.  If you are a 20-year industry veteran, and the client is new to your industry, there is a potential minefield of errors that can get in the way of your fact digging based on differing ideas of what terms and phrases mean.  For example, let’s say that your client wants to talk to you about cloud-based CRM systems. We all know that it is poor form to talk in endless acronyms, but worse, CRM might mean one thing to you and another to your client.  And the cloud, as used in the computer industry, is so new and abstract to some people that you would definitely need to make sure you both were talking about the same thing.

How do you agree on the meaning of terms in a way that doesn’t sound condescending to your client?

Done properly, a quick discussion on terms can be a great way to show that you want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of the solution process (at the same time, it helps with your continuous prospect qualification process).  It might be something as simple as saying, “We’ve found that cloud-based customer relationship management systems (notice CRM is defined here, not abbreviated) can mean different things to different people.  To make sure we are on the same page, can you tell me what that means to you and what you are trying to accomplish?”

You might find out that to the client, CRM means Consumer Research Methodology. Better to find that out now than 30 minutes into a presentation.  Or you may find that their idea of a cloud platform is a Hotmail account when you think it means a hosted software platform with full redundancy and real-time failover.  Whatever happens, you have removed assumptions, clarified intent, and set up a pathway that you can now both go down together.  In addition, the client has had a chance to think about what her real problem is, and what a successful outcome might look like.

Using the example above, let’s assume that you and the client have agreed that a cloud-based CRM is a software package that resides on your company’s computer servers, is accessed over a standard web browser, and allows you to import, export, and sort data on the company’s staff and customers (an example of this is SalesForce).  The next step is to find out why your client wants this.  The client may answer, “I Googled it and found that it is cheaper to get a cloud-based system rather than a self-hosted system.”

If you sell cloud-based CRM systems, it is time to fire up the PowerPoint, show 12 slides of your company’s org charts, and close with the classic “sign here, three copies, press hard” and run for the door, right?

Not so fast.

If price is the only reason that they are buying this type of system, then you are now in the commodity business; in a race to the bottom to see who can have the lowest price and margin.  There is a place in every industry for the lowest cost product or service, but I’ve always preferred to be known as the Most Expensive Guy In Town (more on that later). There must be another thing other than price that is driving this decision.  There almost always is.

This is where real sales begins.

What about the other things that your company can do, such as give  24/7 for tech support, automatic software upgrades, user-friendly software, special customizations, etc? What about other advantages of cloud-based systems, such as real-time security against spam, malware, hackers, and Nigerian e-mail scams?  Only after agreeing on what each of these terms means to the client can you proceed in a way that makes you a resource to your client, and if you are resource, you can earn your way to Trusted Advisor status (see Chapter 3).

These are just assumptions on terms.  In Chapter 9, we will look at other types of more complex assumptions, all based on the frailties of the human mind.

Chapter 7: Earning Trust Before You Ask the Tough Questions

To fully succeed at sales, we must think and act with a client-centric mindset at all times.  To do that, we need to first gather accurate information from our prospect, and to get that information, we must have trust.

We can’t have trust until we earn trust.

What happens if at our first meeting, we ask, “what were the three biggest failures of your department last year?”  Count yourself lucky if instead of a door in the face, you only get a blank stare followed by a variation of, “our department has had no major issues over the past fiscal year.”  Either way, you are shut out, possibly for good. But you read “Chapter 6:  Partnering with your Prospect,” and you understand the need to ask those tough questions.  Why are our prospects afraid to answer those questions?  Don’t they want to help their company by doing a better job?

People are people, and whether it is due to personal ego, petty internal politics, the inability to get to useful information, or just because there has been so little trust built with past salespeople, most prospects have built up wide moats and massive walls to protect their world from people like you.  Don’t take it personally – it is just part of the dysfunctional sales dynamic that was built long before you were born.

How do you ask 100 MPH hardball questions when your prospect is used to underhand slow pitched softballs?  Or maybe even even used to hitting off the Tee?

(A note to my international friends:  sorry for the baseball sports analogy.  While I understand your puzzlement with an American sport that has an event called the World Series but negates to invite teams from outside North America, my shameful lack of cricket or rugby analogies forces my hand here.  Client-Centric Sales will endeavor to keep sports metaphors to a minimum.)

If you haven’t already, read Chapter 3:  Becoming an Expert in Order to Qualify Successfully.   When you become an expert on your prospect’s industry, company, and problems, you are taking down the first set of barriers that prospects usually put up. They will open the door quite a bit wider for you if they have “discovered” you through your previous industry networking on LinkedIn, through trade associations, or by referral.  If you managed to invite yourself for a meeting to discuss industry best practices and how upcoming regulations may impact their business, they may drop their defenses even further.  If you keep your corporate brochures and PowerPoints under lock and key (believe it or not, they don’t want to see your 12 slides of org charts), you have the possibility of opening up a real dialog.  And if during that initial dialog, which may take place over several meetings, you can keep your mind off your quota and instead focus on your prospects issues, you may become successful at avoiding the salesperson’s biggest offense:  Listening With Intent To Sell.

We’ve all done that.  We get a great dialog going and then 20% into the discussion, we start to tune out and figure out how we are going to sell the prospect the new POS-2150 GlurpMaster 2.0 with an extended warranty agreement.

Wrong.

Keep listening.  Don’t think solutions yet – that’s a ways off.  Listen some more.  Ask questions that help you both discover the deep sources of the problem instead of the more easily recognized topical symptoms.  Your competitors have already tried to sell bandaids; you, my friend, are going to do surgery. So listen.  When the prospect comes to what he or she believes is the end of the answer, keep digging. Your prospect may declare that he or she has reached a conclusion, and that you are ready to discuss a solution.  Don’t take the easy way out and stop there.  If you are working on what appears to be a promising line of questioning, keep going.  It is often as easy as taking a short pause, and asking, “what else?”

Asking “what else?” is an amazingly powerful question.  A local Fortune 500 company turned into a long term client due mainly to the fact that I kept asking that question. When the prospect got to the point that he thought he was done, I would ask “what else?” It was only after asking “what else?” 14 more times that we finally drilled down far enough for us both to understand the problem.  Reaching that understanding allowed us to zero in on a solution which saved the client almost $1M.

I didn’t sell anything that day.  I helped someone understand his business, identify a problem, and enact a solution.  The solution was simple and had nothing to do with my company or what I had to sell.  But you can bet the next time I met with this company, I was treated as a trusted advisor, not a salesman.  At that point, I was in a position to ask the really tough questions, discuss the elephants in the room, and mutually engage with this company to look at other issues that I could directly help them resolve.

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