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Problem Killer Questions

The problem with presenting and selling solutions is that salespeople do it prematurely without firmly establishing whether a real problem exists enough to provide a prospect a compelling reason to change. The idea of selling problems instead of solutions also would be rendered unnecessary if prospects were always forthcoming, truthful, unguarded and not fearful of salespeople’s hidden agendas.

The strategy of selling problems and their consequences is typically employed most effectively early on in the sales engagement. It works particularly well on the phone to try to secure appointments with hardened and skeptical prospects. It is also effective with initial face-to-face meetings where the prospect easily granted you an appointment without articulating any noted problems. We’ve all been faced with prospects who for no apparent reason take time out of their busy day, grant you an appointment and then they are silent and unwilling to have any kind of meaningful dialogue.

These scenarios are familiar and typically come to a standstill when prospects give salespeople flimsy, wishy-washy noncommittal responses that have no weight to them, such as: “we are always open to new ideas, tell me what you have for me, what’s new, we are very happy but we like to keep our options open, and, if we saw something really exciting we definitely wouldn’t rule it out.” These prospects are the toughest to sell because they at face value have no compelling reason to change.

The strategic flaw most salespeople have at this stage is that instead of probing for potential gaps and problems, they believe they’ve been granted a temporary license to kill. They get out their feature and benefit machine gun, lock and load, and pray and spray, leaving carnage of worthless and wasted information. In other words, they prematurely sell their solution without having the faintest idea what problem they are trying to solve or fix.

Salespeople frequently sell like this because they are under the grand illusion and spell that their value propositions and their information will carry the day and ultimately result in a sale. They need to be aware that unless a prospect has a problem with meaningful consequences, the likelihood of change is slim to nothing. That is why your mandate is not to provide solutions but rather to isolate and identify problems.

The old adage, that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, is relevant to the strategy of using problem prompters. However, making prospects drink is not your priority. What you need to do is to make them thirsty, but at the same time create reasonable doubt, problems and insecurity. Turning a prospect’s complacency into an actionable desire represents the true art of selling. Anything short of this, you are working too hard for your own good.

In order to get problems you must give problems. This means that if your goal is to get prospects to open up and share their problems or doubts, you are going to have to proactively initiate dialogue by posing questions that are designed to elicit emotional responses. The way you achieve this is to craft questions that zero in on not what you sell, but the problems you solve and the corresponding negative consequences they create. By framing questions in hypothetical language, using emotional metaphors, you are hoping to engage your prospect with questions that get to the core of why people change, which is always emotionally and intuitively, instead of logically and intellectually.

The reason you use hypothetical language is because it is less threatening and less direct and the prospect usually feels less compelled to be defensive. Metaphors or phrases are effective to use because they tend to emotionally involve a prospect with language that is more charged with feelings than normal staid intellectual language. Example: “Do you ever have prospects who string your salespeople along, create false hope and constantly lead your people down dead end detours that have them jumping through hoops and wasting their time?” You can probably guess the aforementioned is more effective than saying, “Do you experience prospects who don’t make decisions promptly therefore lengthening your sales cycles?” Careful selection of the right words and proper phrases can be worth a 1,000 pictures.

I look at problem prompter questions as a litmus test. You create a menu or a problem chain of questions and statements that, through a process of elimination, leads your prospect through a series of worst case scenarios that they might be experiencing, have experienced or are worried about experiencing. If they are in denial or actually aren’t having any problems what do we now know? They more than likely aren’t a good prospect for the immediate present and you more than likely will need to de-prioritize them or re-categorize them.

In my training sessions, getting my customers to start formulating these questions can become very difficult, because when I ask them to list out in order all the biggest challenges, problems, irritants and insecurities that their prospects experience or have shared with them, I usually get a roomful of blank stares. Guess why? They are so product-centric that they aren’t accustomed to looking at their prospects’ business from their perspective. Salespeople need to now be category or industry experts on the prevailing problems and frustrations their prospects experience. You can also do this by job functions and title.

However, don’t be naive in thinking that all your prospects are going to be enthusiastically engaged. Be as nurturing, neutral, doubting and disassociated as possible when you deliver these powerful questions. This strategy helps to neutralize resistance and soften the blow of your direct questions. Avoid at all costs coming off as an interrogator or a hard-nosed lawyer who is badgering the witness. Problem prompter questions empower your prospect by engaging them and focusing all our attention on them. If you find yourself in a bind, where you can’t remember your problem prompter questions, just fall back or default to your old features and benefits by just changing one thing. After you have enumerated your features and benefits simply ask them if any of those issues are important to them. And, if they say yes, ask them why. Although not even remotely as effective, it still gives you a chance to get the ball rolling especially if you are new to this concept of selling.

The following are examples of questions and statements that locate and identify problems. They are divided into questions specifically to isolate prospects who may have problems with an existing supplier, prospects who aren’t doing business with anyone yet (competition is the status quo), and questions to uncover problems with an existing supplier but formulated in the positive instead of the negative.

Problem Prompter Questions and Statements with Existing Supplier

The first examples are a series of questions which seek to uncover gaps and problems with an existing supplier. These questions are universal, generic and will fit just about any product or service, in just about any business relating to almost any general problem. Obviously these are concept questions and can be tailored to fit your unique situation.

  • “They are real efficient with conventional orders, but they lack the depth of offerings to be an efficient one-stop shop and therefore they are adding to your costs of acquisition.”
  • “They work real well with big customers but they don’t give enough personal care to smaller accounts that are strategically less important to them. Hence, the smaller accounts get lost in the shuffle sometimes.”
  • “They over-manage the account, they are a pest and unprofessional and are always badgering their customers inappropriately to order more.”
  • “They are competitive on large orders but on smaller or unusual orders that are very expensive and cumbersome to deal with.”
  • “Their quality is generally good, but it hasn’t evolved and kept up with the new cutting edge technology in the industry and therefore it is slower and more inefficient.”
  • “They are constantly going through changes of management, salespeople, ownership or technology platforms, making it very difficult to get things done through them efficiently and easily.”
  • “Do you ever have lingering questions in the back of your mind as to whether their high prices are justified?”
  • “Do you ever find after a successful implementation of their solution, you are left with a bad taste in your mouth because there is sloppy and inconsistent billing that causes logjams and extra layers of bureaucracies?”
  • “They do a real good job of fixing issues and problems and generally are very responsive. However, it is irritating because the problems continue to recycle and repeat themselves.”
  • “Do you run into the scenario where your vendor doesn’t own up to the responsibility to have solid contingency plans in place so they can nip problems in the bud before they happen or get out of control?”
  • “Do you have any concerns that without a strong backup supplier that you aren’t always able to keep your existing supplier honest and keep them hustling for you?”
  • “Sometimes I hear companies are very faithful and loyal to the years of good service that their vendor has provided, however, recent developments have them question their longer term viability and their ability to meet your own business requirements and needs. And you aren’t sure you have the luxury to ride out the storm with them because you have too much at stake.”
  • “They don’t take the time to really learn about your business and they aren’t technically proficient and knowledgeable about your business and you end up using a lot of your valuable time and resources making up for this shortfall.”
  • “They are really good at fulfilling local orders but don’t have the size, national reach and buying power to help you nationally and globally.”
  • “They are efficient with long lead times but when you need expedited orders right away, they drag their feet and are slow to get back to you with updates and they too often leave you in a lurch.”
  • “They have very attractive front end pricing, but the back end costs of late deliveries, shoddy service and inconsistent and unreliable quality really wipe out any cost savings.”
  • “They do a very good job consistently in the easy transactions. But anything that is not cookie cutter they over promise and under deliver.”
  • “Do you ever find that your salesperson is likeable and well intentioned but is just a glorified order taker who can’t solve real problems or resolve customer service issues because they don’t have any clout in their company to get things done?”
  • “Do you experience frustration with your salesperson who is Johnny on the Spot when taking orders from you but when you need them to get you quick answers they are too busy, they can’t be bothered or they are always making excuses?”
  • “They aren’t bringing you innovative ideas and programs to make you more competitive. They push the same old time-honored, tried and true ideas and they don’t think outside the box.”

Problem Prompter Questions and Statements with a Positive Spin with Existing Supplier

The next series of questions and statements are a mirror image of the first series but with a positive spin on the problem. You will sometimes find that prospects won’t admit to problems, but are open to admitting to imperfections. This is a more advanced way of questioning that requires a bit more sophistication and practice. The advantage with this line of questioning is you aren’t probing for problems so much as you are making statements to confirm they don’t have problems and their situation is satisfactory, ideal and representing the best case scenario. Because some of these scenarios aren’t totally realistic, you will have to be very nonchalant, neutral and objective when you present them. Prospects who tell you emphatically they are happy, things are great and they would not consider changing typify these examples. Because of the strong nature of prospects convictions and beliefs, these questions and statements will often prove to be unsuccessful in forwarding your agenda and cause, but will be effective in saving you time and resources on not pursuing lost causes.

These positive problem questions or problem prompters hope to sanitize and whitewash their problems so thoroughly that no reasonable prospect can agree to this picture- perfect world you are describing.

The following are examples you can use that really put the rubber to the road and have you placing stark realities right in front of them to chew over and consider.

  • Your rep is very proactive and anticipates problems before they get out of hand.”
  • “Your rep is very informed and knowledgeable with your business and can help you define your needs and provide viable solutions quickly and with great understanding.”
  • “They are flexible and willing to go beyond the call of duty when needed.”
  • “If they run into problems they take responsibility for their mistakes and quickly provide options.”
  • “They keep in touch with you regularly and in a professional manner without being a pest.”
  • “You are getting things on a timely basis without having to chase down and micromanage your orders.”
  • “Their quality is consistent and reliable.”
  • “Your rep has the clout to get things done and expedite when you find yourself in a time crunch or bind.”
  • “They have technical expertise and knowledge to understand your problems so you are confident they’ll get it right the first time without you having to reeducate and re-explain everything to them.”
  • “They are easy to do business with because they have multiple offices nationally and global capabilities.”
  • “They can handle local small orders as well as complex global orders.”

Problem Prompter Statements for Prospects who are Non-users and not actively in the Marketplace

The final series of problem prompters are for situations where your prospect is not a current user of what you sell and therefore obviously they are not using any supplier. You can’t ask the aforementioned problem prompters because they are 100% geared towards up-seating an existing supplier. Hence, the scenario of problem prompters with non-users requires more creativity and conceptual selling because you have a prospect who is more than likely not in the market, isn’t actively looking for solutions in this area, may not be aware that any problems exist and may not be aware that there is even existing technology out there to help them. However, the beauty of new application opportunities is when approached properly, there is no competition, little comparison and accessibility to price checks is limited. The highest margins are available in selling to prospects who aren’t actively in the market. The bad news is, these prospects take more time to locate and must be sold at a higher level.

The following are questions to uncover problems with the status quo. Keep in mind, like the two earlier examples: there is never any mention of what you can do for your prospect, why you may have a superior offering or what they have to gain by considering changing. The focus now is all on your prospect and their potential problems. What you can do for them at this stage is irrelevant and unimportant. The only thing that is consequential at this stage is having your prospect admitting to a problem and deciding if it is worth addressing. This is where salespeople have to transition from product and solution providers to business strategists and change agents. Once again your mandate is to isolate and define problems, not solve them. Once you’ve done a thorough job of defining the problem, the solution becomes a nonevent.

  • “They are running into time constraints and time is being swallowed up because they are being pulled in so many directions with fewer resources and manpower to draw upon.”
  • “They find they have plenty of time and expertise to do it internally but at the cost of misallocating valuable and expensive personnel who could be doing other projects with a greater return on investment.”
  • “Their people are so busy doing other important and pressing things that they don’t have the time, interest or inclination to stay current with all the changes happening in their industry. Consequently they aren’t learning and staying current with the new technology to efficiently perform in the area.”
  • “They are finding that the upfront costs appear to be inexpensive to do it internally but when you add up all the incidental costs on the back end, they are being penny wise and pound foolish.”
  • “They’ve hit a wall or a point of diminishing returns with their own resources. They keep doing the same thing or worse yet trying new things and getting the same results and they can’t grow or move on to the next level.”

Probing questions and statements that prompt problems or admission of non-ideal circumstances are a far superior method of selling than the traditional feature and benefit style of selling. What makes it so difficult for salespeople to make this transition is that the sale is no longer about them, their company, and their superior offering. Because most salespeople are egocentric, self-consumed and product-focused, they have a hard time relinquishing this self-centered strategy of providing information and solutions. Once they take a non-selling posture that is objective and non-biased, they will find that they can more quickly identify if prospects have a compelling reason to change.

Richard Farrell is President of Tangent Knowledge Systems, a national sales development and training firm based in Chicago. He is the author of the upcoming book Selling has Nothing to do with Selling. He trains and speaks around the world and has authored many articles on his unique non-selling sales posture.

Phone: 773-404-7915
EMail: rfarrell@tangentknowledge.com
Web: http://www.tangentknowledge.com