Solution Selling: The Ultimate Guide

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost


You've probably heard of solution selling — it might even be your strategy of choice.

salesman asks prospects questions to understand his needs and sell him a solution

It's a sales methodology that became popular in the 1980s, and it's based on a pretty simple premise: A salesperson diagnoses their prospect’s needs, then recommends the right products and/or services to accommodate them.

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The prospect might not know they have a problem or opportunity, let alone what it looks like, how urgent or important it is, and how they should address it. That makes the salesperson an important resource — one that can help a prospect both understand and react to their situation.

Solution selling is one of the best ways salespeople can sell with empathy. It also takes critical thought and a firm grasp on a prospect's general circumstances.

In some cases, selling a product for the sake of selling a product can be fairly surface level.

Selling a solution runs deeper. You need some degree of knowledge of a prospect's industry, the unique challenges they face, what similar customers have gone through, and their overall goals to diagnose and present solutions for their problems.

This kind of selling is common among certain businesses and suits some specific situations. Let's take a closer look at those elements.

When is solution selling used?

Solution selling is ideal for industries with highly customized products and/or packages. For example, a company that offers a cloud storage platform along with maintenance and security services will probably create a unique bundle for each of its customers.

The salesperson will figure out how much data her prospect needs to store, how many devices he'll be accessing his files on, what kind of extra features and support he'll need, and so forth.

This brand of sales emphasizes the "why" over the "what" of a potential sale. "What" your selling takes a back seat to "why" your prospect needs it. Consider a cybersecurity consulting firm trying to sell a midsize retail business a cybersecurity risk assessment.

If the firm was fixated on solely selling the assessment itself, it would mull over the general benefits of the service — "Our assessments cover virtually every relevant risk concern and help businesses understand where they have room to grow. Long story short, we make them more secure."

If that firm sold the service as a solution, it would probably:

  • Pin down the risks most relevant to the prospect's industry.
  • Determine the common security challenges a business of that size might face.
  • Stress the specific aspects of the assessment that cover those bases
  • Offer a picture of how that company can expect to improve as a result of its engagement with the firm.

This kind of approach might start with something like this:

"We find that retail outlets, like yours, tend to employ younger workers who are more prone to social engineering attacks like phishing. Our assessments feature penetration testing to simulate those breaches and see where and how you might be most vulnerable to them — along with several other services to cover virtually any other risk scenario.

"Ultimately, we have an exceptional track record working within your industry. The risk forecasts and actionable solutions that come with our assessments can help you bolster your cybersecurity infrastructure, appropriately train your staff, and get ahead of any vulnerabilities that can compromise the safety and soundness of your retail transactions and business operations going forward."

It's the difference between "what" and "why" that separates the two concepts. In most cases, it helps to support your description of "what" the product is with an idea of "why" it will be valuable.

Solution Selling Benefits and Disadvantages

Now that you know a little bit about solution selling, let’s dive into the pros and cons of using this method so you can decide if it’s the right strategy for your team.

One great thing about solution selling is that it uses a tailored approach to selling. Many times, sales reps try to fit the prospect to the product instead of the other way around.

With solution selling, it’s all about understanding the prospect’s needs and understanding which features within your products or services will benefit them most.

As such, customers don’t feel like they’re just being sold features, but instead are getting answers to their bigger scale business issues.

As for the disadvantages, there are a few to consider. Solution selling often requires following a question-and-answer format, this can lead to a conversation that’s quite stale and inflexible.

You may also find that reps rely too heavily on their set of questions and don’t allow the conversation to flow naturally. Prospects may feel like the conversation feels more like an interrogation that will corner them into making a purchase.

Lastly, some argue that solution selling is less valuable today, as prospects already know what solutions they need. Because so much information is readily available to anyone online, prospects no longer rely as heavily on sales reps for diagnosing and solutioning.

They may have already done their research and reached the stage where it’s all about comparing prices and terms.

That’s why some sales leaders opt for insight selling, in which sales reps help prospects understand their unknown needs rather than known ones.

Get Started With Solution Selling

Use this three-step plan to begin solution selling:

1. Identify common pain points.

Figuring out your customers’ most common pain points might be the most important part of the process — without this information, you can’t effectively target prospects or present your solution.

Analyze your won deals to see which problems prompted prospects to buy your product. Ask them, "What factored into your decision to work with us? " and "When did you decide to solve [problem], and why? "

2. Develop your questions.

Once you’ve figured out the most pressing problems your product solves for buyers, develop a set of questions that’ll help you diagnose prospects.

Having the right questions prepared means you’ll spend the majority of the sales conversation focused on the buyer and their company, rather than your product and its features.

Start with broad, open-ended questions that probe into the relevant aspects of your prospect’s business. Then get more narrow — you’re looking for specific facts and figures that will help you build a case for your solution.

3. Practice selling value.

Solution selling is effective because it focuses on the ROI of a product, not its feature set or sticker price. Whether you’re a sales manager or individual salesperson, make sure you understand and can demonstrate your product’s value.

It might be helpful to consider these questions:

  • How is life easier with your product? Which challenges or tasks are eliminated or reduced?
  • Does your product save the buyer time? If so, how much? What could they accomplish in those minutes, hours, or days?
  • Does your product save the buyer money? If so, how much? What could they accomplish with that amount?
  • How does your product influence others’ perceptions of your prospect? Do they look more credible, important, effective, or successful?
  • What’s the impact on your prospect’s bottom line one month after buying your product? Six months? A year?

Practice highlighting the answers to these questions to your prospects.

"Solution selling" is used pretty broadly these days, but salespeople using this methodology typically follow this sales process:

Graphic showing the 6 steps of the solution selling methodology

Solution Selling Questions

To accurately diagnose your prospect’s pain points, you need the right questions. There are three main goals of this stage (typically the discovery call):

  1. Identify the causes: Which factors are responsible for the buyer’s pain? How are they ranked in terms of importance and impact?
  2. Calculate the magnitude: How is this pain affecting your prospect, their team, other departments, and/or the entire company? How many people will benefit from solving the problem?
  3. Get buy-in: Gauge the buyer’s interest in life with your product. Are they excited about the solution you can provide?

To give you an idea, here are sample questions for each objective.

Identify the causes:

  • How has [problem] gotten to [current state]?
  • How significant is [factor]?
  • Have you seen [factor they haven’t considered] making any impact on [problem]?

Calculate the magnitude:

  • How has this problem changed your [daily, weekly] workload and focus?
  • How has this problem affected your [coworkers, boss, direct reports]?
  • What does [job title] think about this problem?

Get buy-in:

  • In a world where [problem] doesn’t exist, what’s different about [your results, your priorities, the company’s success]?
  • We can solve [problem] with [X solution]. What do you think?

Solution Selling Books: 3 Helpful Resources

1. "Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets" by Michael Bosworth

Originally published in 1995, this book is one of the most comprehensive and popular pieces on solution selling. It’s authored by Bosworth, a successful B2B sales leader with over 20 years of experience.

The book offers a blueprint on how to sell products and/or services for which traditional sales techniques aren’t effective. It dives into the issues both sales reps and prospects face during the sales process, offers use cases to facilitate understanding, and presents solutions to common roadblocks.

While things have certainly changed since the publication of this book, there are fundamental principles that still apply today. It’s what you’d call an oldie but a goodie.

2. "The New Solution Selling" by Keith M. Eades

Nearly 10 years after the original "Solution Selling" book was published, Eades published what many call the sequel.

While many sequels fail to live up to the hype, this one doesn’t disappoint.

In this book, Eades builds off known solution-selling concepts and introduces new ones. He presents a more streamlined approach to solution selling to help sales teams achieve their goals.

Need another reason to buy this? It comes with a workbook, which will further your understanding of the concepts introduced in the book and help you implement them in your day-to-day.

3. "Solution Selling: The Strongman Process" by Ed Wal

One of the most recent books on this sales tactic was published in 2016 by sales trainer Ed Wal.

It’s been described as a must-read, "no-nonsense" book that gets straight to the point and provides step-by-step instructions on how to sell solutions.

Because this book was written so recently, it tackles solution selling from a modern perspective. Accounting for changes in both how sales reps and consumers operate.

Is solution sales dead?

Some believe solution selling isn’t effective anymore.

Since 2012, sales leaders Brent Adamson, Matt Dixon, and Nicholas Toman have argued that a solution sales rep can be more of an annoyance than an asset.

"Customers didn’t know how to solve their own problems, even though they often had a good understanding of what their problems were," they write in their book "The Challenger Sale. "But now, owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves."

But that's not to say that solution selling has lost all relevance. It’s always possible to reveal problems buyers don’t know they have.

Salespeople who follow this model look for customers with emerging needs or who are in flux who can make decisions quickly. For example, a rep might target a company with a brand-new CEO who’s looking to make their mark.

"Since they’re already reexamining the status quo, these customers are looking for insights and are naturally more receptive to the disruptive ideas that star performers bring to the table," the authors write.

They give an example of a top business services salesperson who walked into an hour-long RFP presentation with several executives.

He handed them his firm’s report.

"Because we have only 60 minutes together, I’m going to let you read that on your own," the rep said. "I’d like to use our time to walk you through the three things we believe should have been in the RFP but weren’t, and to explain why they matter so much."

The executive team dismissed the other two vendors and began the RFP process from scratch.

Is this solution selling? In this example, the salesperson didn’t conform to his prospect’s needs — he redefined them. Nonetheless, the focus on needs and solutions is still there. I’d say this is an updated form of solution selling.

The core principles of solution selling are valuable whether you follow the methodology to the tee or use a different one: Consider how your product can help your prospect specifically, then craft them a custom solution or strategy.

Take this approach, and you'll never hurt for sales.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in Dec 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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