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Solution Selling® Essentials: Diagnosing Buyer Pain

five sales coaching essentials


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Parts of this post adapted from the Solution Selling Fieldbook (2005, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 978-0071456074) by Eades, Touchstone and Sullivan.

Imagine for a moment that you have come down with the flu. You feel terrible. You go to your doctor to find some relief. What would you think if your doctor conducted only a cursory examination, asked you no questions, and then threw a prescription at you, saying you’ll probably feel better soon? How confident would you be in that doctor’s diagnosis?

At best, your doctor may have guessed right, and you might get better. At worst, your doctor may be totally wrong, and your illness could develop into something serious, perhaps even life-threatening.

Shoddy diagnosis often leads to poor results. Lawyers call this malpractice.

Unfortunately, we see a lot of malpractice in the sales profession, too. Many salespeople do a poor job diagnosing buyers’ real problems, and as a result, they can prescribe the wrong solutions, or at worst, fail to convince customers that their solutions could be of any benefit at all.

It’s hard for buyers to take action without first having a vision of what to do to solve their problem. The salesperson that accurately diagnoses a buyer’s critical business issues or potential missed opportunity — their “pain” — and who then helps the buyer to create a vision of a solution, most often wins the business.

A sales professional who doesn’t diagnose their buyer’s pain, and then help the buyer to visualize how their capabilities are going to help, unwittingly puts themselves in the position of being just another salesperson. This type of salesperson brings little or no value to the prospective buyer. Like a doctor that just throws pills at his patients without diagnosing them, salespeople that don’t diagnose customer pains are guilty of sales malpractice.

Diagnose Before You Prescribe

If a buyer doesn’t trust your diagnosis, they won’t trust your prescription. So, what does a good buyer diagnosis look like?

A diagnostic questioning model that serves as a road map for consultative conversations with buyers can be of help. Here are the components of a good diagnostic model:

  • Three types of questions:
    • Open
    • Control
    • Confirming
  • Exploring three kinds of information:
    • Reasons for the buyer’s pain
    • The scope or impact of the pain
    • The specific capabilities needed to address the pain

Three Types of Diagnostic Questions

Salespeople should ask three types of questions when diagnosing customer pain. Each type of question solicits different kinds of information, and all are necessary to develop a thorough understanding to the buyer’s critical business issues of potential missed opportunities:

  • Open Questions – Open-ended questions invite buyers to talk freely, respond from their experience, knowledge, and points of concern, and earn you the right to ask control questions. They are comfortable questions for buyers to answer because they are typically perceived as non-threatening. They do have one disadvantage; they give control of the conversation over to the buyer. That’s not good if the direction they take has nothing to do with your offering. But early in the buying process, it’s important for buyers to feel comfortable, so you are best advised to start with open questions.
  • Control Questions – Control questions are similar to what many people know as closed or closed-ended questions. However, closed questions tend to be answered with a yes or no, whereas control questions tend to elicit more complete responses. Control questions seek specific pieces of information and help guide the buyer in the specific direction you want them to go. Control questions also help to elicit quantitative information about things such as “how much?” or “how often?”
  • Confirming Questions – Confirming questions ensure that both the buyer and the salesperson are in sync. Confirming questions help summarize your understanding of buyer responses, demonstrates an ability to listen, show empathy, and exhibit expertise. Confirming questions can also help rectify any misunderstanding that may have occurred during a conversation.

Three Kinds of Diagnostic Exploration

Using open, control, and confirming questions, sales professionals should explore three types of information in their diagnosis of a buyer’s pain:

  • Identify reasons for pain – You attempt to explore and understand all of the contributing factors associated with why the buyer is experiencing the admitted pain. Additionally, you want to diagnose how much, from a quantitative perspective, each reason is contributing to the buyer’s pain.
  • Determine the impact of the pain – After diagnosing the reasons for pain, you attempt to explore the impact that the buyer’s pain has on other individuals. The intent is to see how pervasive the pain is throughout the organization. This dialogue can serve to verify the full value of solving the problem and addressing the pain.
  • Visualize capabilities needed – After having diagnosed the reasons for pain and others impacted, you must now attempt to help the buyer visualize a solution. In a consultative manner, you should vividly describe an vision of how your capabilities might help the buyer address the reasons for their pain.
You can pull the three types of questions and the three kinds of exploration together into a repeatable model for diagnostic conversations with buyers — we call this the 9-Block Vision Processing Model.

The Vision Processing Model provides a useful framework for a thorough diagnostic, consultative discussion with a buyer.  If executed successfully, the seller understands the reasons for the buyer’s critical business issues, the impact those issues are having on the buyer and their organization, and the kinds of capabilities needed to solve the buyer’s problem.  More importantly, the Vision Processing Model also helps buyers to develop a clear vision of a potential solution — one that favors the capabilities that you offer.

Good luck and good selling!

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