I used to say that problems were nothing but wake up calls for creativity. Although that's still my opinion, I also recognize that successful problem solving requires a methodology, a reliable approach that leads to a solution most of the time.
In 1957, Robert Solow of MIT estimated that of the total increase in United States output per man-hour in 40 years (1909 to 1949), only 12.5 percent was due to increases in capital equipment, while 87.5 percent was due to technological progress and other gains in human knowledge and skills. Solow received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his discovery. His research suggests that our ability to apply new technology and ideas to business problems is the most important factor for business growth. Likewise, in selling, the most important factor for developing new business is the salesperson's ability to solve problems.
There are three factors limiting our ability to grasp, define, and solve problems: First, there is a limit to our ability to focus on problems. During a sales call, we often move from problem to problem without getting a clear sense of which one is the most important to the customer. Our attention tends to bounce from one thing to another, leading to an insufficient understanding of the big picture.
Second, customers have a limited vocabulary for describing their problems. They often don't know what they really need, and as a result they go out and shop for solutions instead of define their problems. Third, we often overestimate the size of the problem and the time necessary to develop a workable solution.
Here are seven tested ideas for helping customers solve problems and increasing your business.
1. Take notes as you listen to your customers. Use your customer’s language. For example, a customer may say, "We need to pick up the pace in our finishing department." It's to your advantage to refer to the customer's problem as "picking up the pace" and not as "speeding up finishing."
2. Encourage your customers to give you more details. The more time they invest in talking to you about their problems, the greater your chances of seeing the total picture. Also, your listening shows that you care.
3. Offer statements that clarify and help your customer thoroughly understand his or her situation. For example, you may ask, "You've mentioned that you need to pick up the pace in the finishing department. What options do you have for achieving this goal?" Or, "We've discussed several problems involved in this department. What would you consider as the three most important ones?"
4. Always ask your customers about solutions they’ve already considered. This will reveal their ability to think creatively. Also, you may find out if your customers have spoken to your competition.
5. Identify the consequences and penalties for leaving the problem alone. Ask, "What would happen if you did nothing about these problems?" This question tends to increase the customer's sense of urgency about finding a solution.
6. Present your solution as one choice among several possible solutions. For example, you might say, "There are several ways to look at this problem. First, you may consider upgrading your existing system. Second, you may want to leave the problem alone. Third, you could talk to one of my existing customers about his experience converting to our new system." Instead of presenting your best solution as the only choice, let your customer pick your best solution among two other, less desirable alternatives.
7. Help your customer discover the advantages of the best solution. Ask, "Let's assume for a moment that you would choose this solution. What benefits would you see in making this choice?" This question will tell you how much value your customer places in your solution. If your idea represents the best solution to the customer's problem, you're ready to close the sale.