Solution selling isn’t as dead as some people thought!

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, salespeople had a clearly defined role. They called on prospective customers, asked a lot of questions in an attempt to understand their customer’s needs, and in many instances they inadvertently helped their customers crystallise their thinking and clarify their needs.

At that time salespeople controlled the sales process and comfortably directed their buyers. And buyers were happy to be led because they didn’t know any better.

Back in the 1970s, salespeople had an important role to play in providing customers with the right kind of information needed to make a purchase decision. As custodians of their product knowledge they doled out their “wisdom”, helping customers understand how their needs could be satisfied with the benefits of the products or services they were selling.

Remember that at the time needs satisfaction was viewed as a revolutionary approach to selling. It changed the playing field and forced salespeople to take greater notice of their customers’ needs and expectations. It taught salespeople to understand the importance of asking questions and explaining benefits that addressed the needs uncovered.

Since then, of course, things have changed. Buyers, who once had no option but to turn to salespeople for information, can now get that data, and much more, without the pressure of being sold to. They control the sales process – not the salesperson. As a result, many salespeople have woken up to the reality that their job changed without them being aware!

A study done by US-based SirisDecisions in November 2011 showed that decision-makers complete upwards of 70% of the purchase-making process before calling in salespeople. The question is why?

It is, according to Peter Finkelstein, head of sales strategy at Barrett: “Because salespeople are so busy selling, they didn’t give customers a chance to buy…”

In the aftermath of needs satisfaction selling salespeople have become so concerned about understanding buyer needs that they enter every sales call geared to ask questions. The challenge is that they ask the questions but fail to listen to answers, unless these responses are around acceptance of their product features and benefits.

In short, trained to ask questions about the customer’s need for the product or services they are selling, salespeople have overlooked the fact their customers now have easy access to the internet and no longer need to turn to them to explain the features and benefits. Instead, what customers are asking for are salespeople who are prepared to understand their customers’ business and who are skilled at helping them optimise the value of what they have decided they need.

On the upside for buyers is the plethora of choice. On the downside is the confusion that so much choice encourages.

Salespeople who have the skills of developing trust-based relationships, consulting, problem-solving, leadership, business and competitive strategy, risk and change management and who are prepared to explain how their offerings can facilitate buyer requirements, already have a competitive advantage because they have made the shift from needs satisfaction to solutions selling.

These sales professionals aren’t seen by customers as salespeople, but rather as enduring resources – knowledgeable professionals who can be trusted; who are unbiased and who have their customer’s best interests at heart, without compromising their own organisations.

This newly defined role places an enormous burden on salespeople, unless they are prepared to step up to the plate, make some changes and learn to apply both skills and behaviour in a more effective way. And if the pressure is on salespeople, so too are organisations under pressure to develop a whole new approach to sales structures, selling, sales leadership, remuneration, recognition and reward.

In the B2B context, solution selling is about understanding the impact a situation has on a customer’s business and then working with the customer to systematically, and with as little risk as possible, resolve the challenge.

To achieve this, “solutions sales professionals” – at Barrett we like to call these salespeople “sales fit professionals” – do the following:

  • Work in companies that are flexible and that recognise they need to partner with other companies to provide a total, best fit solution.
  • Have sales professionals who understand the importance of asking three key questions – what, which and why, and not progressing until they and the customer understand the responses.
  • Work tirelessly to earn the trust of the decision-makers so that they are included in the buyer’s strategic decision-making process.
  • Never offer suggestions or solutions, but rather engage in group thinking about implications to arrive at the best solution, before considering specifics.
  • Work with their customers once the purchase has been made, to help them optimise the value of what they already bought.

All of this demands a new approach. Salespeople have to acquire a new mindset just as much as they do a new skills set.

They need to learn to work with their customers throughout the purchasing process, rather than trying to sell their products or services; they need to understand what options the buyer has and the consequence of each of these options.

As a result, they need to have more serious discussions with their customers, but they can’t do that if all they are thinking of is selling their products. That means that solutions salespeople need to learn more about business and problem solving techniques than about product features and benefits; more about buyer behaviour than product pack sizes, etc.

Something else that has emerged along with the increased urgency for solutions selling is a range of what can best be described as “snake oil salesmen” pushing their version of solutions selling as if it were the new mystical and magic potion.

Fortunately most sales leaders are too wise to be caught out with the repackaging concepts. They already have insight into the way they should be selling and have been pushing to migrate to solutions selling for some time.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments. Her business Barrett P/L partners with its clients to improve their sales operations. Visit


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