Sixteen years ago I uncovered the secret sauce to B2B selling and I didn’t even know it.
Wait. Let’s back up.
After I came out of the US Army, where I worked as a code-breaker for the Military Intelligence Corps (and no it’s not as sexy as Hollywood portrays it – unless images of your nation’s secrets being entrusted to a bunch of crewcutted military-types punching each other in the arms until temporary paralysis sets in while they’re getting hammered on Jager bombs in the parking lot of a Whataburger in Pensacola Florida on a Tuesday night is your idea of “sexy”), so where was I….oh that’s right….
So I went to work in corporate IT.
Why? My thought was I needed to find a job in the civilian world where I could do two things:
1) utilize my highly specialized and advanced knowledge of computer systems and networks technologies I’d been exposed to at places like NSA and DIA and,
2) continue my “obvious to everyone but me” road to semi-functional alcoholism.
Corporate IT – here I come!
I started as a third shift computer operator working in a Mainframe Information Systems (MIS) department for a large plastics fabrication company in Detroit, where as much of my time was spent manning the invoice burster/decollator as it was within a JES2 environment on a block-mode terminal rewriting JCL during scratch tape job abends.*
*Note to those in modern IT positions – those are actual words that once had real meaning and not stuff I just made up, I promise. You can Google them if you have free time to look at the dinosaur bones that is my IT career.
Fast forward a decade later, after working my way up through successively bigger and better IT jobs, I found myself as the CIO of highly respected law firm, responsible for a large IT department, many FTEs and millions of dollars in yearly IT budget.
In essence, I was the guy most of you reading this article desperately wanted to call and secure some face time and pitch your wares.
So what’s the point of the resume, you ask? What does this have to do with the secret of B2B selling, you ask? Are you going to stop typing “you ask,” you ask?
Almost there…. I promise.
So, here’s the thing – during my illustrious corporate IT career I learned very quickly that there’s a difference between a problem and a need.
Yes – when you service customers (we called them Users) in an IT role, you’ll learn – if you’re paying attention - there’s a difference between user problems and user needs.
In the case of an IT helpdesk – when working with end users that call up and say “Hey my printer isn’t working!” they are describing a problem, not what they need.
How do I know that?
Because 10 times out of 9, the only reason people know their printer is broken is because they tried to print something and it didn’t come out the print hole. (‘print hole” is the correct technical term, you can trust me I worked at Xerox.)
The printer was most likely broken before they tried to print to it – so that problemexisted well before they knew or cared.
They only cared when their need to print something arose.
This isn't just semantics.
It my law firm’s case, legal staff needed to their legal document printed so they could run down to the courthouse and file it before all of creation was blinked out of existence. (those who have worked in law firms…you know what I’m talking about)
So any time my IT staff spent simply fixing the printer problem wouldn’t do “JACK SQUAT” to meet the end user’s immediate and pressing need.
Which was...printing the dammed document.
When I was asked to speak at a national conference of law firm CIOs in early 2001, I said the following in a presentation to other IT leaders:
Sometimes it is better to bypass (temporarily) a tech problem rather than fix it. Fixing a problem (analyzing the situation and correcting the error) requires time, which you may not have when your user needs something now.
The user (court, judge, client, lawyer) does not want to hear how a document was delayed because of a network error or a printer malfunction. They just want their document.
Find an alternative, and then when you have time, go back and tinker with the problem
Gripping stuff, right? Right up there with Game of Thrones and Who Shot JR.
And yes – it seems I speak as much with parenthesis as I write with them (deal with it.)
Well anyways, it was so well received as something so revolutionary in the annals of law firm IT support, I was quoted in Law Technology News in May 2001.
Don’t believe me? Click here.
Like I said, GRIPPING STUFF.
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH B2B SALES?????
Ok, here goes.
When I made the jump from IT leadership to sales, I had years and years caring about and fulfilling my end users’ needs as opposed to fixating on and trying to solve their problems.
So naturally when I started meeting with B2B clients and talking to them about document workflow management (like I said, I worked at Xerox) I didn’t focus on what their problems were.
It’s there I found the secret.
We in B2B sales talk on and on about the needs of our customers – but what are they really?
My humble opinion?
Our customers don’t need our mousetrap over Brand X’s mouse trap.
Our customers don’t need to do X or do Y in order to receive XX% growth in emerging markets.
Our customers don’t need a synergistic thought leader to intrinsically restore their distributed meta-services.
They need to print a document so they don’t lose their job.
They need to feel secure in their positions within their companies.
They need to feel confident the decisions they are making are valued in their company.
They need to feel their vendors and suppliers don’t just look at them as a way to meet quota, or make President’s Club.
They need to be sold to way that not only simply respects their needs, but also their process, and in a way that’s willing and able to shift and change with the evolution of our societal norms and mores.
How do I know this? Well I cheated….because like I said, I was once the customer.
Being unique among many in B2B sales, I have been a B2B decision maker. I have purchased millions of dollars of software, hardware and services. I have been on both sides of the conference room table and I have come to believe B2B sales culture has often confused problems and needs – treating them as interchangeable synonyms as opposed to utterly unique words with different definitions.
And for many in sales, either we don’t know, don’t care or are simply too fixated on our own needs (commissions and comp) to figure out the difference.
Is it any wonder over the last decade that B2B buyers have moved the salesperson further and further out of their process of buying stuff and things?
Maybe you think is whole article is hokum and that’s fine. Maybe you think I’m just splitting hairs and that NEED and PROBLEMS are two sides of the same coin and I’m just taking up valuable internet storage space that could be filled with videos of kittens drinking milk.
Maybe you think that it’s identifying the problem that unveils the need.
That’s cool. And that’s wrong. But it’s still cool.
Looking at something from someone else’s perspective is the only way for one human being to uncover the needs of another human being.
It's the skill our salespeople MOST NEED to succeed in 2017 and beyond.
And unless I'm missing something, from what I have seen, we don't train them to do it.
Hazim Anzair stated in his brilliant 2013 blog post:
“Problems are questions raised for inquiry, consideration or solution. Needs are….psychological requirements for the well-being of an organism…. Why does this matter? The difference is important to understand because a good business exists to service needs. While they certainly solve problems in the course of doing so, companies that focus on problems and not needs (or don’t appreciate the difference) rarely survive for long. The most common fatality is the technology company founded to solve some really cool problem but never manage to relate it to, or place it in the context of, a need.”
So how do you uncover needs?
Or a better question is how do you recognize the different between the needs and the problems of your customers?
Whatever you're selling - ice cream or complex missile guidance systems....what does you customer need? I don't THINK it's YOUR ice cream or YOUR missile guidance system, but then I'm just some guy on the internet.
I’m interested in your feedback – let's discuss it in the comments. Let me know how looney bird crazy I sound or if I’ve hit the nail anywhere near the head.
I "need" to know.