Solution selling has been the go-to method in the B2B sales since the 1980’s. Sales people have been trained not to sell but to offer solutions to an acknowledged need of the buyer. They have to demonstrate knowledge of their products and explain why their solution/product is better than that of the competition.
It worked very well for years because customers didn’t know the solution, even if they had a good grasp of what their problems are.
The first stage of this selling method is identifying customers who recognize a problem in their organization and give priority to those who are ready to act. Then a rep, by asking questions, tries to attach his/her company’s solution to the problem.
Another part of this approach is the ability to find and nurture someone in the company, an advocate or a coach, who can help navigate the company and bring the deal to completion.
But the relationship between buyers and sellers has changed over the years and with the internet. Buyers are more informed. A study about B2B sales quoted in Harvard Business Review says “A recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers completed, on average, nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision—researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on—before even having a conversation with a supplier.”
Not only they are customers are more informed, if the deal is complex, the decision-making process may involve people in the C-suite.
The CXO (every position that starts with C and ends with O), “… is the right person to engage, but solution selling is the wrong conversation to have” writes Jack Dean in his article about B2B sales, and the relationships with CXO: “I can’t ever recall agreeing to a B2B seller’s request for a 2nd meeting when the 1st meeting was primarily focused on searching for my pain and problem-solving.”
In this atmosphere, the solution selling rep can be more of an annoyance than an asset.
Questioning the Conventional Wisdom
What happens when all of a suddenly the best “go to” sentences don’t work and you are struggling to engage these executives? If you say what you have been instructed by the company to say, and you can find yourself in knots trying not to use textbook lines like “what keeps you up at night?” or “if budgets were not obstacles, what would you do?”.
Both of you know that this is not a practical question. One CSO at a high-tech organization told the Harvard Business Review: “Our customers are coming to the table armed to the teeth with a deep understanding of their problem and a well-scoped RFP for a solution. It’s turning many of our sales conversations into fulfillment conversations.”
Jack Dean says that when dealing with executives you have to change the approach. Executives are, in most cases, driven to achieve success through performance. They don’t dwell on pain. Executives don’t often discuss their pain point, they don’t plan around pain points, they don’t motivate their team by talking about pain, and they don’t want an uninformed salesperson to tell them what’s wrong with their company.
Working on pain might not be the best medicine.
Although traditional reps have a disadvantage in this situation, some of them are thriving. How come? That is what the research attempted to answer.
What are they doing differently?
They have abandoned the conventional wisdom.
- They evaluate their prospects according to different criteria
- They look for a different kind of point man in the company
- They coach those people on how to buy instead of quizzing them about their company
In short, they sell differently. Here’s how:
Most sale technics talk about giving priority to buyers who meet these three criteria: acknowledged need for change, clear vision of goals, and well-established process of making a purchasing decision
These 3 elements can be observed, and both the sales reps and their leaders rely on them to predict the likelihood and progress of a potential sale.
However, the research has shown that the best sales performers put little value on those elements, and instead look at something else.
- Customer agility – Can the buyer act quickly and decisively?
- Is s/he hamstrung by the purchasing structure or internal politics that dislikes change?
- Is the company in a flux? Is it in reorganization? It can be external pressures, such as a change in regulations, or internal pressures, such as merger or acquisition of another company. It can be due to leadership change or dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.
The successful B2B sellers believe that the best time to approach a company is when it is going through a change. When a company is reexamining the status quo anyway, it is more receptive to a disruptive idea the seller brings to the table.
The successful sellers are more concentrated on the customer’s potential to change rather than his potential to buy. When the demand is emerging, not established for some time.
Different kind of man
The conventional wisdom suggests the rep should find an advocate within the organization to help move the deal forward. There’s a list of attributes in most training manuals that this advocate should have:
- The person is accessible and willing to meet
- Provides information about the inner working of the company
- Pre-disposed to support they seller’s solution
- Good at influencing others
- Speaks the truth
- Considered credible by co-workers
- Delivers on commitment
- Will help the seller connect with others in the company
- Stands to personally gain from the transaction.
What did the research show?
This kind of perfect contact hardly exist. These are traits you can find in people of any company, but they rarely come as a package in one person. Reps find themselves selling to people who have some of the traits. Which should be dominant and preferred one?
The research found that most reps walk right past the people that can really help them, and concentrate on people that sound convincing, but really aren’t.
After computing the data, they came with seven distinct stakeholders “and measured the relative ability of individuals of each type to build consensus and drive action around a large corporate purchase or initiative.”
The profiles are not mutually exclusive. Most people have more than one attribute, but these types emerged as representatives:
The Go Getter – Someone that is constantly looking forward. The Go Getter like good ideas and improvements and can champion action.
The Teacher – Likes to learn new things and teach them on. People who are sought after for advice and can convince others.
The Skeptic – Doesn’t like big complicated projects and questions almost anything.
The Guide – Sharing information comes easy to him/her, and are a good source of internal gossip.
The Friend – Accessible, available and always ready to help.
The Climber – Looking to impress others for personal gain. The climber will back a project if it makes him look good. He also might want a compensation for his efforts.
The Blocker – Those who are committed to the status quo and believe that if it isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it.
Who would a B2B sales person approach? The conventional wisdom of solution selling says to connect with the Guide, the Friend and a Climber – the types that can be grouped and called the talkers. They like to talk, like to tell stories, are friendly, and accessible.
But the star sellers have another set of types in mind. If your goal is to sell, they say, not to chat, the talkers might not get you very far. These types are usually not good at building consensus about a complex purchase decision. And those are the types, traditional sales training says, the seller should approach.
The types that emerge from the looking at who ‘star’ sellers are approaching are different. They approach the Go Getter, the Teacher and Skeptic. They are better at generating consensus and are called in the research the Mobilizers. They are focused on bringing productive change to their company.
Endless questions and diagnosis of the pain points are of no value to Mobilizers. And yes, many of them are in CXO positions. They are looking for experts to share insights about their company and are engaged by big, new changes.
It not easy to deal with the mobilizers. They ask a lot of questions and are skeptic about the outcome. Go Getter like the reps because they want to act, Teachers like them because they want to share new information they’ve learned, and Skeptics, because they question everything and put it to the test.
That can be intimidating for the B2B sales rep and s/he might confuse the skepticism with hostility, while in fact, if they are convinced, the skeptic can become the best advocate for the seller.
Here’s what one successful sale rep had to say: “I don’t waste a lot of time asking my customers about who has to be involved in the vetting process, whose buy-in we need to obtain, or who holds the purse strings. The customers won’t know—they’re new to this kind of purchase. In the majority of my deals, I know more about how the purchase will unfold than the customers do. I let them champion the vision internally, but it’s my job to help them get the deal done.”
So, is solution selling the best way to go?
It’s an evolution not a drastic change. In the same way that Solution Selling has evolved into Consultative Selling, it will continue to evolve with the times. The next step up seems to be Business Advisor, which implies an evolution beyond consultative selling. Adaptive sellers who look for customers that are primed for change, challenge them with provocative insights, and coach them how to buy, will be the ones to strive.