Every sales manager has strong opinions about what they think most needs to be “fixed” or improved within their sales team. A few of the most common responses I often hear from clients include the need for more closing skills or help in time management. Some think cutting prices will increase sales, while others believe fattening commission rates will motivate their sales team to sell more. Though each of these are valid concerns, working to directly fix them will most likely provide little change or fail to generate the long-term improvements you’re seeking. In other words, focusing on the symptoms does little to address the underlying cause, or causes, of poor sales performance.
Think of it in terms of a real-world example. You go to your doctor because your throat hurts. But “fixing” your aching throat will likely not resolve or cure the underlying problem causing your discomfort. Instead, the doctor needs to determine if your sore throat is being caused by a bacterial infection or a virus. Same symptoms, but completely different solutions required to permanently eliminate your throat problems.
During my 30 years as a consultant, few clients have brought me actual sales problems to fix. Clearly stating your problem might be you telling me, “Our sales reps keep resorting to selling on price because our company has done little to either define or package our message of competitive uniqueness.” Instead you are more likely to come to me requesting help in strengthening your sales reps’ closing skills or assistance in teaching your team how to sell value instead of low price. Here’s the easiest way to differentiate between problems and symptoms. Symptoms tend to focus on the need for front-line skill training and improvement (short-term “bottom-up” solutions), while problems tend to involve more process and structure changes (longer term “top-down” solutions). Isn’t it interesting that most tend to pursue the short-term “front line” training solution as their first attempt to resolve an identified “challenge.”
Separating Problems from Symptoms
The best way as a leader to separate and identify selling problems from symptoms is to expand your questioning and thinking into what I call the “Six Expansion Questions.” Listed below, they will help you (and your team) expand your view, expectations and understanding of an identified challenge by asking each of these questions. The best way to see a different solution is to look at something with different eyes, from a different angle or with a different direction.
Question #1 – “What if this challenge were really only a symptom?”
A way to expand your thought process is to immediately take the position that any new challenge or problem brought to you is really only just a symptom. Now you can start asking (and looking for) the underlying source responsible for your reoccurring symptoms. Concerned that your sales reps are not closing enough business? Start your hunt for the real culprit earlier in the selling process. Is your team making enough prospecting calls? Are they communicating a simple and direct message of competitive uniqueness?
Or, perhaps the problem lies in the fact that your business has evolved to match your competition, but not exceed it in any significant area. So the real problem could be your sales team does not have enough uniqueness to sell on anything other than low price. If this is the case, maybe your focus should be on improving your customer service and order fill rates so your sales team has a message of uniqueness to communicate on their sales calls.
Question #2 - “Where is our customer’s pain?”
The majority of identified sales challenges involve your customers and their disinterest or dissatisfaction. Asking how and why this identified challenge is causing your prospect or customer so much pain and discomfort might help you get to the root cause of their dissatisfaction (and your ability to turn this challenge around in your favor).
Question #3 - “What are the components or pieces of this challenge?”
Walt Disney was famous for his ability to define and teach his creative team the structures and processes of creativity. One of his most effective concepts was to “Five Sense” any new challenge. Instead of looking at the challenge as a single “problem,” his team would evaluate how this situation could be improved by strengthening each separate sense: taste, sound, touch, sight and smell.
Mike Vance, an original member of Walt’s Disney World design team, tells the story of driving their design team around the newly opened Disney World Park in Florida with everything blocked except their hearing. By isolating and evaluating their challenge with only one component sense, they discovered the external sounds in each theme area were much too loud and intrusive in the early mornings and late evenings but disappeared during the peak attendance time of the day. As a result, the team had no idea where they were when the park was full of guests and, thus, identified the symptom was a lack of proper sound levels. However, the real problem in need of their attention was actually tied to park attendance levels. To address it, the solution was to tie the external sound levels to the attendance gates at the entrance. Now the volume controls for all outside theme sounds and music are automatically adjusted based on the number of people entering or exiting the park.
Now, apply the concept to sales. Instead of looking for ways to improve your customer service. Break your ordering, delivery and billing processes down and evaluate them one component at a time. After evaluating their entire “order to billing” process through several different angles or filters, one of my clients identified their customers were most dissatisfied with the lack of communications and early warning of any delivery delays. Another realized they could improve their company brand presence if they used the same logo art on all of the paperwork, delivery forms and invoices, sent or delivered, to their customers.
Question #4 - “How can we initiate instead of just responding?”
How can we be more proactive by initiating efforts to avoid a problem from arising instead of just reacting with solutions after a challenge has occurred?
Too many sales teams are like sailboats, where their power and even direction are directed by external forces out of their control. Look how many times your team only reacts to problems or complaints initiated by your customers. The goal is to have your sales team performing more like powerboats—under their own power and direction. What can your team do to initiate discussions or actions for your customers before they complain and are dissatisfied?
Question #5 - “Can we get upstream of this challenge?”
What actions could we have taken or ideas communicated earlier in our selling process so this challenge never occurs?
The later the problem is surfacing in your selling process the more likely it is a symptom caused by a hidden problem that occurred earlier in your selling process. Over 80 percent of the success and outcome of a selling process is controlled and determined within the first 20 percent of your selling efforts. The way to avoid a challenge is to communicate, position or identify issues at the beginning of your selling process instead of just waiting until your customer is unhappy and complaining (or even worse, just buys from your competition). The way to deal with the complaint that “your price is too high,” after you deliver your quote, is to communicate up front, before any prices are given, that you will likely be a higher price but can prove you are a lower total cost.
The majority of all business-to business selling is a process and not just a single-call sales event. A challenge occurring with a customer at any time is likely a sign your multiple-stepped selling process needs to be changed, defined, adjusted or tightened. The goal is to look at any challenge as a problem or gap within your selling process, instead of just trying to solve a customer challenge as a single stand-alone event. How can you adjust the earlier stages of your selling process to improve your chances of winning the business (and causing less challenge and concern for the customer)? Ultimately, the best way to solve any problem is to make earlier adjustments so the problem never occurs in the first place.
Question #6 - “What else can we be saying/communicating?”
This final question is really a summary of the first five questions. How could your team have communicated earlier (or better) so this identified problem could have been prevented from even occurring? An easy solution to any problem is to increase your communications with your customer. By communicating sooner, or with more clarity, or by bringing up the tougher topics or questions, you and your team can take more control, actually driving your powerboat instead of just waiting for the wind to move your boat.
The job of an effective sales manager and leader is being redefined today. The old “transactional sales manager” role of only reactively focusing on special pricing, expediting, problem solving and customer thank-you calls might be enough to manage your sales team, but you sure aren’t leading your team with these efforts. The proven goal today is to function more like a “selling process sales manager,” where you are proactively involved as a coach and strategist to your sales team. What can you do, as a leader, to help your sales team to understand and stop chasing symptoms and start solving problems? After all, we know your team is good, now the only question is are you and your entire sales team good enough to get better?