In my first enterprise software company, we developed a sales methodology that we called PUCCKA. The point was to develop a common methodology to make sure our whole team approaches sales with the same mindset and to give us a language to talk with each other about our prospects. Having a methodology, instead of just going on random sales visits, helped force a bit of rigor and honesty among team members in terms of how well--or poorly--we thought we were doing.

This post is about the Pain aspect of our methodology, as in, “Have you identified your customer's pain point yet?” Pain is a reminder that unless your prospect has a need to solve a problem, they are not going to buy a product. Customers sometimes buy things spontaneously without thinking through what they actually need. But, often, there is an underlying reason for a purchase, even if the buyer doesn’t bring it to the surface.

For instance, between the years of 2010 and 2012, every brand out there seemed to be buying Facebook "Likes." In truth, many companies had no idea why they actually needed Facebook Likes. But there was still a pain point. The pain was that somebody senior in the organization had read about the importance of Facebook for business and had begun asking loud questions about why the organization didn't have a strong Facebook presence. That is still "pain." It's a reason a company would buy something, even if a boss is a dolt with no economic rationale for what he is asking to be achieved. Just watch Mad Men and you'll see what I mean.

So how do you identify a pain point? Rule number one: Don't be a crocodile. Too many sales reps use what I refer to as a "tell and sell" approach. They walk into customer meetings with pre-canned sales decks and proudly squawk through 30 of their favorite slides without engaging the customer in a discussion. I call them crocodile salespeople, because they have small ears and big mouths. The reason they tell and sell is that it’s far easier to go through talking points you’ve regurgitated 100 times than to engage the customer in a dialog about their business challenges. Crocodiles might leave meetings feeling great about themselves, but they come away without any further knowledge of the customer's “pain.”

I’ve also seen sales reps go to the opposite extreme, walking into a meeting and spouting out, “So, tell us what’s not working in your manufacturing process!” I hate when people do this to me. My first thought is, “You asked for the meeting--why am I going to give you a bunch of ammunition to sell to me?”

So where's the happy medium? The best sales meetings are discussions. The goal is to get customers speaking about their organizations. And the best way to do so is by asking open-ended questions. There is an art to teasing out pain points. I recommend starting with a brief overview of you, your company, and your solution. And by brief, I mean BRIEF! You’d be amazed at how long some people rattle on about their life stories in an introduction. Nobody wants to hear your life story other than your mom.

After the overview, I recommend offering up some examples of clients you’ve worked with (you obviously need their approval first). These references make for great discussions with customers. If you have enough references in your arsenal, you obviously want to pick out ones that you believe will resonate with your prospect due to job function or industry.

And then there’s the key transition slide, which I call “What We Find” (WWF). WWF gives you the ability to tease out the problem having just shown similar cases where customers have this problem. For example: “What we find is that many of our customers have been accumulating Facebook Likes, because they thought they were supposed to. Now they have a few thousand Likes, but haven’t been able to figure out whether this is improving their bottom line. They don’t have a way to measure the effectiveness of a Like.” Then, use that as a seque to ask your prospect if they have the same problem:  “Do you see that at all inside your department? Have you found a way to best link your potential marketing leads in social media into activity that leads to more business?”

This approach is often successful. When you have a real business disussion about a pain point, rather than simply pitching your solution, prospects are more likely to open up about their own problems. Even if they debate whether the problem is real, you’re having a much better meeting then just flipping through slides. If they’re going to take the time, energy, and logic to try and debate with you, it's must better if they’re at least engaged.

Another point to keep in mind: People prefer to hear themselves speak rather than to listen to you. It’s just human nature. Your job is to tease out as many discrete pain points that are near enough to your solution set as possible. Then, you can begin talking about what it is that you do. Write down the customer pain points so you don't forget them and ask questions the whole time. The best form of sales is “active listening,” when you’re engaged in what the customer is telling you.

And please resist the temptation to cut off the customer with a story of your own. ("I heard you, but now let ME tell you this great story I have.") Most people naturally do this at cocktail parties, but it's not a good idea in sales meetings. When you cut off customers with your stories, you lose valuable insights that might be exposing more pain points. Show your knowledge and charm through great questions, not great anecdotes. Frankly if you can’t sit with prospects and tease out pain points then you ought to be working in a different department than sales or executive leadership.

Everybody has pain points. If you find out what your prospects' problems are, you’ve answered the question, “Why Buy Anything?” Importantly, once you tease out some problems, you can begin to pivot the meeting to your solution and how it may solve their problem. I'll delve deeper into “Unique Selling Propositions” in my next column.