You walk into the doctor’s office with a cut on your hand. You think you need some stitches and perhaps some antibiotics, but you’re not sure. The doctor says, “great to see you. Looks like you could use a heart transplant.” You’re puzzled.

“But, doc, I just have a cut on my hand. I think I need some stitches.”

“Sure you do, but have you also considered the benefits or a heart transplant? I’ll throw the stitches in for free.”

I bet you haven’t had this experience, at least not in the doctor’s office. Yet, we’ve all had this experience as a buyer in some other context, and many of us (myself included) have been guilty of it as a seller. We all like to be proud of what we do and what we sell. Sometimes we get so proud we forget that whole purpose of what we sell is to help someone else, and that their problem, not our solution is actually the important part.

Rather than selling your solution, take some time to really understand the problem. Then you can determine if you have a good solution. (This is for B2B folks or complex B2C sales– I know there are lots of cases where you don’t need to get into this much detail.) If you do have a good solution, you and the buyer can have confidence in it. If you don’t, you can devise one together, or refer them to someone who does.

Let them describe their problem. Ask questions to get details about what the real problem is– it may be hidden under several layers. “We need a new sales system” may be the layer before “because we just bought another company with an incompatible system and we want one system for everyone”, which may be the layer before “the CEO tasked me with solving this before the end of the fiscal year.” If you don’t understand all the layers, your solution may miss the mark. I can’t count how many sales cycles I’ve seen end because people didn’t understand the real problem, or even how many sales cycles ended “successfully” but led to failed projects, for the same reason.

This is why doctors start by asking about your symptoms, taking your blood pressure, and doing other tests, so they understand what’s really going on before they recommend a course of action. You might think “the human body is complicated and the consequences of bad decisions are really high, but my business is much simpler.” Plus, you don’t have time to do lots of consultations, especially since customers often don’t want to pay to truly understand their own problems.

However, people’s businesses are important. Maybe not as important as their hearts, but still something you want to get right. To avoid unnecessary conversations, your sales and marketing efforts should not only try to attract the right prospects, but exclude the wrong prospects. If you have a solution that starts at $100,000, tell people that. Then you won’t spend half your time fielding calls from people with $50,000 budgets. As much as this advice is important for large companies, it’s critical for small businesses.

The less you “sell”, the more you work on really solving their problem, the easier it is to sell, and the more likely your project is to succeed. Treat every prospect like they were just referred by a friend (who will certainly hear how you treated them). You don’t have to give them a huge discount, just treat them well and treat them fairly. But make sure you are really solving their problem or referring them to someone who can. This sounds obvious, but it was an important revelation for me– I suck at selling, but fortunately get most of my business through referrals. Once I stopped “selling”, I really started selling.

If you have the right conversation with the right customer, you can generate a killer proposal and close the business. This may seem like a lot of work, but if you have the right tools (shameless plug, check out a Mimiran sample proposal), you spend very little time on grunt work, and can focus on the client specific pieces. I use the same proposal template about 80% of the time, and it’s mostly a matter of filling in some key information from the discussions. Note that the proposal is not where you present a novel solution (“turns out I think you need a heart transplant!”), but rather a synthesis of your discussions, which, once you have uncovered the problem, lead to designing a solution together.

I’m off to do a phone call. Turns out someone sold a deal without understanding the customer’s real problem. The customer didn’t explain it in detail and the sales rep never questioned them because everyone wanted to get the deal done. This is different than wanting to get the problem solved. Now I have to see if I can solve the real problem, or refer them to someone who can.

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