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When a myth permeates a culture, it's usually because it's more comfortable than the reality. The myth becomes problematic, however, when it becomes so dominant that it limits or prevents success. A prime example is a salesperson's obsession with pain and need as the basis for sales success.

Ask any sales group why their prospects buy, or what they want to explore with prospects early in the cycle, and the vast majority will respond with something that will refer to either 'pain' or 'need' or the 21st century euphemism 'solutions.' They're either probing for pain or exploring needs. While this is often reinforced by their leaders and pundits, statistically it's just wrong, and creates a lot of unnecessary effort, inferior results and less success than if they abandoned the myth.

When you look at any market segment, at any given time only about (notice I said about, meaning could be a little more or less) 10 per cent of potential buyers are actively in the market looking to buy. Further, not all of these fall into the pained or needy camps. Some are motivated by other factors.

Another 20 per cent or so are on the verge of looking or entering the market. Some knowingly, in response to a regulation they have to comply with in 12 months, or they are beginning to have some concerns about the abilities of their current provider or similar factors. Suffice it to say, they're open to a potential sales discussion, even while their need is not immediate, and they are feeling no pain. The remaining 70 per cent are disengaged, removed from the market, going along their merry ways and deaf to your messaging until their circumstances change.

Even with the new math, the conclusion is clear: if you're looking for pain or need, you're targeting a sliver of the market; a sliver that's well covered – even crowded, where buyers are well informed and where price is the dominant selling point.

Buyers in this sliver are those who've completed 60 per cent or more of their buying process before contacting a seller. They've identified their needs, know which pain killer suits their needs best, and are now just in searching for the outlet with the best terms and price.

The real skill is selling to the disengaged 70 per cent of the market. These potential customers aren't feeling pain and don't want to talk about it. But what this large segment does have are objectives.

Salespeople often have difficulty – and miss their quotas – because they talk to this segment of buyers in terms of pain points, even when the buyers don't have any.

Year after year, only about 50 per cent of B2B sales people make their quota, which is why they see pain in every conversation; mostly their own. Their need to fill their pipeline is the most pressing need in most conversations. What's worse is that they project their needs onto the people they're dealing with, making buyers more reluctant to engage. I once had a manager who said "buyers can smell desperation." The fear of missing quota is a desperation that is palpable to buyers.

If salespeople stopped probing for pain and need, and instead focused the conversation on objectives – something that all buyers have – they would be able to engage with a much broader segment of the market, and change the flow and outcome of their sales efforts.

It took us a long time to get salespeople to ask buyers what keeps them up at night. Let's get them to stop probing for pain and focus them on the forward path of objective.

Where is your sales team spending their time? Exactly. I feel your pain.

Tibor Shanto is a principal at Renbor Sales Solutions Inc. He can be reached at His column appears once a month on the Report on Small Business

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