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Stop selling, start solving your customers’ problems

By Colette Symanowitz

Few leadership courses teach you how to sell. Many specialists in organizations think they are above selling, that it is only the domain of sleezy car salesmen. Yet sales or selling skills are really problem solving skills in disguise.

sales-skillsYou don't have to be a salesman to be selling. Every day you are selling yourself in some way. Whether you are convincing your boss to give you a raise, your potential client to accept your business proposal, a potential employer to hire you, your spouse to change the TV channel, or your child to do their homework.

Effective selling is one of the most vital skills you need to achieve your goals in life and your career.

The key is not to call it selling.

Effective selling is one of the most vital skills you need to achieve your goals in life and your career. The key is not to call it selling. In the words of Dale Carnegie, rather think of it as “winning people to your way of thinking” or 'problem solving skills.'

Here are some useful tips to help you be more effective at persuading customers or clients by using problem solving skills to sell to or influence others:

1. Find out what pain they have and how you can solve it.

Before you do any pitching, first probe with open-ended questions to find out more about that person, what is important to them and what their challenges are. This information will help you build a strong business case later for what you have to offer.

Mike Schultz, President of the Wellesley Hills Group, offers some useful questions based on the RAIN Selling Framework:

  • R= Rapport
  • A= Aspirations and Afflictions
  • I= Implications.

For example:

  • “If the Wall Street Journal were to write about what was going on in your industry (or your business) in the last few months, what would they say?”
  • “What’s stopping you reaching your profit goals?”
  • If you could overcome these challenges, what would happen to your company’s financial situation?”

But be careful not to launch into 100 questions. It will feel like an interrogation and get the other person's back up. Instead, weave the questions into natural conversation.

2. Check for understanding.

An excellent technique to help you listen better is to summarise and repeat back what they have said (and this works in any work setting where you need to communicate better, not only when you’re in a sales call). So ask it in the form of a question e.g. "So if I understand you correctly, you have an issue with.....?"

It shows them that you're actively listening to them, what they're saying is important to you, and gets the other person agreeing with you (if they say something like: "Yes, that's correct"). And if you have misunderstood, this is a great opportunity to help you both get on the same page.

3. Put yourself in their shoes.

You have to step out of your own shoes.

To do this, you have to step out of your own shoes.  Researcher Dr Jeremy Sherman calls it shoe-shifting. It's not about you. By seeing things from their point of view, seeing them as a real person, not as someone to sell to, you'll be more effective at relating to their issues and identifying ways your offering can add value to them.

4. No-one wants to be sold to.

What people want are solutions.

We all have different motivations for buying products and services. However the common thread is the belief that after the transaction is complete, your problem will be solved. 

People don't want to be sold to. They want solutions to their problems.

Think back to when you last bought a 3G modem? Did you buy it to have the gadget? No, you wanted to be connected to the Internet and email. The problem that the gadget solves is connectivity.

So when you’re engaging with prospects, focus on solving their problems and stop selling to them. If you feel like you're selling more than solving their problems, you're probably not doing it right. Shifting your focus to problem-solving  and away from selling will also help you avoid that salesy voice when you get into a part you know well. Nothing turns people off faster.

5. Focus on features, not benefits.

People don’t buy features, they’re interested in benefits i.e. how it solves their problem and what emotions it makes them feel.

Think of a benefit as the emotional connection people make with a product or service. Research indicates that every buying decision we make is based first on our emotional reaction. Then our logical, rational left brain uses features to support a decision we’ve already made emotionally.

So when persuading someone to your point of view, focus on their emotions first. Connect to their heart and not their head.

To help you translate features into benefits is to mentally ask “So what?” and answer it with “This means that…”.

A fantastic technique to help you translate features into benefits is to mentally ask “So what?” and answer it with “This means that…”.

Coming back to our 3G example, “The internet package from service provider ABC has 99% up-time” (the feature). So what? “This means that you can stay connected for longer, and you’ll never be cut off from your emails” (the benefit).

6. Don't be afraid to admit when you don't know the answer.

Sales researcher Doug Rice asked customers to name the most irritating behaviours of sales people, and being dishonest came up in the top twelve.

Everyone can tell when you've faked an answer. It damages your credibility irreparably, and you will never regain their trust. If you don’t have a customer’s trust, they won’t buy from you. It’s that simple.

Rather tell them you don't know the answer but will find out and come back to them. And then do, quickly. This gives you a fantastic opportunity to meet with them again in order to give them the correct answer once you've done your research. It also shows them you're listening to them. And now they know what kind of customer service they can expect from you if they work with you down the line. It also builds trust. Why? Because when you didn't know the answer, you had the courage to admit it. So when you do give an answer, they will believe you.

7. Practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more.

My Grade 3 teacher used to say "Good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better and your better best".

No matter how well you think you persuade others to your point of view, you can always get better. So keep practicing and don’t get complacent. That way you'll become more natural and confident, and you’ll keep learning and improving. You'll also be better prepared, even if someone throws you a curveball question you haven't encountered before.

Why is practice so useful for complicated, non-rote tasks? One explanation is that it enables us to carry out a task with less brain power, because that task becomes automatic. Rote learning and complex conceptual thinking often complement each other, because the rote-learnt task frees up our brain capacity for those complex tasks that demand more attention.

In a business setting, this could be applied to customer-service skills training.  Rather than a manager telling their staff to keep calm in the face of angry customers (which is extremely difficult to do in practice), a more effective approach could be regular "irate customer" practice runs. Each week, customer service staff could practice keeping the right demeanour when their work peers pretend to be angry customers. The result? When they come face-to-face with angry customers in real life, staff would not only be less flustered but also would free up more of their brain capacity for troubleshooting. So they would succeed not by thinking about having the correct tone, but by not thinking about it. Another powerful example from the sports world is that of Michael Jordan: his demanding methods of practice "reset" the habits of the Chicago Bulls and the whole team improved as a result. 

8. Stop selling if you want to sell.

Many of the issues that we have with selling, are because we call it selling. Stop selling and start solving your customer’s problems, and watch your results improve. None of this is rocket science. It's just common sense, which many of us forget about when we're selling.

Colette Symanowitz

Colette Symanowitz is tech entrepreneur and founder of, a social network exclusively for MBAs from all business schools in South Africa and worldwide.

You can also connect with Colette on her blog

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