Sometimes, the best way to sell a product or service to a prospect is by selling them on the future the solution can shape for them. That process — selling to prospects based on a potential future as opposed to a product's benefits — is known as outcome-based selling, and every salesperson should have some understanding of it.
To help you get there, we've put together a guide that covers what outcome-based selling is, how to get started with the process, and the practice's benefits.
What is outcome-based selling?
Outcome-based selling is a sales strategy where a salesperson conveys value to a prospect by describing a desired, long-term outcome their solution can help the prospect achieve — as opposed to discussing their offering's technical specifications, features, or immediate benefits.
Outcome-based selling requires a prospect-first mindset — it requires salespeople to determine how they can help a prospect succeed at every stage of the sales process.
Salespeople who leverage outcome-based selling need to take take the time to understand their prospects' needs, interests, challenges, and priorities — and use that insight to deliver personalized experiences, convey value, and ultimately improve their odds of closing.
But what is an outcome in this context? And how is it different from a benefit? In short, an outcome is the sum of the long-term gains a prospect can expect to see as a result of a solution's immediate benefits.
For example, one of the benefits of a gym membership is access to the facility's workout equipment and amenities — the outcome of a gym membership is being able to maintain long-term health and fitness.
Now that you know what outcome selling is, let’s look at how to get started with it.
Get Started with Outcome Selling
1. Thoroughly understand your ideal customer profile and buyer personas.
You can't conduct effective outcome-based selling without a high-level understanding of your vertical, a concrete picture of your ideal customer profile, and a sense of the types of buyers you'll routinely deal with. If you sell to companies within a specific space or of a particular scale, then the prospects you deal with probably have comparable goals and run into similar issues.
If that's the case, you need to have a sense of those preferences and problems. Doing so gives you a leg up when outcome-based selling — offering you some valuable perspective and a solid starting point for a compelling outcome-based narrative.
You also have to have an idea of who you're going to connect with at those companies and how to best appeal to them — that's why maintaining detailed buyer personas is central to effective outcome-based selling.
Prospects in different roles have different needs that are dictated by different priorities. So naturally, they'll be receptive to different outcomes — selling to a CMO isn't going to be the same as selling to a VP of Sales or a CFO.
You need to thoroughly understand who's going to hear your pitch if you want to paint an effective picture of the outcome they're looking for — that starts with having a solid pulse on their baseline characteristics.
Let's say you work for an edtech business that sells curriculum scheduling and classroom allocation software. Your specific vertical is mid-sized community colleges, and you typically connect with educational administrators when conducting your efforts.
An institution you work with probably wouldn't deal with the same issues that a four-year public university with over 40,000 students would — and the educational administrators you engage with would have entirely different responsibilities than other decision-makers, like university deans.
If you wanted to sell an outcome to one of your target prospects, you'd need to understand the issues similar schools run into and how educational administrators' responsibilities tend to play into handling those issues.
2. Lock in on your prospect's specific needs, challenges, interests, and goals.
While having a high-level understanding of your vertical is important, it only represents a starting point for effective outcome-based selling. You can't walk into an engagement with a prospect and exclusively discuss how you'd handle issues their competitors generally face.
Outcome-based selling is specific. You're trying to appeal to an individual prospect — and individual prospects have unique needs, challenges, interests, and goals. That's why you need to thoroughly familiarize yourself with every organization you engage with and lock in on the key elements I just mentioned.
Pore over any public-facing information you can find on the business you've connected with. Look at resources like its website, its social media feeds, profiles you can find on company leadership, or any original content it has published — anything that can give you a sense of what the company does, its mission, and how it tries to present itself.
If you can find any relevant documentation on how the business is performing — like public financial reports, records about funding rounds, or stock performance insight (if the company is publicly traded) — make sure you take that into consideration.
Also, if you're at this point in your sales process with a prospect, you've likely already conducted discovery. Hopefully, you didn't skimp on that stage — the insight you gather from those conversations will also be a massive help here.
One way or another, source enough data to give you a sense of what's prompting your prospect to consider a solution like yours — that will help provide you with the basis for a solid value proposition and the compelling outcome-based narrative that will come with it.
Expanding on the edtech sales example we looked at in the previous point, let's say you've connected with a community college in Massachusetts. During discovery, you found out that the company runs into issues with classroom scheduling — interfering with the school's ability to offer required general education coursework at an appropriate volume.
You also look at the school's profile on US News and World Report and notice that it has a particularly low percentage of students who earn an associate's degree, compared to similar institutions in the area — along with declining enrollment.
With all of that information, you identify the school's main, overarching issue (degree velocity) and the problem it at least partially stems from (classroom scheduling). Now, you know the key pain point that your outcome should revolve around.
3. Piece together how your solution suits those needs, interests, and goals.
Once you understand what your prospect is dealing with — and the ideal results they'll see if those issues are remedied — you need to determine how your solution fits into the equation. Bear in mind, your priority when leveraging outcome-based selling isn't to speak to the immediate benefits that come with your offering.
That said, you still need to understand how your solution can help your prospect viably reach their desired outcome. You can't identify issues your offering isn't fit to address and then sell your prospect on an outcome where you fix them.
Take a look at the key issues you've identified, pin down the ones your product or service can help with, zero in on the ones your prospect finds most pressing, and get a feel for what resolving those problems will do for your prospect — that is where your outcome will come from.
Let's say you identify a range of issues that the school you're selling to is facing. Turnover among instructors is especially high. The school's facilities are dated and poorly maintained, and there's not much on-campus culture.
Your solution has much less of a direct bearing on those issues than the degree velocity issue — so they can't be the focal point of your outcome-based narrative. While you might be able to touch on how those problems could be indirectly improved by your product or service, it would be disingenuous to say something like, "Our software will immediately create a sense of community and school pride on your campus."
4. Prepare less abstract, more informational resources for your prospect to reference.
Though outcome-based selling is a more abstract brand of sales, it still needs to be backed by hard insight and proof. Prospects with decision-making authority tend to be shrewd. They're rarely naive enough to hear your outcome-based pitch and just take you at your word — especially if you're dealing with multiple contacts at one company.
There are some key strides you need to take before selling based on outcome:
- Be able to give a high-level technical explanation of how your offering will function in the context of your prospect's operations.
- Have available resources that detail your offering's technical specs for your prospect to reliably reference.
- Put together data-backed insight that speaks to hard results they can expect to see if they invest in your product or service.
- Consider keeping a bank of sales collateral — specifically case studies and customer testimonials from similar businesses — that you can lean on to give prospects more perspective on what you can do for them.
- Consolidate or be prepared to accessibly point to all of that information — among other kinds of resources and insight — in case the prospect wants to know more about it.
Outcome-based selling is an incredibly effective way to set yourself up for a close — but if you don't have the resources or knowledge to answer questions about how your outcome will be achieved, you'll have a hard time sealing the deal.
Continuing our edtech company example, let's say you've identified that your software can minimize inefficiencies that are slowing down the college's degree velocity. That's going to serve as the basis for your ideal outcome — but you're going to need more than a vivid description of a starry-eyed, hypothetical future to land the school's business.
You would need to be prepared to have answers when they ask, "How?"
In this case, you could:
- Be able to point to a detailed knowledge base on your website that provides an accessible forum for how your solution works from a user's perspective.
- Prepare documentation or a demo that considers the logistics of how the prospect's campus is arranged and shows how your solution would reduce inefficiency based on its layout.
- Put together an analysis of how the prospect's legacy curriculum scheduling software is more of a financial burden than your solution would be.
- Refer the prospect to a bank of case studies from satisfied customers — specifically from institutions of comparable size who faced similar issues.
- Have a contact from your development team who's willing to answer more granular technical questions about your software — should it come to that.
One way or another, you would compile enough information to cover as many bases as possible when your prospect wants to get into the weeds of how your solution works.
5. Present that solution through a compelling, outcome-based narrative.
This is the big one — the culmination of all of the research, analysis, and effort you've put in, up to this point. It's finally time to describe the outcome you've been so diligently putting together since connecting with your prospect.
All of your sales communication should be engaging in some capacity, but any conversations you have when outcome-based selling need to be compelling. When you leverage this brand of sales, you're not selling your prospect on a product or service — you're selling them on a future.
You're trying to describe a hypothetical reality where the hitches, inefficiencies, and issues currently plaguing their operations have been minimized or eliminated — one where they're thrilled and thriving as a direct result of the investment they made in your solution.
Effective storytelling is an invaluable skill that every salesperson should have in their repertoire — and it's especially applicable when conducting outcome-based selling efforts.
It might sound obvious, but an outcome is only convincing if it's presented convincingly — so be prepared to make yours count.
In our edtech example, an outcome-based pitch might look like this:
"As of right now, your institution is struggling — relative to other community colleges in Massachusetts — but that's not for lack of talent, integrity, or commitment to providing the best possible future for the students you serve.
"You've seen decreasing enrollment and increasing staff turnover for the past five years, and that's largely — if not primarily — because that it takes your students an average of six semesters to earn an associate's degree as opposed to four.
"Now, there are multiple factors that contribute to that issue — but the biggest and most easily fixable are the problems that stem from your legacy curriculum and classroom scheduling infrastructure. Your current system is a burdensome, costly, inefficient weight that's undermining your ability to schedule the coursework your students need to get a degree on time.
"Our solution is perfect for a school of your size — I can point you to references from institutions like yours that corroborate that — and it can immediately and radically improve how efficiently your instructors schedule classrooms and structure curricula.
"So, what will the future look like if you invest in our platform? Well, at some point within the next three years — a timeline I'd be happy to discuss further — your classroom booking is as efficient as possible, allowing you to schedule required coursework at the frequency you need.
"Curriculum scheduling is streamlined and simplified for instructors, reducing staff turnover. And the room in your budget freed up by eliminating the annual financial strain from your legacy system gives you more flexibility to improve facilities.
"Taken together, these factors amount to this outcome — you have a more easily maintainable campus where students can reliably expect to get an associate's degree on time, so your enrollment figures are back on track. You also have instructors who are happier with your facilities and scheduling processes, making them less likely to seek out opportunities at other institutions.
"And finally, you, as an administrator, get to work with a platform that's more modern, accessible, and effective than your legacy system — making your responsibilities significantly simpler, less labor-intensive, and more productive than they are now."
Now that you have a sense of how to leverage outcome-based selling, let's take a look at some of the key benefits it offers.
Benefits of Outcome-Based Selling
It can increase your business's perceived value.
Outcome-based selling is a particularly consultative, thoughtful, value-driven brand of sales — one where you put the customer at the forefront of every decision. It involves structuring and conveying a personalized vision for prospects.
The degree of attention that goes into successful outcome-based selling is rarely lost on the customer it revolved around. You've provided them with a vision based on contributing as much value to their operations as possible — so in most cases, they'll come to see more value in what your business can provide them in return.
It can improve and sustain customer loyalty.
This point is essentially an extension of the previous one. Selling based on outcome is one of the better ways to project your business's personal investment in your prospect's company's individual success.
It's a demonstration of loyalty to the customer, and in many cases, that loyalty winds up going both ways. Outcome-based selling is built on relationship-building — and if you do it right and deliver on your promises, the businesses you serve will be happy to maintain the relationships you develop with them.
It can provide your customer success team with a viable roadmap.
An outcome-based selling effort sets clear expectations for both you and your prospect. Ideally, it will establish a vision for a viable future that your product or service can shape for your new customer — at the same time, it gives your business a clear sense of what that new customer wants from your offering.
Having a pulse on both of those elements can help guide your customer success team. The insight that comes with outcome-based selling gives that department a more concrete picture of a customer's goals, an understanding of what that customer knows about your offering, and a sense of how those factors can play off of one another.
Taken together, those factors can help set a productive roadmap that your customer success team can reference when structuring their relationship with a new customer.
Outcome-based selling is a customer-first sales strategy that often requires more thought, effort, personalization, and imagination than other brands of sales. That said, if you can master the process, you'll be in an excellent position to close more deals and minimize customer churn, down the line.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.