Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Distillation of Solution Selling

A few months ago we did a training course on Solution Selling, and yesterday I bought the book. After reading the introduction -- a bit more to go! -- thought that it would be a useful exercise to try to describe its essence in my own words:

Solutions Selling is a codification of smart sales practices by Mike Bosworth dating back to 1983. Originally Bosworth went straight from College to pursue a career in the technical support at Xerox corp., before it was suggested that he try his hand at sales, which he did (at first reluctantly). The book was published in 1995.

A Consultative Approach
Rather than foist your product on an unwilling (or even willing) prospect the Solutions Selling approach encourages you take the buyer's perspective and work with him or her in a non-pitchy way. By the end of the process a decision to buy should be a "no-brainer":
  • the customer should feel ownership of the resulting solution
  • the value should be evident to the customer how the purchase leads to enhanced capabilities
  • these enhancements should be quantifiable, so that the purchase price is justified to other people in the customer's organization
  • the customer should feel personally empowered by the experience and the result
  • the personal relationship with the salesperson should be perceived as positive
Solution selling lends itself particularly well to large complex offerings. For example
  • Service and product combination
  • When you compete on customization and/or integration
However, the principles can be applied on smaller scales as well, exercising judgment about how much and which parts of the process to apply.

Let's divide prospective customers into groups / stages:
  1. Not in target market: No need for your offering(s).
  2. Latent need: Not aware of a need that could be satisfied by purchase
  3. In pain: Aware of the need ("in pain"), but unaware of how your offering can help
  4. Vision creation: The prospect has a vision or a "Solution", ideally including your offering
The key is to be aware of where the prospect is between steps two-to-four, and not get out-of-synch. with the prospect. Classic example: There's no point trying to tell someone that they need your product if they don't perceive it that way.

  1. If the prospect is in group 1, go after someone else rather than try to sell them something they simply don't need. Better to steer them in the right direction and build trust and respect for the longer term.
  2. If the prospect is in group two, use appropriate questioning to get more clarity, but also to move the prospect toward a clear perception that they have a real need (which would move them into group 3)
  3. Quantify the pain, find out who else in the client organization is affected (and go talk to them), find out who has the power to buy, find out which hypothetical capabilities would enable them to address their pain
  4. Two possibilities: They are already heavily leaning towards a competing vendor's vision / offering (you need to realize this, and use FUD to un-sell them and get them to come over to your vision -- "re-engineering"), or use what was learned previously to put forward a jointly-developed vision that they know will give them real, quantifiable value.
The actual Solutions Selling methodology explicitly fleshes out how to do it!

It includes lots of advice and tools including a detailed and distinctive nine-block vision processing model.

Challenges in putting it into practice
Naturally, Solutions Selling is not a panacea (silver-bullet):

In a freely available McKinsey & Co. report (registration required), Solutions Selling: Is the pain worth the gain?, the following points are made:
Unfortunately, our discussions with over 60 solutions sellers suggest that three out of four companies selling solutions fail to see sustainable economic impact.
They suggest that some possible keys to getting Solutions Selling to work well (my emphasis):
First, you have to understand how a solution is positioned in terms of two key variables, customization and integration. This positioning drives the basis of your competitive advantage and - most crucially -the "pain/gain" trade-offs you need to understand.

Then, you have to execute quite differently from a standard product-based go-to-market model in at least the first two - and preferably all - of five key dimensions:
  1. Create distinctive solutions value propositions using customer business metrics, not product price/performance metrics.
  2. Radically change the selling approach, and if necessary, the sales talent.
  3. Price solutions based on total business value delivered, not component features.
  4. Align the entire organization, not just sales, with the solutions opportunity.
  5. Maintain control of all aspects of implementation to ensure end-to-end value delivery.
Solutions selling is not for everyone. But for those who understand and can implement these imperatives, there is tremendous upside.
Comment: The essential dimensions, one and two, on my reading amount simply to properly applying certain parts of Solutions Selling properly (as distinct, I suppose, from paying lip-service).

However, this may not always be simple. The report suggests that on average 2/3 of salespeople with a background in product-centered sales are unable to successfully make the shift to Solutions Selling. They recommend that "stars" be recruited from other areas, suggesting that star-sellers are either:
  • Already doing things similar to Solutions Selling (so the shift is smaller),
  • Are more adaptable than regular salespeople in terms of trying a different approach, or
  • Will be successful independent of the methodological approach adopted by the sales-team!

Solutions Selling is a consultative sales methodology that reminds me a bit of the Getting to Yes school of negotiation in that it aims to move away from negative relations between the two parties (e.g. adversarial, distrust, fear) towards cooperative problem-solving to seek out win-wins.

It has repercussions for the individual salesperson in that it encourages a specific systematic approach, but promises improvements in:
  • efficiently deciding which opportunities to pursue
  • improved client engagement
  • better professional relationships and reputation
leading to conversion-rate, sales figures and referrals. For the organizations that successfully embrace it, better sales performance is anticipated, but the following are needed:
  • Suitable organizational alignment with suitable offerings and pricing
  • Sales and other staff to execute on the approach (or at least most of it)
Granted organizational alignment, it stands to reason that certain organizational initiatives can increase the likelihood of individual and company-wide success when adopting Solutions Selling (and similar approaches):
  1. Training
  2. Mentoring
  3. Recruiting
  4. Technological support (tools that make the tasks easier, help apply essential parts of the methodology appropriately)

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