At face value, having a prospect approach you with a clearly defined problem can seem to be very good news - even better if what they are looking for appears to fit perfectly into what you regard as your own particular sweet spot. If this is the result of months or years of persistent education and nurturing on your part, then this might well be very good news indeed.
But if they have approached you out of the blue, without any previous engagement, you should be very cautious about jumping straight in and telling them what a perfect fit your solution offers. Because the issue they think they have may not be the one they really need to solve. That’s why you need to curb your enthusiasm and start by helping them work out what their real problem is.
Sometimes, the problem they think they had turns out to be the one they really need to solve, but all too often the real issue lies somewhere else, and it can only be uncovered through spending time with your prospect and helping them to really dig into the apparent problem, the symptoms, the underlying issue and the attendant consequences.
A winning strategy either way...
And even if the exercise reconfirms the need to focus on solving the original problem, the result will be a much better understanding of the real impact on the business, and either a more powerful business case for change, or the recognition that the issue really isn’t significant enough to invest a lot of time, money and effort in solving it.
Either way, you win: you either end up with a much stronger business case and an enhanced relationship with the prospect as a genuine “trusted adviser”, or you conclude that this is not an opportunity that is ever likely to do anything or - even if they are - that they are unlikely to decide in your favour, and you can redirect your attentions towards something more promising.
The critical "discovery" phase
This is why the discovery phase is such a critical part of any complex sales process, and why it is always unwise to rush it - even if the prospect is pressing you to move quickly to the proposal stage. What you choose to do in this vital period of time will have an absolutely profound effect on the rest of your sales campaign.
To take an example that is very close to home, most of the clients that initially come to me believing that their sales teams have a “closing problem” subsequently conclude - after following our own discovery process - that the real problem is that their sales people are not laying the foundations of their deals well enough in these critical early stages.
Some useful questions
Some of the questions that I’ve found effective in both our own early stage sales cycles and those of our clients include:
- What led you to think that this was the key issue you needed to solve?
- How have you tried to deal with the issue up to now?
- What were the results of those initiatives?
- Why do you think these actions didn’t succeed in completely solving the problem?
- How is this issue impacting your part of organisation?
- How is this issue impacting other parts of the organisation?
- What are the key symptoms that are associated with the problem?
- Is it possible that other factors could be contributing to these symptoms?
- Other than this issue, what else would need to change before you could be completely confident that you were going to achieve your goals?
You can, of course, also draw upon your experiences of other organisations that you have helped to solve apparently similar problems. It’s particularly powerful if you can share stories along the lines of “when X approached us, they thought their biggest problem was with Y. But when we looked into the issue with them, it turned out that Z actually turned out to be a much more significant constraint”.
Are you constructively challenging your prospects?
In complex new business sales environments, it’s almost always a good thing to constructively challenge your prospect’s initial assumptions, and to help them reframe the problem in a different way. They may even wax poetical as a result of their experience and conclude, with your help and all due credit to T. S. Eliot:
By the way, if you haven't already done so, you might want to invest 10 minutes in completing our B2B Sales and Marketing online healthcheck: