Why “Solution-Selling” (Problem-Solving) Is the WRONG Conversation to Have with CXO Buyers


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“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.

No Shortcuts

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.


  1. Do you agree?
  2. How can you differentiate yourself from the herd?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Dean
As co-founder of FASTpartners LLC, Jack brings extensive technology buying experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B technology sales training industry.He has facilitated client-sponsored business acumen training for 15,000 B2B technology sellers representing 150 global technology companies.Participants in Jack’s business acumen training have produced directly-attributed revenue of over $1 billion (in the 3 months after training) and training engagement ROIs averaging 500%.


  1. Hi Jack, you bring some interesting points to the table. Still, let me challenge your argument. What you are naming ‘generic solution selling’ is in my eyes actually just old style product sales, just in a skinny disguise (giving it another name). What happens in the process is ultimately that the salesrep tries to identify how his product could ever match the needs of his prospect. This totally is an inside out approach, as you rightfully say.

    Whereas the ‘stepping up’ that you describe bases upon a real described challenge that then also offers a quantifiable (estimated) benefit. So here we have a solution. I, btw, prefer the term of consultative selling 🙂

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Hi Jack: you offer some excellent advice, including, “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond. Stay alert and maintain high-levels of personal curiosity.” Even experienced sales professionals would do well to pause and review these ideals before walking into a sales meeting, or engaging in a conversation.

    But I wonder what would happen to selling outcomes if a rep applied the recommendation, “stop following your agenda and start following the customer’s agenda” to the letter. For salespeople, does this mean, in essence, to leave your backbone at the door? What if the customer’s agenda is to keep their purchase prices low? What if the buyer point-of-contact is on a “fishing expedition,” and there’s not a snowball’s chance of a purchase – as often happens? The recommendation to ‘follow the customer’s agenda’ assumes benign intent on the part of the buyer. It also assumes that there is a potential upside to the salesperson for engaging.

    In my experience, individuals who are selfless and completely altruistic are generally not successful at selling. Within sales organizations, they become known as “doormats,” a dishonor given to those who demonstrate a consistent inability to stand up for themselves.

    As a buyer, I am not put off by, dissuaded, or upset with salespeople who share their agenda, purpose, mission, or what creates a winning result for them. I expect that they should have an agenda, assuming that they are honest in representing the employer who is paying them salary and commission. To me, a salesperson who says, “I’m just here to help,” doesn’t seem sincere, and doesn’t respect his own time. If that’s the case, why should I?

    For salespeople, having an agenda should not be construed as negative. It’s all in how the message is delivered. At the outset of client conversations, I encourage salespeople to say, “If your challenge can be solved with what my company’s product or service provides, of course, I will recommend that. If not, my promise is to recommend what will best fit your need – even if that means a competitor” – or similar.

  3. Jack – I really enjoyed this. Always good to challenge long-standing paradigms.

    Certainly, from my experience, the Trusted Advisor approach is far more effective when dealing with C-Suite individuals. Most are already confident as to where they are, where they want to get to, and why the journey is important. What they are looking for is the most effective way to traverse the gap.

    I agree that questions like “If I could help you grow sales, decrease costs, and increase cash flow, would you be interested?” are counterproductive at this level. They would certainly annoy pretty much all of the CEO’s I know. Better to ask the magic wand question: “If you could wave a magic wand, what would change?”, followed by a few Why questions.

    Salespeople need to do their homework – a lot of it. Their value won’t come from identifying pain and solutions, but by demonstrating they are genuinely interested in the greater success of the prospective client.

  4. Thomas, thank you for your comments. Fair enough, you would equate “old style product sales” with “generic solution selling”. Its a difference of definitions and perspectives (buy-side vs sell-side).

    Simplistically, as a CXO buyer, I would characterize solution selling conversations as an EVOLUTION of the old product pitch (speeds/feeds), with the front-end of the prescribed customer conversation dedicated to pain-probing questions, the middle to vision reengineering, and the final part linking the acknowledged need to the product attributes. Definitely an improvement but completely dependent on the cooperation of the customer (i.e. flapping lips:).

    In some respects ‘consultative selling’ continued the evolution of solution selling into the 90’s/00s. BTW, I use the term “Business Advisor” to imply an evolution beyond consultative selling.

  5. Andrew, I must have hit a hot button, but at least I love your passion!

    I think you may have selected one sentence (“Stop following your agenda and start following the customer’s agenda”) and extrapolated a bit too much out of context.

    The “stop following …” sentence you quote was preceded/modified by the sentence “Focus on one theme: impacting the customer’s BUSINESS PRIORITIES and outcomes, not solving problems with your solution.”

    So I am suggesting that sales reps REFRAME the standard problem-solving planned agenda for a CXO-level audience by REFOCUSING on the broader more strategic theme of trying to demonstrate a measureable impact on the CXO Buyer’s specific key business initiatives and KPI metrics.

    So for the record, I am not saying, as you imply from one sentence out of context, that having a planned agenda for a CXO-level customer conversation is a “negative” or that a sales rep should “leave your backbone at the door” or “assume a benign intent on the part of the buyer” or be “selfish and completely altruistic” or strive to become “doormat” and not “stand up for themselves”.

    I was also not suggesting, as you imply, that a sales rep say “I’m just here to help” or that I was “put off by, dissuaded, or upset with salespeople who shared their agenda …” with me.

    That’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?

  6. Thanks Shaun. I’m sorry to say but I would put the “If I could wave a magic wand …” question right up there in the same Sales 101 category of canned (read no preparation time required) questions, alongside “If budget were not a constraint …” and “What keeps you up at night?”

    BTW, in my younger brash years I would chuckle and then answer the “wand” question by saying “I would wave it to make you go away”. It was always interesting watching the reaction on the other side of the desk:)

  7. Yeah – fair enough Jack. I was trying to be cute. And I think I was assuming a CEO had called me, as opposed to vice-versa, in which case my goal was to have him (her) articulate the outcome he was looking for.


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