“A ‘5 Why’ for Sales? Why not?”

How asking questions can help your sales team focus future efforts.


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I remember receiving my first “5 Why” Corrective Action request.

“We need you to do a ‘5 Why,’” my customer demanded.

“A 5 What?”

“A ‘5 Why.’”

“I’d be glad to… What’s a ‘5 Why’?”

The “5 Why” process requires a problem solver to answer the question “Why” five times in order to identify the root cause of a problem. Most commonly used in manufacturing, the process goes something like this:

Problem: The finisher shipped a non-conforming part to the customer.

Why 1: The part had a visual defect on it.

Why 2: Foreign material adhered itself to the part prior to powder coating.

Why 3: Ash residue was left at the top of the paint line tooling and fell onto the part.

Why 4: The ash was not properly removed from the tooling following burn-off.

Why 5: The post burn-off process was not adequate to remove the ash.

As the above example demonstrates, the “5 Why” quickly moves the problem solver from identifying symptoms of a problem to identifying the actual cause of the problem. Had the problem solver in this example stopped short of asking “Why ?” five times, he may have focused his efforts on solving the wrong problem, thus wasting his time and running the risk that the problem would recur and again result in non-conforming product being shipped to the customer. Instead, in this example the problem has been traced back to its root cause. By rectifying the root cause, in this case an inadequate wash process after burn-off, the problem can be avoided in the future.

As valuable as the “5 Why” process can be in the identification of a manufacturing problem, I have found that it can be even more valuable as a sales tool. Yes, you read that right—the “5 Why” as a sales tool.

If manufacturing failures warrant effective root cause analysis and corrective action, why not expect the same level of analysis from the sales team? If an order or project is lost to a competitor or a sales project fails to materialize for some other reason, is it not important to determine the root cause and rectify it to increase the likelihood that the result is a more positive one the next time?

Consider a project that has been quoted by a member of the sales team. Come to find out some weeks later that the project was awarded to a competitor. Ask the sales person to complete a “5 Why.” As an example:

Problem: The prospect awarded the project to XYZ Company instead of us.

Why 1: The prospect felt more comfortable with XYZ as a supplier.

Why 2: They didn’t see us as a viable alternative.

Why 3: They were unfamiliar with our stronger quality and better delivery performance.

Why 4: We did not adequately understand the importance of these criteria in the prospect’s decision and thus didn’t accentuate them in the sales process.

Why 5: Our sales person did not adequately understand the prospect’s decision criteria.

A finisher that collects a dozen or so “5 Why’s” for lost orders can use this data to determine where to focus its sales training and marketing development efforts. In the example above, some training on asking the proper questions during the sales process is likely in order.

Care needs to be taken to communicate to the sales team that the “5 Why” should come back to a root cause that is addressable and resolvable by the sales person individually, or by the sales team as a group. Otherwise I could envision a cynical sales person turning in a “5 Why” that looks like this:

Problem: The prospect awarded the project to XYZ Company instead of us.

Why 1: The competitor’s price was lower.

Why 2: We quoted the project too high.

Why 3: Management set the pricing too high.

Why 4: Management is totally out of touch with the market.

Why 5: The board of directors hired stupid managers.

This “5 Why” doesn’t exactly get to a root cause that can be solved by the sales team. A little training will help the sales team to understand the value of a “5 Why” and will encourage them to complete it properly.

If the “5 Why” can be an effective tool for finding the root cause of a manufacturing problem, why not use it with the sales team as well? Determine the reason that orders are lost, fix the root cause, do it right the next time and increase sales.