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Solution Selling: Hurdle or helpful in getting to yes

solution selling“Sell the problem you solve, not the product.” ~ CMS Vendor Sales Team Training

When it comes to selling technology, there are almost as many selling methods as there are technology types. Well not really, but there are lots of different approached to selling – Target Account, SPIN, Miller-Heiman, Value, and the list goes on. One methodology that is getting a lot of airtime these days in the mar-tech world is Solution Selling.

Solution selling refers to the practice of uncovering a customer’s pain points and then providing products and services that address the underlying business problem. This approach is diametrically opposed to more typical/traditional technology sales practices that focus on the features and functionality of technology products with little regard for the context of the prospective client’s business challenges they are hoping to address with new technology.

I get it, solution selling can be tough.

Working with clients to select technology I have seen it over and over; sitting across the table with the client watching a content management or marketing automation system’s pitch team start off on the right foot and down the path of solution selling, only to take a sharp left turn as soon as any kind of issue comes up that may slow down the sales process. These teams can turn on a dime from talking about how they want to help the customer solve their business challenges; how it’s about what they – the client – needs, not what the team wants to sell that is important, to getting into the weeds about personalization features and workflow functionality. They make this shift, often without realizing it – steering conversations back to their area of expertise because that is their comfort zone; that is what they know how to sell. And there is a comfort and rhythm to what we know we know; that which is easy.

Not everyone loves a challenge.

Sales people are typically a different breed from the rest of us. They fixate on their task at hand: make or exceed quota. To do this, they often focus on selling “transactions” and try to steer clear of adding complexity to the sales process. Why? Because complexity means more of everything – time, effort, knowledge, resources, attribution – and less control on the outcome and timing, to close the sale. Some of the reasons (perhaps excuses) I have heard from sales teams – both of services and technology – on why they don’t totally buy into solution selling are that it:

1. Takes more time.

Asking more questions. Engaging more individuals and teams from the prospective client. Crunching their data. Answering questions. Pulling all those information points together to get to the root of the problem they are trying to solve. This all takes way more time than pitching the bells and whistles of a technology and wowing the decision-making group with what the technology can do, rather than taking the time to understand and present what it can do FOR them.

2. Requires a lot more knowledge.

Most technology sales team have a deep knowledge of their product and a more limited understanding of the entire platform or solution. Solution selling requires either a much deeper overall knowledge of both the technology platform and the business.

3. Relies on others (read; loss of control) to help make the sale

Selling “Solutions” often includes products from other parts of the organization or even different vendors. It may also mean involving their own professional services teams and/or outside digital agencies/systems integrators for implementation and execution support. This poses a challenge on several fronts: product teams don’t know each other, limited/lack of comprehensive centers of excellence as a resource for sales teams to sell cross-product solutions, limited familiarity with partner network outside of the sales teams’ own product line. Enough said.

4. Can often mean putting off their own sale to defer to something else the client needs to/should do first.

Enough said. What sales teams willing passes off a sale without the promise of credit or compensation? Answer: Not (m)any. Which leads to point 5:

5. Process and compensation are not aligned.

Like many things, what we say and what we do are not always aligned. This applies to many companies. In the case of sales, teams are told to sell with a solutions approach, yet are still compensated for total sales and not for the number of cross-products sales, or the number of referrals to other parts of the business. Also missing are the common or shared goals across the teams involved in the sales process: marketing, product teams, sales teams, etc.

These are all valid concerns. But none of them negates that almost everything that a customer needs to know about the product or what features and functionality they think they need to solve their perceived problem is just a click away. So the value sales teams need to bring to the buying process to distinguish their product from others is helping the customer identify the real problem at hand, and how their solution can help provide the solution to those challenges.

Shift to customer centricity.

Solution Selling requires a shift … a shift in thinking, a shift in doing, a shift in how the organization operationalizes.

Solution selling is not the domain of traditional sales people. At least not on their own. Solution selling is a team effort that is best led by practitioners with a customer-centric mindset. Among other things, it requires:

  • Changing the “deal ownership” or “capture” process. Instead of paying out a percentage of the sale, recognize the total customer value to the company. The more the client engages, the more profitable for all involved – the company and the teams contributing to the value being provided to the client.
  • Measuring customer satisfaction and reward accordingly. Even when a project goes wrong, and they do, the customer can still be very satisfied. So reward teams that focus on not only “getting it right”, but also “making it right” when it goes wrong.
  • Looking from the outside-in when developing the solution. This means focusing on what the client needs and can manage, not necessarily is the latest and greatest, or what the sales team knows best. And ultimately this could mean pointing the customer in the direction of another vendor or agency.

Ultimately solution selling is an inclusive approach that takes into consideration both what the vendor has to offer and what the customer is looking for/needs, and finding the solution (or not) where those two essential elements meet.

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