Solution Selling Essentials: Helping Prospects Admit Pain

Parts of this post adapted from the Solution Selling Fieldbook (2005, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 978-0071456074 by Eades, Touchstone, and Sullivan).

Selling a solution to someone that doesn’t think they have a problem is extremely difficult. In fact, it is virtually impossible. Until the potential buyer admits that they need to change in some way, they will remain happy with the status quo, and simply carry on as they always have.

Getting customers to admit that they have a business issue that needs to be addressed – or a potential missed opportunity if they fail to act – is the first major step towards a successful sale. How do top performing salespeople help buyers recognize their critical business issues – their pains – and begin the process of trying to solve them?

If you have stimulated the curiosity of a potential customer with a business development prompter, and then shared a suitable reference story (sharing pain to get pain), you can expect prospects to respond in one of five ways:

  1. “I’m having that same problem.”
  2. “I’m having a different problem.”
  3. “I don’t have that problem,” but the prospect is friendly and talkative.
  4. “I don’t have that problem”, and the prospect is NOT friendly and talkative.
  5. “I have that same problem, and we’re already working on it.”

If the prospect gives you one of the first two responses, congratulations! They have admitted pain (or admitted a different pain than the one you thought they might have), and are ready to move forward towards a potential solution. If you get the first response, you obviously did your homework and postulated correctly about their business challenge. If you get the second response, you were not exactly on target but still demonstrated some situational fluency (understanding of the customer’s situation) and therefore, earned some credibility, so the prospect is willing to steer you towards the right issue.

If you get the third response (no pain admitted, but the prospect is friendly and talkative) then you need to focus the conversation on a potential pain that you can address. The best way to do this is to ask situation questions to help direct the conversation towards the most relevant pain. Situation questions are open – they allow prospects to answer freely, and invite further conversation and exploration. Some examples of situation questions are:

The fourth response (no pain admitted, and the prospect doesn’t want to share any more information) is certainly the most challenging. Basically, the prospect is saying, “Stop bothering me, and go away!” Try to empathize with the prospect, and make it easier for them to respond by offering up some potential pains to which the prospect may relate. A menu of pain approach may prove useful. An example of a menu of pain question is: “The top three difficulties we are hearing from VPs of Sales like you are: (1) missing revenue targets, (2) increasing cost of sales, and (3) inability to accurately forecast sales revenue: “How many of these issues, if any, are impacting you today?” If, after asking menu of pain questions, your prospect still does not admit pain, then it’s probably best to politely disengage.

If you hear the fifth response (agreement with the pain, and they’re already working on it) warning alarms should go off in your head, telling you that this is an active opportunity and the customer already has a vision of a potential solution. In other words, you are late entering into this opportunity! In this case, you should first participate in your prospect’s vision by asking what they are doing to solve their problem. Then, you can determine if you can re-engineer their vision with additional capabilities – those that favor your solution.  (We’ll cover vision re-engineering dialogues in more detail in a future post.)

Good luck and good selling!

How You Sell Is the Last Advantage