written by Mark Donnolo, Managing Partner and posted at SalesGlobe

A year ago, I stood in front of a senior sales team. In our minds, we could hear the company drumbeat, driven by a new, energetic CEO: “Growth, growth, growth.” Faced with a monumental task, the team was noticeably uneasy. For five years they had ridden the wave of market growth – and now they were being tasked with outpacing it.

Like many mature organizations, most of their revenue came from a small base of strategic accounts they thought were highly penetrated. So, I posed the question: “How are we going to outrun market growth next year?” I heard the sound of silence. But I let it sit. Eventually the team began to comment. “We’ve got all we can get from our strategic accounts.” “We have to find new accounts.” “We’re just going to have to buckle down.” These didn’t sound like plans. They weren’t even viable ideas. This is headed in the wrong direction fast, I thought.

Turns out, a little over twelve months later, this team with no ideas actually pulled it off. How? They developed a plan that covered their top accounts and a handful of strategic prospects and followed it consistently. What they undertook wasn’t a typical account planning process that any sales leader can recite by memory. It had nothing to do with the plan components or the plan process. And it had everything to do with how the team thought. Yes, their thinking about the account strategy made the difference between incremental growth and a paradigm shift in how they grew.

How the Team’s Change in Thinking Made a Difference

Instead of going through the motions of account planning, the team focused on how to solve the customer’s real problem. Many sales teams approach account planning from the perspective of what they have to sell and how much of it the customer will buy. But that approach is growing obsolete – and so is the typical salesperson reciting what the company can do for the customer. Customers already know what they need – at least they think they know because they did their research before the salesperson set foot in the door. The key is that customers think they know what they need based on the problem statement they’ve articulated. But that problem statement is often inaccurate. They think they need new technology, for example, when they actually need field sales to use the current technology properly. You can see how this kind of thinking can result in a red herring: the sales team rushes off in the wrong direction, searching for a solution to a problem that isn’t the actual problem!

Back to how this sales organization transformed the way it thought about the customer. We introduced Sales Design ThinkingSM to help the team solve the customer’s actual problem and radically differentiate itself from its competitors. One of the most powerful elements of Sales Design Thinking is the first step of converting the customer’s problem statement into a more accurate and differentiated Challenge Question. We dive into the process in my  book, Quotas! Design Thinking to Solve Your Biggest Sales Challenge. Here’s a look at this first step.

Redefine the Challenge Question by Understanding the Story

For most customer organizations, articulating the problem statement is pretty easy because it’s the thing they’ve been talking about for months. Typically, it goes something like this: “We need to lower the cost of raw materials because it’s impacting our margins.” If the sales team tries to solve for that problem statement, they may have their sights set on those specific points (customer cost and margins). Then, while attempting to fix only those ailments, they miss the underlying causes and fail to address the customer’s actual problem. Pursuing the initial problem statement is the first mistake most sales teams make. It’s one of the reasons they look just like their competitors and don’t win the deal. Since they’re chasing the same problem as their competitors, they look just like their competitors, so the customer’s decision comes down to price.

Because the problem statement is based on a limited perspective and is often not the true problem, think of it as just the starting point. To get beyond that initial view, this sales team first redefined the problem by understanding the customer’s story behind the problem. You may be thinking, “The story? We already know the customer’s story.” The fact is, you likely know only a piece of the story – the piece that you can see from your limited perspective. Understanding the whole story gave the sales team a new view on the customer problem and a more enlightened picture of what they needed to solve for and what success looked like. To understand the story behind the problem, ask what the customer pain points are, how and when they developed, who was involved, why it was done the way it was done, and where it was happening.

Working like sales design detectives to build out the story revealed dimension and granularity on the problem that the team wouldn’t otherwise have. And competitors sure weren’t thinking this way. To build out the story, they asked:

  • What? Starting with the problem statement, they asked questions like, “What happened?” and “What are the pain points?” The problem statement was usually the main pain point, with some sub pain points. Asking what happened began to reveal what led to the problem.
  • How and When? Next, the team talked with the customer about the story. How did it happen and when? Often, the issues behind the problem statement had unfolded over a period of years and followed a pattern of events which, in themselves, gave clues about potential solutions.
  • Who? As the story for each customer took shape, the sales team asked questions about who was involved. Typically, there were different functions that played roles in the story. By following up with the players in various functions, the team filled out the story from each perspective, making it more dimensional and complete.
  • Where? The question of where has a few important dimensions. Organizations typically don’t operate in a homogenous way geographically, by business unit, or by role. “Where” refers to theaters, regions, territories, and offices—the places where the story unfolded.
  • Why? With some of the story scripted and some of the players identified, the sales team looked at why these events happened. What were the players’ motivations?

With the story told, the sales team turned to asking the same types of questions to create a solution vision that described what a successful outcome might look like. The solution vision doesn’t give the answer. It provides a vision of how the answer could work. The sales team asked the customer what a successful outcome would be, how and when it could happen, who should be involved, why it would be beneficial, why it might meet with resistance, and where it should happen. The sales team then used the key parts of the story and solution vision to redefine the problem in the form of a Challenge Question.

A Challenge Question has energy because it prompts continued thinking rather than simply a statement of the problem. The Challenge Question also has more dimension to it. For example, take the problem statement:

“We need to lower the cost of our raw materials because it’s impacting our margins.”

You might redefine it as:

“How do we find new ways to improve manufacturing efficiency, better plan production line utilization, and hedge market price risk for raw materials to improve our margins?”

Wow! Suddenly the Challenge Question gives us a lot more to dig into. It’s a starting point for a more targeted solution. At SalesGlobe, when we generate ideas for solving a client problem, we lay out the problem statement as a first step; then we write down one, two, or three Challenge Questions that we derive from the problem statement before we begin talking about ideas for the solution. It gives us clarity and granularity around the open questions we need to answer.

For this sales team, redefining Challenge Questions for each customer provided unique knowledge on the root problem and a starting point that differentiated the team from its competitors. This single idea of redefining the Challenge Question changed the way the sales team thought about its customers within its account plans and helped it get a jump on growth.


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