Stop “Probing For Pain”
by Thomas Freese
Trying to uncover a customer’s pain points is a mistake that’s not only costing companies a ton of money in terms of lost revenue and missed opportunities, it continues to be promoted amongst sales teams all over the world.
“Easing a customer’s pain” may seem like a nice gesture, but the notion of probing for pain (only) contains two illogical flaws in today’s selling environment. First, focusing on prospects who are currently experiencing pain significantly reduces the size and scope of your target audience. While everyone agrees that people who are ‘in pain’ are indeed motivated to find solutions, it turns out that decision makers and influencers are just as motivated to purchase products and services because of many other factors.
Technology titan Apple, for example, has sold over a billion (with a “B”) iPhones since 2007, and they generated $9+ billion in iPod revenue before that. How many iPods and iPhones do you think were purchased because the customer was in some sort of pain?
It turns out that customers purchases products and services based on a wide range of decision factors. Whether you sell technology solutions, manufactured goods, employee benefit packages, or healthcare services, the decision to acquire your product or service may be driven by something as simple as the desire to achieve a goal or satisfy specific business objectives. Potential buyers can just as easily be motivated by wants, needs, or an opportunity to improve their existing condition.
So, why would you want to limit the size of your audience to only focus on customers who are currently experiencing pain, when the larger opportunity includes prospective buyers who are just as driven to acquire solutions to address any number of other wants, needs, goals, objectives, and desires?
In addition to limiting the size of your target market, the second flaw with the strategy of uncovering the customer’s pain points is that it can come across as highly offensive to the people you are so desperately hoping to influence. If you call on customers who are either territorial or proud of the work they do, good luck bonding with them by trying to expose their flaws, faults, and deficiencies.
Case in point, if you call on a Network Manager and ask: “So, what problems do you have managing your data?” Predictably, their knee-jerk reaction will likely be to say, “We’re doing just fine, thank you (click).”
Even if you mean well, probing for pain is a high-risk strategy. Trying to expose a customer’s weaknesses, or shining a light on their oversights, is one of the quickest ways to put people on the defensive. If you really want to get under the customer’s skin, try firing off a series of pain-oriented questions like: “So, what mistakes have you made?” “What decisions do you regret?” Heck, you might as well ask them, “How ‘come you’re still employed here?”
Fortunately, there’s a proven antidote to this old-school practice of attacking the customer’s ego. All you have to do is reverse the premise of your questions. Instead of ‘chipping away’ at the customer’s pride by trying to indict the status quo, or continually exploring what’s wrong, a more thoughtful salesperson could just as easily ask (an IT Manager, for example), “How important is securing the data on your company’s network?” When talking with an HR Director, you could ask, “Would you be interested in a cost-effective way to expand your company’s employee benefits package?” A better way to explore a Facilities Manager’s needs in a manufacturing plant might be to ask, “Would you be open to a couple of ideas on how to improve your plant’s overall operational efficiency?”
Before you start dialing the phone, or begin crafting a bunch of clever one-liners to take out into the field, it’s important to recognize that an effective needs development strategy requires more than a single ‘magic’ question. That’s why I’ve written multiple books on the subject.
For our purposes here, I’m merely pointing out that “probing for pain points” is one of the most common mistakes sales teams make. On the other hand, salespeople who focus on helping their customers satisfy a broader range of goals, wants, needs, and objectives can significantly increase their own sales results.
Here’s the best part. Exploring decision drivers that extend far beyond just uncovering “pain points” is actionable on your very next customer call—that is, if you are open to a couple of ideas.