The Optimal Source of Differentiation
The core competency of the transformative sale is the sales professional's ability to perform as an expert diagnostician. This diagnostic expertise enables us to help customers analyze and understand the causes and consequences of their problems, a critical prerequisite of a high-quality decision. Equally important, it allows us to shift the emphasis of our engagement with customers from our solutions to their situations, a shift that differentiates us from our competitors, creates significant learning for the customer, and builds the levels of trust and credibility through which our customers perceive us.
These outcomes stand in stark contrast to the conventional sales process, which depends on customers to understand and communicate their problems to salespeople. Popular and rarely questioned selling strategies such as consultative selling, needs-based selling, solution selling, and even value-added selling all depend to a large degree on the customer's ability to self-diagnose and self-prescribe, an expertise that we have already shown is in short supply. Largely, customers are not experienced in diagnosing multidimensional problems, designing transformative solutions, and implementing transformative solutions.
The assumption that customers can and should be diagnosing themselves causes further damage when salespeople, thinking that their customers understand their problems and the need to resolve them, prematurely focus on solutions. Describing solutions without establishing a compelling need for them creates intellectual interest and curiosity among customers instead of the emotional discomfort needed to drive change. As a result, the conventional salesperson wastes time and effort on the intellectually curious customer, while the economically serious customer, who is actually experiencing the indications and/or consequences of the absence of the solution, stands by unrecognized and unattended.
When we salespeople are in the diagnostic mode, we are dealing directly with our customers' reality. That is, we are working with problems that they have experienced in the past, are currently experiencing, or to which they believe they will be exposed in the future. In fact, our customers may not be aware that they have these problems and might be missing a significant opportunity. As we discussed in Chapter 3, when customers realize that they are dealing with real problems and real costs (as opposed to future benefits), the urgency that drives the decision to change is created. They find themselves on the critical, actionable end of the change progression. Diagnosis, as it methodically uncovers real problems and expands the customer's awareness, causes the customer to move along the change progression.
Our ability to diagnose customer problems sets us apart from the competition. Most salespeople devote themselves to establishing expected credibility. They lean on the presentation of their company's brands, history, and reputation. The irony of this approach is that it makes them sound like everyone else (and reinforces the trend toward commoditization). This conclusion is validated repeatedly when we ask business associates how much their "credibility story" differs from their top competitors' stories. Only a few are willing to stand and declare that there are significant differences. The ability and willingness to diagnose will provide a significant difference between our competitors and us. It gives us the opportunity to establish exceptional credibility in our customers' eyes.
The quest for exceptional credibility in the Diagnose phase of the sale process has two primary goals. The first is to uncover the reality of the customer's problem. The professional salesperson cannot and will not recommend a solution without first confirming that the customer is actually experiencing the problems it is meant to solve or is poised to capitalize on the opportunity the solution represents.
The second, and more important goal of the Diagnose phase, is to make sure that the customer fully and accurately perceives all the ramifications of the problem, the absence of the solution. The decision to buy is the customer's decision, and the only way to ensure the quality of that decision is to ensure that the customer fully understands the problem and the consequences of staying the same. This is analogous to the job of the psychiatrist. An experienced psychiatrist may be able to diagnose a patient's mental illness after a single visit. After all, the doctor has treated many other patients who suffer from the same disease. Yet, it may take several sessions before the patient believes he or she has a problem and believes that the doctor also understands that problem. Psychiatrists know that until patients come to those realizations, they will have no credibility in patients' eyes, and the path to a cure will remain blocked.
When salespeople fail to reach either goal of the Diagnose phase, their ability to win transformative sales is severely compromised. The outcome of the sale becomes as random and unpredictable as the results of the conventional selling process. When we don't diagnose an intricate problem, we have no basis for designing and delivering a high-quality solution. If we diagnose complicated problems, but don't help our customers to fully comprehend them, they will not see the need for change and will not buy. Successful sales professionals strive to recognize and achieve both goals of a comprehensive diagnosis for all of these reasons.
The raw information that we need to make an accurate diagnosis comes primarily from the customer; thus, the quality of the sales professional's questions becomes the primary skill of the information-gathering process. The value of asking questions is also predicated on another important skill, listening. Noted doctor and author Oliver Sacks states: "There is one cardinal rule: One must always listen to the patient."  Questions are more than tools to elicit information, however. When questions are being asked and answered, the customer is forming opinions that will be critical to the outcome of the decision.
Superior salespeople are guiding their customers to four elemental decisions in the Diagnose phase; they are deciding:
That a problem does indeed exist.
That they want to participate in a thorough analysis of the problem.
That the problem has a quantifiable cost in their organization.
Whether that cost dictates they must proceed in the search for a solution.
When we help our customers successfully complete these decisions, it is highly likely that we have earned exceptional credibility in their eyes and have stepped into the customer's world as a full-fledged business partner "and a source of business advantage." We next take a closer look at how superior sales professionals help customers make these decisions.
Dr. Sacks' quote appeared in Forbes, (August 21, 2000), p. 304.
The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.