Is Diagnostic Consulting Better than Solution Selling?

A reader named Brian asked:  

Have you found that diagnostic consulting is more effective than solution selling when working with prospective clients?

 Answer: Yes.

This is a perceptive question, I appreciate the fact you are asking it. There is bad news and good news in the answer.

First, the bad news. Diagnostic consulting for sales and marketing is controversial. It should not be, but many sales and marketing executives naturally assume they know what their problems are, and so resist diagnosis (especially paid diagnosis) on the grounds that “you must be trying to get paid to do a proposal.”

This is actually pretty ironic, because in solution selling the salesperson is supposed to ask questions to diagnose the customer’s problems before they start “selling.” Unfortunately, salespeople are usually trained to use everything they learn in an attempt to justify what they are selling. This is the opposite of a diagnostic approach.

Most sales and marketing executives are skeptical of the diagnosis part of a consulting method for this reason. And this makes it all the more difficult for them to realize that what they think they know might not be so.  

Fortunately, people who work for process-oriented companies are more likely to realize they may only be dealing with presenting problems rather than root causes, and so need help identifying their problems and the causes for them. So, this is the market segment we at SPC, Inc. focus on.

Although working in a company that respects process approaches helps, you still face hurtles. The biggest hurdle in working with sales and marketing teams is proving you are not going to push them to do process for process sake, but instead demonstrating you can help them improve the business on terms that make sense to them. Once you have a receptive audience, one that is willing to find and follow data, you begin by helping them define their problems, which usually leads to defining their terms and gathering data.

In other words, most of the time the initial diagnosis reveals lots of assumptions, a lack of common language, and therefore a lack of standard work, and an inability to observe, measure, and gather data. Of course observations like that are easy to make and far too general to be useful or actionable. People in the business need to come to specific agreement among themselves on which problems they need to work on first, and what data they need to begin finding a way to improve.

So the diagnosis is really a collaborative effort to begin identifying enough about the company’s pain to be able to detect some potential causes, and test them. A really good psychotherapist once told me his work was largely about helping people do what they already know they should do. To a large extent, this collaborative effort is about helping everybody in the business understand the problems so they can see why they should do what they need do to improve. I believe it is a little easier to help business people, because they at least have a common interest to make money helping customers. So long as you focus on the data and the process, you can usually make things visible for them, and therefore measurable and improvable.

The good news results directly from making things observable and measurable: Once you start going down this path, I can pretty much guarantee you will find the data and the evidence you need to begin building that consensus to fix things in measurable ways.

And, there is more good news. You’ve heard the cliché that little hinges swing big doors? Simple things like operational definitions of sales qualification criteria, alignment with the customer journey, and clarification of value propositions have huge paybacks.

It is not that you don’t need solution sales training or CRM or lead generation or a hundred other things other consultants are trying to sell. It is that mapping your sales process enables you to know which specific parts of these offers will improve your results, and in what manner they will do so. You become a much more sophisticated customer or client. You know what you need and can avoid wasting money on things you don’t need.  

Most importantly, instead of only assuming you know what your problems are and wasting money on trial and error, you have the evidence telling you the most important things to improve now. You also know how to improve in a way that tells you if the improvement actually happens.

Please let me know if this answers your question. I’d love to learn your thoughts.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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