Let me repeat a basic principle in the sales and marketing world:  People don’t usually buy products and services.  They buy solutions to problems.

And adhering to that principle determines who succeeds at sales.

Successful salespeople and marketers learn that fundamental lesson early on.  They tailor their products and services to meet a demand that is not necessarily immediately evident, but nonetheless very real.  They identify problems in terms of solutions.

Solutions come from a variety of sources.  One of my favorite examples eventually led to the creation of the iconic Goldfish crackers.  You have Margaret Rudkin to thank for this tasty treat.

Margaret was a 40-year-old homemaker in rural Connecticut whose son had severe allergies and asthma.  He had to avoid most commercially processed foods and was eventually put on a diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  This is not a modern-day story.  These events took place in the 1930s, when ingredient lists weren’t on packages and fresh produce was only seasonally available.

So Margaret experimented with baking stoneground whole wheat bread.  Her first attempts were utter failures.  In fact, she joked, “My first loaf should have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution as a sample of Stone Age bread, for it was hard as a rock and about one inch high.”

But she didn’t have the luxury of natural foods stores, so she persisted.  She eventually hit on a recipe that her son and his friends loved, as did everyone else who tasted it.  And the best part?  Her son’s health improved so dramatically that the doctor began prescribing the bread for other patients.

So Margaret approached a local grocer about selling her bread.  He thought it would be too expensive – 25 cents a loaf compared to the 10 cents a loaf at that time for commercially processed white bread.  But rather than arguing or negotiating, she asked the grocer to taste it.  He was sold.  He bought all she had.  And that’s how Margaret Rudkin started Pepperidge Farm.

The story continued when Margaret’s husband took the bread to work with him in New York.  Then the word really began to spread.  She baked her 500,000th loaf of Pepperidge Farm bread in 1939, still working in her home kitchen.  She added her line of cookies, and later marketed the famous Goldfish crackers.

Her company achieved an annual revenue growth rate of 43 percent, and eventually exceeded $1 billion in sales.  She didn’t set out to establish a baking empire.  She just wanted to improve her son’s health.  I suspect that most people who eat Pepperidge Farm products today don’t choose that brand for specific health issues.  But this frustrated mother identified a problem, and was smart enough to realize that others would appreciate her solution for a variety of reasons.

Let’s switch gears.  My friend Brian Tracy, the author and sales guru, tells this story on himself.  He took his car in for routine maintenance.  But the mechanic found more than $3,000 worth of problems.  At first, Brian rationalized that the repairs would cost less than a new car.  But the dealership’s sales manager pointed out that when the new models come out in a couple months, his car’s value would decline about $2,000.  So the actual cost of keeping and repairing the car would be about $5,000.  He offered to take the car as a down payment on a new car.

Up until then, Brian was satisfied with his paid-off car.  But within a few minutes, he went from no problems, to a big problem, to a solution.

Example #3:  Fritz Markham’s three-year-old German Shepherd loved to chew rocks.  His teeth were ground down to one-third their normal size from his habit, which was also threatening his health.  Fritz, who was a partner in a motorcycle shop, discovered the dog chewing on a rubber-knobbed part from a car he was working on.

He had solved his own problem, and figured other dogs would love toys like this too.  So he embarked on a journey of prototypes, rejections, manufacturing issues and late-night commercials.  His faith in his solution led to the Kong toy, with more than 50 million sold – almost one for every dog in America!

Three very different industries, three completely different solutions.   Everyday products – bread, cars, dog toys – that presented problems.  Or more accurately, opportunities for improvement.  Smart salespeople sell solutions.


Mackay’s Moral:   A problem is just an opportunity waiting for a solution.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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