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What is the Problem?

Dr. Carl Christman

Albert Einstein put it best when he said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution.” In the information age, it's not usually hard to find solutions once you understand the problem. We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. In a few seconds I can answer almost any question. Of course, in order to do that I need to know what the actual question is.

"It's not usually hard to find solutions once you understand the problem."

With the massive amount of information available to the public we can all solve problems. The skill comes in defining the problems in the first place. With this paradigm shift, problem identifiers are in higher demand than problem solvers. According to a survey of employers conducted by the Conference Board, the most important creative skill the employers looked for in new employees is the ability to identify and articulate problems. To address this need, schools like the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are offering courses on “Problem Finding, Problem Solving.” As lecturer Sara Beckman explained, “Part of being an innovative leader is being able to frame a problem in interesting ways and to see what that problem really is before you jump into solving it.”

Thanks to WebMD and other websites, I can find the cure to whatever ails me. The problem is that, without medical training, I seldom know what my ailment is. When I type in my symptoms I find out that it could be heartburn or cancer. The most important role of medical professionals is to identify the problem and make a diagnosis. Doctors figure out why I am nauseous. Dentists figure out why my tooth hurts. Therapists figure out why I am afraid of clowns. None of that can be found online.

Anyone can look at the grade book for my classes and identify which students are struggling. The role of a teacher, a good one anyway, is to figure out what the root problem is, why that student is having problems. Once I have figured out whether it is a problem comprehending the material, a lack of motivation, or personal problems, I can focus my efforts to help him or her succeed.

This focus on problem identification is especially important for traditional sales. There are very few products or services that people can’t order online or get from another provider. Unless you are selling something totally unique and proprietary, the power generally lies with the consumers. They are relying on you and your expertise to help them figure out what they need.

I don't take my car to the mechanic to have my timing belt replaced. I take it in to find out what that strange sound is under the hood. I don’t take my computer in to have the RAM increased. I take it in to figure out why it is running so slowly. And I don’t go to my accountant to take advantage of specific tax deductions. I go in to find out what deductions are available. Naturally, I will continue to give them my business because these professionals have established authority, I now like them, they have helped me and I want to reciprocate, and because I want to be consistent.

"A good salesperson, and we are all in sales of some sort, will identify a problem that the customers never knew they had."

A good salesperson, and we are all in sales of some sort, will identify a problem that the customers never knew they had. My sister always seemed to get mineral deposits on her shower door. She never really thought about it and did not realize she had a problem. One day a salesman came to her door out of the blue. He asked her if she had a problem with spots in her shower and she told him that she did. He then proceeded to explain the problem with hard water. Even though she had never given it much thought, he successfully identified the problem. It was only natural then that she would buy the water filtration system he was selling.

There are countless examples of good salespeople discovering problems, but the most extreme ones I can find are on infomercials. They often start with a black and white reenactment with terrible actors. As they overreact to the common annoyances of everyday life, the narrator says, “Don’t you hate it when this happens?” or, “Have you ever had this problem?”

For example, I never knew that I had a problem of my hands getting cold when I had to take them out from under the blanket to hold my book or type on my computer. But now that they mention it, that does bother me and I definitely need a Snuggie.

The only way to address people's needs is to know what they are. Part of this has to do with just being human and relating your experiences to theirs. What problems do you generally have that other people probably share. The more you know about your customers, the easier it will be to identify their needs.

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Carl Christman's bestselling book
How to Read Minds & Influence People.

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