This Harvard Business Review article: The End of Solution Sales, is stirring up a pot of controversy in the sales training/leadership space. Essentially, the authors argue that the consultative, needs-focused “solution selling” model of the 1980s and 90s is now more of an irritant than an effective approach to convincing business-to-business clients to purchase from us.
In the solution selling model, sales reps are taught to ask questions rather than simply push their products or services. With insights into their clients’ needs, they can craft a presentation that addresses these problems and brings in the business.
The problem, say Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman, is that these days, most business-to-business clients already know the solutions, through Internet research. When they reach the stage of calling a potential supplier’s sales department, they are now quite ready to make a purchase — but now the primary issue is price. Essentially, “we know the problem, we know the solution, here it is, so can you deliver it to us at the best price.” The sales rep is then put in the role of an order-taker and he had better be low.
The writers suggest that what has happened is this: In the 80s and 90s, much key information that could help address the problems was unavailable publicly. So a sales representative, with specialized technical knowledge (or access to the necessary resources) could discern the problems by asking the right questions, and then tailor-make a solution that the clients could not practically perceive. Today, this data is available on the web — so intrusive, dumb questions about “needs” to determine the “solution” just wastes the clients’ time and could even be irritating to them.
Now, the logical question is, how can you overcome this problem because obviously low-price order taking isn’t good for anyone’s margins. Clearly, as well, some reps are doing well despite the limitations here. The answer seems to be in finding the right kind of clients; ones where growth, change and evolution are such that the client does not have the resources or built-in systems to do the “solutions” research; or where the story is changing so rapidly that innovation is still possible. The other approach is to build such rapport and value to the client business that you are helping to determine the problems even before the client knows they are there. This gets you into the space of drawing up the specs and even writing the RFP — so when it is released, you are obviously in the winning space.
Not everyone agrees with the authors’ premise here. Personally, I’m not sure there is much change from before. If you wait for a client to call you to make a quote — or your attitude to marketing is simply to sign up for leads services and rush like a lemming to bid on publicly announced RFPs — you will always be caught in the “low price wins” space, or worse, simply be a foil for the contractors or consultants who have set things up to win for themselves.
Here marketing assumes a much greater role in the selling process: Setting the stage to build the reputation and make the connections so that the early leads can be nutured and developed effectively. The solution to the “solution selling” problem may well be in looking to the beginning: Who asks the first question?