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The decision-maker sitting across from me was explaining how every company in my industry had failed him. He disclosed his “problem” and his “pain points,” just as I was hoping. You know that feeling that suggests you are going to have an easy time winning the client’s business? I was certain I was winning this deal. I gave him my legacy approach presentation all about why he should buy from my company.

After the presentation, my contact said that he believed that I would be the first person to help him succeed. I was young and excited to have this opportunity, and I proceeded to give him a contract and start filling his orders. What I didn’t know was that I wasn’t selling him, he was selling me.

This client was facing several internal factors that would prevent any company in my industry from helping them. It would take a couple of experiences like this before I figured out that some clients withhold information that would inform me that no one could help them. A few days later, I would fire this client.

In discovery, you are not looking for a problem or a pain point. You are looking for the root cause of your prospective client’s failure to produce the results they need. When you are displacing a competitor, it may be because they are failing the client, but it may be for some other reason. When you accept the problem and the pain points without identifying their root cause, you can end up with problems executing for your clients.

In this situation, the client had a pay rate that was under the average rate. They also didn’t know how many people the company would need until 6:00 AM, and they would need them to start by 7:00 AM. The job was undesirable. None of my competitors had failed him. Rather, their lack of success was due to the fact that their offering wasn’t good enough and their work rules prevented anyone from being successful.

Had I had more experience, I would have walked away without giving it a second thought. Over time, I started asking a series of questions to determine the root cause of the client’s problem and address it in discovery.

How to Find the Root Cause in Discovery

The problem with taking a prospective client’s problem at face value is that it can cause you to do weak discovery and miss the root cause of your client’s real problem. What tends to be true is that you have to ask questions outside of what we can call the presenting problem. These questions are a search for the truth about why the client is having trouble producing certain results.

I can’t tell you what questions to ask to discover the root cause, but I can tell you how to go about developing these questions. If you look back over the times you won a client, only to have your operations team fail to produce the results the client needed, you can identify the obstacles that prevented success.


Discovery and Consultative Selling

In sales training, I would ask a senior leader to explain how their sales managers would support the behavioral changes and how they would hold their teams accountable. This is a failure point and leaders who don’t have an answer and a reasonable plan are not going to be able to effect the change they need to improve their results.

When working on sales in staffing, I would ask about pay rates, shift hours, the current retention metrics, and questions about how management and internal employees would engage with the temporary staff.

In your industry, the problem you accept as the root cause may be surrounded by other problems, some of which may cause you and your company to fail. You need to look deeper to identify any failure points. Keep in mind a problem may have more than one root cause, so be thorough in your discovery.

As I gained experience with understanding failure points, I started to dig more deeply into the factors that would determine my company’s success or failure. Instead of walking away from a client with factors that would result in a failure point, I started to explain what they would need to do to be able to produce the results they needed.

Here is the truth about consultative sales: Because you sell what you sell every day, you have greater experience than the decision-maker sitting across from you, who makes these decisions infrequently. Your advice is what makes you consultative.

If the client was unable or unwilling to make the changes that were necessary for anyone to help them, I walked away. Those clients would sell some other salesperson on what would be a nightmare client.

The companies willing to make changes became clients, and because we dealt with the root causes, we were able to succeed where others failed.

On Conflict Aversion

The truth at any price, even the price of your deal. There is sometimes a bit of conflict when you address the root cause of the client’s problems. It isn’t great to have to explain to a person that their baby is ugly, but doing so is part of being consultative. It requires a great deal of diplomacy and tact.

In Elite Sales Strategies: A Guide to Being One-Up, Creating Value, and Becoming Truly Consultative you will find two stories where I failed one prospect and a major client. In the first case, the prospect didn’t believe that he would fail if he didn’t take my advice. His company was gone a few months later. One of my largest clients waited too long to make the changes they needed. I had spent three years trying to prevent them from failing. They lost four of their largest clients and blamed it on me and my company.

You cannot be consultative if you avoid telling the truth or dealing with the root cause.

Discovering the Root Cause

Before you decide that you can solve the client’s problem, you need to be certain you have identified its root cause. You must ask more questions to more people to uncover the truth behind their poor results. Once you know the real reasons the client is experiencing poor results, you can build a solution that you are certain will provide them with the outcomes they need without failure.

Leaving this article, identify the failure points that cause your clients to fail, and build a set of questions to identify the root cause in your discovery.

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Post by Anthony Iannarino on May 31, 2023

Written and edited by human brains and human hands.

Anthony Iannarino

Anthony Iannarino is an American writer. He has published daily at thesalesblog.com for more than 14 years, amassing over 5,300 articles and making this platform a destination for salespeople and sales leaders. Anthony is also the author of four best-selling books documenting modern sales methodologies and a fifth book for sales leaders seeking revenue growth. His latest book for an even wider audience is titled, The Negativity Fast: Proven Techniques to Increase Positivity, Reduce Fear, and Boost Success.

Anthony speaks to sales organizations worldwide, delivering cutting-edge sales strategies and tactics that work in this ever-evolving B2B landscape. He also provides workshops and seminars. You can reach Anthony at thesalesblog.com or email Beth@b2bsalescoach.com.

Connect with Anthony on LinkedIn, X or Youtube. You can email Anthony at iannarino@gmail.com

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