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. It happened to Mark Twain twice, resulting in the now famous quote: ”The report of my death was an exaggeration.” 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 the CEB’s recent study of 1,400 B2B customer transactions, which included 6,000 salespeople and 700 customers. The title caught my eye; anything sales-related is in my wheelhouse, so I was looking forward to a good debate. I was disappointed. The article had interesting research and good insights into the workings of a top salesperson, but it inadequately defended the title claim due to a fundamental lack of understanding of Solution Selling and how it is being implemented today.
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. Solution Selling (done correctly) incorporates many of the concepts presented in the article. We have been implementing insight concepts with our clients for years-- as have all good sales organizations. To be a good sales person, you always had to sell insightfully. The article is faulting Solution Selling for an organization’s poor sales methodology.
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 opportunity where the prospect has a well-defined vision of the solution is discounted. Early access to buying stakeholders is key. If you are unable to enter the buying process early, a secondary approach(with a greatly reduced probability of winning)called Re-engineering Vison is recommended. Receiving a detailed RFP that your organization did not help shape, would be an example of being late to the process. In this example, your only chance of success would be to try to change the requirements so that they more closely align with your offerings.
Upending your customer’s way of thinking. Much like the insight selling approach, open-ended sales questions in Solution Selling are also designed to uncover and discuss unrecognized needs. Regardless of which executive buyer/influencer they are speaking with, competent sales people use “what if”, “have you considered” or “has this come-up yet” questions very effectively. 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. Solution sellers, like insight sellers, rely on defensible, creative value propositions to justify expenditures, thereby minimizing a buyer’s request for price cuts.
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 re-allocate 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:
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 include 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. The success of this step was measured by the ability to schedule follow-on meetings with additional prospect executives (verifiable outcome in many Solution Selling models).
Targeting the harder to reach mobilizers is good advice from CEB. As always, it is the key to the successful sales relationship. The top sales performers have always offered the best solution insights, ideas, and vision to prospective customers. It’s usually the reason they have gained access to decision makers ahead of their competition. Decision makers have always been tough to identify, meet and influence; they don’t grant access or share time easily. As one who has made thousands of sales calls and built and executed hundreds of sales opportunity plans, the phrase “easy to understand does not necessarily mean easy to do” comes to mind. Salespeople who lead with insights can’t do it alone, they will need the entire organization’s knowledge, creativity, and support to successfully engage and sustain executive mobilizer relationships over time.
Read the article for the insights into the characteristics of a star sales person. I agree that there has been a natural 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, shared earlier 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.
Mike Peters is the managing director of the Whitespace Consulting Group, a global business development strategy firm. The Whitespace Consulting Group has been helping multi-cultural clients optimize their business development strategy since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.