I have the great privilege to work with talented leaders of professional services firms when I am invited to speak with their teams around the world. I take note when they introduce themselves. For many businesses, their own words can make them seem like a commodity. Even worse, the vendor shows up as someone just there to try to sell something.

Some Elevator Pitches Make You Want to Take the Stairs

I heard the managing partner of a regional law firm recently describe their firm as a "Full-service law firm located in XYZ county."

Perhaps he is competing against "partial service" law firms? How often have you heard an accounting, law, or architectural firm describe themselves in the same manner?

The CEO of a technology company proclaimed "We are a software and IT company that sells to government, commercial, academic, and private clients." Well, that narrows it down.

Thank goodness they clarified those points. I'm glad they did not include pets in their list of clients to whom they sell. I'm sure everyone who heard that description could not wait to pull him aside to learn more about what he could sell to them.

Solve vs. Sell

For most businesses, the easiest thing to do is to focus on WHAT you do. When that happens, you just seem like a pushy salesperson. However, in my research on how executives make and approve decisions, we discovered that the first thing executives ask is one of two questions: 1. "What problem does this solve?" Or 2. "Why do we need it?"

What this means is that if you focus on what you do, then you are relying on your potential client to figure out why they might need your help. In my experience, this leads to a long and painful process that includes frustration, uncertainly, and pricing pressure. There has to be a better way.

How to Discover the Right Opportunities

I challenge you and your team to uncover the following. What issues are you great at helping your clients solve?

On the surface, the exercise sounds easy. However, having facilitated this exercise with thousands of executives, I can tell you that fewer than 2% of them get it anywhere close to right on the first pass. In both examples above, the executives talked about their business from their own perspective.

If you want to catch someone's attention, you need to discuss your business from the client's viewpoint. Meaning, you need to share what problems you solve and why they might need your help.

Imagine Being a Physician

If you were a physician, you would not expect your patients to diagnose their condition. However, they would be able to spot symptoms. The same is true for your potential clients. What are the telltale signs that indicate that a potential client might have a need for what you offer?

It Also Helps With Referrals

Once you know the symptoms to look for, you can see if your referral sources know of potential clients are experiencing those conditions. As an example, if you are a technology firm, you might have asked your referral partners if they know of clients who need information technology services. You are probably not getting many referrals.

Instead, by thinking about the problems you solve, you might uncover that your ideal clients are frustrated because they cannot access their systems remotely, filled with people who complain about the technology getting in the way of their work, and businesses who recognize that they miss deadlines at times because their systems failed. Your referral sources can easily spot those symptoms.

The IT business could say "Clients come to us when their systems are not reliable despite everyone's best efforts, and their team is annoyed at lost billable time that also impacts morale. Weeks after we are engaged, our clients tell us that they stop worrying about their technology because it just seems to work all the time. How do you address that issue?"

This example paints a picture of the problem they solve, why a potential client might care, and expected outcomes. These are elements that combine to build the Same Side Pitch.

The bottom line is that by focusing on the problems you solve, you and your partners can uncover your ideal clients and you'll show up as someone there to help them solve a challenge, not just sell something.

It's Your Turn

Share your story about the problems you solve for your clients in the comments. You might get free feedback from others. If you share your version, be sure to offer feedback to others.

Published on: Oct 27, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.