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Is Solution Selling Really Dead?

August 16, 2012 | By Jim Ninivaggi

In my view, recent articles and blog posts positioning newer, provocation-based selling approaches have whitewashed, oversimplified and frankly misrepresented the history of solution selling. Here are some observations.

For Baby Boomers (and even Gen Xers) who carried the bag earlier in our careers, those were the good old days of selling. All we needed to do was wait for buyers to come to us with their needs, ask them questions, align our offerings to meet their requirements and close the deal. It was so easy then.

Or was it?

If we’re to believe all the hype about the death of solution selling, I’ve just described the world of yesteryear’s salesperson (it certainly was not my yesteryear – I had to engage plenty of prospects who initially saw no need for what I was selling). However, in my view, recent articles and blog posts positioning newer, provocation-based selling approaches have whitewashed, oversimplified and frankly misrepresented the history of solution selling. Some observations:

  • Having covered other training techniques for several years, I can’t think of a single one recommending that the salesperson simply follow along with the needs of the buyer. Virtually every legacy consultative/solution sales training program began with the premise that you were likely going to deal with a buyer who initially did not see a need for your offerings. Neil Rackham, known as “the professor of professional selling,” called them “latent needs.” When I was a certified trainer for PSS (the original Xerox selling system), we had an entire module focused on what we termed the “indifferent buyer” – satisfied with the status quo. We taught selling techniques designed to create enough pain or motivation to prompt that buyer to take action.

  • The notion that buyers don’t want salespeople to ask questions, preferring that the rep just tell them what they need based on compelling insights they’ve gathered, would seem to be a bit of overkill. Sure, impactful messaging, coupled with relevant insights, is a terrific way to engage a status quo buyer. But that can be complemented by an effective questioning strategy to gain a deeper understanding of the pain points – as well as foster buyer self-awareness and a growing sense of urgency. Buyers are not necessarily weary of being asked questions by reps; however, they have understandably grown tired of foolish questions that reflect failure to leverage available research to formulate an effective probing strategy. It’s clear that you’ve done your homework if you ask a buyer: “I see you completed over 65 acquisitions last year, and we understand how that can create major systems integration challenges. How would you articulate your top challenges?” A wise man once said you can show people how smart you are by the questions you ask, not just by the answers you give.

  • These newer methodologies can stand on their own merit – without the need to rewrite sales history. We certainly have a number of clients who’ve deployed some newer selling approaches with considerable success, particularly in engaging a buyer previously stuck in status quo. So, instead of just adding new approaches to create a more robust and flexible selling toolkit, why rewrite sales history by misrepresenting solution selling? Ultimately, we don't see this as an either/or scenario – you’re either provocation-based in your approach or solution-centric. Our recommendation to sales organizations: Adopt both approaches, utilizing them based on the unique aspects of each selling situation.

Jim Ninivaggi

Jim Ninivaggi is Service Director, Sales Enablement Strategies, at SiriusDecisions. Jim’s focus is on helping to deliver data, knowledge and insight that our clients need to improve sales performance and drive ROI. Follow Jim on Twitter @jninivaggi.
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