Thanks to its sensible focus on diagnosing potential customer problems and then proposing product- and service-driven solutions, the strategy known as “solution sales” was all the rage a while back. But then the forces of conventional wisdom decided it was outdated, as newer sales trends and strategies emerged.
Today, you certainly don’t have to look far to find strongly worded criticism. Online research reveals that solution sales has been called:
- “Popular in the 1980s … less popular today”
- “More of an annoyance than an asset”
- “Putting lipstick on a pig”
However, a closer analysis reveals that some industry insiders may have been a bit hasty in proclaiming the demise of so-called “solution selling.” That’s because when it comes to the problem of how to sell more effectively in today’s ever-changing B2B landscape, many of this sales technique’s key principles are still very much part of the, well, solution.
In fact, according to McKinsey, “Solutions selling is fast becoming the norm for many B2B players, driven by commoditizing product markets, shrinking margins and increasingly complex customer demands.”
What Is Solution-Based Selling?
Let’s take a look at several industry definitions of solution-based sales:
“Solution selling is a sales methodology where a salesperson holistically considers a prospect’s needs, so they can recommend specific products or services that will best accommodate their individual problems and concerns.” – HubSpot
“On the face of it, solution selling is a simple sales methodology: A sales rep diagnoses a prospect’s needs and then recommends the right products or services to fill those needs. A solution selling strategy also demonstrates why the chosen product is a better fit than the competition.” – Pipedrive
“Solution selling refers to the philosophy or practice of uncovering a customer’s pain points and then providing products and services that address the underlying business problem.” – TechTarget
These descriptions give you the basic idea; but they feel almost too basic when you consider that proposing sales-related solutions to customer problems lies at the heart of many (if not most) different types of sales strategies.
Describing solution sales as a problem-led sales process rather than a product-led one is a helpful distinction because the instinct of many salespeople is to jump right into their portfolio of products/services when talking to potential customers.
In fact, a clue into why solution selling was once viewed negatively in some corners could be the idea that the focus was always on solving a specific problem. However, solution selling is by no means a “one and done” proposition, in which you help solve one problem and then move on to the next one. It is instead an iterative process in which the salesperson is continually learning more about the customer — asking open-ended questions to gain insight into their operational issues, their technical issues, their people issues, their culture issues and much more.
This is the key to discovering insights into specific pain points, as well as bigger-picture insights into the customer’s industry, their niche within it or how the business landscape may be changing.
Below, we’ll explore how helpful it can be to take a step back and first engage prospects and customers in a deeper examination of the challenges they are facing and the possible big-picture solutions (some of which may not even involve your top-selling product).
Pros and Cons of Solution Sales
Pipedrive, a leading SaaS (software as a service) company, offers a helpful look at the pros and cons of solution selling:
Solution selling is buyer friendly if it’s done right. Your reps tell a story that still allows prospects to draw their own conclusions.
It can be used by any sales team around the world, from small businesses to enterprise sales teams, as it focuses more on value proposition over specific features or services.
Solution selling can be complicated. As the model focuses on product features and services, if a prospect asks a question and your rep doesn’t know the answer it could have a negative effect on the deal.
The question-and-answer model typically used in solution selling can make conversations feel stale, or cause a prospect to feel like they’re being put into a corner with leading questions.
With regard to potential drawbacks associated with the question-and-answer-model, we offer some solution-based selling tips below — including how to use open-ended questions to keep the conversation flowing naturally as you develop invaluable insights into the customer’s most important needs and goals.
Solution Selling vs. Product Selling
In the product selling model, salespeople “spend less time asking questions and more time monologuing about the product’s features and pricing” and therefore “easily fall into the trap of talking more about themselves than the customer,” according to a comparison offered by sales software firm Close. “The product selling pitch is all ‘Me, me, me,’ and tries to prove value by showing feature comparisons with the competition or even pricing comparisons. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect: The product is devalued in the eyes of the prospect because the only benefit they see is a cheaper price or an extra feature.”
Business marketing firm E-Marketing Associates describes the difference between the two approaches this way: “In product selling, a salesperson is typically looking for immediate gratification. However, selling a solution means that you’ll need to think more long-term. Solution selling is about seeing the big picture and meeting your customer where they live.”
At Global Partners Training, we not only believe strongly that solution selling is a far more effective approach in the B2B world; we also offer customer-focused training programs to help B2B companies and their reps excel in solution-based sales.
Solution Selling vs. Consultative Selling
Consultative selling has many similarities to solution selling in that both approaches involve developing a deeper understanding of the customer’s needs, challenges and pain points, rather than simply pushing products and services.
A key difference is that consultative selling places even greater emphasis on the “consulting” part of the equation, in some cases acting much as a product-agnostic independent consultant would. This distinction is sometimes drawn by suggesting that where solution selling is solution-focused, consultative selling is more prospect-focused.
“Consultative sellers act as guides through the complex terrain of choosing a solution. They start early and work hard to lay a solid foundation of trust by asking the right questions,” according to Close. “The goal of consultative selling is to build a strong relationship with the prospect, develop trust, and understand their needs before offering a solution.”
In both solution selling and consultative selling, the focus on building a relationship with the customer or prospect is vitally important.
In fact, it could be said that relationship building lies at the heart of most of the leading sales techniques being used today.
Whatever types of sales techniques your organization is now using or has used over the years, our experienced facilitators can help your reps become more effective by delivering training programs (tailored to your operation and delivered on-site, virtually or a combination of both) that provide actionable strategies for building stronger customer relationships.
Solution-Based Selling Tips
One fundamental aspect of solution selling is the importance of adding value and offering insight in ways that differentiate you from your competitors. In fact, one way to get a solution-based sales relationship off to a great start is to come to the conversation well-prepared with a unique insight into the prospect’s industry, their company or, best of all, their particular challenges.
Easier said than done, but it all starts with doing in-depth homework on current and prospective clients, studying their industries and how they’re evolving, conducting related research and reviewing data.
As you are perhaps already aware, the value of sharing specific, useful insights with current and future customers is so compelling that another, closely related sales methodology has emerged to focus on specifically that — insight selling.
HubSpot recommends emphasizing the why over the what of a potential sale, suggesting that “what you are selling takes a back seat to why your prospect may need it.”
Additional solution-based selling tips include:
- Learn as much as you can about the prospect company (and, if possible, the people you’ll be talking to) beforehand.
- Develop questions that will help you diagnose prospects’ problems and understand their needs.
- Use open-ended questions to get them talking (Examples: “What are your most important goals?” and “What is holding you back from reaching them?”)
- Be ready to respond with spontaneous questions as the conversation unfolds.
- Make the conversation mostly about them, rather than about you and the products/services you have to offer.
- Be patient when it comes to offering solutions. Even though you may know where you’re headed, keep gathering information and building trust and rapport.
- Look for ways to sell value and ROI when the time comes to discuss products/services.
- Think of yourself as an advocate for the customer. In terms of offering insight, this can even mean helping them identify pain points that may not be obvious to them.
- Coach the customer by engaging them in collaboration to determine the best fit solution for their business.
- Cultivate new skills sets that help you successfully execute all of the above.
Who Is Solution Selling For?
Solution selling is particularly well-suited to B2B companies, especially those that are moving toward or have already transitioned to the so-called “servitization” model. It is no secret that the B2B landscape is experiencing an ongoing shift from primarily making and selling products to innovating and selling services (think SaaS and XaaS) or access to guaranteed equipment uptime.
Solution selling is highly relevant in a business landscape where some of the traditional lines have blurred between sales and service. It can help the seller differentiate from the competition by gathering the information needed to develop individualized solutions that are directly aligned with the customer’s needs. And it can help create a framework for future successes with satisfied customers.
Here at Global Partners Training, we have several decades of experience working with B2B companies to empower their sales teams with highly effective training programs that are ideal for many different sales methodologies — including solution-based sales.
If you would like to continue the conversation about how sales training (onsite or virtual) that is tailored to your company’s unique needs and goals can help you achieve even greater success, we encourage you to connect with us for a quick consultation.