In uncertain economic times, risk-averse corporate decision makers are more focused than ever on receiving substantive value from investments in new products and services. Unfortunately, many companies are unable to coordinate their internal expertise to understand the potential impact of valuable and complex solutions, and have limited experience in identifying exactly where the value will come from. They may be only partially aware of which problems a solution could address and may not clearly understand what these problems are actually costing the entire organization.
Rather than helping customers navigate through the “noise” and confusion of multiple offers, salespeople default to presenting their products and services too early and often, and to a limited audience. Customers are then left on their own to try to match long lists of benefits and claims of value to their individual business situations, increasing the likelihood that they may make a poor decision for their company.
This mismatch between value promises and value delivery is the outcome of sales practices that are more “diagnose” constrained than solution constrained. The critical missing piece is a proper diagnosis of the customer’s situation as it relates to the value of the solution. Thorough diagnosis results in having the ability to mutually identify relevant issues. Only when such issues have been uncovered and agreed upon can a specific solution become a robust source of real, measurable value. Otherwise, proposed solutions may be entirely disconnected from the customer’s reality.
Diagnosis First, Solution Second
By starting each customer engagement with a focus on building a “diagnostic conversation,” a seller can help customers fully explore relevant business problems to determine what problems exist and how they can be measured, evaluated, and communicated. Rather than focusing on a solution, which is more speculative, the diagnostic process is aimed at uncovering symptoms – physical indicators that are real and present in the business. By asking the right questions of the right people in the organization, the seller makes a significant contribution to their customer’s awareness of the risks and problems they are currently experiencing and believe they will be exposed to in the future, or even opportunities they could be missing. When done skillfully, the diagnostic conversation leads to a clear connection between a proposed solution and the real issues the customer needs and wants to resolve. At this point, with a clear picture of the likely consequences of staying with the status quo, the customer is ready to incur the costs of making a change and investing in the solution. The next natural step is the design of the solution with a mutually agreed upon definition of expected value in terms of specific issues and measurable business impact.
The Structure of a Diagnostic Conversation
Diagnostic conversations have three primary objectives – not unlike those of a doctor diagnosing a patient:
- Uncover the reality of the customer’s situation (Do these symptoms exist?)
- Quantify the impact of the problem (How bad is it?)
- Create the “Incentive to Change” (Is it serious enough to take action?)
To accomplish these objectives, you will need to build a relationship with an executive who will give you access to the people you suggest. The priority should be people who have first hand knowledge of the symptoms of the problem and can help you quantify the cost of the problem in the absence of the value you provide. Additionally, you will want to talk with key individuals who own a significant component of the problem and are experiencing a negative impact on their job responsibility. Selecting the functions that are affected by the problem will help you construct a solid “cast of characters” who can provide insight into the business processes that are affected by the absence of the value. As in any new sales relationship, relevancy and credibility need to be established with each of these contacts.
To gain the trust required for the sharing of critical information, here’s how you can open your conversations with a few simple steps:
- Frame the problem or risk as it relates to the larger organization.
- Share why the executive sponsored your access, discussing the relationship of the risk to the cast member’s area of responsibility.
- Describe the type of information you are looking for.
From here, you can begin to ask questions that allow you to examine the issue from the process level, probe for symptoms, and determine consequences based on what this individual is experiencing.
Conducting diagnostic conversations with each cast member is the fundamental path to comprehending the customers’ business and the cost of their problem. It also helps key people develop a keen awareness of the situation and understand their level of ownership in the problem or opportunity. Upon completion of the diagnosis, not only do decision makers have an accurate picture of the value they can expect, but the critical players have an incentive to support the changes required to ensure success of the solution.
As you prepare for your next call with a new customer, think about your last presentation or proposal. How much of the content was about you and your solution, and how much of it was about your customer’s business? If the higher proportion was about you and your solution, you’re at risk of looking pretty much like all of your competitors. Conducting a thorough diagnosis of your customer’s business situation up front allows you to start adding value from the moment you walk in the door. It also establishes the foundation for demonstrating how your solution can provide significant, verifiable value that is truly connected to your customers’ real business.