The Struggle to Decide: The Paths Customers Take to Solve Problems

Usually my essays discuss the issues that the 'sales' method initiates, methods such as over-long buying cycles, product and brand differentiation problems, price competition, and objections. This article focuses on the buyer: what, precisely, is the real problem they face; and how you lose differentiation/competitive edge/time through your faulty assumption that a sale can be achieved through a clear-cut equation:

problem + appropriate product + professional sales effort = sale.

Let's look at the fact pattern here: when you first contact a prospect, you somehow have already decided they would most likely need your product: you've done some sort of homework that leads you to recognize a demographic fit, or you identify a trigger that makes you believe they have a need you can resolve, or they are just within your customary prospect range (i.e. all companies/people with X).

If I haven't mentioned your specific way of identifying a prospect, please forgive me, but the pattern is the same: you are on the outside looking in, making a best guess, and hoping that the product, the problem, the effort, and the prospect, will all come together to close the sale.

Indeed, sales don't close that way, and prospects can't be identified on the outside. Herein lay the age-old sales problem. In fact, buyers only buy when they know how to recognize, align, and manage all of the internal criteria that has created the identified problem ? criteria that would need to be addressed before they will consider adopting a solution.


Basic selling ? as taught by the master we all still follow ? taught us (in 1937 in How to Win Friends and Influence People ) that we first need to develop some sort of a relationship, see the prospect face-to-face, call them by name, and gain some understanding of their needs. And we've made headway in the last few years, developing new facets of sales to help sellers gain more complete understanding of the buyer's situation (The 'consultative' trend began with Linda Richardson and Larry Wilson in the mid 80s, to be followed by Neil Rackham and SPIN, Jaques Werth and Solution Selling, and David Sandler and Sandler Sales.).

More recently, others have carried the idea a bit further by helping you either understand the buyer's environment, or make the appropriate appointment, or potentially close the sale more quickly.

But all of the above sales models are based on you pushing from the outside (even though you may think you are just attempting to help or find someone with a true need), and you end up having to overcome objections and pitting yourself against the competition, and managing gatekeepers - all the result of being the outside 'element' attempting to get inside a closed system.

Think about it for a moment: every sales problem that ever existed still exists. Thousands of books have been written on 'getting through' the gatekeeper, making 'the' appointment, handling objections, understanding the buyer/problem/buying environment and closing the sale. Indeed, these are the very same hindrances that Dale Carnegie wrote about in 1937. We continue to experience at least a 90% failure rate as a result of the process itself.

I've worked with every type of sales situation at every end of the spectrum ? small sales, large projects, B2B, B2C, telemarketing, global project teams, and in every industry - and the challenges remain basically the same because you're all doing the same thing at a systems level: standing on the outside, pushing product/appointment/information and attempting to get in. And every sales manager I've spoken with knows the system of 'selling' doesn't work? but continues to do it anyway because that's all there is to use.


How many prospects have you met in which you've had the appropriate product to suit their problem, the prospect likes you, your price point is appropriate, and you were the best solution for the prospect ? and then they didn't buy you? How many times? How many times did you just KNOW that you were going to close, and something happened, and you didn't.

What happened?

There are ever-so-many reasons why you didn't close. I bet I can name even more than you can ? every industry has it's favorites and they all sound plausible, or at least have been deemed 'acceptable' because they've been adopted as acceptable by the industry.

Except the end result is the same. You lost the sale. And Dale Carnegie, and David Sandler and SPIN get you the exact same percentage closing ratio that all of your colleagues, and competitors, have.

Obviously, the buyer's solution design is not about your product or your personality or even the buyer's need: it's not in your hands. Indeed, the buyer must design her own solution, and all you can do then is to deliver it. Knowing the problem, having good relationship with the buyer, and having the best price and product are just not enough. They are all a part of the solution but not the solution itself.

One of the biggest problems in sales is believing that just because there is an obvious problem that your professional solution and demeanor can resolve, that the prospect will choose your product to purchase. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Buyers are not attempting to find a product to purchase; they are attempting to solve a business problem, and your product might be a part of the solution if the buyer knows just how to manage the decisions that need to get made around developing an effective, efficient, adoptable solution.


The reality is that the solution must come from inside the buyer's environment. The solution must be developed by all of the players and policies and criteria that have created and maintain the problem ? all of the players ? or there won't be buy-in or action taken.

And, there is no way that an outsider can know or manage the internal politics or organization or agreements that live within the buyer's environment. Sure, you can recognize those bits around the identified problem that needs resolution. But you can't know the system or culture. You are an outsider. And when you push product information and attempt to develop a potential purchasing relationship based on who you are as a professional, you are actually keeping the buyer from their real job of discovering their solution criteria and aligning all internal systems elements that must be addressed.

I understand that those of you who are involved with selling large projects or expensive items have begun to rigorously attend to attempting to manage the internal systems that the buyers live within. But you remain an outsider, attempting to monitor or manipulate some of the activities and conversations you believe need to occur. But it remains focused on product sale, and you, as an outsider are merely attempting to pull the strings that might get them to do what you think they need to do.

But, the reality is even more confounding: the identified problem is merely a final point of a systems breakdown. The identified problem contains a range of people/strategic/environmental/market issues that are alive and well within the buyer's environment.

And, no matter how much you know, how much 'pain' you perceive the buyer to be in, or how perfect your solution, the system itself must design its own solution: there will be no decision to change without the systems issues being managed from within, and being managed in a way that the system itself is in agreement with.

You cannot do it from outside. No matter how smart you are, or how right your product is, or how badly the prospect needs it, or how unique you are, the fact remains: systems only change when they recognize all of the bits that created the identified problem (a Herculean task), and all internal elements recognize that they cannot fix their issues with known resources (ah, ego and ownership!) and are willing to manage change throughout the system (yet another huge hurdle).

There is your lengthy sales cycle. There is the inaction where you believe there should be action. There lie the bad decisions that you question.


But imagine if you are able to use your expertise and your position as a neutral navigator to lead the buyer through to all of their internal decisions without coming from a product sale focus? How, indeed, will you sell if product or pitch or relationship is not your primary focus? And how do you manage an efficient large sale if you don't need to know all of the internal policies or systems the buyer is managing?

The field of sales has been saying for years, now, that the real job of sales is to advise. But no skills have been taught to do this ? and the skills to support buyer's decisions are indeed different from sales skills. Our profession is getting too bogged down with global competition, market forces, and unknowns. We need to change the model. Take a look at Buying Facilitation: it just might make a difference for you.

Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of New York Times bestseller Selling with Integrity. She is the visionary and thought leader behind a wholly original sales model based on the systems of how people change and decide. She has taught this system to 13,000 people in the fields of sales, customer service, negotiating, coaching, and change management. Sharon Drew is a keynote speaker and decision strategist, helping companies change their internal practices to embrace collaborative decision making, ethics, values, and integrity. She can be reached at 512-457-0246 and and

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