Should We Perform the Last Rites on Solutions Selling?

It’s been the mantra of sales management in the B2B sectors for over 30 years.  Whether you sold for Xerox, Raytheon, IBM, Monsanto, United Technologies or even McKinsey the path to the sales jackpot was the same – learn the techniques of solutions selling.  Every company that has sold high end, complex solutions adopted a version of this sales methodology.

The basic “plot line” for this type of selling has been tinkered with by an army  of sales training companies to try to differentiate themselves, but they essentially all involve the following principles:

  • Stop pitching and start listening; understand the customer business model and challenges.
  • Don’t talk about the magnificently superior features and capabilities of your products or services; instead, describe how your offering will increase business value.
  • Don’t chase the dreamers and the penniless; rather, apply the tried-and-true BANT model to qualify your prospect (does he have Budget to spend, the Authority to approve a purchase, a defined Need, and a clear Time period to make a purchase).
  • Build a long-term “trusted advisor” relationship with the customer so you can understand and anticipate their needs before your competition well before an RFP is issued or Procurement is in charge of the buying process.

The July-August edition of the Harvard Business Review had an article entitled “The End of Solution Sales”.  by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman.   The title is eye-catching and dramatic.  At the very least, provocative.   But is it, in fact, a fair and accurate conclusion?

The premise of the article, as I read it, is that because nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision these days happens before the customer has had the first conversation with a supplier, a traditionally-trained solution sales rep is at a distinct disadvantage.

Specifically, the article puts forth a new selling guide with the following comparison of the “old” solutions selling model stacked up against what they referred to as “Insight Selling.”  Here are their five basic points based on their research:

Intrigued by the article’s provocative premise, I approached several of our professional contacts who have a lot of experience in marketing and selling solutions.  I also found some interesting comments in the Sales/Marketing Executives LinkedIn group.  Here is what a few of them had to say, which also seemed to represent the views of most of the other comments:

Comments from the Sales/Marketing Executives LinkedIn group:

“ I have a problem with the assumptions that the sensationalistic proselytizing of the Challenger methodology engenders. I reject the idea that ultimately your "insights" supersede the importance of truly understanding the customer's needs. It is a very dangerous road to travel that leads us back to the perspective that WE really know what's best for our customers. As a C-level executive that has not only carried over USD 1/2 billion in quota but perhaps more importantly has PURCHASED nearly USD 1/2 billion in goods and services, I don't need any more "trusted advisors"-- as it is, everyone in my organization seems to spend 24/7 trying to convince me their ideas are better than the next guy. Not looking to have vendors join THAT circus.

Bring me VALUE in the context of what I already KNOW I'm looking for-- and do THAT with exceptional insight and more importantly RESULTS-- and while you may not become part of my inner cabal of "trusted advisors," you will earn the credibility that puts you way ahead on the top of my list of preferred partners.”

- Kurt Haug, Principal at Shuriken Systems

“My first impression of the HBR article, based on a quick read is that it seems to compare apples (solutions selling - what am I selling?) with oranges (insight selling - how am I selling?).  Despite innovative sales techniques, in the end suppliers need to deliver value to make the sale, and experience indicates that "integrated systems or solutions" targeted to resolve a customer pain point provide a proven route to greater value for both the customer and the supplier compared with a "component approach to procurement."   

- Chuck Anastasia, Strategy & Marketing at Dassault Systemes

“I loved this piece. But in a way he actually reinforced the need for true solution selling! He claims that “traditional” solution selling was more straightforward and it is true that customers are demanding more.  They are demanding answers to their business problems – not the ones they already know how to solve. This means that you have to have insights about their business that make you more valuable than the competition,  and you know the right internal change agents to sell to. The emphasis here is less on providing the SOLUTION than on SELLING tactics.  The SOLUTION is still needed.”

- Susan Bailey Schramm, Head of Solutions/Global Marketing at Nokia Siemens Networks

What’s my take on all of this? 

I think the article seems to advocate the approach of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (which I realize is a somewhat morbid and distasteful metaphor).

  • Should professionals who are selling high-end solutions try to understand the customer’s business and industry so well that they can point out problems and issues that the customer may not be aware of?  Absolutely.
  • Should they look to provide industry and business information that bring value to customer?  Of course.
  • Should they assist the customer in understanding how to navigate through their own internal buying processes and approvals?  If the salesperson has those insights, then they definitely should do that -- and help them build the business case in the process.
  • And should they target customers with a “compelling event” that compels them to move quickly?  That, frankly, is a no-brainer.

BUT….the article implies that the basic tenets of solution selling are outdated…passé…yesterday’s news, and not to be applied.  I beg to differ.   Approaching companies that know what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what they want is still be the most direct -- and shortest -- route to a sale.  That’s assuming, of course, that you get there first with a compelling story and, hopefully, already-established relationships.  Understanding the customer’s business needs is still the ticket to entry for any competent salesperson in my book.  And engaging in conversations to understand if and how a company’s products or solutions can in fact address the customer’s needs is still a fundamental part of Selling 101.  (How can you sell anything without doing that??) We all know that today’s customers find out about options to address and resolve their business problems, and to help them exploit opportunities, via the internet and their own peer networks well before a salesperson has a chance to contact them.  In general, customers are clearly better informed about vendor options and how to best leverage them to create the solution they need.  That’s not a bad thing.  This should result in an accelerated sales cycle, with the salesperson’s first responsibility to provide the “cake” – meet the value proposition that the customer expects.  A good salesperson, however, then looks to slather some “icing” on the cake – what additional value can he or she bring to the table after meeting the customer’s immediate needs?

The net of all of this is that the article should have positioned the tenets of “Insight Selling” as additive instead of “either/or”.   These selling factors are not mutually exclusive.   A razor-sharp salesperson can and should address the scenarios listed on either side of the selling guide.  In addition to proactively identifying business needs, they should be able to find and develop strong relationships with the movers and shakers inside an organization.  And they should have the industry and market expertise to understand when internal or market factors might create an urgent need for the value they can bring to the business, even if the client has not yet identified that need. While I understand that provocative titles drive magazine sales, and new models may spur consulting and training opportunities for the authors, I’m not ready to perform the last rites on solution selling. After all, no matter what you call it -- consultative selling, strategic selling, conceptual selling, or solutions selling – it very likely will be around for a long time and continue to be a vital selling approach for the sales forces of technology-based companies that sell solutions.

What do you think?

Author: Steve Hurley, Managing Director, Solutions Insights.

Graphic Source:,

Graphic from HBR Article:, Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. "Insight Selling Vs Solution Selling" from "The end of solution sales" by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman, issue July-August, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Comments (2)

Charles Born

Steve, working with you and the Solutions Insights team for many years - you know I am a strong believer and proponent of solution selling and marketing. I agree with you - solution selling is never over but today marketing and selling needs to be more aligned than ever. One thing I'd add to your comments is that while solutions selling is not over, the internet and social media moved the 'cheese' and B2B buying habits are shifting. Studies are showing that buyers are now 60-70% of the way through the buyer’s cycle before they initially reach out to your company for a sales representative. This is different than in the recent past. Given the multiple ways that buyers can learn about you and your products in an online world dominated by social media, B2B marketing is certainly less in your control than in the past. But we have a new opportunity. Through online “conversations” buyers are looking for suggestions and information about solutions to their business needs and to the problems and issues they are facing. They engage in these web-based “conversations” through internet searches, social media, your website and other online forums. I believe today, and going forward, your new solutions selling are these “conversations.” Through smartly targeted and informative content (the key to solutions marketing!!!!!) that you create and buyers consider valuable, the buyer learns about the approaches, solutions and outcomes to the issues they are trying to solve. As a by-product of these “conversations”, the buyer is absorbing information about who you are, what you stand for and the promises your company is making. To succeed in this online social paradigm, your solutions marketing – and your branding – must understand the information your buyers value and then deliver that information in a way that is easy for them to access and consume, at the right points in the journey and their relationship with your company. When that message and point of view aligns with their needs, and speaks in the right voice, to the right audience, at the right stage of the buyer’s journey, you create “brand conversations” - and solutions selling. And as a result, you establish the right brand promise thereby driving demand for your products. That in essence is solutions marketing - and solutions selling.

Sumit Sood

After having read the article as well as a host of comments on the site, I am surprised that no one has talked about a crucial aspect that the authors of the article may have assumed and have not touch based upon. “When an organization becomes 60%smarter to assess their purchase needs, what kind of cost (both capital and human) and effort has brought them to that level ?” I would like to know if the cost of being more prepared/ better informed is even worth the effort given the solutions sales process would mostly bring the most cost effective solution (by virtue of competition) and hence could that cost and effort have been more aptly utilized from the buyer by focussing on other pressing needs in the organization. On the other hand it would be interesting to know if the traditional solutions sales organizations are equipped (or even want) to become insight sellers given the transition almost seems like becoming a pseudo employee (heightened time and effort to learn more innately about the organization which in turn means more cost/time taken per employee) and a host of other critical “approach changes to sell” that the organizational readiness (along with the constant churn which such solutions sellers face) may always lag behind, therefore demanding solutions sellers to re-look at the insight model and it’s merit. I do not think that the article’s output is without any un-found rationale but I opine that the case for financial success of the model has to be more closely scrutinized before we declare the end of solutions selling.