Both buyers and sellers are eager to get to a solution. Unfortunately, that can cause us to resist what we may perceive to be an unnecessarily protracted diagnostic phase. We think we understand the problem, we're busy, and we want to get on with solving it so we can move to the next thing on our plate. However, unless you're really lucky, and have a prospect who has extraordinarily rare awareness of their problem and its full range of consequences, you'll find that you have to get beyond surface observations.

A healthcare metaphor

Think about when you're examined by a doctor. You've been thinking and talking about the symptoms you're experiencing, so you're fully prepared to describe those. You're confident you've done a pretty good job of painting a picture that will accelerate the doctor's diagnosis, so you're now eager to get on with it, and hear how she'll solve your problem.

However, instead of launching into a prescriptive, the doctor questions you about a number of other factors, many of which you may not see as relevant. But, she continues her investigation, knowing that reported symptoms are just that, symptoms. They’re not the problem. Symptoms alert you that a problem exists, but not what it is. The doctor’s questions often trigger your memory of other symptoms or factors that didn't occur to you at first. Because patients aren't trained diagnosticians, they'd have no reason to correlate symptoms with the underlying problem. There's little chance that most patients can identify their causal problem.

Applying this to Sales

When prospects show impatience with our sales diagnosis, too many salespeople allow themselves to be influenced by that, and prematurely abandon their sales investigation before identifying the real problem. They accept prospects' responses to their needs-inquiry questions, and shift immediately to describing and extolling the merits of their solution. They end up treating symptoms, not their causes.

To identify the real problem that must be solved, and that will justify the prospect investing money, time and effort to solve it -- or even the time and effort required to reach a decision about whether or not they actually must solve it -- professional salespeople must be persistent diagnosticians. This means exposing all the symptoms, their consequences, and their cause. After all, how can you offer remedial advice with any confidence that it will work if your diagnosis is incomplete?

A practical example involving lawyers

When lawyers contact me for help growing their business, I ask what specific problem they want to solve. Most answer categorically, e.g., “Over the years, my practice has plateaued,” or “...has been in gradual decline,” or “It’s time for me to step it up to the next level.” These are broad conclusions; they’re not even a description of symptoms. There’s no way to visualize or measure success. What would it look like to reach the next level?

So I ask, “What, specifically, is not working?” They’ll describe having greater difficulty getting access to longtime clients, or frequent conversations with clients about bills being too high, or a longtime client requiring them to bid on work that for years was automatically “theirs.” These are symptoms; you can visualize them.


Knowing the specific symptoms, you can explore prospects' perceptions of the causes. However, accumulated frustration can yield "I don't know," which isn't helpful. Those inside a circumstance know more than they think they know. They just need us to make it a little easier to bring that to the surface.

  • “Why do you think it’s become impossible to get clients on the phone?”
  • “Why do all your [type] clients suddenly think you charge too much?”
  • “Why does Client A now make you bid on work that’s been exclusively yours forever?”

Notice that each of these questions contains an absolute term (“impossible,” “all,” “suddenly,” “exclusively”). This reliably causes the lawyer to react to the terms. Their need to correct the overstatement gets them qualifying the situation further. “I wouldn’t say it’s ‘impossible’ to get them on the phone. It’s more like…”

Now we’re exploring the actual sequence of events, or pattern of experiences, that produced their conclusion. I’m dealing with facts, not impressions, and I can understand what’s actually happened. As a sales professional, my ears are tuned differently than the lawyer’s are, so I’ll hear and conclude different things than he did.

Now I understand the problem, but that still doesn’t mean that the lawyer must solve it. He’s already concluded that he should solve it, but there are many things we should do that we don’t. Why? Because there’s a chasm between “should” and “must,” and we only solve the problems that we must solve.

Premature solutions

Can you see how introducing a solution, no matter how elegant or effective, is premature when the prospect doesn’t yet see a solution as imperative? When you shift to your solution prematurely, you render a disservice to the prospect. They'll waste time and energy evaluating solutions that they may never deploy.

What determines the difference between “should” and “must”? If the consequences of not taking action are unknown, incompletely known, or are known but deemed acceptable, you’re at “should.” If the consequences are known and explicitly declared to be unacceptable, you’re have a “must.”

Next week: Defining “must”

Mike O’Horo

If you think you'd be more comfortable and successful if you could reliably learn what's driving the sale, and you'd like help understanding it, learning it, and applying it, schedule a free introductory call with me to discuss your situation and concerns, and see if it's right for you.

(I'm a Decision Facilitator, so you don't have to worry about me trying to convince you to hire me.)