The end of Solution Selling?
Conventional wisdom says that solution selling is the most effective way to penetrate B2B customers. Though this strategy is quite common, it no longer works all that well in many accounts, according to new thought leadership published in the Harvard Business Review. Sales managers would be wise to consider another approach that focuses more on engaging prospects differently and a lot earlier in the buying process.
With traditional solution selling, a sales representative seeks to link their solution with a customer need and expound why it is better than the competition’s. Good solution sellers’ focus on identifying customers with a burning need; elegantly positioning their solution against this need, and finally, finding a friendly advocate within the prospect who can champion the solution and help navigate the company.
End of an era?
There are two fundamental flaws with this approach. First, every firm practices it. As a result, the sales experience can appear canned and insincere. “What keeps you up at night” quickly rings hollow, possibly causing the sales rep to lose credibility and trust. Secondly, Solution Selling is no longer working. A Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers undertook, on average, nearly 60% of the typical purchasing decision activities (e.g., researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, etc.) before even having a conversation with a supplier.
Savvy companies are increasingly bypassing solution-selling sales reps. For example, customers are using internal experts to diagnose their own needs and design solutions. Furthermore, they are utilizing sophisticated procurement departments and third-party purchasing consultants to secure the best possible deals from suppliers.
Prescient sales leaders are recognizing the limitations of solution selling. “You can no longer rely on having built a superior ‘mousetrap’ to book a deal,” said David Linds, senior vice president, business development and relationship management at CIBC Mellon. “The solution gets you in the door and keeps you in the game, but the heavy lifting in the sales process is over by the time the RFP is out the door and in the hands of procurement. The critical work must have been done early on during the relationship building phase. The prospect must already know you, trust you and your firm, and in fact have already seen the solution in action. If the RFP is the first contact – forget it!” Solution sellers may soon be a dying breed – unless they switch gears and become relevant again.
Retooling the approach
In their HBR article, “The End of Solution Sales,” authors Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman contend that Insight Selling is a better way to sell. Its effectiveness is backed up by CEB research of thousands of sales reps from hundreds of companies. An Insight Selling strategy is a major departure from traditional sales approaches. Some of its tactics include:
- Target prospects with needs that are not yet defined (i.e. emerging demand) versus prospects with a clear understanding of their requirements and the competitive alternatives (i.e. established demand)
- Engage a very different set of stakeholders, preferring skeptical change agents and internal mobilizers over friendly informants. A sales rep’s job is to help the mobilizers champion their vision.
- Coach those change agents on how to buy, instead of quizzing them about their company’s purchasing processes. Insight sellers will often seek to reframe the RFP to better compete versus addressing the RFP as is.
A number of companies are already using this new strategy. According to Harry France, a former country manager for HP, “Customers are searching for a consultative sales approach whereby the sales rep guides key constituents through the buying process based on an in-depth knowledge of existing business needs and previous successes with other customers. This personalized selling approach combines Solution Selling and the Insight Selling into a hybrid model where the client views the sales rep as their trusted advisor.”
Despite the research and anecdotes, one should be careful not to jettison solution selling so readily. Many purchasing decisions will continue to be made in advance, having nothing to do with the sales strategy employed. Moreover, it is not evident that Insight Selling will be any more effective than Solution Selling in the long term given the advanced purchasing tools currently available to corporate buyers.
What is clear is that the times are a chang’in for Solution Selling, an approach that’s been around since the 1980s. This evolution – enabled by technology, analytics and buyer practices – will only accelerate with time. Clearly, adaptive sales organizations who seek out prospects that are primed for change, who challenge them with provocative insights, and coach them on how to buy will be best positioned to maximize sales effectiveness.
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