Identifying Pain is the First Step in a Sales Process – Here’s How

Posted on Jun 17, 2013 | 49 comments

Identifying Pain is the First Step in a Sales Process – Here’s How

This article initially appeared on Inc. If you haven’t already followed me on Twitter, that’s the fastest way to get blog updates. Click here.

In my first enterprise software company we developed a methodology for sales that we called PUCCKA.

dog headacheThis post is about the “P” or pain.

The point of PUCCKA 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, as in, “have you identified your customers pain point yet?”

Having a methodology instead of just going on random sales visits helped force a bit of rigor and honesty amongst team members about how well or not we thought we were doing.


It’s 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 their actual need is. But often there is an underlying reason for a purchase even if the buyer doesn’t bring it to the surface.

Take for example the years 2010-2012 where 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. That a boss is a dolt with no economic rationale for what he is asking to be achieved does not disqualify pain. Just watch Mad Men and you’ll know that.


Too many sales reps walk into customer meetings with their pre-canned sales decks and proudly squawk through 30 of their favorite slides without engaging the customer in a discussion.

The reason they do this is that it’s far easier to go through talking points you’ve said 100 times than to engage the customer in a dialog about their business challenges.

I call these people crocodile sales people – small ears and a big mouth.

It is not effective because while you leave the meeting feeling great about yourself you really don’t have any further knowledge of the customers “pain.”

I call this sales approach “tell & sell” and I don’t recommend it.

The best sales meetings are discussions. The goal is to get the customer speaking about their organization. And the best kind of questions to ask are open-ended questions.

I’ve also seen the converse too many times – sales reps who walk into a meeting and spout 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?”

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 off their life stories in an introduction. Nobody wants to hear your life story other than your mom.

After a brief overview of you, your company and your solution I recommend putting up some example clients you’ve worked with, although 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) or some variation of this.

WWF gives you the ability to tease out the problem having just shown similar cases where customers have this problem.

“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.”

“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?”

Often if a customer has heard similar problems described in other customers (not hearing your solution pitched at them but a real business discussion about the pain point) then they will start to open up and have a discussion.

Even if they start to debate with you whether this is a real problem or not, 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 then they’re at least engaged.

People prefer to hear themselves speak rather than to listen to you. It’s just human nature.

So throughout the meeting your job is to tease out as many discrete pain points that are near enough to your solution set to begin talking about what it is that you do.

Write down the customer pains so you’ll have them for later. Ask questions the whole time. The best form of sales is “active listening” where 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.

You know, the blah, blah, blah I heard you but now let ME tell you this great story I have.  Most people naturally do this at cocktail parties (everybody does) but not in sales meetings.  Never. When you cut off customers with your stories you lose valuable insights that might be exposing more pain points.

Open questions equals a treasure trove of information to mine for pain points.

Show your knowledge and charm through great questions not great anecdotes.

In many ways it’s more enjoyable to learn about other people than it is to spout BS about your company or products.

In the words of Dale Carnegie,

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Or in words that I first heard from one of the greatest sales gurus of all time, Zig Ziglar

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

Apparently Zig got that from Theodore Roosevelt if the Internet is to be trusted.

But it is so true. I think every big sale I have had in life came because I genuinely cared about the person buying from me. In many ways, the “sale” made me feel more committed in my role at the company because I felt a huge sense of obligation to live up to the expectations the buyer had entrusted in me.

Ask more. Listen more. Care more. Problem solve. Good things will come.

Thank you to Jeff Hughes for reminding me of the Ziglar quote.


If you get your prospects talking about problems you’ve solved the first step of sales, “Why Buy Anything?”

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 – believe me.

And once you manage to tease out some problems you can then begin to pivot the meeting importantly to your solution and how it may solve their problem.

But that’s the next post, “Unique Selling Proposition” or USPs.

  • Peter V. T. Schlegel

    Solid post, Mark.

    Having spent years doing solution selling to the C-level suite in large corporations, you’d think I’d have learned all of this by now. But I still sometimes find myself 5 minutes into a boring monologue about myself. It’s basic human psychology that you need to keep in check always.

    Two questions:

    1) I absolutely agree that striking the balance between NOT having your counterpart thinking “why the efff are you asking all of these questions – you asked for the meeting” and being actively teasing out pain points is the trickiest part to all of this. As a startup I’ve found that the need for justifying yourself is somewhat greater (than if you, say, IBM) leading to a greater need to brag a little up front. If you’ve struggled to get the CMO of HugeCorp to meet with you. Would you agree and how do you propose handling this?

    2) In many cases you’ve argued that VC meetings should be handled the same way as sales meetings with senior execs. Does the same apply to teasing out pain points? And if so, which ones do you generally think are the most important ones in the case of a VC partnership?

  • TJ Culbertson

    Love the midnight oil sneak peek on Twitter btw. Was it Patton who said “you don’t get rich waiting for the phone to ring, you get rich making some other SOB answer the phone.” Though i agree 100% with that, I have found that the worst thing is to try to use any formula at all. Sure you gotta probe and ski down hill…that’s just common sense. But, guessing that the highest producing salespeople today are smart, methodical and simply care about doing what’s best for their clients over time…seeking to understand vs. to be understood, which you pointed out in your last post – that one actually goes back to St. Francis of Assisi.

    Like you say, we all get in sales mode. The key is to train yourself to to snap out and try to understand. Good post. (Peter just, read your post as writing…I think you hit the nail on the head with point # 1 … Gotta understand ,but then we have to show them why we do what we do.. Because we believe in what we are selling…I think the client wants to see that belief more than ABCs and needs questioning them to death.

  • Ofer Heijmans

    Nice post mark. One comment: maybe it should be posted in the Sales section of your blog rather than startup advice?

  • markallenroberts

    I can not agree more,
    Sales reps who show up and throw up are playing feature and benefit BINGO just hoping the person across the table eventually jumps up and yells “BINGO now I understand how you can help me”

  • msuster

    “as a startup the need for justifying yourself is somewhat greater leading to a greater need to brag a little up front. ” Yeah, I could see that. For sure. Just don’t blather on and on. Somebody get so used to hearing their own “pitch” that they don’t realize that nobody else cares to the same level of detail about their business until they are more bought in.

    re: VC – the product you’re selling is you. So they are judging that. In part it’s your business performance. In part it’s your market. So find ways to tease out discussion topics on these three things.

  • msuster

    “we believe in what we are selling…I think the client wants to see that belief” … I agree. Customers want to see passion and conviction. But after doing this for a long time I have found that many sales reps (and CEOs) err on the side of too long of a “world tour” of their businesses.

  • msuster

    Yes. It will be. Thank you.

  • msuster

    I like that analogy. Makes sense. Feature BINGO.

  • muratcannoyan

    Nice post Mark thanks. Does the process change when you’re trying to convince a potential customer to pursue an new opportunity more than address a pain point?

  • jamesoliverjr

    Best pain moment ever-Clubber Lang! Sorry, Mark, I couldn’t resist.

  • TJ Culbertson

    Yes! The “world tour”. I know that I like world tours, but when the tickets are free, the fans probably prefer the greatest hits show. I will try to remember a point you made about giving a short version, stopping and asking if they would like some more detail on that and move on…great advice.

  • Paul Fifield

    Pain points are the raw materials in sales engagements. The real skill is taking those pain points you’ve uncovered (by building trust) and exploring the implications of not dealing with them. Often a problem may not seem very severe – until you uncover all the many implications of the problem that in many cases the prospect may not even be aware of.

    This creates WAY more urgency in the sale which is crucial to moving deals alongs faster.

    Then move to how your solution will make their world a happier shinier place!

  • Paul Fifield

    Also another way I like to look at it is this – “People dont care what you do. They care about what you can do for them’

  • Patrick Matos

    Great post Mark (again!) Why do you think a lot of sales people use the “crocodile sales” approach?

    I’ve used it in the past but I’ve also used the more effective approach of teasing out the pain points (although without having a well defined strategy; now I do, so thanks for that.) I’m not an experienced salesman but it’s now part of my job as a startup founder. As I was reading your post and thinking about my own experience, I wondered why I hadn’t consistently used the effective approach. I think the reason why I’ve sometimes been a crocodile is that:
    1) it’s easier (you’ve explained it well here:
    2) because I was scared. What if I find out that my prospect’s pain points cannot be properly solved by my product/service? You can always try to adjust your pitch and focus on how you can help a specific prospect but sometimes, your product is just not a good fit for them. As a startup, you don’t have the time/resources to fine-tune your product to please customers, which can be hard to accept when it’s a potentially very big customer.

    I’d love your thoughts on this and how to deal with this fear of “letting go the big fish.” Also, when’s the next post about USPs coming?!

  • Cookie Marenco

    Great post, Mark. You’ve hit the nail on the head once again! This will be required reading for the newbies here. When’s the book coming out? :)

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    Regarding 1): If they took the meeting in the first place, this means they are at least a little bit interested in what you have to offer. So what I usually do is say upfront “I believe that our solution could be useful to you, but to make sure about that I’d like to ask you a couple questions and/or I’d like you to summarise what your current issues look like”.

    Once you’ve gotten them started, it’s easy to keep the conversation going, especially if you can help your prospect look at their problem through a slightly different lens than their own. I think this is what Mark and others call a “consultative sale”. Your aim should be to be helpful to your prospect whether or not they end up buying your solution. You can achieve this through insightful questions.

    Ideally this provides you with the material you’ll need to push your solution forward later on. And if not, you can always point them to a better suited solution, which is another way to build your pipe: you send prospects over to partners so that they will do the same for you later on.

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    For a long time I used to believe that “crocodile sales people” didn’t actually exist. Then one day I was in a meeting where I saw one in action. It was amazing. The prospect had explicitly told us they had just 1 hour to spend with us.

    The sales guy proceeded, without a pause nor a hint of self-consciousness, to give the most boring powerpoint presentation ever. You could read boredom on the prospect’s face, yet the sales guy never even paused to stop and ask questions. Feature BINGO at its worst.

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    There will still be a pain point: the cost of not pursuing the opportunity.

    You usually achieve this through a ROI analysis, such as: “you’re losing on XXX€ of potential revenue by not doing [insert opportunity here] now”.

  • m_allan

    Patrick – as a former VC turned entrepreneur (the opposite path from Mark) one thing you have to realize is that not every prospect you engage needs your product/service, has a major pain that you wish to solve, or simply isn’t ready to buy. At the risk of sounding defeatist, it helps with the fear aspect by recognizing that not everyone will be your customer

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    I think the answer to this is simple. If after talking with your prospect you still can’t identify pain points that your solution could help them solve, well, they’re just not the right potential clients for you. I know it sucks when it turns out that whatever Fortune 500 you thought could be a good fit for your solution actually isn’t, but that’s life.

    One suggestion I made above is build a network of partners whom you can refer opportunities to when they’re not a good fit for you. They might be able to send business your way when it’s their turn to be in the wrong meeting.

    Mark actually has another very good post on this topic:

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    Couldn’t agree more. That’s one of the thing that was the toughest to accept when I was starting in sales. It’s even more relevant when leads are scarce. Yet you have to turn the opportunity down and keep looking for the right one. Chase deers, not elephants.

  • muratcannoyan

    One way or another helping them connect to pain they know they have, or pain they didn’t know they have. Thanks.

  • Greg Berry

    Very helpful in framing the “pain” portion of a sale.

    Have you written anything about going into a prospective customer who is “happy” with their current provider, mainly because they haven’t considered anyone else. I liken it to when people were “happy” with black & white TV because they’ve never seen what color TV looked like.

    Thanks, Mark!

  • Philip Sugar

    This is exactly why its so critical to study sales. Great quotes from the classics and some of the others like open ended questions are discussed in the more modern books. That is why you have to read them. Just have to. You can’t apply all of the points all of the time, and some of the points apply none of the time, but it is good to think about it.

    My favorite quote is that god gave you two eyes, two ears, and only one mouth. Use it that way. It is so much more fun talking about you but think about the other person, and who you are there for.

    And you do well to point out like all advice don’t take it too literally or you come off like a fool. My peeve is somebody is teaching asking closed end questions that require an affirmative response to build rapport. “So, would you like more sales?”

    My favorite quote is that you get to yes’s by finding no’s. Many people think sales is not taking no for an answer. That’s not right. Yes you have to be persistant, yes you have to have a thick skin, yes to many more things, but if it is not a fit, then no is fine. By never taking a no, then you put everything to a maybe which is the worst in sales (as you point out you move the maybe’s to marketing, newsletter, etc). Yes=Great, No=Fine, Maybe=Worst

    I’ll give an example. (we have too few of these). We were selling somebody a productivity tool that tellers were going to use in a sports book. The SVP said so let me get this straight, if I buy this those guys can watch four hours of TV a day instead of three. The sales guy tried to push on, tried to keep going with his deck, but I stopped him and asked: Do you really mean that? He really did. He couldn’t change the number of tellers and by making them more productive they’d have more free time and in a sports book that means watching tv. So we went on to talk about other areas where he did have pain, we got a referral that turned into a sale.

    I can give tons of others, and if you can’t you just haven’t sold or you don’t listen. We were selling a product and BigCo just wanted to know how many FTE’s our bid bought. Not a sale, maybe they’ll come around, but not with sales resources.

  • Adam Daniel Mezei

    Whenever I’m at bars or Starbuckses, I typically see the males doing this…listening less, with an aim — doesn’t matter the context, whether it’s professional or personal — to preening and peacocking as opposed to listening.

    Whether it’s to other guys or women interlocutors across the table…guys have this tendency to overwhelm the channel with as much verbiage — doesn’t matter how verbose or tightly expressed — I find that this tendency to let the words fly is more of a man thing…

    I especially notice it when I’m in “execution mode” at a cafe and there alone…so my ears — if they don’t have earbuds in them — are more naturally attuned to this sort of thing…do you notice the same?

  • Darius Lahoutifard

    Mark, great post!
    Sales need to understand and master two things:
    1) Master the methodology and be analytic enough to apply the process, whether it is PUCCKA or MEDDIC (that we developed at PTC).
    2) Learn how to apply it smartly. I have seen some “Robot Sales” guys out of the sales kick-off who try to apply the lessons without the human touch. For getting the pain, sometimes you should actually avoid using the slides, start by a brief intro as you mentioned and say something like:”Now there are many angles to my presentation, tell me what you would be interested in (with examples) so that I focus more on those angles which are of interest to you.”. Another way to get their expectation of the meeting.
    BTW, MEDDIC =Metrics/Economic Buyer/ Decision Criteria/ Decision Process/ Identified Pain/ Champion

  • Philip Sugar

    Yes, yes, yes. The one true quality that all great sales people have is the ability to concentrate on the right deals, and blow off everything else.

    This will be a trait that will keep recurring in this series. Don’t have pain, sorry let me put you on the marketing list. Don’t have budget, sorry let me put you on the marketing list. Too low to actually make the decision? Let me talk to the person who is or I’ll blow you off.

  • Rama Ramakrishnan

    Between the extremes of “what keeps you up at night” and “let me tell you about our great solution”, there is a magic middle point. I think your “What We Find” (WWF) might well be it! Thanks, Mark.

  • msuster

    crocodile sales people are anything but an extinct species!

  • msuster

    If it’s a new opportunity it requires more of a “consultative” sale whereas if it’s a defined problem it’s more straightforward: references, case studies, ROI, pricing schedule, etc.

  • msuster

    love it! wish I had thought of that!

  • msuster

    Yes. But that’s my “C” post! 😉

  • msuster

    It’s easier to practice a pitch and talk, talk, talk than it is to engage in a discussion

  • msuster

    which is the golden rule of selling … qualify!

  • msuster


  • msuster

    I hope in 18 months or so

  • msuster

    replacement sales are meaty because the problem is well understood. No, haven’t written about it. sorry.

  • msuster

    Yup! Totally agree. I’ve mentioned that many times in posts. Carly Fiorina taught me, “I firm ‘no’ is better than a muddy ‘yes'” as per this post

  • juegos para

    cute dogge ^^

  • muratcannoyan

    That’s helpful Mark thanks.

  • Perry

    Thank you Mark. I don’t remember how I found your blog, but I’m glad I did. This post – and the one on Sales Methodology (I noticed you changed it to “Methodology” from “Strategy”, curious why?) helped me form my approach to my new venture, and this one confirms my approach to customer development. BTW, the link to Steve Blank’s side deck was pure gold (for me). Thank you and PLEASE keep these coming (when you have time of course!). Thanks again.

  • Cookie Marenco

    I would love to hear your take on this subject.. or one having to do with ‘new markets’ and how to approach sales to customers happy with what they have. I’ve had several experiences in these new markets and learned the hard way, not perhaps the best way.

    In 1997 or so, it was my role at Liquid Audio to introduce indie artists, labels and pro audio engineers to selling mp3 downloads on the internet. ha-ha-ha! :) I felt like a member of the Blues Brothers band behind the cage while the rowdy crowd is throwing tomatoes. Time, Ipod/iTunes and billions in advertising by Apple cured the problem… and the found the pain with the correct customer.. the end user.

    We were addressing the wrong customer, even though our products serviced the professionals and content creators who needed to understand the new media. Apple watched, learned and listened to the right customer. Labels and professionals took a beating for not following soon enough.

    Now, as we embark on introducing the world to yet ANOTHER new format, DSD, I saw the tomatoes coming early from the content providers and quickly turned to the end user where we found acceptance and sales. For instance, we avoid collaborating with Sony Music and instead collaborate with Sony Home Theatre for customers and sales.

    It does remind me of going from “black and white” to “color” tv.

    Mark, I’d love to get your thoughts (maybe a blog post) on addressing sales of new technology to happy people who don’t know they are experiencing “pain”.

    Thanks again!

  • Luis Cifuentes

    Which modern books will you recommend for open ended questions?

  • Bonnie Ravina

    Thanks for another great post! Problem solving is the best way to build trust (and actually is the fun part) with prospects. But, in the consultative sale, that can be a challenge. Where do you draw the line between selling and consulting, i.e., actual work?

  • Guillaume Lerouge

    I think this has a lot to do with the size of your deal. For any given deal size, there is an amount of pre-sales work that you’re going to have to do anyway. So what I try to do is qualify an opportunity’s expected deal size in advance, then draw a line in the sand that says “here’s how much work I’m willing to put in to convince this prospect”. The form that this work takes (consultative, giving presentations, handling procurement, trying to find sponsors…) doesn’t really matter – it’s all measured in the time my team and I are spending anyway.

  • Hany Pham

    Great post Mark, I’ve only recently discovered your blog and this is my first comment as sales is something very close to my heart. The first lesson I learned in sales was “you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion.” The other one was “ABC: Always Be Closing,” (but I find this one rings slightly less true today.)

    I still find it difficult to restrain myself, although prior to a meeting the other day, my partner (yet again) reminded me to just let them do the talking first. Anyway, in the first 20 minutes I said nothing, and to both of our delight the prospect basically ran through my whole pitch for me! Unbelievable how this stuff just works. Thanks for writing this and look forward to learning more from you.

  • James Ferguson @kWIQly

    I think a common pain point for the person “happy with what they have” is fear.
    Fear that they are complacent – many lazy people know it.
    Fear that competitors will lift the bar – contented hates disruptive.
    Fear that they will miss the opportunity – Buy now while stocks last
    At the end of the day – “I am happy with what I have” is
    1) a well evaluated position – question it – learn
    2) An admission that “I know nothing” – call them on it.


    People don’t care what you do but what you can do for them. Great article, thanks mark.

  • // Sam Hickmann //

    Congrats! Awesome serie of posts Mark.
    Please take the time to make a link to the next post at the end: “But that’s the next post, “Unique Selling Proposition” or USPs.”. I spent 5 minutes to find it actually 😉