There are some questions that simply shouldn’t be answered.  Consider the fear cast into the hearts of men the world over when they get asked this prickly question: “Does my bum look big in these jeans?”

A yes response is often followed by the sound of items being thrown across the room.  The much safer NO response turns out to be not so safe when one’s spouse looks in the mirror and declares “you were going to let me go out looking like this”  and then again the sound of items being thrown across the room.

It’s most probable that any answer is going to lead to unpalatable consequences.  Thus men have been known to feign deafness, lack of understanding, even heart attack as a means of avoiding an answer.

In sales, there is another question that all too often leads us down a path that we don’t want to go, “so tell me about what you guys do”.

We hear the warning bells go off, danger, danger, and yet ignore the flashing red lights launching into a long winded explanation of the intricacies of our respective widgets or widget service ending with us thrusting the latest glossy deftly into the hands of our prospective customer.

Having started out so well, the meeting proceeds on a well worn path with the customer asking how much these widgets actually cost?  Us offering to discount if they buy this month and then the prospect telling us that they will get back to us very shortly!  We leave the meeting with another sales call under our belt and that sick feeling in our stomach that we will never hear from this prospect again.

Even experienced sales executives get suckered down this path, leading with an enthusiastic description of their products and services, seemingly ignorant of the buyer and their journey.

So whilst there is no book available on how to effectively answer the first question (gentlemen you are on your own!), there are now a plethora of whitepapers, blogs and quality texts on how to align your selling processes to the customer’s buying process in the world of complex sales engagements. Great books on the topic include : Conceptual Selling from Bob Miller and Stephen Heiman, SPIN Selling from Neil Rackam and of course our own The Leaky Funnel from Hugh Macfarlane.

So what is the buying process and how do we align our selling?

  • Businesses buy products and services, in essence, to solve problems. They may have too much of something that is undesirable, or too little of something that is good.
  • Before deciding on products or services, buyers usually take time to clarify what they need. So we can see that the need arises very early in the cycle.

Given that businesses have many needs, though, how do they prioritise one need over others?

  • To address that question, it is first worth noting that there is another step for the buyer which emerges even earlier than need: the acknowledgment of a problem.
  • The need which addresses the most troubling problem usually wins the day. Problems are perhaps best thought of as the gap between the buyer’s present reality and their desired future. Before a business has a need, it has a problem – a gap.

So let’s summarise the scenario:

  • first, buyers have no problem;
  • then they do
  • then they know they need a solution
  • then they consider their options
  • then they choose between those options
  • and, finally, they receive the benefits for which they had hoped.

Here’s the catch: the buyer rarely skips stages. If they understand that they need your product but are not troubled about the gap between their present reality and their desired future, they will often decide not to act.

And if we launch into a description of our company, products and or services before we understand the buyer’s problem then we risk misunderstanding the buyer’s needs and ultimately failing to connect the unique attributes of our solution to meet this need.

So if in your next sales meeting, the buyer leads off with “tell us about what you do”; take a breath and don’t answer this question.

Ask permission to understand a little more about the buyer’s world so that you can frame what you do in their context.

Armed with information around what they are attempting to fix, accomplish or avoid will enable you to position your business and your offering more effectively and differentiate yourselves from the competition.

Good luck and good selling!

Brett Bonser is Director of and Co-Founder of Funnel Camp.