The Myth of Client Pain

Michael_mclaughlin I have to disagree with Michael McLaughlin, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, when he blogs about "The Myth of Client Pain."  He is so wrong.  According to Mike:

"Sales literature is full of advice to find a client's "pain" as the first step to sales success. We're advised to ask prospective clients inane questions like: What keeps you awake at night? What are your pain points? And, if you had a magic wand, what problem would you solve? Please, spare me."

Mike says the pain approach "proclaim(s) that the consultant is fishing for answers" and "not all clients are looking for "pain" remedies. Maybe they want to raise the bar on overall company performance, or they just the need to improve some aspect of the business."

Boy is he missing the point.  He forgets that the typical professional firm goes to market by saying "me, me, me! Look at me! Our people are so smart, we have all these services to sell you, and have a history of our firm on our Web site."  Many professioanl firms market themselves by enegetic self-hyping, and doing all the talking and none of the listening.

The reasons to focus on a clients "pain" or "trauma" are that:

  • You need to learn what the client needs, what is keeping them up a night.
  • Clients only hire a law, accounting or management consulting firm when they have a personal and urgent problem that makes them need to hire you.  If you know a client's pain, then you know the trigger that will get you new business.
  • If you ask questions about the client's business, they may tell you that they're borrowing to make payroll, or that their sales manager just quit and took the salesmen to a competing company, or that a crew from 60 Minutes is at the reception desk and they're demanding an interview.  This is all "pain."  Once you learn this information, you can offer a solution to their problem.

Sorry Mikey: no pain, no sale.

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Marketing Catalyst - June 13, 2005 11:49 AM
Mike McLaughlin from Deloitte Consulting states that the best answers are found when we focus on the “needs” of the client, and that their needs may not always derive from a business “pain”. Larry Bodine of Professional Market...
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Michael McLaughlin - May 31, 2005 9:21 AM


Great post, and thanks for the counter argument.

Of course I understand that "the typical professional firm goes to market by saying "me, me, me! Look at me! Our people are so smart, we have all these services to sell you, and have a history of our firm on our Web site." Many professioanl firms market themselves by enegetic self-hyping, and doing all the talking and none of the listening." I devoted an entire book to the subject.

When we simply ask prospective clients what their pain is, or what keeps them up at night, we're not engaging the client in a substantive conversation of issues they're grappling with, which could lead to a sale.

The typical sales advice has a person lob a dumb question across the table, and then wait for an opportunity to pitch whatever that person has tucked away in a briefcase, no matter what the client says.

Clients have pain points, but it takes more than a few inane questions to find out what they need. And in the consulting business, that's not always pain. It may be a critical, but it isn't always painful.

If you always look for pain, you're leaving things on the table.

Keep up the great blog. It's always insightful and fun to read.


Michelle Golden - May 31, 2005 1:00 PM

Larry, I agree with your mention that most firms shout "me, me, me" and provide less than useful information to prospects, but I think I have to side with Michael on this one because I would die of embarrassment on their behalf if one of my lawyer or CPA clients actually asked a prospect, "so, what keeps you up at night?"

When introduced, the concept was decent (and I don't think anyone intended for people to actually ask that exact question that way -- please tell me they didn't...) but the message sent is that the practitioner is trying to completely shortcut the get-to-know-you phase. In other words, 'I don't have time to decipher what you say, so just tell me the bottom-line.' Like they are actually going to divulge their deepest problems in response to that question!?

It is just as cheesy sounding as "Hey, baby, come here often?" or "So, what's your sign?"

I further agree with Michael's point that prospects often do not view their problems as pain. In fact, the longer you live with pain (or dysfunction) the less you view it that way, and the more you view it as "normal"--not a good normal, but just normal.

Professionals must focus less on what good lines they could use and focus more on how to conduct (and recall) a good conversation, and read what isn't spoken as well as what is.

John Klymshyn - June 3, 2005 6:21 PM

Hmmm... a debate about PAIN.
Well, I take issue with both sides of the debate.
Here's why:
1) We all refer to people as "CLIENTS" far too early in the business development process. If I am working to earn your business, then you are a PROSPECT. When you cut me a check; then you are a CLIENT.
2) Pain is unpleasant, so I stay away from it.
3) When I focus my conversation with a prospect solely on what they NEED, I miss a large part of the picture. People may NEED something, and not necessarily want it. Doscivering needs assumes that they have already decided to buy from you.
There are powerful alternatives. How do I know? well, I wrote a book about it, but that is not why I am posting today.
When you want to engage someone, get inside their head! Ask them something no one else is asking them, and you will get answers no one else is getting!
"What do you want to be able to say about your business a year from now?" and: "How can what we offer help you achieve that?"
These questions only work if they are separated by a very long period of time in which you listen to what the prospect says. People love to talk about themselves, and their business, and the ones whom they perceive as actually interested in their business, as opposed to the next legal fee, are the ones that can confidently abandon the "find their pain" approach.

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