The Gist:

  • It is no longer enough to identify your client’s problem, especially when it’s already well-known.
  • Less than half of salespeople reach their quota and more than half of buyers don’t change, evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working.
  • To solve your client’s problem, you have to solve the problems that prevent them from solving the problem.

The deadline for my fourth book is looming. The manuscript is due to the publisher in three days: my contract calls for 65,000 words, a good length for the publisher based on what people will spend on a book. Writing the book has caused me to recognize a critical insight about B2B sales, or more accurately, about B2B buying. But before I share it, we need to look at some numbers: 57% and 67%. According to two recent studies, those are the percentages of B2B salespeople who miss their quota.

Those specific numbers are almost sure to be inaccurate outside each study’s sample, even though they are directionally right. Many things have changed in our environment over the last two decades, but none of those changes have given our clients and prospective clients fewer problems or challenges. In light of that data, let me ask you two questions:

  1. Would you agree that it is frustrating when your clients, when presented with unassailable evidence that they need to change, feel no compulsion to change?
  2. Would you also sign off on the idea that when confronted by facts suggesting that change is necessary, it would be negligent to refuse to change?

A Circular Argument

I confess that I tricked you, but only to make a point. You answered “yes” to both questions because I framed the questions with you as the salesperson. But if unassailable evidence should prompt our clients to change, we must apply the same logic to ourselves. Specifically, we have more than enough data to show that the legacy sales approaches are now inadequate to surviving in today’s B2B sales environment.

There is enough blame to go around when clients refuse to change, clinging to the status quo longer than is advisable. Clients with dysfunctional and misaligned teams cannot agree on what problems they need to solve, what the correct answers should be, and how best to pursue change. They underestimate how difficult it is to create change, often doing too little to create an environment in which they can decide and move forward.

For our part, we are mistreating our clients by not updating our sales approaches to serve them better. Instead, we stick with a linear sales process intrinsically at odds with what would benefit our clients now. We also impose outdated, commoditized, and almost ritualistic discovery calls: extract a confession that they have a problem, explore their pain, and insert our "solution" (a word I hope we will soon replace with something like "outcomes") to fix everything.

What are the odds of two dysfunctional parties, both with dysfunctional processes and approaches, being able to solve a problem? Since we are responsible for helping our clients improve their results, I suggest that we change first.

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The Problem with Problems

Our problem is that we anchor our discovery process in our strong desire to identify the client's problem. In following this well-worn path of focusing on the problem, our beliefs and our training prevent us from seeing that the client's problem isn't their biggest problem. What really prevents your clients from changing is all of those factors that prevent them from effectively solving problems in the first place. Here is a short list.

Uncertainty. Your clients are always going to have trouble choosing to change when they’re experiencing uncertainty. You can count on this being your client's default state. The fact that your solution might solve the presenting problem does nothing to solve the problem of uncertainty.

Status Quo. Your clients have lived with their problems long enough that they have adjusted to their reality, making it difficult to compel change. It is foolish to believe that your client isn't aware of their problems just because they’re comfortable with them.

A Limited Understanding. Many of your clients have a limited understanding of their problem, so they may feel ill-equipped to propose or decide on a change. When you don't know enough about the situation, the easiest decision is to make none.

Misalignment. One of the challenges of leadership is misalignment. When a group of leaders can't agree on how to move forward—or worse, when their priorities conflict—they often end in a stalemate, one that leaves problems and challenges unaddressed.

Lack of Consensus. Even when a group is willing to pursue change, they can struggle to acquire consensus, a second path to a stalemate that allows their problem to continue.

Limited Emotional Energy. We underestimate how much emotional energy we require of our clients when we ask them to change. Much of that energy is spent on conflict-heavy conversations that we are neither part of nor privy to, even though our initiative prompted the conflict.

Limited Time. It's essential to recognize that your client’s main business is running their business. They are almost sure to be time-starved and already saddled with more work and more demands for communication than they can handle in the course of a day, a week, or a year.

Position and Blame. It is not uncommon for people to avoid change, especially in political environments, because any failure might cause them to lose status or have others point out their failure. A tough start on a new initiative is enough to cause one to think twice before committing.

Despite these problems, for our part it's business as usual. Same old approach. Same old bad sales conversations. No help solving the problems that prevent clients from solving their problems. Unless we decide to change how we sell, more and more salespeople will miss their goals.

Do Good Work:

  • Recognize that your client has problems solving their problems.
  • Expand your approach to help solve these meta-problems.
  • Adopt a modern sales approach that speaks to your client’s needs.
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Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
August 8, 2021
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