Can You Sell And Problem Solve?

The title of this Blarticle® poses a great question, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Aetna Insurance Company for teaching me the answer… quite by accident.  Aetna had signed up for Xerox sales training and I flew off to pilot the training in their Hartford, Connecticut facility.  I had studied the company, their customers, and the features they had to offer.  With my own insurance background,  I felt I was well prepared to knock them dead with the sales training I was ready to deliver.

What I didn’t know was that Aetna had already been through some earlier training with Xerox.  About six months prior to my training, the division I was scheduled to work with had gone through a four-day quality program.  This training taught them, among other things, how to process their problem solving through a model called the Problem Solving Process, (PSP).

As I maneuvered my way through the teaching of the sales model, I was feeling rather good about the class’s progress.  They got quite a show.  I was pumped up that day and found myself zipping around the room, and I even did some boxing improvisation to illustrate a couple of key selling points.  Then, from nowhere, I got a question that I wasn’t prepared for.

“Isn’t this sales process a lot like the problem-solving process in the quality training we learned six months ago?” a student asked.

It isn’t often that I am caught for a loss of words, but I found myself struggling with this one.  In all my years as a trainer for Xerox, I never had bothered to compare the two processes: the quality training process and the sales training process.  What made this particularly embarrassing was the fact that I was also a certified quality trainer for Xerox: That meant that I frequently taught the other program the student was referring to.  So, I did what many trainers do when they’re caught by surprise; I stalled!  I quickly mentioned the fact that these were two very different models. I explained that I taught both programs, and that the problem-solving process which was taught in quality training –was very different from the selling process I was in the midst of teaching to them.

I probably would have gotten away with my misguided response if it wasn’t for what was inside the closet door.  Once I finished my tapdancing response, the same student who asked the question, asked me to open the closet door.  I was happy to oblige, and on the back of that door was a large replica of the Xerox Problem Solving Process. It was right next to the flipchart I was using to illustrate the Sales Process.  With the two models side-by-side, literally inches apart, I stood back and saw exactly what that student was asking about:

  • In Quality training, the “Problem Solving Process,” illustrates a disciplined approach to fixing things right… the first time. This is done by learning how to ask questions, go deeper into the potential size and scope of a problem, and force yourself to go beyond your prison of familiarity.
  • In Sales training, the “Selling Process,” illustrates a disciplined approach to, well, fix things right… the first time. This is done by learning how to, of course, ask questions, go deeper into the potential size and scope of a customer’s problem, and yes, force you to get your client to go beyond his or her prison of familiarity.

But wait, there’s more:

  • In Quality training, the “Problem Solving Process,” keeps us from jumping to a solution, and trying to solve a problem before we fully understand the problem.  The fact is, it’s quite common for people to be so enamored with a solution, he or she can see nothing else.
  • In Sales training, the “Selling Process,” keeps us from jumping to a solution, and trying to, well, not solve a problem before we fully understand the problem. It’s quite common for customers to want to jump to a solution and just as common for salespeople to order-take that solution and sell it to that customer. FYI: If the solution that the customer came up with doesn’t work out properly, or the customer realizes he or she missed an opportunity for a better solution, who do you think they will blame?  That’s right, you – the person who sold it to them.

As I stood gazing at the two models that day, I simultaneously learned and taught a valuable lesson.  It should be no fluke that problem solving and selling are processes that mirror each other.  Of course they do! How in the world can you be of value to a customer or a team if you see no value in identifying the underlying issues of a challenge before attempting to fix it? Albert Einstein summed it up perfectly when he said:

~“You can’t solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”~

If you are in sales, like it or not, you are a problem solver. It is your job to ask questions.  You are paid to ask questions your clients are not equipped to ask themselves and help these clients fix things right. . . the first time.  It’s also your job to study problems from every angle, and help others over the biggest stumbling block there is; fear of change. Learning to question early assumptions, thinking out of the box, and truly problem solving will ultimately help you to do just that.

So, can you sell, and problem solve at the same time?  How can you not?

Related: What Happens When You Stop Long Term, Successful Habits?