Simple, Neat, and Incomplete (Issue 535)

In which we are reminded to step back and look for the broader picture before we pitch solution for the problem we've just heard.

Watching classroom sales training role-plays is a little like watching football teams practice without pads…  Low intensity.  Move through the motions.  Nobody trying too hard to take anyone else out.  Still, an observer can get a general sense of the team.  Essential tendencies shine through.

So, as I was watching and coaching this particular set of “pad-free practice role-plays,” I saw an essential tendency.  As the “sellers” in the role plays heard a bit of information that suggested a potential need for a product, they would say, almost reflexively, “if I could show you a way to…”  or “we have a product that would help you….”

Which brought to mind one of my favorite H. L. Mencken admonitions, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  To which I’ll add, “Simple, neat, and incomplete.”

Why?  Because clients’ operations challenges and product cues don’t exist in little independent vacuums.  They’re parts of systems.  Our clients’ methods for computing, or managing cash flow, or providing accounting services are as they are for a variety of reasons – accidental, political, historical, and economic.  It’s possible that they might improve their operations with one or two of our products without changing any other elements of their systems…. but not likely.

We know this from our own experiences at home: Our significant other comes home from work and begins to share a problem that came up during the day.  In an effort to be helpful, we immediately begin generating ideas to fix the problem we heard… earning a sharp scowl for our efforts because we don’t REALLY understand all of the social, political, and other factors that are involved in the problem….  Thus our proposed fixes – simple and neat – are wrong.

So, sellers who jump swiftly for the “if I could show you…” question or for product at the first hint of  “need” risk prescribing neat, simple solutions for problem X that are wrong, or that don’t address related problems Y and Z, or that miss the internal upheaval created when buyers implement product X – changes in procedures, retraining time, mistakes.

This is really the guts of making a “solutions” sale – integrating all essential elements together so that a client gets the desired end result, taking all factors into consideration, even if you’re selling only one element of the solution.

Questions like, “How does X fit into the larger picture of your operations?” or “When X changes, what else will you need to change in your operations to accommodate X?” can help sort out these issues.

Example:  Sue George, founder and president of George Engineering Services, has a problem. Her consultants and sales people are using their personal credit cards to pay for their business travel and other expenses.  They are complaining a bit when George’s book keeper is a little slower than expected to cut the reimbursement checks – their personal credit cards are maxed out or they have to pay the bill before George’s reimbursement check arrives.

The bank sales representative suggests a corporate credit card for the traveling team members – all of the expenses will go to the corporate card, none to the consultants’ personal cards.  Sue likes the idea and agrees.

Accounts are set up. Cards are issued. The monthly bills arrive. Sue discovers that her book keeper has a new problem – reconciling the corporate card statement with consultant expense reports, chasing down expenses that appear on the card statement that don’t appear on consultant expense reports, and figuring out to which projects the expenses should be posted.

This adds an additional 4 – 8  hours of work per month for the book keeper.    New forms and procedures are needed, the book keeper’s responsibilities must be rebalanced.  Sue is RIPPING annoyed because she had assumed that the corporate card would simplify and streamline things … and it did not!

The bank representative solved the obvious issue –  employee satisfaction and credit card availability.  He never asked about other elements that Sue would need to change.  So, Sue doesn’t have a solution.  She has a product and a headache.  Simple, neat, and incomplete.

So, when you feel the urge to fix, a few more probes will do the trick.

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