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Problem Storytelling

"Put simply a stock is worth the sum of what investors think it will return in the future discounted back to today," says Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal. The parallels are similar in sales. A product's worth is the sum total of what customers think it will do to alleviate a problem, discounted by the other choices they have. So you are not in the adding on business (making things better), you are in the taking away business (addressing problems).

Are customers considering changing to buy your solution, or to fix their problem? Whether you can help someone as far as your active role in the sales process, is strictly academic. The majority of product-centric sales people are fixated on the solution. Why? Because as long as it is all about them, they can take command of the sales call, manage the flow of information and remain comfortably center stage. It is a great idea, too bad it does not work well anymore; if it really ever did.

Strategic sales people's only reason for being is to provide solutions (10%) to solve business problems (90%). Yet most average sales people spend the vast majority of their time on the least value added activity...solutions. The standard operating procedure for most customers is to oversimplify their problem. The standard operating procedure for most conventional sales people is to over complicate their product offering, while disregarding the customer's problem. You can obviously see why there is a huge disconnect in the buyer/seller relationship and why everyone is talking at cross purposes.

In Russia they say that someone who goes about something methodically, searching out the facts one by one, that they stalk the shit, but not the bear. We want to believe customers buy logically because it means it is a straight forward equation that is not messy and ill-defined. But they do not. When you sell you need to go straight to the heart of human experience; the feelings customers have about their problems. In Dan Aracely's book, The Upside of Irrationality; Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic, he talks about how decisions are made intuitively, yet it appears to be the opposite. Sales people really miss the boat when they do not have any emotional appeal to their problem-oriented sales approach. "What will inspire customers to care the most is what they despair about," says Don Heath. Negative feelings around problems is what inspires customers, not facts and figures, judgments and well-thought-out deliberations. In David Brooks book, The Social Animal, he argues that we over value cognitive, analytical reasoning and autonomist will as motors of action, and undervalue emotion, intuition and gut decisions.

Always be aware that many customers look at their problems as something to be endured, not overcome. They think that nothing worse will happen to them that has not already befallen them. They are comfortably uncomfortable and are poor prospects. You will be able to identify these types of customers because they are so busy maintaining their problems, working around them, rationalizing them and denying them. Cut your losses on these lost causes.

Just because it smells like crap, looks like crap, feels like crap, does not mean it is crap to your customer. All problems are 100% relative. All problems need to be assessed in relationship to other problems that might be more pressing.

What a lot of sales people who focus on their products, instead of their customer's problems, do not realize is that often buying creates as many problems as it solves for their customers. This is why customers often do not take action. Conventional sales people treat problems and solutions as mutually exclusive. They turn a blind eye to perceived problems because they incorrectly assume their customer wants to fix it and is willing to pay the cost in time and inconvenience to do so. Nothing is more despairing for sales people than to put their heart and soul into the pursuit of a customer who has serious problems, but to learn too late that they are simply numb to them. It is like customers are taking a prescription drug to ease and mask their problem to the point that they no longer see them. Sometimes you have to step back and wait till they hit bottom, or hit a wall. Even in the world of customer's problems, all that glitters (stinks) is not gold (real problems).

When customers are not willing to admit to problems it can help to pique their curiosity by describing hypothetical negative outcomes you believe they may be experiencing. This will fly in the face of logical product sellers because the sales person's secret weapon has nothing to do with what they are selling.

Problem storytelling is a new spin on an old idea (features and benefit selling). Instead of describing positive outcomes, you describe what a discontent customer looks like and the associated negative feelings (emotions) they might be experiencing. You do not want to do shock therapy, you want to temper your proces by trying to elicit some anxiety, or false sense of security. You want to detail where they are potentially exposed or vulnerable in a balanced way, with an emotional spin. When you problem create and evaluate, you formulate compelling stories that hope to push buttons, but not push someone over board.

Your product is not a means to an end. Rather, it is a tool to use to form narratives and stories about what potential negative outcomes customers might be experiencing without the benefit of your offering. The point is, in the selling process you do not have to fix problems per se if you are real good at unearthing them and helping the customer gain new insight into them. Because orthodox sales people have a very fixed and inflexible point of reference to their product, they have a very hard time pushing their product aside. When you do not push your product aside, you are at risk of pushing your customer aside.

When you help customers get a handle on their problems you have to step back and go into their past. A lot of sales people do not want to explore the customer's past (problems), because they fear it will infringe upon their future delivery of their solution. God forbid if they find the customer does not have a problem for them to solve. It it is difficult to provide a solution until you find a problem to solve.

To understand the customer's present and future you must first explore their past. Without hindsight it is difficult to give foresight. You need to regress to progress. It takes emotional intelligence, patience, and trust to insinuate yourself into your customer's problems. From a psychological perspective, your customer must acknowledge and reexperience their problems to be able to transcend them. Problem-centric sales people who take on a rearview mirror perspective, better help their customers gauge and predict their future by carefully re-analyzing their past. Because customers tend to reenact their past again and again, this is where all the most sensitive information is.

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