The End of Solution Sales? Not So Fast...

Guest Blog post: Mike Peters, Managing Director - Whitespace Consulting Group and an Associate of Solutions Insights

What do Neil Young, Betty White, Bob Hope, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Paul McCartney all have in common? Great comic timing? A villa in Tuscany? A love of the Classics? No, they were all victims of a premature obituary. Based on a recent Harvard Business Review article: ”The End of Solution Sales,” we can now add Solution Selling to that list.

The article was written by the members of the Corporate Executive Board and discussed their recent study of 1,400 B2B customer transactions, which included 6,000 salespeople and 700 customers. The article had interesting research and good insights into the workings of top salespeople, but it inadequately defended the title claim due to a fundamental lack of understanding of Solution Selling. So, for all of you Chief Sales Officers and VPs of Sales out there--who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing a Solution Selling sales environment--there’s no need to panic. Insight selling is not a replacement for Solution Selling.

The article proclaimed that a “novel, even radical sales approach is needed” (insight selling) to replace Solution Selling. While the underlying premise is correct [With the abundance of online information, buyers are better informed and have a more thorough understanding of offerings prior to any formal seller contact], their belief that insightful selling is radically different from Solution Selling, is not. Not only are the concepts of insight selling not radical, they are not new. Great salespeople always sold insightfully.

Insight Selling vs Solution Selling: Much More Similar Than Different

There were several major areas where I found the two approaches overlapped:

Avoiding established demand. The authors speak of how top insight sellers avoid established demand. Solution Selling also targets emerging, yet unknown business needs. In Solution Selling, any sales opportunity where the prospect has a well-defined vision of the solution is discounted. Early access to buying decision-makers is key.

Upending your customer’s way of thinking. Much like the insight selling approach, openended questions in Solution Selling are also designed to uncover and discuss unrecognized needs. Knowledge of the prospect’s industry and market position are critical. Solution Selling models provide conversation planning models for team approaches, as well.

Buying triggers. As a consultative sales person working within highly leveraged compensation plans for many years, I can tell you that organizational buying triggers have always been one of the most productive ways to allocate sales time. This is not a new concept exclusive to insight selling. All great salespeople look for the fastest path to a sale—and the resulting financial reward.

Opportunity pursuit scorecard. Variations of the “go”/”no-go” sales opportunity pursuit scorecard presented have been used by thousands of sales organizations over the years. Few sales opportunity pursuit models would recommend investing resources in any sales opportunity with less than a 50% chance of winning--especially if the selling organization was not present to help shape the vision of the solution. If you’re not winning (Column “A” in Solution Selling parlance), save the effort and cost of your sales resources and reallocate them to more exclusive opportunities with earlier access to executives.

Best practices. The CEB cites three best-practices from insight selling—all are commonly used within the Solution Selling framework:

  1. An aligned buyer-seller selling methodology based on the customer's preferred buying process
  2. Sales tools and materials, including verifiable outcomes, for each phase of the buy/sell process
  3. A co-facilitated, step-by-step sales project plan that keeps buyer and seller aligned. It helps reduce competition, win the deal within the forecasted time frame and avoid the dreaded no-decision.

Incorporate Insight Selling Concepts Into Your Solution Selling Environment

Add a very early “share insights” step to your Solution Selling sales process. In a recent client sales process re-design, we added a “Vision Creation” step at the beginning of their formally defined sales process. We designed this step to facilitate credibility building discussions on a variety of wide-ranging issues concerning the customer’s business including: industry direction, innovations and challenges, market trends and opportunities, and organizational/industry points of view.

Targeting the harder to reach “mobilizers” is good advice from CEB. Top sales performers have always offered the best solution insights, ideas, and vision to prospective customers. It’s usually the reason they have gained executive access ahead of their competition. Salespeople who lead with insights can’t do it alone though, they will need the entire organization’s knowledge, creativity, and support to successfully engage and sustain executive “mobilizer” relationships.

Summary

I agree that there has been a natural sales progression to insightful selling or whatever term you want to use to describe it. The value of a sales person is their ability to put forth new ideas and insights. Any seller who can share cross-industry concepts, transferable best practices, and fresh ideas will have a competitive advantage. The best ideas, co-created early in the buying process--not product and service differentiators--make the difference between winning and losing, and always have. The insights in the article are valid, but they are not novel--nor are they radically different--and they by no means mark the end of Solution Selling.

About the Author:

Mike Peters is the Managing Director of the Whitespace Consulting Group (WCG)--a global business development strategy and optimization advisory firm.  He can be reached through the WCG Sales Strategies Blog: www.whitespace-consulting.com/blog or by email: mpeters@whitespace-consulting.com

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