More people claim solution selling than any other sales skill. On LinkedIn, nearly 1.4 million people claim the skill. Consultative selling, the nearest contender for the sales crown, has just over a quarter of a million practitioners. The authors of The Challenger Sale, say nearly three-quarters of all vendors claim they are selling solutions.
Solution selling is an important, if complex, sales approach that applies to a minority of customers. And, then, only in the hands of elite salespeople. This means that for most, solution selling, is a myth: a widely idealized and misrepresented idea.
Solution selling has been misunderstood and over-applied. Read on to find out what solution selling really means, along with when and who, should use it...
The myth makers: sales books and training
Even the author of the original book on solution selling, Mike Bosworth, expresses disappointment that solution selling suits the minority, not the majority.
"The number one complaint I heard from sales managers was that the bottom 80 percent of their salespeople quit trying to use the methodology within 10 days of the workshop, whereas the top people had an easy time putting the methodology into practice and therefore, stuck with it." Mike's Ah-Ha Moment.
Mike's disappointment has now turned into defeat. His most recent book recommends "stories for selling," where he explains "how stories can help you sell and how to figure out what types of stories you'll need in your repertoire."
Only in the myth-making world of sales training, can you suggest helping customers make serious decisions by telling them stories. Alternatively, you can embrace myth and fantasy fully and "provoke your customers" with stories!
Hard solutions, easy stories
What happened to solution selling that turned its originator away, so, he now does "Story Seekers" workshops?
Solution selling started sensibly enough. The original Solution Selling book has sound fundamental ideas including:
- Making the way you sell as big an advantage as your product or service.
- Outlining the three phases of the buying cycle: define needs, evaluate alternatives, and the consequences (risk evaluation and action).
- Defining the buyer's four main concerns: 1) Do I have a need? 2) Do I have a solution to my need? 3) What will be the cost? 4) What is the risk of buying or not buying?
- Justifying value using five elements: 1) What will be measured? 2) Who is responsible? 3) How much is possible? 4) What capabilities will be needed? 5) When will this investment pay for itself?
Sales training: buy the course to understand the book
Unfortunately, the common flaws of sales book surface and obscure the fundamentals. First, the complex frameworks. Bosworth's "The 10 faces of buyer pain" and "The 9-Block Vision Processing Model" left me bewildered. Second, the breathless blather arrives: "Solution Selling is for change agents, bold people, visionary people, executives, and salespeople..." Quite the crew.
But the biggest problem for solution selling is the lack of a clear definition. As McKinsey points out:
Few companies share a common definition of a solution, beyond a vague notion that it is a combination of products and services which solves customers' business problems."
Vague definitions make claiming the skill easier, but understanding harder. This leads to many people thinking they sell solutions -- when, they probably don't. The result: lots of wasted sales training and customers puzzled by solution-pitching sales people.
Solutions selling: prizes and prices
Real solution selling requires hard trade-offs. The price for the benefits of solution selling include: longer sales cycles, increased sales and marketing costs, investments in solution development, and transforming product-centric sales forces to a solutions model. In return, they get the substantial benefits of solution selling. McKinsey points them out well:
- Increase margins by creating value above and beyond the sum of the components.
- Reduce competition by creating differentiated business value for customers.
- Raise share of wallet by servicing customers more broadly.
- Improve customer retention with more strategic relationships.
- Access new markets with solutions.
Real solution selling: the few, the strong
Successful solution selling starts with a clear definition. One of the best comes from Booz:
"The key [to solution selling] is working with the customer to integrate and bundle a mix of tailored products, services, systems, and commercial terms in such a way that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts."
Next, accept that solution selling only applies to a minority of customers. Again, Booz estimates that solution selling fits no more than 20% of customers. Around 10 percent of customers are both receptive to a solutions relationship and large enough. Another 10% are large enough, but unreceptive until they see proven results.
Finally, real solution selling means meeting six formidable requirements:
Co-creation. Co-created by a customer and a supplier and cover all aspects of the relationship (including commercial, technical, and financial).
Customized. Tailored to customer requirements in one or more of the following respects: design, assembly, delivery, operation, or pricing.
Integrated. Need to decide on whether to integrate technically or commercially or both. Technical integration requires the physical interoperability of components. Commercial integration (bundling) means combining products and/or services into a single transaction.
Shared risk. This involves the vendor taking managed risks and, therefore, often include performance and/or risk-based contracts.
Commitment. Solution selling vendors need patience. As Booz points out, "...since the typical development cycle for a solution is between 12 and 24 months."
Whole greater than parts. Finally, the acid test. If the customer can easily break your solution apart and assemble it themselves without loss of value, then, you don't have a real solution. Mixing points 1 to 5 above together into a solution must create new, differentiated value that's hard to replicate.
The holy trinity of selling
Given you need to consult with a customer before customizing a solution, the relatively few number of people claiming consultative selling remains puzzling.
Consultative selling is the starting skill for solution selling. In addition, you need industry expertise (to design a solution), analytical ability (structure the deal) and, of course, superior sales skills. Combining all these skills in one person seems improbable, Team selling with a "holy trinity" may be the answer. Here. you use a team of three: a salesperson, an industry/consulting expert, and a technical person.
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Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Markets. Michael T. Bosworth
What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story. Ben Zoldan and Michael T. Bosworth
Solution Selling: Is the Pain Worth the Gain? McKinsey
Customer Solutions: From Pilots to Profits. Booz Allen.
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