Solution-Based Selling Techniques
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the world of sales in the past 30+ years, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about Solution-Based Selling.
Started back in the 1970s, solution-based selling was something of a game changer for the sales industry. It was a paradigm shift that took everything we knew about the process of convincing leads to buy products and flipped it on its head. It offers not lists of features and benefits, but instead focuses on solutions to problems and pain points.
And while many have proclaimed that solution-based selling is now ineffective (or dead…), that’s not entirely true. Solution-based selling as we knew it in the 1980s may not be as effective as it once was, but like all things, the technique has evolved.
Today, we’re going to look at how you can implement some new solution-based selling techniques into your sales repertoire to make sure you’re not only helping your customers find the product solutions they need, but closing the deal in the process.
What is Solution-Based Selling?
Before we get into the intricacies of improving your solution-based selling program, let’s take a moment to define what, exactly, solution-based selling is.
As Keith M. Eades explains in The New Solution Based Selling, SBS programs are a type of sales and selling methodology. Solution selling has a salesperson or sales team use a selling process that is problem-led (rather than product-led). This helps to determine if and how a change in a product could bring about specific improvements that are desired by the customer.
This was a pretty dramatic change from the old approach to sales. That methodology found salespeople regaling potential customers with all the features and benefits of an item. It often highlighted how their particular product was better (and/or cheaper…) than the other products on the market.
The solution-based selling sales model scrapped that in favor of a more organic approach. The sales person focused on having the potential customer figure out something they were struggling with. Then reverse engineered a solution-based on one of their existing products.
The shift away from “we” the company selling the product to “you” the customer was important. It made potential customers feel less like they were being sold to, and more like they were being helped.
And that was a game changer.
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Is Consultative Selling the Same as Solution-Based Selling?
At this juncture, we should stop for a minute to talk about consultative selling. Why? Because many people wonder if it’s the same thing as solution-based selling.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers – this could be an entire article of its own. However, for our purposes here, they are largely interchangeable. A consultative selling program does essentially the same thing as the solution-based approach. It consults with a potential customer to help them figure out something they’re struggling with. Then offers up a solution that provides a “win” for both sides. The customer has a problem solved, the sales person has closed a deal.
So, solution-based sales techniques and consultative selling techniques are essentially the same thing. At least for the purposes of this article.
Is Solution-Based Selling Dead?
Sales, like marketing, is a field that’s never met a buzzword it didn’t like. It’s also a field all too eager to declare things “dead” in order to promote some new variation of the thing we insist no longer works.
When something’s been around as long as solution-based selling, it’s inevitable that people will sound the death knell sooner or later. Which is what’s been happening with this technique for years now.
But is solution-based selling no longer viable? All signs seemingly point to “no.”
Yes, solution-based selling as practiced 30 years ago is a bit long in the tooth – but like so many things, it’s evolved. The core principles are as valid now as they were in the Carter administration. The principals of focusing on your customer’s pain points by helping them discover them, and then offering solutions.
What’s changed – and will presumably continue to change — is how sales people qualify their leads, what questions they ask, and who they target.
And evolve it must. Businesses come into the buying process with far greater information and more legwork done than at any time in recent history.
Don’t just take our word for it, though. Here are some sobering statistics from a Harvard Business Review article:
“In fact, a recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers completed, on average, nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision—researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on—before even having a conversation with a supplier.”
Despite proclamations to the contrary, this isn’t the death knell for solution-based selling. Rather, it is a reminder that your sales team is going to need to up their game by adjusting their solution-based selling techniques.
Solution-Based Sales Techniques
We have defined what solution-based selling is, and determined that it is not in fact dead. Now let’s go over some of the techniques your salespeople can use to help your customers solves their most pressing problems. While also closing the deal.
One quick note. If you’re reading this and thinking all the old solution-based selling techniques you used in the ‘80s and ‘90s have future-proofed you, think again. Yes, solution-based selling’s demise has been at least somewhat exaggerated. However, you’re going to need to understand insight selling techniques if you want to be truly effective in today’s market.
1. Figure Out the Customer’s Problem
In the early days of solution selling, the sales person talked to a lead and tried to get them to share a potential problem or pain point they were struggling with.
Then that sales person would work backwards. They’d figure out a way to tailor their offering to perfectly solve that problem for the business and would then oftentimes close the deal.
In the 21st century, this is a terrible approach.
Companies do their homework now – and by the time they approach sales for an RFP they’ve already done the heavy lifting part of the purchasing process. The sales person is almost extraneous in this process now.
So, how does the solution seller get back into the conversation? By finding problems the company has that they’re not already aware of.
Providing solutions to problems the company doesn’t know they have is a great way for a solution-based seller to provide value. This technique requires a bit more insight than simply asking open-ended questions. That technique is less effective now than ever before. Being a sales person isn’t enough – you’ve got to think like a consultant and problem solver in today’s marketplace.
2. Can the Scripted Communications
These days, people know the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine conversation. If you’re approaching prospects with the same old deck of open-ended questions that are staler than the box of Animal Crackers in the back of your pantry, you’re headed for failure.
In the past, a solution-based seller could rely on his expertise to build trust with a potential customer. In the modern era, companies have teams of people capable of doing their own product research. Most of the time, sales people aren’t involved in the process until much later. This means that more than ever before, the opportunity for the seller to build trust with the customer is much smaller.
As such, you’ve got to hit the ground running – and a stack of the same old questions isn’t going to cut it. Sales in the 21st century can feel a lot like an elevator pitch. You’ve got two minutes to make an impression and win them over. So, do it by providing insight and value as opposed to tired questions.
Prove that you have a deep understanding of the potential client’s business and issues and you’ll win the trust of the prospect.
3. When Possible, Teach
It’s not enough to just figure out the problem your customer has that they’re not aware of. You also have to teach them why this problem is something that needs addressing and how they can overcome the obstacle.
Hopefully your first reaction is not that “teaching” means teaching them how your specific production can be a solution to the problem. If it is, then you’re missing the point and your lead is going to shut you down in many instances.
If you’ve been brought in late in the process when they’ve asked for an RFP, the customer already knows enough about your product to be interested. Instead, this is your opportunity to probe deeper (but not with the canned questions…). Figure out the pain points that have allowed this problem to exist.
In the modern solution-based selling system, the sales person is every bit as much a problem solver as a salesman. In many cases, they’re actually more of a problem solver than a sales person. You’re still offering solutions, but the focus is primarily on the customer’s problem and not how your product can solve it.
If you’re not teaching leads and potential customers on how to better resolve the problems they didn’t know they had, then you’re going to find closing sales much harder than anticipated.
4. Change How You Target Leads
In years past, most sales teams would prioritize potential customers in the same way. They’d look for companies with a problem that required change, with a clearly defined vision. And one that had a well-established process for making purchasing decisions.
That method isn’t really practical anymore.
In this Harvard Business Review article, research shows that top sellers (“defined as those in the top 20% of quota attainment”) target potential customers in a totally different way.
Rather than focus on the tried and true, the best salespeople today are instead looking for what are defined as “agile customers”
These customers are the ones that are predetermined to be ready and able to act quickly when presented with a viable solution to a problem. They’re not bogged down in processes where purchasing decisions drag on for weeks, months (or years even).
They also look for places in what they call “organizational flux.”
These are companies that are defined as experiencing external or internal upheaval. As the HBR article points out, this could be regulatory reform, management changes, or any number of factors.
The point is, these are companies where radical change is now part of the daily routine. This makes it easier for a solution-based seller to come in and pitch new ideas without upsetting the status quo.
Neither of these situations would be potential targets in the classic solution-based selling approach. But in today’s market, these are the whales the captains look to land.
Change creates opportunity – and that’s especially true here.
5. Target the Right Person in the Company
Taking this a step further, once top sales people have found the right company, they’ve changed their approach about who to ally with on the inside as well.
In the past, salespeople were taught to look for “advocates” inside the organization. The idea was that these people would pave the way for gaining access to decision makers and help push a potential sale through.
There have been lists of traits to look for in potential advocates for decades – but in the modern world the advocate isn’t the target anymore.
Now it’s all about what are commonly referred to as “mobilizers.”
The researchers behind the HBR article break down all the individuals who make up the various client archetypes. They do so in far more detail than is necessary here. But the gist of the mobilizer grouping is that it’s comprised of people who are teachers, go-getters, and skeptics.
You might find yourself thinking “skeptics? That sounds counterproductive…”
The thing is, the mobilizers tend to share one common trait. They’re all interested in creating change and finding new, more efficient ways to solve problems. See how this might appeal to someone using a solution-based sales approach?
Getting the mobilizer onboard is often more challenging than the traditional advocate. This is because they’re not interested in you, in your company, or your product beyond how it can help their company. But if you can provide a solution to a problem a mobilizer doesn’t realize they have? The odds of making a quick sale increase dramatically.
These are the contacts you should be looking to make.
As you can see, solution-based selling has changed a lot over the course of the past few years. Businesses have become more savvy and aware of what their own challenges are and what solutions are available. Because of this, the solution-based sales team has had to adapt.
That’s all right, though – change is good.
And while the claims that solution-based and consultative selling are dead have been common, what we’re really seeing is a sales system that is simply mutating to keep up with the times.
While the techniques might have evolved and the buzzword names may have changed, you’re still solving customer problems. You’re still having conversations. You’re still helping customers find solutions. Whether we call that solution-based sales, insight sales, or something else entirely, the foundation remains the same.
Utilizing these tips can not only help you bring your sales strategy into the 21st century, they can help improve your bottom line.
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