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Solution Selling – alive and well?

Solution Selling – alive and well?

V__82F1This was the topic of Ed’s address to the recent series of Sales Summits around the country.



Most companies says they sell solutions to their customers, but they find it surprisingly difficult to explain the solution provided in recent sales; they often describe products sold instead. It is still harder to get answers about the value of the solution provided – what return in money or some other measureable did the customer enjoy as an outcome of the sale? And yet this is the very definition of a solution “A mutually agreed answer to a recognised problem, which provides a measurable improvement”. You might want to reflect on this and ask yourself – do we really sell solutions?

The formal methodology of Solution Selling goes way back to the 1980’s when a visionary ex Xerox sales training director Mike Bosworth launched a company to train salespeople in his methodology. He published a book in 1993 outlining his ideas, which revolutionised the basis of selling, converting technique and technology based feature / benefit selling to and more consultative customer and solution orientated approach. Arguably this was the foundation of all modern customer centric selling.

Type of sales

I have always applied solution selling to the type of sales which require a big decision; typically capital purchases which must be approved at senior level, and especially those where the solution is complex and can produce a large and visible return. IT systems, heavy machinery, energy saving systems, workforce education and sales training are some examples. The method could be applied to almost any kind of sale but it can become disproportionately bureaucratic at some levels.

The principles I have applied and recommend are:

  • No pain, no sale. If the customer does not have a problem, or an unexploited opportunity, or one of these cannot be created by some new information or technology, then you are wasting your time;
  • Diagnose before prescribing – if you are doing this generally you will be presenting your product and proposal relatively late in the sale;
  • Be a trusted advisor – you cannot do this stuff as a hard selling old-style salesperson;
  • There must be a measurable outcome as a result of the sale;
  • Pain will flow throughout the organisation, but it will be different at different levels;
  • You cannot sell to people who cannot buy. In other words the sales argument must be made to those who can commit the budget, even if it is made indirectly (e.g. by proposal document);
  • There must be a compelling event – in other words something must be driving the prospect towards making a decision;
  • The sale should be conducted as a business process, which each step completed before moving to the next level;
  • You and the prospect should agree a plan and timeframe for the investigation and decision.

The advantages of using these principles include a more predictable sales cycle and therefore more accurate forecasting, prospects all seeing a uniform professional approach and the sales strike rate increasing. The major gain from using these concepts is the value of references from existing users. Think how easy it would be to make a sale if you can point to the measurable returns gained by previous customers. Against these advantages some salespeople feel the system restricts their ability to react quickly and many sales managers seized on the business process aspect to micro manage salespeople. In bad cases the whole solution selling concept has been warped to become an internally focussed process to manage salespeople and manipulate prospects – the whole concept of solution forgotten. This is not smart.

 Updating the concept

The original concept of solution selling does need some updating. When the system was developed by Bosworth, salespeople were the experts, they could provide information which prospects had no other access to. Clearly the situation of expert salesperson / ignorant buyer is no longer a reality. The information explosion has meant that buyers may now be even better informed than salespeople. As Adamson, Dixon and Toman noted in Harvard Business Review July 2012 “The hardest thing about B2B selling today is that customers don’t need you the way they used to”.

A significant change this has brought about is that 80% of the time buyers now find the seller, not the other way around. The buyer has done research and has developed some views before even making contact with the vendor. This means the selling company has to operate at a different level of professionalism, or they risk becoming used primarily as a source of third quotes. A great way to plan and implement how to do this is to use solution selling on your own sales process. Start by identifying and admitting the pain chain, then prescribe solutions with measureable outcomes and operate this activity as a process – nice and simple!

For instance your pain chain may reveal that buyers find you with preconceived ideas which are not always correct, that they know their options very well and they are usually just price shopping when the get to you. To counter this you may prescribe: a requirement for your company to develop true Unique selling Propositions (USP’s); ensure that your knowledge of the competitors and the market was better than that of the buyers; be able to challenge wrong information held by the buyers; be able to present evidence of the success of your products in customers, and be able to show a tangible and believable Return On Investment (ROI) if the buyer uses your products.

Change needed

To do this both the organisation and the salespeople will need to change and develop. The sales force needs to understand and buy into the solution selling process with relevant training if necessary. They must have domain knowledge of the businesses they are trying to sell to. It makes no sense to send salespeople into manufacturers or auditors without knowing the key issues and terminology in that type of business. Salespeople must have a broad understanding of the knowledge their prospects have about what is available in the market, and be able to refute incorrect knowledge.

The company has to have extensive competitive information and the tools to prove ROI to a prospective customer, including case studies with metrics of existing customers who will give references. Product quality, health and safety and good technology are absolute musts and excellent customer service is another non-negotiable.

Resist the temptation to add a whole lot of extra controls to the sales process. I recently had sight of a sales process which professed to be solution selling, but which mentioned internal records times and had not one step where the customers’ pains were investigated. Don’t follow that example. This method is all about identifying and implementing real solutions to address real pains to the benefit of both the buyer and the vendor. Keep the focus there.

©copyright  Ed Hatton. All rights reserved. You may republish this article or extracts from it provided you state I am the author, acknowledge my copyright and provide a link to my blog or my e-mail address.

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