“The End Of Solutions Sales”


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In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, the folks at the Conference Board have declared “The End Of Solutions Sales.” Upon reading this, I immediately thought of Mark Twain’s quote, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.” While, I suppose, it stirs up the pot to declare the end of Solutions Selling and may sell more workshops or consulting services, in the end I think it is wordsmithing and positioning. Instead of this, we should be driving greater clarity in how sales people can create great value for their customers. That’s by helping them identify and solve problems.

Yes, I said provide customers solutions to their problems. The Challenger Conference Board folks say this is the outdated idea. Frankly, they create an artificial definition of Solution Selling, saying Solution Selling starts with a customer who has identified a problem they want to solve. The sales person then identifies the customer needs, then proposes a solution to those needs.

They say this is too late. By the time the customer has reached this point, they probably have already determined their own needs and determined solutions to those needs. They do this through leveraging resources on the web, displacing the traditional solution sales person’s role, leaving them as RFP fodder.

Well, I’m not sure where they came up with that definition of solution selling. I’ve participated in dozens of solutions selling programs over my career, offered by many companies. In addition, our company has trained over 100K sales people in solutions/consultative/customer focused selling approaches. I’ve never seen the definition of solution selling being limited to starting with a customer who has identified they have a problem, discover their needs, solve the problem.

That certainly is a part of solution selling (and undoubtedly a part of Challenger selling), it does not define solution selling. Anyone who has read extensively in solution selling or taken a quality training program realizes that a major aspect of the Solution Selling approach is to help customers see new possibilities for growing their businesses. Every program I have participated in, designed, or taught includes the idea that the customer may not know they have a problem or an opportunity and the role of the sales person is to help them recognize this and decide to take action. Great solution sales people have always come to the customer with ideas, has identified problems and opportunities the customer has previously been unaware of, has shown them new ways of doing things.

As the Solution Sales person progresses from helping the customer recognize problems and opportunities and gains their commitment to do something about them, the Solutions Sales person, helps the customer define what they want to achieve, identify their needs–many of which they may be unaware of, and present solutions to those problems or ways to capitalize on opportunities (sounds a lot like a solution).

At least that’s what I was taught when I went through my first solutions selling class in the late 70?s (it wasn’t called solution selling, but it was IBM’s version at the time). I think that’s what I was doing when I sold my first $20M computer system to a credit card processor in the late 70?s. I had discovered a productivity problem they were unaware of in processing credit card approvals by phone. It was costing them millions in lost productivity–but they were unaware of it until I showed them the data on the impact. Once they saw what I presented, they immediately asked, “What do we do about it, how do we solve that problem?” You know the rest of the story.

I can recount hundreds of similar stories from my peers at the time, from teams I have managed through my career, and from clients I have worked with in the past 20 years.

Solution Selling IS about helping the customer identify new opportunities, making the customer aware of problems they were previously unaware of, helping them define the problem, what they wanted to do, what their needs are, and how we can help them solve the problem or address their needs. The effective Solution Sales person guides the customer through recognizing a problem or opportunity and the rest of their buying process.

Challenger Selling is, by definition, a form of Solution Selling. Reading the book, the authors focus on the Teaching Pitch (my God, I thought the days of the sales person “pitching” were dead—I guess that’s untrue, as well). They then go on to talk about the sale of “pre-built” solutions or as one of their customers calls them, “Happy Meals.” In fact, once you have gotten agreement from the customer about taking action on something you may taught them, we still have to discover the customer needs and priorities, then shape a value based solution.

I think if it looks like Solution Selling, smells like Solution Selling, sounds like Solution Selling, then it must be Solution Selling.

I like Solutions/Consultative/Customer Focused Selling! It provides a very broad context for intercepting the customer at different points in their buying journey. It provides a framework for helping customer recognize problems and move forward. It also enables you to intercept a customer who has already identified a problem and may need help to identify and prioritize needs, despite the research they have done on the web—or in spite of the research they have done on the web. Not all customers need to be Challenged, some just have problems they need to solve and they need help in doing so. It would be foolish to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t want to address that, but we want to talk to you about the problems you haven’t even discovered yet.” There are many places Solutions Sales people can intercept their customers and create value. We need to leverage all these opportunities.

Solution Selling Is Dead, Long Live Solution Selling!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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