Who Cares? Selling to the Problem Owners – by Jack Malcolm

In Part 3 of this series, we saw that there are many different ways to express the value of our offering beyond simply reducing our customers’ costs. In other words, our solutions generally solve a wider range of problems than we give them credit for. In this case, problems are a good thing, because they also expand the range of potential beneficiaries of our solutions.

Every business problem impacts someone in the organization; the people most impacted are the problem owners. This is an important definition. The person charged with solving the problem is not the owner—it’s the one who suffers if the problem is not solved. For example, the VP of Sales may be concerned about decreasing margins, so she asks the Director of Training to find a course that will teach salespeople to better sell value. The Training Director may be asked to solve the problem by recommending or choosing a course, but in the end the VP of Sales feels the pain of decreasing margins and owns the business results to be generated from the purchasing decision.

Single-problem owners do not have a complete view of the problem; they’re like the blind men in the poem who encounter an elephant. One feels a leg and says the elephant is like a tree; one feels the tusks and thinks an elephant is like a spear, and so on. If you talk to just one problem owner, you’re missing a lot, but it’s even worse than that. Often, salespeople don’t even talk to any problem owners; they only talk to problem solvers, or in the common sales terminology, recommenders.

We salespeople talk to recommenders much more often than problem owners because they are paid to talk to us. It’s like the old joke about the drunk looking for his lost keys under the streetlight, not because that’s where he lost them, but because the light is better there. It may be easier in the short run, but in the long run it lengthens sales cycles and magnifies the effect of price on the decision.

Recommenders are one step removed from the elephant so they don’t directly feel the pain like the problem owners do. As a result, they have different and often conflicting decision criteria. Here are just two examples:

To the problem owner, speed is paramount, because the situation has a cost—the meter is ticking. A reasonable solution which works now is better than a perfect solution much later. Recommenders don’t have the same urgency; their incentive is to collect as much information as possible to make an accurate and justifiable decision. Wrong recommendations can be career-limiting, so they analyze every possible aspect of the choice in order to make the safest and most defensible choice. They love putting together elaborate tables of price comparisons to show how thorough they have been.

Often the recommender is someone in the purchasing function, and you can be certain that their buying criteria will center around lowering the price and making it easy on themselves in the buying process. As a result, they “step over dollars to pick up dimes”. Or, they spend an inordinate amount of time in a continuing round of negotiations to squeeze the last price concession, while the problem owners are bleeding.

So, if you want to be consistently successful in selling value and avoiding price objections, you must talk to the problem owners. When you’ve talked to the problem owners, there are only two people who can see the entire elephant: the highest ranking problem owner—and you.

If the decision can be justified on a diversity of values, you have a plausible reason to go higher in the organization, to the person whose span of responsibility makes them the top-level problem owner. But contacting problem owners does not just mean “calling high” in the organization.

It also helps you go wider—finding problem owners helps you recruit allies for your sales strategy. If you can show a problem owner how you can make their life better or easier, they now have an incentive to champion your solution internally, and you will have more credible numbers when you talk about value.

You can even use it to go lower in the buyer’s organization. One of the most effective ways to use this in your sales strategy is to offer to spend time in the field with the people who will actually be using the product or service in their daily operations. In the beverage distributor example in Part 3, the account manager rode with a driver for an afternoon and made observations that improved the offering; it also provided her with a lot of credibility in discussions with the decision makers. A third benefit was that it eased the path for implementation and user acceptance when the sale went through.

Also, as we saw in the previous article, the customer sometimes has a choice on how to use the operational benefits you can provide. Perhaps they can pocket cost savings through improved efficiencies or pass those savings on to their customers to gain market share. Should you care how they use it? Definitely: the problem owner may be a completely different person depending on which facet of the value that you emphasize, and that makes a huge difference in the decision making process and in your sales strategy.

As we have now seen in the past four articles in this series, a strategic approach to selling value and avoiding the price objection centers around answering three fundamental sales questions: SO WHAT?, HOW MUCH?, and WHO CARES? In Part 5 of this series, we will take a look at the fascinating psychology of pricing.


Jack Malcolm is President of Falcon Performance Group, which is dedicated to improving personal and professional effectiveness in today’s knowledge-based economy through training and consulting in sales, influencing, and communication skills. With twenty years of training and consulting on top of ten years of corporate banking experience, he teaches a unique mix of business acumen and complex-sale strategy and skills that today’s demanding customers require from top sales professionals.

Website: www.falconperformance.com

Blog: www.jackmalcolm.com/blog

Books: Bottom-Line Selling and Strategic Sales Presentations


Get your free preview of Chapter 1 from Selling Fearlessly.

Check out the 62 reviews for Selling Fearlessly at Amazon.com.