Sales Tip: Customer Symptoms vs. Root Causes

As sales reps, we occasionally forget that sometimes a prospect isn’t looking to solve a problem, they’re trying to alleviate the symptoms of something else.

This isn’t to say that you can’t make money selling solutions for both. Just be clear with the prospect about what it is you’re actually attempting to solve.

Inexperienced sales reps can be particularly susceptible to the fallacy of assigning need based on the requested solution—”Well, they’re asking about X, so clearly their problem is Y” (even though your solution is massaging a symptom, not solving the root cause).

Carried to its logical conclusion, the idea can apply nearly universally. For instance, if you’re selling outsourced HR services, you’re not actually solving your buyer’s need to eventually improve its own internal resources—you’re just applying a particular band-aid to it (i.e., your services). As soon as the value of managing HR in house is higher than the cost of outsourcing, the buyer will inevitably make the switch.

Does this mean you shouldn’t pursue deals if you’re not meeting the direct need? Of course not; that’s why service-based solutions and outsourcing exist to begin with. But it does mean you should be careful.

If you’re selling to a company looking for a SaaS inventory management system that better integrates with their customer service software, why are they actually buying? Is it because their distribution network can’t function without the added data visibility the integration provides (the cause: customer service reps cannot function in their duties without the data)? Or because they’re looking for more bargaining leverage when their current distribution contracts come off the books at the end of the year (the symptom: the buyer’s not particularly happy with their distributors, and wants the software to help keep tabs on service levels)? The buyer’s commitment level will vary greatly depending on the situation. In once scenario, the company is dead in the water without the new system; in another, the purchase provides a value-add, but failure to buy isn’t going to derail the enterprise.

Sometimes buyers intrinsically know they’re addressing symptoms, not the causes—and they’re generally okay with it when they recognize it. “Yeah, I know this isn’t going to solve Problem X, but I know that Results Y and Z are going to be beneficial, and it’ll at least get the ball rolling on solving X down the road.”

But one final word of caution: never forget that it’s almost always easier (and cheaper) to fix symptoms instead of causes. Quick fixes are generally just that—quick. They’re rarely as effective or meaningful as solving root causes, and if a prospect is looking for something more, a sale designed to treat symptoms is a classic recipe for failure and long-term dissatisfaction.

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