How to reframe business problems to better serve your customers

Jonathan Richards discusses how you can add value to a sale by changing the way you approach problems.

Sometimes you come across a business problem that seem beyond resolution. It may be how to close a big sale, get a shipment out in time or how to manage an IT problem. The one thing these problems always seem to have in common is that you can’t solve them by thinking straight.

To solve a gnarly issue you often need to reframe the question or even to rethink what the question actually is. There’s a saying attributed to Albert Einstein: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’

It takes effort and practice to master the art of reframing problems but it’s essential in todays businesses. It unlocks a vast array of solutions and with experience it becomes quite natural. So what do I mean by ‘reframing’? It is so tempting to look at a problem with a blinkered viewpoint ‘seen it before, solved it this way’ but in an ever changing world problems are rarely the same. Take a moment to look at a problem from different angles – if it’s a customer issue then it needs to become second nature for you to look at it through the customer’s eye.

An example of this that happens in my own business is when a customer reports a ‘bug’. Maybe the system isn’t behaving in a way that they expected – if we tell them ‘it’s not a bug, so we can’t fix it’ then surely that’s the end of the story. However, putting on the customers hat we might see that they would feel unhappy and regard the company as side stepping responsibility to fix an obvious bug. A simple example of reframing – look at the problem from the customers point of view and the way to explain the situation becomes clear.

Of course it takes practice to look at things from a customers point of view. As business owners we are all ‘experts’ in what we do but our customers rarely have such a deep understanding of our products and services. Sometimes they don’t even understand what they actually need.

Start by really understanding the needs of your customers. I love the 5 ‘why’ model. Ask yourself why the customer buys your stuff – write the answer down. When you’ve got an answer, ask yourself why that answer is true and keep going for another four rounds so you end up with something like:

Customer buys my HR software. (the question).

Why? – She needs to improve the way she manages her employees. (first why)

Why? – She spends too much time on employee admin. (second why)

Why? – It takes so long to manage employee holiday records. (third why)

Why? – The process is so haphazard that she wont delegate to her admin. (fourth why)

Why? – It isn’t clear to employees how they should go about booking holidays. (fifth why, a root cause).

So now I understand that in this particular case the customer needed a way to document and communicate company procedure as well as automate the process of holiday booking. A great piece of learning that means I can add value to the sale.

Reframing problems isn’t difficult but it can be unsettling. With practice it will become second nature but right up until that point you may feel like you are procrastinating. We should be experts in our chosen fields but don’t forget to spend time looking over the hedge.

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards is an experienced non-exec director and CEO at HR software provider Breathe.

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