Solving for the Customer: A Few Techniques

At #Inbound18 this year, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah reiterated a fundamental philosophy behind inbound marketing: solve for the customer. Dharmesh expanded on it a little during his keynote when, speaking for the average customer, “Solve for my success, not your system. Don’t make your system my problem.” This was a common refrain throughout the event as customer service/success was elevated to a key component of the new marketing flywheel. Of course, it’s an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do.

Luckily, one of the keynote speakers had a great methodology for seeking customer-centric solutions. Keenan’s discussion on problem-centric selling was the first breakout I attended and it was a real barnburner. You can watch the video for yourself, but where he positions these tactics as sales techniques, I think they have application in marketing, UX, and probably just life too.

One of my key takeaways from Keenan’s talk is that for as much as we laugh at infomercials, they do something extremely well: they clearly define a problem.


Obviously these are colossal exaggerations, but before they ever try to solve your problem, they define it. Many go one to do the crucial next step in explaining not only the problem but the impact of that problem.


If you watched my video from a previous post on my issue with our content hub, this is exactly the process we didn’t do when creating it. We never sat down and asked:

  • What problem does no central library for our content create for the customer?
  • What is the impact of that problem on the customer?

In the sales and marketing process, Keenan suggests demonstrating you know the root of the problem to gain credibility. In the world of UX and customer experience, oftentimes the root of problem is us: our systems, our processes, our whole dang configuration.

Outside of designing marketing materials or landing pages, I think this is an important methodology for leadership in and out of the workplace. It’s really tempting to encounter an obstacle and immediately look for solutions before ever exploring the contours of the problem and what the actual impact is.

“Dang, I’m forgetful.” / “Oh, just download this note-taking app!”

“Ugh, I need to lose like 20 lbs…” / “My brother did keto, you should try that.”

“This Death Star freaking sucks.” / “Just shoot a torpedo into one of the vents, my dude.”

The big thing that gets lost when you forget to define problems and impacts is that you miss the emotions being experienced by customers, coworkers, and so on. Research tells us that people make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally afterwards. If that’s true, this means designing solutions (be it to customer complaints or family hassles) without understanding the emotions at the core of the problem is a recipe for a solution that won’t take.

If you’re designing, say, an online academy for teaching business skills, it would be important to know if the emotion driving someone to take a class is a feeling of inadequacy so your courses could make them feel empowered instead of stupid. If you have two team members not getting along, it’s crucial to know what emotions are driving the conflict: if it comes from competitiveness, the solution will be much different than if it comes from bullying.

So, the next time you want to make something, fix something, solve something, or design something, think of who you’re targeting and:

  • Define the problem in detail
  • Examine the impact of the problem on the target
  • Dig way down to the emotional core of the impact

I’ve even started annotating emotions and putting emoticons (I’m 35, it’s what I grew up with!) onto design documents and customer journey maps at work to remind me to center the customer’s emotions at all times.


To bring it back to sales, service, and marketing, if your customer journey anticipates every mouse click and path through the site without understanding the emotions driving those clicks, you’re still flying blind.

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