Caution – Sales Hazards Ahead – Proceed with Patience

I suspect if you were to look at a list of hazardous occupations, sales would likely be toward the bottom, well behind things like bridge building, coal mining, and firefighting. But a recent experience reminded me of one particularly subtle hazard. Curiously, it’s often disguised as opportunity, which is what makes it all the more dangerous.

What is that hazard? The temptation to sell a prospect exactly what they say they want. While this may not be an intuitively obvious hazard (and it may not sound like such a bad thing), make no mistake — it is there, and it presents a real danger to those of us who practice the art of solution-oriented selling or manage those who do. A few reflections on a recent experience may help you identify some of the warning signs of this hazard and have the good fortune to avoid it.

To Sell or Not to Sell?

Not long ago, I encountered a prospect who had a particularly vexing travel operations problem. The specifics are not especially critical, but it is important to note a few things about the nature of the problem:

  • It required many thousands of travel records to be touched by hand even though the bookings were “touchless” (i.e., made online).
  • About 85 percent of the touch points were fairly simple, requiring between 30 seconds and a minute to process, but the sheer volume necessitated a large and expensive staff.
  • The remaining 15 percent were quite complex, took several minutes (or sometimes days) to resolve, and often meant outbound calls to customers. Therefore, a call center team consisting of several people was necessary.
  • The cost of the problem was materially impacting profitability due to the combined effect of expensive staff and the razor-thin margins in the online travel business.
  • To the best of my (rather educated) knowledge, only a few companies had addressed the problem and none fully.

We were able to meet the key decision makers at an early stage (a good thing), and it was at this point the shadowy hazard began to emerge. One particular member of the buying committee (the person closest to and most responsible for solving the problem) was very articulate based on years of experience. He appeared to have a clear grasp on the problem’s underlying causes and broader impacts and professed to know what needed to be done to address it. He allowed access to all key decision makers, and they were deferential to and supportive of his conclusions. He and his team had prepared a reasonably solid specification and provided us with information necessary to build the business case/cost justification. We rightly felt we were in the Column A position, the deal size was several times larger than our average, and because their pain was so great, they wanted to buy right away.

This is the Question

If you were in my shoes, would you sell them what they wanted?

Apprentice: “Sure, in a heartbeat.”

Kyle: “Risky decision.”

Apprentice: “Why?”

Kyle: “One reason and one reason only.”

Apprentice: “What’s that?”

Kyle: “You sell this stuff every day, they buy it only once.”

What do I mean by that? Before answering, let’s recall that we are selling a solution to a complex problem and consider some factors that distinguish solution sales from other types of sales:

  • Solution sales tend to be relationship-oriented rather than transaction-oriented. To properly define a solution requires reaching deeply into a company’s inner workings, and a high level of trust must be established between buyer and seller to enable the access to key players that is needed to do the job well (Trust = Sincerity + Competence. Think about that for a while).
  • Because they touch so many parts of a company, solution sales are generally more complex and have longer sales cycles than product sales. The problems they seek to address (or goals they hope to achieve) are multi-faceted, affect many functional areas, and express themselves in different ways operationally, technically, and financially.
  • The ultimate deliverables frequently combine consulting, customized technologies, professional services, training, and negotiated support and service-level agreements. Simply put, they do not come out-of-the-box.
  • As a consequence of the above, there tends to be a high degree of risk associated with the buying decision. Since mistakes on either side (buyer or seller) can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences, getting a “yes” from all the members of the buying committee is essential to earn the right to close.

Be Careful What You Wish For

With that bit of level setting done, let’s get back to the situation at hand. While I suspect it would not have been hard to close the sale right away my risk radar starting pinging loudly. Put yourself in my position and ask yourself these questions:

  • How many similar or related situations have you seen?
    • Quite a few.
  • How many has the buyer seen?
    • Probably just their own.
  • How much industry knowledge and best practice perspective do you and your team have?
    • You’ve forgotten more than they’ll ever know.
  • How much training and experience do you have in the tools you plan to employ?
    • A ton.
  • How much does the buyer know about the solution you have?
    • They’re not using it so that would mean none.

With this in mind, why would you hazard to sell them exactly what they said they want? After all, it has taken them years to recognize the mess they’re in, so what are the odds that they can see clearly enough to design a solution to get themselves out of it? Further, if you do sell them exactly what they say they want and it doesn’t work, who’ll get the blame.

All Things Are Difficult Before They Become Easy

So, if the temptation to give the buyer exactly what they want is our sin, what virtue is our defense?


At this point a good consultative salesperson should realize that it’s time to slow down to speed up. That means doing the homework and due diligence necessary to catch up with the buyer, properly qualify the opportunity, and get control of the sale. What does that mean? I’ll offer these few thoughts:

  • Diagnose. Get a business-level understanding of the individual and organizational pain points, the contributing factors, the ripple effect of the problem, and the goal metrics.
  • Engage the right subject matter expertise in your organization. Whether you realize it or not, the buyer does not always see the forest for the trees. Challenging the buyer’s assumptions can be awkward at first but ultimately forces them to ask and answer questions they didn’t previously recognize. This will enhance your personal and organizational credibility (remember above, Trust = Sincerity + Competence) and highlight requirement gaps that would have eventually bitten you. Think back, have you ever been at a contentious point in a project and heard a buyer say, “Well, I just assumed it did that!”
  • Develop a holistic vision of a solution, and remember that no solution is 100%. In my many years of selling complex automation projects, I’ve seen more than a few stay in perpetual implementation because limitations were not made clear up front and/or well-intentioned project teams tried to deliver all things to all people. Be clear about what you’re going to sell them and what you’re not going to sell them. Executive decision makers will respect you, operational decision makers won’t undercut you, and your relationships will be strengthened.
  • Build a realistic transition plan, emphasizing that that implementing new solutions means change. When your job is done, people will do things differently than they did before, and that can be upsetting. In our business, we implement business rule systems that automate things people have been doing by hand or with less efficient tools for years. We know these same people will become more efficient and have more time to do the things that make use of their skill and creativity.  But remember — we sell this stuff every day, and they only buy it once. I’ve recently started doing short sessions on change management concepts just prior to signing a contract to drive this home, and it has been most helpful.
  • Finally, do the math yourself. Solution sales are all about ROI. Whether it comes from cost reduction, cost avoidance, or revenue enhancement, never forget that companies will spend money to make money. If you yield to the temptation to sell them what they say they want, the odds increase that the return won’t match the expectation, and you will be surprised to see just how quickly the excitement of “look what I bought!” turns into the disappointment of “look what you sold me.” Do not take the metrics the prospect gives you as infallible. Validate and, if you can, walk the floor, because you never want to sit across from a CEO who says, “You should have known better.”

Going back to the situation I noted above, we were quite fortunate that patience won out over haste. While working through a process mapping exercise (at first resisted by the customer) we discovered two requirements that they assumed were part of our offer but were, in fact, not and one technical format that could have caused significant trouble had it not been detected early.  In the end, our customer was very happy that we had chosen to slow down to speed up.

One final observation. While a happy customer is always a good thing, one other benefit came from the exercise – I learned something new about the customer’s business environment and our applications and services. This makes me much better prepared to consult with my customers and bring expert knowledge that they don’t have. So, I suggest if you practice the virtue of patience, you and your customers will be richly rewarded.