Find a Problem to Solve: A Sales and Marketing Lesson From Ford

Every business exists to solve someone else’s problem.

salespeople can solve problems

Paperwork in the office by

  • A mattress store can solve the “my back hurts” problem.
  • An HVAC dealer can solve the “it’s too cold in the house!” problem.
  • A restaurant can solve the “I’m hungry and don’t want to cook” problem.

As media salespeople, we can solve problems, too. The key is offering to solve a problem your client cares about. Sometimes that takes a little research and thought.

We can learn a great deal from Ford’s efforts to position their soon-to-be-released F-150 Hybrid. In the passenger car market, many buyers choose a hybrid to save money on gasoline, or to help protect the environment.

According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, that doesn’t resonate with F-150 buyers:

People who buy F-150s don’t much care about fuel economy. It ranks No. 28 on their list of priorities, way below pickup essentials like durability and reliability, even the roominess of the cab.

According to Bloomberg, environmental concerns don’t drive buying behavior in this group, either. So Ford had to come up with another problem to solve.

By spending a lot of time with their customers, they learned about an unmet need for portable power:

“We would see our customers just literally buying generators from Home Depot and strapping them down in their truck beds,” [Ford product development chief] Hau Thai-Tang said.

There was the welder in Texas who lugged his generator in and out of the bed whenever he needed it for work. Then there was the builder in Denver who didn’t own one, relying on a jumble of extension cords that he stretched to an outlet to operate his saw. “He told us, ‘Access to power in any shape or form would absolutely help me do my job,’ ” [Ford research team leader Nadia] Preston said…

…To coax devotees into the greener future, the company won’t be stressing the benefits of cutting back on carbon-dioxide emissions or the costs of tanking up. Instead, the marketing will go something like this: The battery in the hybrid F-150 not only feeds the electric motor, it’s a mobile generator that can keep the beer cool at a tailgate party, charge your miter saw and run the coffee maker on a camping trip.

There are two lessons for those of us in the persuasion industry:

For copywriters: What problems can the client solve for its customers? Which of those problems is most important to new customers? You need to make an effort to find out before you start writing — the answer may not be the first one that comes to mind. 

For media salespeople: What problems do your clients have that advertising with you can solve? Unless you’re dealing with an advertising agency media buyer, it’s probably not the “I want to buy a cheap spot package” problem, or the “I want to see an 18-49 ranker” problem.

Here are some of the more common business problems you can solve:

  • “I don’t have enough traffic at my south side location.”
  • “My prices are great, but everyone thinks the big box stores are cheaper.”
  • “We’ve got the best Philly Cheesesteak in town, and nobody knows it.”

The best way to find out what problems are on a prospective advertiser’s mind? Ask.

What questions should you ask? My book, Breakthrough Prospecting, can help you solve that problem — Chapter 14’s got a whole bunch of thoughtful questions to ask.

Each week, as my boss and mentor Jim Doyle points out, thousands of Americans go to a hardware store to buy a 1/4-inch drill bit. But they don’t want a drill bit — what they want is a 1/4-inch hole.

So take Jim’s advice — sell the hole, not the drill bit.

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