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#SalesQuestions - When did you notice this was a problem?

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
14 min read

We mostly think of buying as an isolated act, something our customers do in the moment. But it’s probably more useful to think of buying as a behavior. A behavior is an action or reaction which is triggered and conditioned.

Today we’ll be diving into the episode #3 of 6 of Modern Sales’ series on #SalesQuestions, I’ll be covering the one question you can ask that can help you find out what’s motivating your clients to buy.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • What is Buying Triggers
  • Common buying triggers
  • Importance of buying triggers

Like it or not, in the course of our daily lives we are exposed to and consume so much information and content that buying something or acquiring something including experiences, goods, food or resources is always on our mind. However, certain trigger events cause us to move from a passive buying cycle into an active one.

Knowing where your prospects are in the B2B buying process helps improve communication with your prospects and increases the chance of turning prospects into customers. Buying triggers vary widely and are linked to your solution area.  A security breach is a buying trigger for some. For others, a security breach of their competitors is the trigger. Build a list of the events or situations that trigger customers to buy your products or services. Then expand that list with ideas for how you can determine if the trigger is going to occur (or is likely to occur).

Knowing and understanding buying triggers is one of the most important aspects of the creation of buyer personas and the start of understanding the buyer’s journey. Educating your buyers and helping guide them through the process via relevant and timely content, all begins at that all too important trigger event.

Mentioned In This Episode:

Discovering the pain
#SalesQuestions – What’s going on?
#SalesQuestions – How long has this been happening?

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.

#SalesQuestions – When did you notice this was a problem?:

Full Transcript

All I could think was something’s not right. I was parking my car and it shifted. Actually, it felt more like the car dropped, so I get out of the driver’s seat and I go around to the passenger side to see what happened. No, the earth below hadn’t opened or collapsed and no, I didn’t fall partway into a wormhole to another universe. It was something else. What was it you want to know? Well, let’s just say that you know a car is not drivable when the front wheel completely detaches and falls right off the frame. That’s exactly what happened to my last car. Luckily it happened in a parking lot and it was quite disconcerting. That car was about 12 years old at the time. I hadn’t considered replacing it until one of the wheels snapped off. I mean, imagine if that had happened while I was driving on the freeway. I could be dead, easily.

Suddenly I was now in the market for a new car. Events like this are called buying triggers and their surefire signs of a motivated buyer. No matter what you’re selling, no matter how complicated it is, no matter how complex it is, no matter how expensive it is, there are events that happen that cause your buyers to stop what they’re doing and suddenly take stock of a big problem they’re facing.

In today’s episode of the Modern Sales series on sales questions, I’ll be covering the one question you can ask that can help you find out what’s motivating your clients to buy and just how motivated they are.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and sales people looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships.

I’m your host Liston Witherill and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

This is the #salesquestions series on Modern Sales where we’re taking a deep dive into the critical questions that you should be asking in every single sale. Just as a point of reference, this question and the others in the series should all be asked early in the sale when you’re uncovering your client’s pain. If you don’t know what I mean by pain, go back and listen to my episode on discovering the pain.

Each of the episodes will have the #salesquestions at the beginning of the title to help you find them quickly. This is episode number three of six and if you’d like to start from the beginning, just scroll back in your feed.

Before we dig into today’s question. This episode is brought to you by Serve Don’t Sell, my sales training and consulting business. If you’d like to help your team dig deeper, sell business outcomes, and get rid of costly lost deals and sales presentations that fall absolutely flat. I can help you with remote onsite training options. Just head over to to learn more about how it works.

Now, one of the key problems in any sale is understanding our client’s motivation and the strength of it. We may not know if now’s the right time to prioritize a specific client or if now’s the right time for them to buy. If now isn’t the right time, we may also know how long it may take to nurture this person into making a buying decision, and by buying decision, as usual, I mean saying yes or saying no to working with us. It doesn’t matter, we just want them to make a decision.

Related to these issues is we may also not know who else is involved in the decision and therefore the overall motivation for buying can be completely unclear. And the reason we don’t know any of that stuff is because we don’t have the right information to proceed in a sale. And that’s why this question is so important to ask and that question is, “When did you first notice this was a problem?” The goal of the question is to discover what elevated the pain to the consciousness of your buyer. We want to know from them who noticed it was a problem and why did they notice it was a problem and when was that? We want to understand which events have the most dramatic impact on our clients perception of their own situation.

Going back to the car example, after the wheel of my car fell off, I started looking for new cars. In B2B terms, in business to business terms, I was looking for solutions to my pain. And so what I did was I started building a list of all of the things that I might want in a new car compared that to my budget, looked at the cars that were left and I narrowed the search to just three cars.

I suddenly became way more attuned to seeing those three cars everywhere. When I was on the road, that’s what I saw, when I drove by dealerships that’s what I saw, when I was walking up and down the street and I saw parked cars, those were the cars that I saw.

Now, if you’ve ever bought a new car and suddenly see that car all over the road, you experience something called the frequency bias. It’s also known as the frequency illusion and it basically says that our brains become attached to or more attuned to certain things and then we get the impression that those things occur more often than they actually do. Now, what does this have to do with your client? Well, if there was a massive trigger event that has caused them to start seeing their problem everywhere, we know for a fact that they’re going to be much more motivated to buy.

If your client can talk in depth about when they first noticed the problem, they’re much more likely to be experiencing the frequency bias and they are much more likely to act because this pain will be taking up more of their mental space. It’s going to dominate their consciousness and they’ll have much more motivation to do something about it. And when you ask the question, “When did you first notice this was a problem?” Yes, that’s the question. When you ask that question, you’re going to bring them back mentally to that place of pain and help them envision all of the nasty things that they were experiencing. This is what we want to do. We want to take them back to that moment so they can make an assessment. Is this something that’s painful enough to do something about?

Now when you ask the question, there are quite a few different answers that you may hear. The first one of course is, “I’m not sure.” Now if you hear that, you’re probably not talking to the right person or they’re just not feeling the pain enough, maybe both. Maybe you’re talking to someone whose boss is actually feeling the pain and so you want to go and talk to the boss. Another potential answer you might hear when you ask the question is, the person feels unsure. They may say something like, “Huh, that’s a good question.” And if they say that, now it’s going to be your job to take them back. And so I would just say something like, “Hey, let’s take a step back for a second. Let’s review how you got to this point.” And rather than trying to start in the past, you may walk your client backwards from where they are now to how they got there. So we’re just going to keep taking a step backwards and backwards. And that it will be part of your job in this process.

Now. The last answer, which is the best, is they may know exactly when they first noticed it was a problem. Now, a buying trigger is some sort of change that has happened, and internal or external event that has raised the level of awareness and consciousness of the problem. We not only want to know that trigger event, that moment in time when they first noticed this is something that they have to do something about, but we also want to know how they were feeling before that. Because no doubt there were signs that something should have been done about the pain they’re experiencing prior to that moment. For me, I knew the car that I was driving got poor gas mileage, it wasn’t very safe, it was slightly inconvenient for various reasons. There were other things going on, but when that wheel popped off, I was ready for change.

Now, let’s look at a totally different example. Comcast is an American cable television and internet provider and they were voted the most hated company in America a few years back. Definitely not a title that any company wants to win. Eventually, they rebranded their name to Xfinity, which is how they’re known to consumers now. And I’m pretty sure that they noticed customer reviews looked like a dumpster fire before they receive that honorary most hated title that so many companies are competing for. But it was the most hated title that caused them to rebrand. It was the most hated title that caused them to do something about all of the negative feedback they were getting. Now, I don’t work at Comcast or Xfinity, I don’t know what was going on internally. What I can tell you is as a customer of theirs, I did notice a difference before and after it became a global news story that they were the most hated company in America.

Their customer service changed, their branding change, there were differences. It seemed to be that they were behaving differently afterwards. And so when they were voted most hated, that was probably the time they said, “Holy crap, we have to do something about this.” It had been building for a long time, but it didn’t reach a threshold for them to take action until they were voted most hated. They didn’t make a concerted effort until that happened.

And that’s why we’re looking for buying triggers. When we’re talking to our clients, we know that if there is some internal or external event, typically a change of some sort, they’re going to be much more likely to take action and that’s when we want to be talking to them. We also know that they’re going to be more motivated in those times. So you may be wondering what are some other buying triggers, and I’m going to cover these more in depth in later episodes, but one is just simply timing.

So where are we in the calendar year? This matters especially to larger companies. If you’re dealing with public companies, then they have end of year, end of month, end of quarter. They have beginning of year. Different times will cause them to do different things. A lot of people who know about cars know that the best time to buy a car, if you’re buying a new one off of a lot, or actually any car off of a lot, the best time to buy a car as at the end of the month because of the way the accounting is done and the sales team is scored and the way the commissions work. So you should always buy your car at the end of the month. That’s good, right? So they’re going to be more likely to sell in those times. In other words, when that trigger exists, their behavior is likely to change.

Another common buying trigger is a job change. Typically, someone got a new job within the last, say 90 days. Three to six months seems to be about the time when people in a new role are looking for new ideas, new vendors, new ways of doing things. Another one is a corporate initiative. Someone’s boss or someone’s boss’s boss has some idea that they want to implement and now people are searching for ways to implement it, so that corporate initiative is really important. Another one is a change in budget. Maybe someone got more budget and so they need vendors and ways of spending that budget. Maybe someone got less budget and so they need to look for ways to cut their budget and look for more inexpensive ways of doing the same things. Maybe there’s a budget refresh or their budget is starting over for the year and so they’re looking for different vendors or opportunities.

Another one is a change in technology or tools. So if a company changes its infrastructure in any way, it’s likely going to trigger them to reevaluate other parts of their infrastructure. Or maybe a new tool requires them to replace some other tool that they were using in the past. And then of course there’s the disaster, which is what I was talking about with Comcast. They had what I would call a clear PR crisis. It was an external event, they were voted most hated company, then it got picked up by the press for whatever reason, who knows exactly why that happened. And soon enough, Comcast was trying to convince everybody that they weren’t terrible. And one of the ways that they went about it was to rebrand. I don’t know if they did that internally or if they ended up hiring an agency, but if I were being interviewed by Comcast at that point, I would definitely be talking a lot about their disasters.

Sometimes that disaster is internal and people in the outside world are just not aware of it. And that’s fine too. That can still be a strong buying trigger. So imagine if you are an IT provider and an IT company screwed up royally and a company lost all of their data for a few days. If you’re one of the vendors that they’re talking to after that, you know that this company has a deep motivation to make a change. So all of these buying triggers are things that you can be aware of and could be something that you may hear when you ask your client, “When did you first notice this was a problem?”

What I would recommend that you do along with if you’re a sales manager, talk to your team about it. Or if you’re on a team, talk to your manager or other team members about it, ask around and figure out what is causing clients to come to you and who are the most motivated clients? What was going on with them? What buying triggers did they experience that elevated their pain to a level of action that caused them to buy? We want to know what that is because as we figure that out, you may start to notice, “Hey, I know people are more likely to buy from me in times like this.” So that is one of the potential answers you may hear and that’s what I want you to look for.

Now, you may be wondering when will you know if you’ve heard enough? So you asked the question, “When did you first notice this was a problem?” And you hear the answer and you need to know when does that answer become satisfactory? And the short answer is when your client clearly articulates what caused them to stop and take notice of their pain. That’s what we want to do.

Now, in addition to that, we also want them to trace back the signs that they were able to see before that trigger event happened before that really awful painful spotlight was shown in on their problem. We want to know what else was going on too. And after we know those two things, as always, active listening, you’re going to confirm with them your understanding of what they said and then the two of you should reach an agreement and only then have you heard enough.

In order to take action on this question, make it yours. The way I ask it is by saying, “When did you notice this was a problem?” You can ask it any way you want and certainly any way that sounds like it’s coming from you because that’s important, but also any way that’s comfortable. Now, I know that this can be very direct, but the point here is if we’re going to help our clients, we do need the right information and we need good information, and so if there’s any pushback on this, it’s okay to explain to them why we’re asking. That may be helpful in trust building. That will certainly show your client what your intentions are. So do explain to your clients if there’s any resistance to this question, why you’re asking.

Now, if they have a hard time answering it, you could say, “Okay, let’s take a step back”, which is what I suggested earlier, but you can also go with something that’s way more conversational like this. “Okay, I know you don’t know exactly when this started, so let’s get in a time machine together and go back in time.”

All right. What happens when you say that is your client imagines a time machine from whatever movie they first saw a time machine in, which is kind of a hilarious thought, and also take some of the pressure off of the sales situation, but it also mentally takes your client out of the present moment and out of the near term, which is what we want, and so we want them to access a part of their brains that’s storing these memories and start to jog it.

Now, when you ask the question, “When did you notice this was a problem?” I do recommend a few followup questions as well that have some more detail. So one could be, “Was there any indication of a problem prior to that?” Another one can be, “When that trigger event happened, what was the nature of the internal discussions about it?” In other words, I want to know how did people react to it? Did everybody agree that this was a problem right away or did it take some time to build up to a level of priority and finally they’re taking action on it?

Now, I’d also want to know who got involved immediately, who got involved later. Why was that? Where were they initially if they didn’t get involved til much later? And I of course want to know if I’m not talking to C level people, I want to know what did your company leadership say about this? What was their reaction? How did they feel? What’s their opinion of how burning this is?

So those are the actions I think you should definitely take on making this question yours. Try it in your next sales conversation. I guarantee it’s going to shed some light on your sales and on your clients and how to proceed.

That’s it for episode number three in the #salesquestions series. In next week’s episode, I’ll be covering a question that’ll tell you just how badly your client needs an outside solution and whether your it, as we continue in the sales questions series.

If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the subscribe button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes with some behind the scenes info as well as other exclusive sales content I put out by signing up for the newsletter at It’s totally free and it’s linked in the show notes.

And finally, if you’re looking for help training your team to sell more of your big, hairy, complicated products and services to big companies, I can help with remote and onsite training options. Just head over to, click the contact button and you can fill out a quick form to begin the conversation.

Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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