Why Executives Don’t Respond To Solution Selling


Share on LinkedIn

Is your company asking you to target larger deals and cross-sell solutions? Are you being asked to develop a more meaningful relationship with customers? Are you trying to establish yourself as a business partner rather than a vendor? If so, you’re probably redirecting your selling efforts toward customer executives.

If you are struggling to engage these executives, you need to think about your sales approach. Are you asking awkward questions like “What keeps you up at night”? Do you portray a negative tone by probing for pain and posing irrelevant questions like “If you had to do it all over again …”? Have you used the solution selling vision processing model to produce meaningless chatter like “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 and retool your sales strategy.

I’m going to be blunt, so get ready! AMP IT UP! When you’re selling to executives, especially if you’re targeting the C-suite, you’ve got to move beyond ‘solution selling 101’. Way beyond. Firing off a bunch of high-level, open-ended questions demonstrates no credibility. Probing for pain (latent or active) and investigating pain chains rarely result in a second meeting. Traditional solution selling techniques often fail to get you on the radar screen of customer executives. In my past life as a former Fortune500 CFO, I must admit that I rarely cooperated with sales people who tried to steer me through some kind of vision reengineering conversation.

I can hear the disciples shouting. “How dare you criticize solution selling methodologies? This gold standard of modern day selling techniques has been around over 30 years so it has to work, right?”

First, for the record, I’m not saying solution selling never works. 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 of many executives. As I describe in my blog post Got Pain?, executives are by nature driven to achieve success. They don’t dwell on pain; they don’t plan around pain; they don’t motivate their team by talking about pain; and they certainly don’t want a sales person interrogating them about their company’s pain points.

Yes, solution selling has been around for over 30 years. So just imagine how many sales professionals an executive encounters who want to have a dialogue around pain, challenges, problems, needs and concerns. Ouch, my brain hurts just thinking about the hundreds of times it happened to me. Consequently, buy-side executives are conditioned to block out generic solution selling “noise”. That’s why you’re finding it harder to get a meeting or struggling to sustain the conversation with a customer executive.

So here’s my best advice when engaging executives: don’t follow the solution selling herd. Break away. March to the beat of a different, more sophisticated drum. Transform your executive engagement mindset and focus on one thing: impacting business outcomes, not selling solutions. Trust me; your executive customer will notice the difference in tone and direction.

Before I expand on what I mean by business outcomes, there is one caveat that I need to share with you. Impacting business outcomes will require more work than generic solution selling. It requires knowledge of your customer that you gain from researching and spending time to understand the customer’s business and financial priorities. You can’t expect the customer executive to do your homework or ‘educate you’. In your initial conversations with the executive, you must demonstrate your business and financial acumen skills to earn the role of a business partner. There are no shortcuts!

As a sales professional, you can impact business outcomes by helping buy-side executives achieve their business and financial priorities. The first step in this process is doing your research to identify and understand what business initiatives and performance metrics are on the executive radar screen.

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. If you connect your solution to the success factors associated with achieving the business priority, 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.

After you’ve identified the key business initiatives, 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 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 initiative to reposition deposit gathering. SunTrust has chosen ‘growth in retail checking households’ as the key performance indicator 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 initiatives.

By spending a little time doing 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 into the conversation, be prepared to articulate the financial value of your solution in the same KBI:KPI terminology used by your customer. Success testimonials that align with the facts of the situation are powerful examples that build confidence with an executive audience.

Now you know why you need to go beyond solution selling as you move up the customer organization. Don’t run with the herd. Be different. Focus on your ability to impact business outcomes. Act like a business partner, and you’ll witness a change in the way executives respond to you.

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. Thanks Jack, great piece. I couldn’t agree more on the difference between generic solution selling methodology, which is perhaps a baby step better than pushing features and functions of your product, and “real” solutions selling, which focuses on the specific business outcomes that you can help generate for your individual customer executive.

    Part of the difference, as you say, is doing serious research, which is so often minimized or skipped altogether as part of the sales process. Sales people don’t have the time, the inclination, or the internal support to get this done. Even many of the newer sales enablement programs and tools, which supposedly support solutions selling, focus mostly on process and generalized content rather than deep research. Executives need to know immediately that you’ve done your homework and you’re not wasting their time with either an open ended fishing expedition or a barely disguised promotion for a generic “solution.”

    Research isn’t the only difference, of course. Other challenges include getting Marketing to reorient its programs and zero in on the best opportunities in the market, developing the internal flexibility and partnerships to pull together the right capabilities for customized solutions rather than a set of fully baked solutions off the shelf, and different kinds of sales incentives and metrics to encourage more effective selling at the executive level. This is why, thirty years after the onset of “solution selling,” the successful practice of such is still more the exception than the rule.

  2. Rob, thanks for your thoughtful comment and perspective about the “flavors” of solution selling. I enjoy reading your blog posts at http://www.reputationtorevenue.com/ and look forward to more to come.

    To me and many of my buy-side executive colleagues, perception is reality when it comes to “solution selling”. We don’t see the distinction between “generic” and “real” solution selling because of the emphasis on PAIN, PROBLEMS, CHALLENGES, ISSUES, etc. “Pain probes”, “9-block visioning models”, “pain chains”, and slogans such as “no pain, no change” run counter to the mindset of most buy-side executives. Perhaps this “style” of selling is much better suited to lower levels … MUCH lower!

    The mindset of buy-side executives is centered around improving performance by implementing successful business initiatives and achieving measured performance metrics. Solving problems (with solutions) is pushed much lower in the organization.

    Achieving business priorities (not pain, problems, challenges, issues, etc.) is what keeps executives up at night. Solution-sellers should stop asking executives that basic question and start helping us achieve business outcomes! That’s how you gain executive sponsorship. Deep research will uncover business initiatives and performance metrics — good luck finding insights about pain.

  3. Interesting discussion. Jack, thanks for sharing your perspective on what execs care about.

    The holy grail of sales professionals seems to be “call high,” it seems kind of important to understand what executives focus on.

    Maybe the problem goes to the term itself — “solution selling.” Why do you need a “solution,” after all. To solve a problem.

    But if an executive is focused on opportunities to grow/improve, and sees lower-level managers as the “problem” solvers, then that’s where the rep will be sent next.

  4. Jack, fascinating discussion. I agree on so much of what you have said, and would even suggest you haven’t gone far enough. At the same time, I think it’s discounting “solution selling” is not quite right. Some quick thoughts:

    1. The role of the sales person is changing profoundly. Real sales leaders will help their customers discover new possibilities, new ways to achieve their goals, grow their business and reach their customers. Aligning yourself with the strategic priorities and inititatives of the customer, is critical–I don’t want to discount that, but for real leadership, I think sales professionals need to go even further. To often, even at and executive level, cusotmers are prisoners of their own experience. The don’t see the opportunities or potential to grow their business. Great sales people will provide leadership to help their customers discover new opportunities. This isn’t just at the executive level, but can be done at virtually every level of the organization.

    2. Much of your discussion is really not about the problem with solution selling, but the poor execution of solution selling. At it’s core, solution selling should be about aligning with the customer’s strategic priorities, and we should be talking about how we can acclerate the ability to achieve the customer’s strategic priorities. The problem is, too often, dispite the billions of dollars of training money spent on solution selling, it fails in execution. Sales people are not equipped to understand the customer business and how they can contribute. Sales people ask so called solutions oriented questions, just until they get a certain response that triggers the pitch.

    3. Your ideas are really right on target. Without meaning to discount them (I’m on the same soap box and write about similar things all the time), one can see Peter Drucker saying the same thing in the “50’s,” Mack Hanan and Neil Rackham wrote about this issue in the 60-s and 70’s. There is no end to new books on being consultative, solution oriented, value based, customer focused. The real issue to my mind is what keeps organizations from implementing these approaches and sustaining them over time? How do we put real substance to becoming knowledgeable about our customer’s businesses, really aligning with their strategic initiatives and creating great value in helping them implement and execute them. I think it is a leadership issue–and not just sales leadership. Too often we have a strategy du jour or program du jour mentality.

    I’ll stop here. Thanks for a great, thoughtful post.

  5. Jack, exactly the kind of talk that people need to hear. I’ve been telling people for 5 years that pain may not motivate people to buy. Instead, we need to identify compelling reasons to spend money. Those compelling reasons are rarely events, usually personal, and nearly always implications of the business challenges.

    What your post does quite well is point out the need for change. I wrote an article today that makes a simple case for change by showing how Christmas Gift Giving Mirrors the Ideal Sales Process.

    What both articles do is explain what must change. Both articles (yours and mine) fail to explain how to change – the actual questioning that a salesperson should employ. You can’t really teach it in a Blog post….

    I do want to take issue with one point you made and one that Rob made…

    You cited your own experience as CFO and your disdain for salespeople who used Solution Selling questioning. I don’t think it’s right to imply that because you hated it, other executives will feel the same way. That’s painting a picture with too much of a broad stroke. It’s more likely that the salespeople simply sucked, didn’t know how to talk with an executive, and weren’t prepared. If they can speak the language, are prepared, know to ask about business problems and implications, it won’t matter which process they follow.

    Rob mentioned methodology and process. There is a great temptation to confuse sales methodology with sales process. For instance, Solution Selling, Sandler and SPIN Selling are all methodologies.

  6. Thoughtful post, Jack and equally insightful comments.

    You’ve touched on something that has long troubled me about some of the solution selling methodologies – and in particular those that cause sales people to focus an indecent amount of attention on uncovering pain.

    But in truth, I suspect that the challenge is less to do with the qualities of the various methodologies than with their execution. The questioning frameworks that are part and parcel of most sales training methodologies aren’t necessarily inconsistent with the approach you’ve outlined – but their implementation often is.

    First, sales people must do their research – and that includes uncovering the prospect’s declared priorities, key business initiatives and key performance indicators. But that’s just the start of the story, isn’t it?

    Because what really matters – once you’ve got a grip of those KBIs and KPIs – is understanding what progress the organisation is making towards reaching them, identifying the issues that might be holding them back, and finding ways of aligning the vendor’s capabilities with the prospect’s as yet unachieved priorities.

    Despite my niggles about execution, I’m certainly not anti solution selling in any shape or form. I’m certainly pro the idea of sales process, and the need to integrate the two. But what we really ought to be focusing on are the things that the prospect needs to change (which could be an as-yet unachieved KBI) and helping to facilitate their decision making process.

    I am convinced that some part of the answer lies in equipping sales people to have constructive, outcome-centred conversations. Rather than dwelling on pain, we should be coaching them to focus on the prospect’s goals, and what needs to change in order to achieve them.

    Do we need to rename solution selling? I don’t think so. But we need to be smarter about what problems we choose to solve. And be thoughtful about the language we use in front of the customer.

    Bob Apollo | Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners

  7. One of the problems with solution selling – or any sales model – is that it treats the identified problem as if it were an isolated event,and forgets that the buyer (like all of us) lives in a relatively complicated system of people, policies, initiatives, and stakeholders. Not to mention relationships.

    Sales – solution or otherwise – focuses on the very last decision buyers make: the solution/vendor choice. We sit and wait while buyers figure out how to figure it out internally, and the sales model does not get involved in these non-need related behind the scenes decisions. And we wait – and wait – for the buyer to haltingly manage the change and relationships that must buy-in.

    And we lose 90% of our potential sales this way. And, the saddest part is, that buyers eventually do buy something, but have left behind a trail of dead sales people along the way.

    It’s possible to enter the buying decision journey earlier. But not with sales. And once we do the decision facilitation, sales fits like a glove – and all forms of sales work just fine.

  8. Thanks to all of you for contributing your perspectives on the subject of solution selling at the executive level. Each of you has contributed nuggets of insights which really resonated with me …

    Bob Thompson – “But if an executive is focused on opportunities to grow/improve, and sees lower-level managers as the “problem” solvers, then that’s where the rep will be sent next.”

    >>> Think about the implications to sales professional who built their methodology primarily around solving problems.

    Dave Brock – “Sales people are not equipped to understand the customer business and how they can contribute.”

    >>> I couldn’t agree with you more!

    Dave Kurlan – “If they can speak the language, are prepared, know to ask about business problems and implications, it won’t matter which process they follow.”

    >>> Agree! The only change I would make to your statement is to substitute “initiatives” versus “problems”. Ask me about my business initiatives and watch my lips flap. Good luck getting me to talk much about problems.

    Andrew Rudin – “Wrote on this subject in a recent post: Will the next sales achiever need an MBA? ” http://www.customerthink.com/blog/will_the_next_sales_achiever_need_an_mba

    >>> Business and financial acumen skills separate good from great sales professionals at the executive level.

    Bob Apollo – “Because what really matters – once you’ve got a grip of those KBIs and KPIs – is understanding what progress the organisation is making towards reaching them, identifying the issues that might be holding them back, and finding ways of aligning the vendor’s capabilities with the prospect’s as yet unachieved priorities”.

    >> Helping accelerate business outcomes is a mindset the sales nation needs to embrace when engaging buy-side executives.

    Sharon Drew Morgen –” It’s possible to enter the buying decision journey earlier. But not with sales.”

    >> We need more “buy-side perspectives” influencing the direction of the sales profession value-add!

  9. I don’t like the questioning of solution selling because the Buyer can feel that it is manipulative by painting them in a corner and also because the salesperson can get lost in a sea of questions. However, I think that selling is all about creating a Gap between where the Buyer is and where they could be and then helping the Buyer close that gap.
    Instead of going for pain that can often be in the weeds I prefer to go for goals and then what’s holding them back. I think it helps to have the Buyer see that they are not doing it well today so that they believe that they can improve.
    If your offering can improve results 10-30%, if the Buyer feels that they are doing it badly today then they are more likely to believe that they could improve 30% but if you don’t help them realize that, then they may think that they could only improve 10% or not at all.
    Unless the Buyer is doing something badly, there is nothing to improve.
    You say that Executives are positive and can do. That’s fine, then tell me what you want to do. But if I can’t help you see that you are doing it badly today without my offering or you are unable to do it on your own, then there is no room for me to help add value.
    At least that’s how I see it but I could be wrong.
    Instead of questions, I prefer to use stories. I feel that stories work because they present a scenario that allows Buyers to develop awareness through their own sense of discovery. Buyers trust this discovery because they made it and they begin to trust the Story Seller for telling it. When the Buyer can picture the issues in the real world scenario, it helps them see how the results may apply to them and they start to make sense- they gain insight.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here