Our hiring model was no longer working for us. As the largest player in the Electronic Design Automation market, we had developed an unconscious hiring model which was primarily dependent on taking the best sellers from our two main competitors. They were largely Electrical Engineering types who had migrated to sales. After a period of time, this process left us with only “B” and “C” players to recruit.
Out of necessity, I issued a mandate. From that point forward, we could hire from outside our industry, but they had to be “A” players. Taking a play from “Good To Great”, by Jim Collins, I defined “A” players as anyone with an aptitude for learning. I suggested we look at their SAT scores as a guide.
One of the first hires we made with our new model was Jack Bartell. I called him the band-aid sales guy. He came to us from Baxter International, and had been selling general medical supplies to hospitals. Jack had a Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State in Marketing/Finance. This was a radical departure from the hordes of electrical engineering types we had amassed over the years.
Jack validated our new direction within a few short months. He uncovered, developed and closed an opportunity for something north of a million dollars. While not at the high end of our largest deals, it was noteworthy for its size, breadth of products and short sales cycle time. Not to mention the best ramp up example we had ever witnessed.
During a debrief of the sale, I asked Jack how he managed to pull off such a feat in such a short time period. He said,
“Kevin, I quickly realized I could never be an expert on these complex electrical engineering solutions we sell, so I decided to become a problem expert. After talking to a lot of experts around the organization, I made a list of the problems we help solve. I would literally take out the list, and ask my new prospects if any of the problems hit close to home for them. When they resonated with any set of problems that were worth solving on their side, I would assemble the team of experts from our side to help them understand how we addressed the problems. That’s how I found this opportunity.”
What I learned from Jack is becoming a problem expert is a lot easier than becoming a solution expert. There are other dynamics at play as well: Jack’s prospects were happy to help him out as a new guy trying to learn the ropes, and the solution experts he brought in were better prepared to connect with the customer’s problems based on Jack’s pinpoint diagnosis. In general, the interaction dynamics around this type of dialog were less contentious and more collaborative than the “show up and throw up” pitches used by most of the other sellers in the organization..
I applied this problem expert model for Dell when they were struggling to branch out from PC sales to include servers, storage and services in their selling efforts. After we switched from drowning their sales people in useless specifications, and focused on the problems we wanted to surface that create the need for servers, storage and services, they cited a 26% increase in their attach-rate in just 30 days. That fueled the growth of a $15 Billion business for Dell.
Over the years, the problem expert model has proven itself over and over for myself and my clients. Cisco has used it to dramatically reduce ramp up times for new hires. Imprivata, a single sign on provider, used it to navigate through the 2009 economic decline with 47% growth. While WindRiver Systems (now a division of Intel) used it to learn how to combat free open source competition while growing revenue 19%.
After all these years, I’m still amazed to find mature companies saturating their sales people with solution information. If you are a new hire trying to navigate a complex learning curve, a sales leader worried about ramping up a horde of new hires, or a product marketing expert frustrated by the lack of sales adoption for an exciting new technology, the problem expert model can add tremendous value to overcoming these challenges.
Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.