Problem-selling vs. product-selling

Posted in — Lessons Learned > Sales
September 23, 2017
(Photo by Stefan Schaefli/iDE)

Shift the focus from selling equipment based on its features to selling solutions for a buyer’s problem.

The decision by a smallholder farmer to buy micro-irrigation technology depends on not only if they have the cash available, but they also have to factor in their experience, beliefs, current outlook, market opportunities, country situation, business opportunities, and understanding of the equipment. The latter is particularly challenging because investing in micro-irrigation for smallholder farmers requires them to change behavior—modifying the very nature of the way they water their crops, which they, and their ancestors, may have practiced for centuries.

Traditional sales techniques promote the features and benefits of a product. Specification sheets tout numbers that detail how much water a pump can lift at different groundwater depths, the size of a field that can be covered by the drip irrigation kit, and what size filters are needed for suspended solids in water.

Salespeople often focus on the details of a technology, which often leads to confusing the buyer: so many options, where does one start?

Over the last decade, iDE and its sales partner, Whitten & Roy Partnership (WRP), have developed a new sales methodology that shifts the focus from selling equipment based on its features to selling solutions for a buyer’s problem. This mirrors a long-standing iDE approach that begins by listening to the farmers, because that’s where you learn about their problems.

Ariel Jose Alonso's robust farm production in Nicaragua is fed by micro-irrigation. Trained by iDEal technicians, Ariel is is now able to install the irrigation himself. (Photo by Rachel Rose/iDE)

The Nicaragua Example

Initially, iDEal Tecnologías in Nicaragua focused on its own employees to conduct sales. Trying to sell through traditional retail channels such as stores just didn’t work. Once a cadre of farmers with sufficient long-term experience using iDEal technologies had been established, however, iDEal encouraged some of them to become “retailers” and promote drip irrigation in their communities. Starting in 2014, WRP provided training on this problem-led sales approach with these independent retailers and iDEal regional coordinators. By actively pursuing prospects and customers in rural areas who don’t have transportation and by demonstrating the product to them, these retailers could generate more sales than what the small group of iDEal employees could do. Retailers learned to use presentation materials that focused on common problems—low and inconsistent rainfall, groundwater limitations—and how to engage potential buyers into a discussion that focuses on the costs involved (i.e., labor, time) with traditional watering methods by using a calculation sheet that incorporates details from the farmer’s own business.

To find the right person to be a retailer is key. iDEal retailers are farmers themselves, who have used iDEal technologies for a long time and are leaders in their communities. Training store owners to be iDEal retailers simply didn’t work, because marketing to farmers in Nicaragua is accomplished by word of mouth, one farmer telling another about something that was a success. Farmers only trust in other farmers, so by recruiting farmers to lead the marketing, iDEal’s strategy enables them to gain their trust very fast.

Of course, this strategy would fail if the technology couldn’t live up to its word-of-mouth reputation. One retailer in Nicaragua reported that the graphics in the presentation materials helped spark the discussion and capture the buyers’ attention, but it was the calculations sheets that he would assist the buyer in completing that really brought them to a decision. In his area they have access to the lake as a water source but to pull water from there is quite costly, particularly the cost of labor to manually move it. By focusing on the operational cost savings—reducing costs for labor, fuel, etc.—and how these translate into lifetime cost savings, he is able to help them understand the value of the investment.


To be successful, you need to build a framework for selling that focuses on the problem and takes a customer through the steps they need to go through in order to know if purchasing a drip system is right for them. This process first helps the customer discover and think deeply about the impact of not having water, then helps them calculate the cost of leaving the problem unsolved, then points them to a solution—the iDE drip system—that solves the problem, and finally ends with a look at the value of that solution. This builds a logical and emotional case, compelling people to make an intelligent decision to purchase a drip irrigation system or not.

Tagged — Nicaragua
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