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

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.

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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 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 who 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.

Selling Solutions, Not Products

Selling solutions means thinking beyond the immediate. Cliche as it might sound, it's about the bigger picture. Product specs and features are important, but they're not the focal point of well-executed solution selling.

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, and offer a picture of how that company can expect to improve as a result of its engagement with the firm.

That 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, and 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.

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’ perception 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 Sales Process

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

  1. Prospect: Look for a buyer with a problem their product solves
  2. Qualify: Understand the decision-making unit (DMU)
  3. Discovery: Diagnose the buyer’s needs
  4. Add value: Develop a customer champion; gain access to key decision makers
  5. Present: Share a custom solution; demonstrate its ROI
  6. Close: Come to a mutually beneficial agreement

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?

Is Solution Sales Dead?

Some believe solution selling isn’t effective anymore.

The Challenger Sale authors Brent Adamson, Matt Dixon, and Nicholas Toman argue, “Customers didn’t know how to solve their own problems, even though they often had a good understanding of what their problems were. But now, owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves.”

That point seems to be consistent with a 2018 study from Miller Heiman Group which revealed that roughly 70% of B2B buyers fully define their needs before engaging with a sales representative.

That's why Adamson, Dixon, and Toman say a solution sales rep “can be more of an annoyance than an asset.”

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. That said, a survey from Rain Group found that 70% of buyersagree that sales winners craft compelling solutions.

And in spite of their assertion that a sales rep can be annoyance, solution selling is still the concept Adamson, Dixon, and Toman preach in The Challenger Sale.

Salespeople who follow this model look for customers with emerging needs or 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.

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Originally published Dec 9, 2020 7:15:00 AM, updated December 09 2020


Sales Methodology