One of the biggest shifts in selling approaches occurred in the mid-1980s when Mike Bosworth, formerly of Xerox Computer Services, popularized “Solution Sales.” Bosworth championed the idea of selling “expert to non-expert”, in which salespeople proactively uncover a customer’s business requirements and position offerings as a ‘solution’ to these business needs rather than simply waiting for purchase requests. In the early days of selling computer systems, this value-based approach empowered salespeople to develop a package of products and services that would benefit the prospect in a unique way. It also made it difficult for competitors to replicate offerings because conversations were occurring at the business level rather than the product level.
The successes achieved by early adopters of the solution sales approach led to widespread adoption by sales leaders. In fact, a full three-quarters of sales leaders report or aim to be some kind of full solutions provider (Dixon and Adamson, 2011). While the value associated with the strategy has been realized by thousands of sales departments, solutions are becoming increasingly complex as sellers compete to provide the most ‘comprehensive’ solutions.
But the movement hasn’t been entirely positive. To a large extent, the approaches mass adoption by B2B sales leaders actually reduces the competitive advantage gained from employing solution sales. Moreover, increasingly complex solutions have led to a prolonged selling process, requiring more involvement from the customer at each closing stage, ultimately leading to what Dixon and Adamson call customer “solutions fatigue”.
Buyers have responded to “solutions fatigue” by becoming more sophisticated about their own technological requirements. This change, according to Nicholas Toman, is threatening Bosworth’s model, turning the solution sale back into an ‘order-fulfilment’ discussion. So what is one of the most effective ways for sales leaders to maintain a value or solutions approach? Hire the right kind of solution salespeople.
Is your organization truly offering solutions?
Before sales leaders can begin their search for the sales person or people that fit their unique selling environment, they must firmly establish that their offering is indeed a solution. Writing in BRW, Peter Finkelstein argues that in order for sales leaders to determine if they are actually offering a solution or if a move to a solutions approach would drive revenues, they need to examine their corporate philosophy and culture.
According to Finkelstein, leadership should evaluate if their current buyer segments offer long-term sustainable growth opportunities and identify what solutions buyers in those segments want. He goes on to argue that sales leaders must then explore what it now produces and identify how these need to be changed, extended or adjusted (if at all) to accommodate the expectations of the buyers in the sales segments. In addition, Finkelstein advises leaders to examine whether they are ready to embrace the idea of extended partnerships and/or re-evaluate their current partnership programs to ensure that they meet the demands of the solutions buyer. These, however, are not the only considerations sales leaders must take into account to ensure their corporate philosophy aligns with the desired actions of their sales force. Sales leader must also ensure that their teams are incentivized accordingly.
Writing for Gartner, Tiffani Bova underscores an often overlooked issue sales manager’s face when trying to move over to a solutions approach and build their sales team accordingly. According to Bova, many sales forces are not actually performing solutions sales, but instead have simply bundled products and identified them as solutions. This can be problematic since reps become ‘over’ compensated for selling products when in fact the customer or their channel partner “actually creates the ultimate value of using a particular technology in combination with other products and services.” And when business value isn’t delivered to the customer – which is the heart and soul of solution selling – selling effectiveness decreases and a brand’s reputation can be damaged.
What makes a great solution salesperson?
Companies that actually offer solutions can begin structuring, or restructuring, an effective sales force. World-class companies understand that the sales cycle is different in complex solutions sales and that hiring salespeople with demonstrated, year-over-year success selling complex solutions have more predictable and consistent selling success in this context. As Finkelstein notes, “[solutions] salespeople have to have a far broader and deeper understanding of what buyers want and expect and what implications there are for making a decision.” Finkelstein suggests that companies recruit sales people who have superior analytical skills, broad knowledge of their industry, and the ability to think independently since informed buyers expect an informed seller that can add value and accommodate a more complex buying environment.
The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) has conducted a number of studies on solutions sales professionals, and delivered three key findings about the highest performing solution sales people:
- They know how to evaluate prospects using a different set of criteria than those used by other reps, “targeting agile organizations in a state of flux”, rather than those that have a clear understanding of their requirements.
- They target stakeholders who are “skeptical change agents” in the organizations they want to sell into.
- They employ a method of coaching potential customers rather than asking about their purchasing process.
The CEB research, when boiled down, reveals that high achieving solutions salespeople seek to be more informed and more empowered than average salespeople. Rather than simply responding to identified needs and buying requests, high achievers engage prospects before they understand their requirements entirely and before they are able to articulate how a ‘solution’ will meet their requirements. High achievers also apply filters to see which companies might be most open to change and avoid working with companies that are “hamstrung by structures and relationships that stifle change” as a method of decreasing failure rates.
Identifying top performers
To mitigate hiring risk, leading sales departments work with HR and/or recruiting firms to develop a structured interview process that assesses and analyses salespeople for the traits that are required for success in solution sales.
Here are a few tips:
- Screening questions should be designed to uncover how candidates evaluate prospects and how they approach a complex solution sale.
- Have candidates describe how they incorporate collaboration into their selling process.
- Ask the candidate if they reach out to partner organizations in order to enhance a deal.
- Have candidates describe how they work with prospects throughout the phases of a complex sale.
- Require candidates to discuss recent wins and losses. Check that the candidate has consistently met or exceeded their quotes in each of the past 5+ years.
Top solution sellers will not only be able to answer these questions in detail, but will articulate how their analytical and evaluative skills have contributed to their consistent selling success.
Ensuring your offering is truly a solution, in addition to incorporating a structured assessment program that assesses a candidate’s skills, experiences, and selling traits will mitigate hiring risk and produce the right solution sales candidates that will drive sales, fast.
Looking for additional information on solution sales? Check out Dave Stein’s excellent article, Is Solution Selling Dead or Just Misunderstood.
- Harvard Business Review, The End of Solution Sales, by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman
- BRW, Product Selling vs. ‘solutions’ selling: they’re different, and require a new mind-set for your salespeople, Peter Finklestein
- Gartner, Selling Solution Means what Exactly? Tiffani Bova
- Penguin Group, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson
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