Clients Don’t Buy Solutions, They Buy Problem Definitions

I read an awful lot written about the role of value creation in sales, and I think it’s often misconstrued. So here’s a provocative statement: People don’t buy your value proposition – they buy your problem statement, and give you the sale as a reward.

Value: The Usual Suspect

If sales were like the movie Casablanca, and you rounded up “the usual suspects” for getting the sale, at the top of the list might be “demonstrated value.” Salespeople like to think that the reason they got the job was they did a better job at “adding value,” “demonstrating value,”  convincing customers of the “value proposition” they put forth. “Go with us,” salespeople say, “and you’ll get the greatest expected value.”

We impute this decision-making process to our customers, too. If they bought from us, it must be because we did the best job of creating potential value – maybe modified just a bit by their confidence in our ability to deliver on the value we promised.

This value-centric view of selling confirms all the biases of today’s salespeople: it’s a matter of producing challenging ideas, grand scopes, clearly articulated solutions. The winners are those who conjure up the right mixture of smarts, expertise, and hard work.

So we like to believe.

The Truth: It’s the Problem Definition

My old colleague David Maister once said, “The problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” And while at the time I thought he was being slightly hyperbolic, I came to believe he was, in the real world, exactly right. A perfectly defined problem rarely requires outside expertise – it just needs a purchase order.

Consultative sellers get called in for other reasons.

The reason is, buyers – consciously or unconsciously – want the benefit of sellers’ expertise. They are open – more, or less (often less) – to learning from the seller. Yet arguably the most common error of sellers in consultative sales situations is – they blindly accept the customer’s definition of the problem.

If the problem definition is wrong, then a solution based on it is going to be wrong as well. Worse yet, a fully worked out proposal grounded on a faulty problem definition becomes increasingly tenuous. Buyers acutely and painfully recognize this, and this fact explains why so many consultant CRM systems are full of entries that say “died” instead of “lost.”

Clients don’t want to admit the definition was wrong from the get-go, so they simply stop returning calls, the sellers get resentful – and everyone goes off to try the same thing all over again, getting, of course, the same results.

The problem definition is the heart of the matter, for two reasons. The obvious reason is if you don’t solve the right problem, you’ll just make things worse, and as noted above, that becomes increasingly clear to all concerned.

But there’s a deeper, psychological reason.  If you as a seller can truly engage a buyer in a joint process of discovery, you then trigger something magical: a willingness to explore openly the true issue, and a willingness to engage your expertise in the pursuit.

The result is huge: an expertise-based joint journey of discovery, with a greatly enhanced likelihood of a better problem definition, and a vastly higher level of acceptance of that problem definition.

Getting There is Way More Than Half the Battle

A joint discovery of problem definition requires an openness and a willingness to collaborate on the part of the client. No client I’ve ever met starts out that way – no client has ever come to me and said, “Gee, Charlie, we’re really not sure what’s wrong here, but we kind of hope that maybe if you talk to us, things might get better.”

Instead, clients come to sellers with the usual set of highly defined problem definitions, desired solutions, and specifications for how those solutions must be tailored to their organization. It takes a great deal of skill to get to the point where you can mutually confess imperfection, and go on a joint journey.

It’s the opposite of that old “I’m OK, You’re OK” paradigm – it’s more like “I’m a Fool, You’re a Fool, Let’s Figure This Sucker Out Together.”  (And you don’t get there by quoting Maister about how their problem definition is wrong, either).

Having gotten to a point of mutually confessed imperfection, the best problem definition begins.  And when you do get to a great problem definition, the amazing thing happens.

The client doesn’t buy the best solution: instead, they reward the firm that did the best job of helping them define the problem. You’re not getting paid to do the job – you’re getting rewarded for having created the best ah-ha for the client – the ah-ha that says, “Ah, yes – that is indeed precisely the issue that we’ve been having all along here. That’s the heart of the matter.”

Having gotten that ah-ha, why in the world would a customer then hire someone else to deliver on the vision you’ve jointly created?  Why would you trust anyone but the ones who created the bond with you to develop the insight to actually get you over the river?   You just wouldn’t, that’s all.

Clients don’t buy value: they buy the people they have come to trust. In particular, they hire those who have helped them define their problem in a way that they can finally see their way clear to a resolution of their issues. The project, the sale, is not “the thing” – it is simply the currency of reward for having best-defined the problem.

15 replies
  1. Jay Oza
    Jay Oza says:

    This is a good post. I am sure you can write a book on this on how and why people really buy?
    I like to think of it as an 80/20 proposition. They know 80% of what they want, but are looking at you to provide the 20% to complete the solution for them to feel comfortable giving you the sale.

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, I agree that it is the problem definition that clients buy….that is the value in consulting services. In the volunteer consulting I now do for non profits, the problem statement is where we start. Our next step is to refine that statement into a single question that the project is intended to answer. As the work is free and the consultants are all volunteers, there is little selling involved but a great deal of emphasis on efficiency as most of the consultants have real day jobs. The problem statement ensures that both the client and the consultants have bought into the same job. It’s not quite as glamorous as value propositions but it does get the job done. Rich

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      I agree. Interesting to see your emphasis on the role of the problem statement as “ensuring that both the client and the consultant have bought into the same job.” Part of what we teach in the ELFEC model (Engage, Listen, Frame, Envision, Commit) is in the Frame part of the process – basically, problem definition. And, similarly to you what you state here, I like to emphasize that a good problem statement is one which can be overtly agreed to by both parties. Too many problem statements end up being one-sided statements, ones which the consultant proposes but which the client never really buys into. And as you say, that’s a recipe for inefficiency, at the very least.

      My favorite problem statement of all time, as judged by the ‘both must agree’ test, has to be the warden’s statement from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

  3. Allen Roberts
    Allen Roberts says:

    A terrific post.
    The pursuit of simplicity usually hides a whole heap of hard work, simple is the ultimate test of something well done. I have always believed that spending time up front on problem definition pays dividends, but never seen it expressed like this.

  4. Sam
    Sam says:

    I prefer this line: Clients don’t buy value: they buy the people they have come to trust. Of course, there are many ways to earn trust, and having the best problem definition is only one.

  5. TenYearTexan
    TenYearTexan says:

    I think that it is (as you say) provocative to say that a sale is the reward for defining the problem, but I certainly love the thought that ‘customer buy problem definitions’. To me that is because a customer wants a solution to HIS problem, not someone else’s. Only once you can articulate HIS problem, can show how your answer can be his solution.


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