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Problem finding vs. problem solving

To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink
By Tim Riesterer

Your products and services “are far more valuable when your prospect is mistaken, confused or completely clueless about their true problem.”

Ha? Wuh?

It’s a quote from Dan Pink’s new book, “To Sell is Human.”

Think about it.  If your prospects know precisely what their problem is, they can often find the information they need to make a decision with limited assistance or input from your salespeople. As a result, your ability to move your prospects to do something different – and choose you – hinges  less on your problem solving skills and more on problem finding, according to Pink.

What’s Problem Finding?

Asking the typical “what keeps you up at night” question, or asking people what kinds of pains or problems they are experiencing with their current solution, brings no value to the discussion. No one wants to help you sell to them by answering a list of pre-canned discovery questions.

 “If I know what my problem is, I can most likely solve it. If I don’t know my problem, I might need some help in finding it,” Pink writes.

Your capacity to help others see their situations in fresh, more revealing ways, and identify problems they didn’t even realize they have is a necessary quality in moving others to do something different, says Pink.

In an interesting piece of research, Pink cites a study by the Conference Board, a well-regarded U.S. business group.  They gave 155 public school superintendents and nearly 90 private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today’s workforce.

Interestingly, the educators were not on the same page as the business leaders.  The superintendents ranked “problem solving” No. 1, but the employer executives ranked it No. 8. Their top-ranked ability? “Problem identification.”

Buyer Beware becomes Seller Beware

Buyers used to face information gaps when it came to solving problems on their own.  They relied on sellers, because sellers had the information advantage.  Today, there’s information equality, according to Pink, meaning buyers can do a lot more for themselves, and sellers are forced to scramble to figure out how to remain relevant.

The premium for sales interactions is your ability to turn raw information into meaning, or theory or hypothesis.  Finding the right problem to solve, and framing problems in interesting ways, are where your company and salespeople will bring value.

(Note: Dan Pink recently spoke at Corporate Visions’ Executive Summit and I highly recommend all of his books.  Check out


Comments: 3

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  • Great article. The customer is now in control of the conversation. We need to be aware of this change in the relationship dynamic

  • I read this book earlier this year and have been an advocate of it since then. His lovely writing style captures quite a lot of our beliefs at CVi nicely.

  • Bryan Wampler

    I love the quote that Business Execs rank Problem Identification as the top ranked ability. That makes sense – because you can’t get better if you don’t know what’s holding you back (or at least you can react a heck of a lot faster).

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