The End of Solution-Based Selling
By Jeff Thull, CEO and President of Prime Resource Group
Does this presentation sound familiar? We have the solution to meet your
needs. We will tailor our products and services so that they fit your
reality precisely. Our price is reasonable and we'll provide excellent
customer service. It's the move from selling products to selling solutions
and it's what the vast majority of all companies say to their prospects.
Perhaps you've said it to yours. If you're still selling that way, you're
missing the boat . . . the one that recently crossed over the horizon
leading to the 21st century.
The way most companies are selling solutions just doesn't work in today's
business world. Things have gotten so complex that most customers can't even
comprehend what their problems are, let alone distinguish between you and
your competitors. And too many salespeople are out there making
smoke-and-mirrors claims, simply re-labeling a collection of their products
as 'solutions,' when in reality the customer is not able to connect those
solutions to their business. And if they do buy the 'solution,' 80 percent
are dissatisfied with the value results.
Solutions offered by most companies fail to deliver real value for a variety
of reasons. Maybe the product or service itself doesn't deliver on the
promise made. Or the customer is unable to properly implement it. Or the
customer is able to implement the product or service, but his or her
expectations still aren't met. Not that the reason matters in the end.
Unless you can define, address, and connect with value on your customer's
terms, you lose.
The answer is to quit selling your solution as you would sell any other
product and start selling like a "business advisor," a job that requires the
diagnostic skills of a doctor. You must help customers unearth and
comprehend their most compelling problems. You must help them recognize the
pain they're experiencing in the absence of your solution, anticipate and
respond to problems they will face in the future, and help them manage the
pain of change they will no doubt go through as they implement your
solution. You must help your customers provide greater value to their
customers. In short, you become an indispensable source of business
I call such complex, robust, revenue-building solutions-which fully deliver
on the value you promise and often go far above and beyond customer
expectations-"prime solutions." Creating them requires the complete
consideration of the following:
• Value outcomes that the solution will generate
• Decisions that will underlie its purchase
• Challenge of implementation and usage
Clearly, this is not your grandfather's method of selling!
So how can you move away from solution-based selling and toward becoming a
prime solution provider? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:
• Commit to moving into Era Three. In Era One, which ranges from 1950
to the mid seventies, salespeople were persuaders. (This is a great product;
you need it and here's why it is the best.) In Era Two, mid seventies to the
mid nineties, salespeople became problem solvers. (Tell me what your problem
is and I'll provide you with a tailored solution.) Although this approach
lost its effectiveness a decade ago, many salespeople don't realize a shift
has occurred. They are still developing, marketing, and selling in the style
of Era Two.
In Era Three, which began around 1995 and is still in effect today, the
salesperson is seen as a source of business advantage. He or she essentially
says, "Let me help you diagnose your problem and design, evaluate, and
implement a solution that provides a high level of value to your customers
and sets you apart from the competition." Operating in Era Three is a
daunting prospect. It requires taking on the mindset of a physician and
advising the customer, and it really is a deeper, more complex process than
most salespeople are accustomed to. But if you want to gain and keep a solid
foothold in a time when your customers have an endless supply of choices,
you must do it.
• Shift your thinking about the role of salespeople. You may be
starting to suspect that some professionals steeped in a solution-focused
approach to selling are ill prepared for the brave new world of Era Three.
Sadly, this is sometimes true. Today's salespeople must function like
general managers. They must have a thorough understanding of the customer's
business, but more importantly, the business of their customer's customers.
Salespeople must be able to pinpoint where customers may be losing revenue
and failing to take advantage of opportunities. In short, they must be
highly intelligent, observant, focused, and collaborative.
Start paying close attention to the abilities, personalities, and attitudes
of your sales team. When you hire new people, look for Era Three
characteristics. Selling is no longer about psychological games and forceful
personalities. After all, the goal of the Prime Solution salesperson is not
to get a signed order. His or her goal is a high-quality decision based on
an honest, thorough, and rational evaluation of the correlation between the
customer's problem and the seller's solution. That decision may well
indicate your solution is not the best fit. You need salespeople who
recognize that is a quality outcome.
Change your position at the table.
In the first two eras of selling, the customer sat on one side of the
(metaphorical) table and the salesperson sat across from him or her on the
other. Today, both parties are on the same side of the table, sleeves rolled
up and eyes trained on the customer’s problems and opportunities. If you are
a salesperson developing a Prime Solution, you will go through the following
Discover. Here, you set the stage for a compelling engagement and a
based on trust and respect. You push beyond the traditional boundaries of
to create a solid foundation on which to build a long-term, profitable
Diagnose. You maximize the customer's objective awareness of her
not that dissatisfaction supports your company's offerings. You assist the
understanding her situation and, as a result, reinforce your credibility by
alter the customer's reality to fit your needs.
This is where you help the customer create and understand the solution. It
and highly interactive effort to help the customer sort through her
and alternatives to arrive at the optimal solution.
Deliver. You begin with the preparation and presentation of a formal
proposal, and the
formally accepts your solution. Next comes the implementation and support
solution and the measurement and evaluation of results. Finally, the Deliver
includes the maintenance and growth of the sales team's relationship with
• Take steps to end cross-functional dysfunction in your company. In
a process like the one described above, selling doesn't happen in a vacuum.
It cannot. Every department in your company-from R&D to marketing to
customer service-must work together with sales to create real value for your
customers. That means ending "cross-functional dysfunction"-the state in
which internal politics and the incessant maneuverings for corporate power
and resources cause managers to wall off access to their domains and
Since the salesperson puts himself in his customer's shoes, so must everyone
else in the company. If not, the salesperson's efforts are wasted. You need
to take a good, hard, honest look at the inner workings of your company,
and, more to the point, your culture. Successful solution development
depends on open communication and broad-based inquiries. If you see any
evidence that such information flow is being impeded, do what is necessary
to open up these channels.
Okay, you may be thinking. I understand that a solution-focused
approach may not work for all companies. But it seems to be working fine for
mine. If it ain't broken, why should I fix it . . . especially when fixing
it sounds so difficult? To companies with that attitude, a word of
No one can afford to be complacent. No one. The technological and global
changes that have taken us from Era Two into Era Three will continue to
unfold, probably in new and unforeseen directions. Your products and
services can-and will-be copied.
Only by ingraining yourself deeply and inextricably into every aspect of
your customers' day-to-day realties can you escape being replaced on a whim
or due to a sudden shift in the market. It's tough, yes, but it's a tough
marketplace. Shifting to this new paradigm will not only help you live to
see tomorrow, but it will foster in you the agility and plain old street
smarts to take your business in completely new, highly profitable
directions. Realize that and you'll see that it's well worth the effort.
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About the Author:
Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive
teams of major companies worldwide. As president and CEO of Prime Resource
Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and
professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions,
3M, Microsoft, Citicorp, Intel, IBM, and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many
fast-track, start-up companies. He has gained the reputation for being a
thought-leader in the arena of sales and marketing strategies for companies
involved in complex sales.
Jeff is a compelling, entertaining, and thought-provoking keynote speaker
with a track record of over 2,500 speeches and seminars delivered to
corporations and professional associations. Jeff Thull's work is published
in hundreds of business and trade publications. He is also the author of the
best-selling book Mastering the Complex Sale-How to Compete and Win When
the Stakes Are High and The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase
Margins, and Win the Complex Sale. To download Chapter One of The Prime
Solution, visit www.primeresource.com
For more information contact: Prime Resource Group,
www.primeresource.com, (800) 876-0378
or (763) 473-7529, 3655 Plymouth Boulevard, Suite110, Minneapolis, MN 55446.