“Solution-Selling” and “Problem-Solving” are a sure-fire way to diminish your perceived value and chance to sustain multiple conversations with prospective executive-level buyers. As a B2B seller, you are not along: it is a common self-inflicted forced error that has been going on now for decades. But that fact should not be comforting to you.
The CXO buyer is the RIGHT person to engage, but Solution-Selling is the WRONG conversation to have. If you intuitively believe this to be true (because you don’t have CXO buyers pounding down your door to talk to you again and again), but you choose nonetheless to proceed anyway with the Solution-Selling mantra (clinically that’s called cognitive dissonance), odds are better than 50% you won’t get a 2nd or 3rd meeting with that CXO buyer.
I can’t ever recall agreeing to a B2B seller’s request for a 2nd meeting when the 1st meeting was primarily focused on searching for my pain and problem solving.
Think for Yourself: Start Questioning the 35-Year Conventional Wisdom of Solution-Selling
Is your company asking you to target larger deals and cross-sell “solutions”? Are you being pushed by sales managers to develop a deeper business relationship with customers? Are you trying to establish yourself as a trusted business advisor with customers, rather than simply a vendor? If so, you’re probably starting to elevate your selling efforts toward the executive-level buyer/influencer.
If you are struggling to engage these executives, you need to think about your sales conversations. Do you catch yourself sometimes asking awkward questions like “What keeps you up at night”? Do you project a negative tone by probing for “pain”, or posing naive questions like “If budget were no obstacle, what would you do differently”? Have you been instructed by your company to use the Solution Selling Vision Processing 9-step Model to craft meaningless sales scripts and sales 101 questions such as “If I could help you grow sales, decrease costs, and increase cash flow, would you be interested?”
If you answered YES to any of these questions, you need to step back, retool your sales strategy, and start changing/reframing your customer conversations.
Solution-Selling is the WRONG Conversation for a Buy-Side Executive
I’m going to be even more direct than I already have up to this point: step it up! When you’re engaging executives, especially if you’re targeting the C-suite, you’ve got to step it up beyond Solution-Selling 101. Way beyond. Firing off a bunch of high-level open-ended questions demonstrates no credibility or customer acumen. Probing for pain (latent or active) and investigating pain chains rarely result in a huge payoff. Traditional Solution-Selling techniques often fail to get you noticed on the radar screen of customer executives. In my past life as a Fortune500 CFO, I rarely cooperated with sales people who tried to steer me through some kind of vision reengineering conversation they learned in a sales training workshop.
How Dare Anyone Criticize Solution-Selling!
I can hear the Solution-Selling disciples shouting, “How dare you criticize solution selling methodologies? This gold standard of modern day selling techniques has been around over 35 years, so it has to work. You just aren’t doing it right.”
First, for the record, I’m not saying Solution-Selling never works. But what I am saying is that it doesn’t work in all situations. If it is used at the executive level, it better not be in its generic form or it is DOA. I actually like the concept of solution selling because it begins the process of shifting a sales professional’s mindset from selling product features to thinking from the customer’s perspective. But, the Solution-Selling mantra of NO PAIN, NO CHANGE is curiously negative and counter to the positive can-do thinking mindset of most buy-side executives. Executives are, by nature, driven to achieve success through performance. They don’t dwell on pain; they don’t strategically plan around pain; they don’t motivate their team by talking about their pain; and they certainly don’t want an uninformed sales person interrogating them about their company’s pain points.
Yes, Solution-Selling, the sales methodology, has been around for over 35 years, long before the internet that leveled the playing field (and balance of power) between buyers and sellers. Perhaps your father or mother sold that way back in the 70s or 80s. So just imagine how many times a typical buy-side executive has encountered a B2B seller who wants to have a scripted dialogue around pain, challenges, problems, and concerns. Ouch. My brain hurts just thinking about the hundreds of times it happened to me. I could repeat it to you today. Consequently, buy-side executives are conditioned to block out generic Solution-Selling style conversations.
Stop Following the Herd of B2B Solution-Sellers
So here’s my advice when engaging buy-side executives: don’t follow the Solution-Selling herd. Break away. March to a different, more sophisticated, drum beat. Shift your mindset and change your customer conversation. Focus on one theme: impacting the customer’s business priorities and outcomes, not solving problems with your solution. Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond. Stay alert and maintain high-levels of personal curiosity. Stop following your agenda and start following the customer’s agenda. Trust me, your executive-level customers will notice the difference in conversation tone and agenda.
Before I explain “customer business priorities and outcomes”, there is one caveat that I need to share with you. Impacting customer business priorities and outcomes will require more work than conducting generic Solution-Selling. It will require gaining deeper business (or organizational) insights of your customer from pre-call due diligence, specifically around the customer’s Key Business Initiatives (KBIs), KPI metrics, and financial performance. You can’t expect your customer executive to do your homework for you or to take the time face-to-face to educate you. You’ve got to educate yourself! In your initial conversations with the executive, you must credibly demonstrate your customer-specific business and financial insight observations in order to have a chance of becoming a trusted business advisor. There are no shortcuts!
The RIGHT Customer Conversation: Helping Accelerate Business Priorities and Outcomes
As a sales professional, you can impact customer business priorities and outcomes by helping buy-side executives put in place the Critical Success Factors necessary to achieve their Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) and KPI metric targets. The first step in this process is doing your research to identify and understand what emerging KBIs and KPIs are on the executive radar screen.
Key Business Initiatives (KBIs)
Start with identifying the business priorities of your customer or prospect. What are the qualitative strategies and initiatives that articulate the future direction of their company? These Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) are funded projects that have high visibility inside the company. Success or failure impacts the reputations of executives. Once you identify the most important KBIs, try to think like an executive and determine what needs to happen to accomplish the initiative. These pre-requisite needs are called Critical Success Factors (CSFs). If you link the attributes of your solution to the CSF’s associated with achieving the KBIs, you will get the attention of the executive decision-maker.
Some examples of KBIs in the financial services industry include PNC’s initiative to reposition deposit gathering strategies to stay “core funded”. SunTrust is driving revenue from retail checking households by improving “front-line execution, innovating new products, and increasing consumer awareness”. And KeyBank is investing in community banking by “modernizing branches and improving technology”, including client experience desktop, Teller21, and service measurement. KeyBank is also focused on expense discipline with a business priority called Keyvolution. This KBI has five distinct elements, including improving speed to market.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
After you’ve identified the Key Business Initiatives and associated Critical Success Factors, it’s important to understand how the company will gauge its progress. What are the performance metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the success of KBI execution? KPIs are quantitative (anything that can be measured) and unique to each customer. Like KBIs, they cannot be generalized because they differ from company to company, even in the same industry.
Examples of KPIs include PNC’s ‘loan-to-deposit ratio’ (with a target of 80-90%). This KPI was selected by PNC as the performance metric to judge the success of its KBI initiative to reposition deposit gathering. SunTrust has chosen ‘growth in retail checking households’ as the KPI for its retail checking business initiative. And KeyBank focuses on the overhead efficiency ratio (calculated as total expenses divided by total revenues) as the KPI to measure the success of its branch modernization and expense KBIs.
Demonstrate Customer Business Acumen and Earn Credibility with Buy-side Executives
By spending a little time doing pre-call research and using your business and financial acumen skills, you and your sales team can differentiate your selling approach. Buy-side executives will appreciate your preparation and relevance. They will actively participate in a conversation if you stay focused on their business priorities and performance metrics. Of course, the burden falls on your shoulders to identify KBIs and KPIs before you engage with the customer executive. Don’t fall back on generic one-size-fits-all assumptions and don’t expect the executive to educate you.
Use your time with the executive to ask informed questions that embed your business acumen and knowledge of their company. These discussions will inevitably lead to your favorite subject … your solutions. When it’s appropriate to bring your capabilities and solution attributes into the conversation, be prepared to articulate the financial value of your solution in the same KBI-CSF-KPI terminology used by your customer.
Change the customer conversation. Be different. Demonstrate your credibility and act like a Business Advisor. I’m confident you will get a favorable reaction from your customers.
- Do you agree?
- How can you differentiate yourself from the herd?