01/03/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Becoming a Problem Finder

Do you consider yourself a problem solver? If you are in sales, chances are you pride yourself on solving problems for your customers. You may even feel your ability to solve your customers' problems is your competitive differentiator.

According to the ground-breaking research conducted by Daniel Pink for his latest book, To Sell is Human, problem solvers are a dime a dozen. Problem finders are the true superstars.

The book is a much needed wake-up call to the sales industry which has been stuck in a decades long rut of continually renaming conventional selling methodologies and declaring them new without actually changing the core processes.

In reality, the methodology matters much less than your sales forces' ability to problem seek.

Here are four easy steps you can take to evolve your sales process to focus on identifying problems customers may not recognize:

  1. Capture the market intelligence of your field personnel, everyone in the field, not just your sellers. Your field understands the market at a visceral level. Mine it! Too few businesses debrief their field personnel with the goal of understanding what is happening in the market place. If anyone bothers to ask the field anything it's all about them. What does the customer think of us? Is the customer happy? When do you think it will buy again? Those questions won't create exponential sales growth. Instead, ask what challenges are customers facing? What are they frustrated with? Where are they struggling to achieve their revenue/growth objectives? What are the common issues you hear them talk about? How do you think we can help them?
  2. Educate your sales people on industry best practices. Unless you compensate your sales people to wade through market analyst reports your marketing team needs to do that work for them. Regardless of who does the work make sure it gets done! Then ensure your sales people can articulate how your product/solution facilitates adoption of best practices.
  3. Apply the information to each customer's environment in order to highlight improvement opportunities. Once you've captured your field's real-time market intelligence and the industry best practices, work with your sellers to package it so that they can demonstrate that they are true business partners, not just slick sellers.
  4. Articulate solutions and road maps by which you can work together to solve the challenges you've identified.

At first, we get a fair amount of pushback from clients on this approach. The two most common objections are "our sales people aren't capable of these types of conversations" and "this will increase our sales cycle."

To the first we say: then you need to retool your sales force. The successful salesperson of the future, whether selling candy or computers, must be able to have a sophisticated business value conversation. Social technologies are negating the need for product specialists. The only way your sales force will secure and keep the attention of your target customers is by helping them identify problems that are limiting their potential.

To the second we say: It will seem like it at first. This new process means the front end, the qualification phase, of the sales cycle is longer. But it also means the back end, the negotiation and close, is significantly shorter.

The Internet and social technologies are changing the dynamics of sales. That is a good thing. Now your sales force has the opportunity to demonstrate enduring value to your customers which means less competition, greater customer loyalty and improved margins!