Focusing on Problems – Not Symptoms

As a sales manager, are you spending more times working to solve symptoms or problems from your sales team members?

Sadly, most of the sales managers I see spend the majority of their time only working on symptoms and not problems. The majority of all the sales problems brought to me by sales people asking for help over my 30 years as a sales trainer and consultant have really only been symptoms.

Symptoms can be fixed and they will go away, but will keep coming back or reappearing as different symptoms as long as the underlying problem still exists. You go to the doctor with a cough you feel is a problem. However, the doctor cannot just give you cough medicine to suppress your cough; they need to look deeper to uncover what is really causing your cough in the first place. My Doctor loves to tell all of his patients “You bring me symptoms; I’ll give you problems, no extra charge!”

Do you remember the “Hellarewe” bird I am always mentioning; the three-foot bird living in four-foot grass? The vast majority of otherwise successful sales professionals tend only to see symptoms and not the real problems due to their lack of awareness and vision. When you are only three foot tall in four-foot grass anything in your way appears as if it is a problem to you, even when it is only a symptom and others can see the real underlying problems. The job of a sales manager is to lift your reps above the four-foot grass so they can see where they need to go and what they need to do. Helping translate symptoms into real problems that can be fixed is one of the ways you can successfully lift your reps above their four-foot grass.

So how much time are you spending with your sales team solving symptoms instead of problems?

The most common sales symptoms

Let us review the three most common symptoms sales people think are really problems, how many of these have you heard lately?

“Our prices are too high”

The most common symptom brought to me by sales people is “We lost because our prices are too high.” Most sales people see their pricing as a real problem. However, a customer’s primary evaluation of competitive proposals is not based on the differences in your price, but in the differences they perceive in your value. The greater the difference in value between competitors the greater difference in price a customer will be willing to pay.

The symptom is your prices are too high, but the real problem is your sales rep (and likely your entire company) has not done enough to position and communicate enough value differential to justify your higher price. But look how ineffective your sales coaching help would be if you only focused on trying to help your rep deal with your higher prices.

“Most of my prospects won’t agree to a second sales call”

The second most common symptom I hear from sales reps is “Most of my prospects won’t agree to a second sales call.” Notice how this symptom brought by a sales rep, along with the majority of all other sales symptoms, cannot be solved with a simple or direct solution. But if we reframe their problem into a real problem then both a solution and a set of action plans to correct it can now be identified. The symptom is the rep cannot seem to get a second appointment, but the real problem could be the prospect is not seeing enough competitive value and uniqueness to justify investing time meeting with another vendor. The real problem could also be that the prospect does not need or find value in what you offer and should not have been called on in the first place.

“We lost because of our customer’s screwed-up political environment”

The third most common symptom I am asked for advice centers around “We lost because of our customer’s screwed up political environment.” Your sales rep believes their customer’s political environment is the problem when the real problem is they did not do enough to get “higher, wider, and deeper” within their prospect’s political structure so they wound up being surprised by others having more influence or stronger interest in a competitor.

Notice how most symptoms are never caused or due to the fault of the sales rep. Screwed up political environments cannot be fixed, but me as the rep doing more to get “higher, wider and deeper” within my customer’s organization is something I can take responsibility for and actually fix or improve.

That is one of the reasons sales reps focus so much of their attention on symptoms and not problems. Notice how the majority of symptoms stated as problems by your reps can always be ended with “…so it’s not my fault.” “We lost the proposal because our prices were too high…so it’s not my fault that we lost.” Or “We lost because of our customer’s screwed up political environment…so it’s not my fault.”

How to turn sales symptoms into real problems

There are seven sales coaching ideas that can help you translate the sales symptoms brought to you by your reps into identified problems that can be worked on and solved.

Idea #1 - Never accept a rep’s first answer as the real answer

The first suggestion to help you identify real sales problems instead of just sales symptoms is never to accept a rep’s first answer or description of a perceived problem as the real answer or problem. When you ask a sales rep “What’s the problem?” or “Why did you lose the sale?” realize their first answer will most likely be a symptom meant to communicate that it is not really their fault. Most of the better sales professionals have strong egos; a strength that helps them deal with the rejection and uncertainties in selling. However, protecting their large egos will also be an underlying goal of any problem they bring to you for help. A great coaching rule is to believe that the first problem identified is usually never the most important problem that needs to be fixed or improved.

Idea #2 - Keep asking questions

The second idea to help you identify real sales problems is to keep asking questions. Because the first problem identified is usually never the most important problem that needs to be fixed, it is critical as a sales coach to keep asking questions and working to uncover the real problem, and an identified problem that can actually be fixed.

Idea #3 - Think the opposite

Another way to help identify real problems is to think the opposite of what your sales rep is telling you. If your sales rep says, “We need a new brochure to help us sell,” the opposite idea might be to ask why your rep is not able to communicate or prove more competitively unique value and support to their prospect. Since a sales rep will usually bring a perceived problem that shows it’s not their fault or responsibility then start asking and evaluating what else they could have done or needed to do that could have eliminated or will at least improved the solution to this problem.

Idea #4 - Look at it from the customer’s perspective

The fourth suggestion to help you identify real problems is to look at any problem brought to you by a rep from the customer’s perspective. I’ve observed the majority of business-to-business buyers are logical and rational decision makers. If a customer’s actions or buying decision seems flakey then you likely have invalid information or are missing significant parts of the real story. A great way to interpret sales symptoms is to evaluate how the customer must be looking at your rep and your company and to ask your rep the questions your prospect or customer was also most likely asking them.

Idea #5 - Think “above the four foot grass”

A fifth suggestion is to remember the “Hellarewe” bird problem discussed earlier. You can assume your sales rep is likely looking at their perceived problem through the four-foot grass so is unlikely to see the bigger issues or longer-term perspectives. Most perceived problems brought to you by your reps will be very “now” or “today” problems that lack the longer-term perspective or awareness. Getting your sales reps to think and talk multiple moves ahead is a great way to help identify the real underlying problems causing the symptoms your reps only see. What can you do and ask that can help your reps see the longer term or bigger picture?

Idea #6 - Never accept “We lost because our prices were too high”

The sixth idea to help you identify real sales problems is never to allow a sales rep to identify their problem as “we lost because our prices were too high.” As we have discussed in earlier articles you have never lost a proposal or business opportunity because your price was too high. Price is never the final determinant in any buying decision. The only time price becomes relevant to a buying decision is when your buyer perceives everything else; value, risk, and support levels, to all be equal. It is not that your prices are too high but instead that your perceived or communicated value is too low. The less of a differential your customer sees between competitors then the less of a differential in price they will be willing to pay. You do not effectively fight low prices by dropping your price and profit margins. There will always be another competitor waiting to undercut your prices.

You defend your higher prices by communicating and proving your added value, lower risk, and stronger support levels.

Idea #7 - Increase your selling and sales leadership skills and awareness

My seventh and final suggestion to help you identify real sales problems instead of just sales symptoms is to increase your selling and sales leadership skills and awareness as the leader of your sales team. Becoming a stronger and more aware sales coach and leader of your team is the best way to translate your team’s perceived problems into real problems that can be solved and improved. The only way you can successfully lead a team is when you have “More” than they do; more awareness, more experience, more insight, or more selling knowledge. What can you do to increase your understanding of the skills, structures and philosophies of selling? The best and easiest way you can improve your sales team’s selling efforts and success is by becoming a more knowledgeable coach and leader.

The job of a sales manager is to help every one of your sales team members achieve more than they would have achieved if you just left them alone.

Your role as a coach and leader is based on your ability to ask questions, help increase insight and awareness and to lift them above the four foot “Hellarewe” bird grass, so they can see where they need to go and what they need to do. One of the best ways to increase your coaching effectiveness is constantly to be helping redefine their symptoms brought to you as perceived problems into real problems that can be fixed, improved, or eliminated.

As the manager and leader of your sales team we know you’re good, now the question is, are you good enough and aware enough to successfully help your sales team identify and solve the real selling problems they face on a daily basis?

Jim Pancero

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