There is an article in the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review titled “The End of Solution Sales” by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman. Their premise is that customers today are so well informed that they already know how to solve their own problems, so they don’t need sales reps to sell them solutions. Instead, the top performers sell “insights” to customers who have emerging needs or whose organizations are in a state of flux. They then go further, coaching their customers on how to buy.
Dave Brock took exception to their premise in his latest blog post. He offered an eloquent defense of the concept of solution selling, saying that the article is “wordsmithing and positioning”, and that insight selling is just a form of solution selling. As he said, “…if it looks like Solution Selling, smells like Solution Selling, sounds like Solution Selling, then it must be Solution Selling.” So, he lumps the two concepts together and then also throws Consultative Selling into the same pile for good measure.
My own perspective on the debate is that selling insights is different than solution selling, but that solution selling is still far from dead.
Definitions do matter…
I believe it’s useful to distinguish between the approaches, because it helps to point out some different behaviors in each. In my own book, Bottom-Line Selling, I differentiate between Solution Selling and Consultative Selling in a couple of different ways, but the primary one is that in Solution Selling, customers already know they have a problem and are searching for the best approach to solve it; in Consultative Selling, they may not be aware of the need or opportunity yet, and the salesperson brings fresh ideas to them or points out unrecognized needs. When you see it this way, my definition of Consultative Selling quacks more like the Insight Selling duck.
Why does it matter? Because it might at least remind the salesperson to look beyond the stated problem and bring up fresh insights—but only if they need to.
…but Solution Selling is far from dead
Because Dave is absolutely correct that not all customers need to be Challenged. Sometimes if they know their problem and you have the right solution, it would be ridiculous to try to “upsell” them on other opportunities. Close the deal and then maybe worry about it afterwards. By the same token, sometimes you don’t even need to sell Solutions. If someone wants the product you sell, and you can give it to them at the price you want, why would you spend any extra time diagnosing their problems? When you walk into an Apple store, do the sales “geniuses” spend a lot of time asking how you’re going to use the iPad you want so eagerly? In fact, Apple shows that sometimes your features may be so compelling that even pointing out their benefits is superfluous.
As it applies to selling, the most effective approach depends on the customer’s situation. Sometimes you need Consultative/Challenger Selling to win, sometimes Solution Selling, and sometimes just good old-fashioned FAB selling. In some cases, your features may even speak for themselves. In some cases, you use elements of each even within a particular sales opportunity. For example, you might solve the customer’s stated problem and then provide insight about one small part of their situation. Or, the customer may fully understand their problem but might not be aware of a new technology. So, saying any one type of selling is no longer necessary is like saying you no longer need to be able to walk just because you bought a bike.
When I was a kid, one of the running arguments was about who would win in a real fight: a heavyweight boxer, a wrestler, or Bruce Lee. Kids today don’t argue about who would win a real fight. With mixed martial arts, the question has been answered. The best boxer or wrestler does not win. The one who wins consistently is the one who is most well-rounded and can adapt to circumstances as they arise.
(By the way, Dave also has the parenthetical observation that he thought the days of “pitching” were dead, and guesses that’s untrue as well. I definitely think it’s untrue, or my year and a half spent writing Strategic Sales Presentations was a complete waste of time.)