MacKay: To succeed, identify the problem and then solve it

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.

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 Connecticut homemaker 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 took place in the 1930s, when ingredient lists weren't on packages and fresh produce was only seasonally available.

She experimented with baking stone-ground whole-wheat bread. Her first attempts were utter failures. 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 1 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 who tasted it. And the best part? Her son's health improved so dramatically that the doctor began prescribing the bread for other patients.

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

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

Let's switch gears. My friend Brian Tracy, the author and sales guru, tells this story 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. However, the dealership's sales manager pointed out that when the new models came 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.

Joe Markham's 3-year-old German shepherd, Fritz, loved to chew rocks. His teeth were ground down to one-third their normal size from his habit, which was also threatening his health. Then one day Joe discovered Fritz chewing on a rubber-knobbed part from a car.

Fritz had solved his own problem, and Joe figured other dogs would also love toys like this. 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.

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

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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