May 31, 2009

Needs Analysis: Be careful when you point out your prospect's problems

As salespeople we have been trained to sniff out our customers’ problems, including ones that the customer may not have been fully aware of. It is our job to digg them up and to parade them around in front of our prospects in order to build a desire for their resolution and tension for change. However, be careful because it can easily backfire.

Happy days, the prospect has a probem:
The logic is clear if our product, or service is a solution, then we need to find a matching problem and the bigger the problem the greater the potential for a sale.

Little wonder then that we focus so much on the problem, with the following being typical of the 'problem focused' openings of so many sales pitches:
  • ‘80% of IT projects are either behind schedule, over budget or about to be scrapped.’
  • ‘Up to 20% of hardware and software on most networks is hidden, resulting in unwelcome surprises in terms of costs, licensing and risks.’
  • ‘In the face of increasingly complex stock handing rules most warehouse systems are struggling to achieve 99.9% accuracy levels. ‘
Needs Analysis Can Help You Sell:
Here is traditionally how it worked: find the sore point, scratch it to make it hurt a little more and then when you present the prospect with your medicine he, or she will readily embrace you and your solution. Well, that is how it is supposed to work. The problem is that in the process of pointing people to their pains, sore points and inadequacies you could lose as many friends as you gain.

Managers often personally identify with their businesses, strategies and departments. So, when you criticise their strategy, their results, etc. you are criticising them. Nobody likes to have their weaknesses aired, or attention drawn to their failures. If you don’t exercise care in how you undercover the prospects needs, or problems (that is the needs analysis aspect of selling), then you run the risk of sabotaging the sale. You could be creating a wall of denial, defensiveness and resistance.

Needs Analysis Can Lose You Friends
Let us take the example of a software testing company whose sales pitch which started by stating that ‘80% of IT projects are in trouble’ (a statistic that was backed up by quoting a independent source). The danger is that this opening could be seen by many prospects as a thinly veiled insult.

While the message it strikes at the very heart of the problem, most IT Managers are likely to respond with a statement such as ‘are you suggesting that we, or I, cannot delivery successful IT projects?’ Only a minority – perhaps managers from other departments, are likely to react with a ‘yes you are absolutely right most of our projects are failing, we need your help.’

Put People Before Problems:
So, when you are focusing on the problem do not forget the people involved -those who are part of the problem as well as those that are affected by it. Taking our ‘80% of IT projects are behind schedule'' example, how can it be transformed so that it is less likely to encounter resistance?

Well, it could be reworded to ‘IT managers are often thwarted in their efforts to deliver key software projects on time and within budget…’ The difference is subtle, but significant saying that managers are being thwarted as opposed to failing. In this way it shifts the focus from the people to the problem and in particular to the processes and systems that are holding people back.

Exposing the Problem, While Protecting The People
The savvy salesperson knows that he must identify problems, while at the same time protecting people. He must, for example, get to the heart of problems in the warehouse without directly criticizing the warehouse manager. This is at the core of influencing people.

Tips On Using Problem Identification to Sell
So, how to uncover the needs and problems that will help you to sell your solution, while at the same time avoiding resistance on the part of the prospect? Well, here are 3 techniques to bear in mind:
  1. Tell stories to help customers understand their own situation. This enables you to couch comments and observations that may be relevant to the prospect’s business in a neutral 3rd party way.

  2. The savvy salesperson must also have a good sense of politics and timing. He must know the right time to speak out about problems and how loudly to do so. He must also earn the right to speak, by virtue of his/her demonstrated level of expertise, credibility and trust. He must not speak out until at least tacitly invited to do so.

  3. Ask questions, rather than making statements. Use them to steer the customer along the path of greater awareness and to help them arrive at their own definition of the problem. Focus your questions not just on the problems, but on the implications and the possible solutions. Probe behind the facts to understand how people feel about the situation, as well as to understand their hopes and fears. They are essential to the manner in which you couche your solutions.

  4. Listen and emphathise as a means of demonstrating commitment and building rapport. Encouraging the customer or prospect to open up about his or her problems and challenges is the supreme test of a salesperson's skill. The prospect has to feel that by opening up he, or she is not just simply providing the salesperson with amunition to be used in his/her salespitch.

  5. Focus on the positive, as opposed to the negative and on opportunities as opposed to challenges. In the warehousing example we mentioned earlier, it would be focusing not on the effect of more complex handing rules on accuracy levels, but on how successfully mastering complex handling rules can deliver a cost advantage.

  6. Compliment your customer. It is important to find out about the company’s successes, strengths, achievements, etc. and highlight these in your conversations and your proposals.

  7. Choose your language carefully. What one person sees as 'benchmarking' another may consider 'finger pointing'. When salespeople and consultants use words such as ‘review’, ‘assessment’, ‘audit’, clients and prospects may crudely translate these terms int ‘you think you know it all’,, or at least ’you think you are better than us’.

  8. Be careful when you are using analysts reports and statistics. They can be a blunt instrument, being used in most cases to infer a problem in the prospect's company, or industry and to deliver a negative message. They are no substitute for a full understanding of the customers business. In any respect, we find that buyers are increasingly weary and disbelieving of analyst data.

  9. Put yourself in your customer's shoes. There is a wise Spanish proverb that says ‘It is much easier to talk about bulls, than it is to step into the ring.’ This is an important point for sales people to bear in mind. Don’t judge a person, or a situation, until and unless you are in that situation yourself. For those directly confronted with a problem there is a level and complexity that the outsider cannot immediately appreciate.

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