“To a man with an ax,” says an old African proverb, “everything looks like a tree.” A corollary observation might be: “If you’ve got an ax in your hand, all you notice is trees.” That’s fine if your customer’s problem is trees that need chopping. If it’s something else- anything else- approaching him with an ax might not be your best strategy.
There is a tendency for salespeople investigating an opportunity to focus first, and often exclusively, on problems they know their company is specifically equipped to solve. A wireless communications company rep will look for problems in the customer’s existing wireless set-up, a food service company rep will investigate that same customer’s cafeteria operation, and so on. This sounds reasonable: To some degree all of us salespeople are specialists, and it makes intuitive sense to concentrate on those problem areas where we have expertise. But honing in exclusively on those areas tends to pull you into “pitchman” mode- and it pulls your attention away from areas of your customer’s business that may be of more concern to him or her, even though they seem unrelated to the solutions you can offer. This type of specialization limits the value that you can bring to the customer.
Yet many sales professionals-including those whose integrity is absolutely impeccable-are devoted to this strategy. Eager to use their ax-their product line, their solution-they ask “What problem does the customer have that I am good at solving?” Then they take it upon themselves to locate the problem that their solution is best designed to fix.
This is a classic, perhaps the classic, error in focusing on what WE believe are the customer’s problems, simply because we are carrying an ax. There is only one scenario in which it does not end in disaster.
That is when the problem that your solution is designed to fix happens to be, at exactly the moment you call on the customer, the very problem that is keeping him up nights-the very thing that he is focused on, as he tries to put out fires and grow his business. In that scenario, and only in that scenario, does the customer open the door and say, “Fantastic! It’s the ax man.”
It happens. Sometimes. But it’s not something you can count on. Most of the time, when you approach a customer with a pre-arranged solution (your trusty ax), you’re going to find that either:
- he doesn’t have the problem you’re ready to fix, or
- he has the problem but he doesn’t understand its importance, or
- he sees the problem as a symptom of something else-something more important that you and your trusty ax aren’t designed to fix.
Put away your ax. Leave it at your office, in your car.
That’s right. Try to forget, at least for the moment, what you sell. The question has to be “What are the customer’s biggest problems?” Focus on the driving concerns of the buyer without regards to your products or services. When you do, lights go on, doors open and possibilities explode. You will be able to see the vast forest beyond the trees, and find that doing so dramatically expands your opportunity to impact your customers in ways you may have never imagined.