Module 9: The Power of Preparation

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Solving, Not Selling

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Solving, Not Selling

Needs Analysis
Great salespeople don’t sell, they solve. As you research your prospect, you should be able to identify problems that are specific to that person or organization:

Do they need to reduce costs? Do they need to increase sales? Do they need to drive traffic to a Web site or generate leads for their new service? Sometimes people are forthcoming about their problems, but many times it’s up to you to ask the right questions; the ones that will uncover what your prospect needs or where opportunities exist. (That is one of the traits of a successful salesperson)

For instance, if your prospect is buying from a competitor, you might ask questions like “What were your expectations when you signed up for this service? What has your actual experience of the service been? What would you like to see happen differently?” The prospect might not fully realize what his problems are. [1] Often, especially in B2B sales, the goal of your first sales call will simply be to identify your prospect’s specific areas of need. You won’t make a pitch; you’ll just ask questions and listen. [2]

Asking questions often opens up opportunities you might not otherwise discover. There will be occasions when your prospect doesn’t have an immediate problem she can identify, but if you’ve done your research and know something about her goals and priorities and if you ask the right questions, you have the chance to uncover useful opportunities.

What can help him achieve his goals even more efficiently? What kinds of results would he like to see? [3] What would he like to have if he only knew it was possible?

Generate Ideas
Once you’ve identified your customer’s problems, take the time-either with a team or on your own-to brainstorm solutions and opportunities that address your prospect’s specific needs.

Sometimes solving your prospect’s problem is a straightforward task.Often with larger sales, particularly B2B sales, coming up with a solution that is tailored to your customer’s needs requires time and thought. No two prospects are the same, so no two solutions will be exactly the same.

When Joel Ronning, CEO of e-commerce company Digital River, wants to solve customer problems and generate ideas, he sits down with the senior employees of his company for a brainstorming session. The technique has boosted sales, earned the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, and led to a small business award for “best idea.” [5]

As a salesperson, your job is to solve customer problems, not push a product. In other words, you’re offering solutions that include unique and different ideas, not selling products. For this reason, brainstorming-the process of generating ideas-is a crucial part of the selling process.

Know your problem
If you’ve already completed your needs analysis, you’re off to a good start. According to James Feldman, a Chicago-based consultant, “Most people do not identify their problem correctly” going into the brainstorming session.

Once you have a clear idea of the problem or opportunity, set it out in specific terms.It also helps to frame the question in positive terms. Rather than asking “How will this company’s new computer system change the way they do business?” you could ask “How can this company get the most out of their new computer system?” [6]

Generate; don’t evaluate

Brainstorming isn’t about coming up with the best, most carefully polished solutions. As Gary Kopervas, chief creative strategist at Backe Digital Brand Marketing, says, “When you’re brainstorming, don’t be perfect; be prolific.” Get your ideas out there. In fact, Kopervas has devised 5 points to keep in mind. [7]

Push beyond the wall

At some point during every brainstorming session, whether group brainstorming or individual, people tend to hit a wall. Ideas flow quickly, and then they seem to stop altogether.

Cognitive psychologist Paul Paulus says this point in the session may seem like a wall, but in reality it’s just “a space in [the] brain.” Pushing past this space often leads to the best ideas. [8]

Consider consultant Mike Rubin’s solution to a problem faced by one of his customers, a Harley-Davidson dealer, who wanted to boost sales and appeal to a broader customer base. By turning the dealership into a destination, complete with a Harley museum and restaurant, Rubin hit on a solution that both addressed the customer’s problem and remained true to the Harley brand image.

The restaurant, designed to resemble a factory cafeteria, appealed to tough bikers and families alike, and the museum was laid out in a warehouse style that reflected the company’s brand image of independence, toughness, and the open road.
In three years, bike sales increased from 800 to over 1,700 annually. [9]

Benefit Statements
Once you have brainstormed a customer-specific solution, you want to find a way to showcase your solution in the best light.

How will you present this idea to your prospect so that he can immediately see its relevance to his situation? How will you establish the value proposition you have to offer? As part of your preapproach, you should identify both a general and a specific statement to highlight the benefits of your solution or opportunity.

Imagine you work for a dairy products distributor that sells to restaurants. You’ve researched one of your prospects, and have identified a problem: the company is losing business to the sandwich place across the street. It seems that the prospect’s competitor has cheaper sandwiches, and you know that the problem lies in the cost of the ingredients. Your prospect currently pays 10 percent more for the cheese it gets from its current vendor. If the deli started buying cheese from you, it would be able to lower the cost of its sandwiches to a more competitive price.

You have also brainstormed how the deli can create a “signature sandwich”: a unique combination of meat and cheeses. The sandwich provides a point of difference for the deli and a reason for previous deli customers to come back. Frame the solution in such a way that your customer can easily see its relevance to his problem; you want to answer the “What’s in it for me?” question early on. [11]

General benefit statements are broad enough that they would be important to most people. [12] They might address things like improving company visibility, expanding the business, increasing profits, or cutting costs.

The specific benefit statement, on the other hand, comes once you’ve grabbed your prospect’s attention. It identifies the particular way your solution applies to your prospect, and it demonstrates that you’ve done your research and understand the needs that are unique to his company or situation.

For instance, you might say, “Your food cost is too high, and it’s keeping you from competing with other businesses. I can help you cut your food costs so that you can afford to sell your breakfast burrito for under $2.99. Would that be something you would be interested in?”

If you’ve done your research and brainstormed an effective solution, your benefits statements are the tools that will convey that information clearly and effectively.

Determine Your Objectives
If you haven’t determined what you hope to achieve before going into your sales call, it will be difficult to figure out what to say once you arrive or once you have your prospect on the phone.

Setting precall objectives is a strategically important step. If you have clear goals, you will be more confident and appear more organized, and it’s more likely that you will see results.

You also don’t want to waste your time or your company’s time. According to Hoovers, the average sales call costs a company nearly $400! [13]

As you plan your meeting, ask yourself this question: “What will success look like for this call?” [14] That may seem like a question with a straightforward answer, but success doesn’t always mean closing the sale.

In some situations, you’ll experience a one-call close, but with larger sales, particularly in B2B sales, the sales cycle, or the length of time it takes to go from the first contact with the customer to closing the sale, is generally longer.

Consider Telegraph Hill Robes, a San Francisco-based company that sells bathrobes to upscale hotels with spas. Buying enough bathrobes to stock a hotel spa is a large investment, one that most customers have to carefully consider. The sale has to clear with two contacts at every company: the general manager and the head of housekeeping. As a result, when Telegraph Hill first started selling its product in 1996, its average sales cycle was two years! 15]

If you know that you are facing a longer sales cycle, the goal of your initial call might be gathering and conveying specific information to move forward in the sales process or further qualify your prospect.

You might decide you want to find out who your prospect’s current vendors are, any issues your prospect has with the services she is receiving, and what her goals are for future purchases.” [16] You should also consider your prospect’s objectives: what outcome is she hoping for from this call?

According to Gary Duncan, principal of the sales training organization Leadership Connections;

In more complex sales it’s realistic to set a precall objective of establishing rapport and trust, making new contacts in the organization, qualifying your prospect’s budget, or discovering what your prospect’s decision-making process is.

Sometimes, setting strategic, information-gathering objectives may actually help you shorten your overall sales cycle.

Take Acumen, a US company that sells high-capability accounting software to corporations. Originally, the company’s sales cycle lasted around nine months. once the company became more strategic in its precall planning before making a sales pitch, it actually decreased its sales cycle to between three and six months. Asking detailed questions during early sales calls allowed the company to cut back on the time it wasted brainstorming solutions and making sales pitches for underqualified leads. [17]


Good salespeople don’t sell products; they sell solutions to their customers’ problems or challenges.

Your research, including the questions you ask your customer, should help you identify needs and opportunities.

Once you have identified your customers’ problems and goals, brainstorm solutions and opportunities that will meet their needs.

Knowing the best solution for your customer will help you craft a general benefits statement and a specific benefits statement.

Benefits statements help the customer envision the way your solution or opportunity meets his needs.


Describe a time when you made a purchase, or modified a planned purchase, because a salesperson revealed an opportunity that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Think of the last major purchase you made where you bought from a salesperson (not online). Did the salesperson adapt his or her approach to address your specific needs and concerns? If so, how?

[1] Paul Cherry, Questions That Sell: The Powerful Process for Discovering What Your Customer Really Wants (New York: AMACOM, 2006), 25.

[2] Mark Anthony, “The Psychology of Selling,” BNET, April 1995,http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3629/is_199504/ai_n8730867/?tag=content;col1 (accessed July 15, 2009).

[3] Geoffrey James, “Solution Selling Is Dead,” BNET, October 29, 2007,http://blogs.bnet.com/salesmachine/?p=158&tag=content;col1 (accessed July 15, 2009).

[4] Philip Elmer-DeWitt, “Munster: 500,000 New iPhones This Weekend,” Fortune, June 18, 2009, http://apple20.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2009/06/18/munster-500000-new-iphones-this-weekend/ (accessed July 15, 2009).

[5] Allison Stein Wellner, “A Perfect Brainstorm,” Inc., October 1, 2003,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20031001/strategies.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[6] Allison Stein Wellner, “A Perfect Brainstorm,” Inc., October 1, 2003,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20031001/strategiesstrategies.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[7] Adapted from Gary Kopervas, “More Effective Brainstorming,” presentation at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA, October 28, 2008.

[8] Allison Stein Wellner, “A Perfect Brainstorm,” Inc., October 1, 2003,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20031001/strategies.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[9] Donna Fen, “(Re)born to Be Wild,” Inc., January 2006,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20060101/reborn.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[10] Linda Tischler, “Seven Secrets to Good Brainstorming,” Fast Company, December 19, 2007, http://www.fastcompany.com/articles/2001/03/kelley.html (accessed October 31, 2009).

[11] Todd Natenberg, “What’s in It for the Prospect? Everything-If You Tell Them,” SelfGrowth.com, http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Natenberg12.html (accessed July 15, 2009). Objective and Decision,” Denver Business Journal, October 13, 2006,http://denver.bizjournals.com/denver/stories/2006/10/16/smallb8.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[14] American Institute of Public Certified Accountants, “Successful Selling Tips: The Sales Objective,”http://www.aicpa.org/Professional+Resources/CPA+Marketing+Toolkit/SellingTips6.htm(accessed July 15, 2009).

[15] Susan Greco, “The Need for Speed,” Inc., April 2007,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20070401/salesmarketing-smart-selling.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[16] Gary Duncan, “Every Sales Call Requires an Objective and Decision,” Denver Business Journal, October 13, 2006,http://denver.bizjournals.com/denver/stories/2006/10/16/smallb8.html (accessed July 15, 2009).

[17] Susan Greco, “The Need for Speed,” Inc., April 2007,http://www.inc.com/magazine/20070401/salesmarketing-smart-selling.html (accessed July 15, 2009).