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Solution Selling: The comprehensive guide

What is solution selling?
What are the pros and cons of solution selling?
A quick summary of the solution selling books
How to adopt the solution selling methodology
Wrapping up

On the face of it, solution selling is a simple sales methodology: A sales rep diagnoses a prospect’s needs and then recommends the right products or services to fill those needs. A solution selling strategy also demonstrates why the chosen product is a better fit than the competition.

A solution selling approach won't suit every sales team. It works most effectively when the sales reps can sell solutions alongside insights that embolden the customer to make a purchase. For sales reps who understand and can implement this methodology correctly, there is a definite upside.

What is solution selling?

Solution selling emerged as a sales methodology coined in the late 1970s by Michael Bosworth. By solving a problem, a rep finds a customer a “solution”.

Solution selling definition:

Solution-based selling tends to be a practical approach for sales teams to take. A rep finds a prospect who recognizes a problem that a supplier can solve, and then prioritizes those who are ready to act. Next, the rep asks probing questions to find a “hook” that allows them to position their company’s product or solution as the answer to the prospect’s problem.

Bosworth compiled the solution selling strategy by documenting and analyzing the behaviors of top sellers at Xerox. The methodology was shortly thereafter acquired, sold and implemented by SPI, and continues to be managed by them to this day.

SPI’s Director of Business Development, Tim Sullivan, says the methodology is continuously refined and improved to the changing market conditions, and there is ongoing research into what top-performing sellers do differently.

“It’s really a question of not so much whether or not you do Solution Selling® but how it is that you execute it,” Sullivan says.

Solution selling has paved the way for other sales approaches like SPIN selling, Consultative selling, RAIN selling, and Customer-Centric selling. The core parts of these selling strategies mirror each other: sales professionals spend a lot of time during the selling cycle persuading a customer that their product is better than their competitors.

However, to close deals using the solution sales technique, reps must go beyond talking about features and price points. Tom Abbot, from Sales Training company SOCO, says reps must pinpoint their prospect’s real-world problem, and explain how their product can solve it in the best way possible.

“Solution Selling is finding ways you can make your customers’ lives better with your product,” he says.

According to Entrepreneur, selling a solution requires changing how companies do business: Instead of pushing products, they must create genuine connections with other people. To accomplish this, there must be two variables in the selling process: customization and integration. To pull off solution selling it’s essential that your reps:

  • Build distinctive solutions and value propositions.
  • Price solutions around the total business value they’re presenting, not just flashy features. For example, they should consider the service side of the solution.
  • Align the entire company with the solution, not just the sales team
  • Give an end-to-end sales experience while also controlling every aspect of the negotiation.

As you can see, the nuts and bolts of solution sales are straightforward. However, the way in which the strategy is implemented will dictate whether it’s the right methodology for your business.

What are the pros and cons of solution selling?

One of the biggest benefits of solution selling is that it enhances the selling experience by offering support throughout the entire sales process. For example, a rep doesn’t simply sell a product to a customer and move on. With solution selling, a rep will stick with the prospect every step of their customer journey to make sure their unique problems are solved by their solution.

However, like any sales methodology, solution selling comes with its pros and cons.

Solution selling is buyer-friendly if it's done right. Your reps tell a story that allows prospects to draw their own conclusionsSolution selling can be complicated. As the model focuses on product features and services, if a prospect asks a question and your rep doesn't know the answer, it could have a negative effect on the deal.
It's been around a long time. For a selling methodology to have been around since the 70s and still in play means it is underpinned by a developed knowledge base and training system.If solution selling isn't executed correctly, it can alienate the prospect and make them feel like they're being put into a corner with leading questions.
It can be used by any sales team around the world, from small businesses to enterprise sales teams, as it focuses more on value proposition over specific features or services. The question/answer model used in solution selling can make selling conversations quite stale. The style is inflexible which makes it hard to have a flowing conversation with prospects.

A quick summary of the solution selling books

It’s interesting to know that sales teams around the world have now adopted a sales solution that was created at Xerox.

The reason for that is because Michael Bosworth, the creator of the methodology, knew that strategy was valuable, and he trademarked it. He founded the company Solution Selling® in 1983, and eventually released a book outlining everything he knew called “Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets” in 1994.

The book outlines everything Bosworth learned at Xerox, as well as at his company, Solution Selling®. One of his main arguments is that a conventional sales technique doesn’t work when products and services are:

  • Hard to describe
  • Intangible
  • Expensive
  • They have long sales cycles

Bosworth argues that conventional sales techniques can even hinder the success of a sale altogether.

“Solution selling is a process to take the guesswork out of difficult-to-sell, intangible products, and services,” Bosworth says.

“No more smoke and mirrors, blind luck, or high-pressure selling. Just a step-by-step system that ensures a higher rate of success for salespeople and a higher probability that the buyer’s expectations will be met.”

The 1994 edition was followed by an updated version in 2003 by author Keith Eades, entitled “The New Solution Selling: The Revolutionary Sales Process That is Changing the Way People Sell”. In the new edition, Eades says most organizations look at their sales rep’s results in direct correlation with their closing skills.

“The theory goes, if salespeople aren’t making their numbers, they must have a problem with closing."

"I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working with individuals and companies to improve their sales performance, and I can say without any hesitation that closing, the so-called skill of asking for the order, is not a big problem.

“Often, my clients discover that the real problem with closing is not adequately defining or diagnosing the prospect’s problems in the first place.”

The books have become must-have guides for sales managers and sales leaders. Let’s walk through the stages of solution selling so you can get a grasp on how the methodology works.

Want to Learn How to Influence Your Prospect’s Buying Decisions?

Get inside the head of your customers and take advantage of consumer psychology with this Psychological Selling Guide.

How to adopt the solution selling methodology

Despite being one of the more straightforward selling methodologies, there are still elements your reps must master in order to implement the solution selling process successfully.

At its core, solution selling can be broken down into six steps:

  1. Knowing the ins and outs of the product and service
  2. Identifying prospect pain points
  3. Starting the selling process through questions
  4. The education process
  5. Providing (ample) value
  6. Closing the sale

Let’s take a closer look at what each of those steps entails and how you can incorporate them into your solution selling training.

1. Knowing the ins and outs of the product and service

Without an in-depth knowledge of every product and service your company offers, your sales reps will be selling blind. More importantly, it will be impossible for them to know what product or service is the best fit for the prospect's pain points.

Preparing sales reps requires an in-depth knowledge base. You’ve got to give your salespeople the information they need to be able to sell. For example, building and distributing material that outlines product features and spec sheets can help your reps build up their knowledge around what they’re selling.

We recommend making your online knowledge base so comprehensive that your reps (as well as customers and prospects) can find everything they need to know from reading it. For example, here at Pipedrive, we’ve created an endless supply of materials on our knowledge base that covers everything from product setup to advanced features.

Inside each section of the knowledge base, sales reps can find information on every aspect of the CRM. There are detailed breakdowns of account settings, billing, integrations, email functions and our App.

Making sure every sales rep on your team knows what they’re selling is the backbone to implementing solution selling successfully.

2. Identifying prospect pain points

Once your reps know your products inside-out, make sure they do their research on a prospect before picking up the phone. This isn’t telemarketing; your reps should already have a rough understanding of what problems a prospect might be having before they talk to them.

Chances are, your reps are targeting prospects using a customer persona. By looking back through deals they’ve already closed with prospects that matched your target customer persona, they should be able to find some similarities in the pain points they were experiencing.

Doing this can give your rep a better understanding of what potential problems a prospect may be dealing with, and help prepare a rough plan to solve them.

On the flip side, sales reps should also be tracking deals they lose to make sure they’re not wasting their time on the wrong potential customers.

Using a CRM, reps can mark deals as “lost” and provide a reason. If reps are losing deals because of issues such as lack of product features or pricing, they can mark it in the CRM.

Not only does this help improve your product offering but it also gives reps an idea of what objections they might come up against during the buying process.

solution selling puzzle

3. Perfecting selling questions

The next part of solution sales is arming your sales reps with the ideal selling questions. The right questions allow your reps to identify customer needs quickly, develop a relationship with them and, ultimately, qualify them.

Start with open-ended questions like:

  • “Why isn’t [the competitor's particular product/service/technology/tool] working for you right now?”
  • “What goals do you have in general right now for your business?”
  • “What’s holding you back from reaching your goals/revenue target/retention numbers/customer numbers?”
  • “How has [their problem] progressed to where it is?”
  • “How significant is [their problem]?”

Once the conversation is flowing, your rep can ask them more specific questions, such as:

  • “How do you envision your company growing over the next 12 months? How will your needs change for you to get there?”
  • “What solution are you currently using to address [their problem]? Is that solution helping you to achieve your objective?”
  • “Why are you seeking out a different solution for [their problem]?”

Uncovering as much information as possible can help your rep make the right offering.

Pro-tip: Here is where your reps should be qualifying a prospect. A quick checklist should help them to decide whether a prospect is worth pursuing, or if your product isn’t the best fit for them. A list could be as simple as:

  • Does your product/solution actually solve their pain points?
  • What buyer needs are you addressing with your solution, and will they solve the problem successfully?
  • Does the prospect’s company align with the product/need fit?

4. The education process

Up until this point, you might be wondering how the first three steps of a solution-based selling process differ from a conventional sales process. It’s here where the difference in the solution selling methodology starts to diverge.

Your sales reps need to give the prospect a definite ‘light bulb’ reason why they need your product or service. They need to connect the dots between their problem and your company’s solution using a clear selling point like:

  • A reduction in operating costs
  • An example of Return on Investment (ROI), backed up with a case study of a current customer
  • The amount of money they will save compared to their current solution

Next, choose a selling point and build a narrative around it. Let’s say your rep wants to highlight how your company’s product will provide an ROI for the customer. They might ask the prospect:

  • “How would implementing these changes affect your competitiveness in the market?”
  • “If you don’t solve [their problem], what kind of difficulties will you face going forward?”
  • “What is likely to happen to your revenue numbers if you don’t solve [their problem]?”
  • “You’ve already heard how we helped solve [current customer’s problem]. I think they were going through very similar challenges to what your company is currently facing. Would you like to know a little more about how we helped solve them?”

5. Providing (ample) value

One of the main reasons solution selling closes deals is it revolves around a definite selling point. It’s vital that your reps pick a selling point that will resonate with a prospect and, ultimately, demonstrate your product’s value through it.

To achieve this need-payoff, your sales reps must tie in how your company’s product is the ideal solution to the pain points they’ve already talked about. Once again, your reps should look through deals they’ve already closed and see if they can draw any parallels from current customers to the prospect they’re trying to close. This step is as much about driving home the solution your rep is putting on the table as it is making the prospect see its real value.

This is where solution-based selling shines. Instead of focusing on your product features or services, your reps should highlight how your company’s solution will make their problem disappear. It’s up to your sales rep to highlight to the prospect that, without a solution, their problem will remain. At the same time, they need to convince the prospect that if they choose your company’s solution, it will be a win-win situation for them.

Some questions your sales rep might ask themselves to hammer this value-selling point home could be:

  • What impact could your product/service have on the prospect’s budget? How much? What could the prospect use that money for instead?
  • Could the company’s product/service save the prospect time? How much? What could the prospect use that time for instead? Get specific about how time equals money for the prospect and their business.
  • What could your product/service achieve for the prospect on an emotional level? Will it make them look good in front of their boss? Will it help them to be viewed as important or useful to their team? Remember, prospects are drawn to products that show both personal as well as business value.
  • If your prospect buys your product/service, what impact will it make on their future? What should their business revenue/customer numbers/retention/value etc. look like within a year of using your product/service? Painting a vivid picture here helps the prospect to imagine a future with your business.

Once the value has been highlighted, all that’s left to do is close the deal.

6. Closing the sale

Now, they’ll likely come up against some sales objections from the prospect. The best way to overcome them here is to compile a list of typical sales objections they’ve heard in the past and come up with a plan on how to debunk them. They should do this by:

  • Looking at past lost opportunities, sales call transcripts and emails from prospects with similar profiles
  • Preparing a shortlist of common objections (at least 10-20 of the most common ones)
  • Take a look back and decipher why they couldn’t overcome the objection then, and what they should do differently with this prospect
  • If it makes them feel more comfortable, they can create a script to use to overcome objections when they’re trying to close the deal

How the rep tackles this step will depend on the prospect. They might already be sold on the solution that’s being offered, or they may still need a little convincing on the fit of the product/service. Whatever the situation is here, make sure your sales reps always bring it back to why the prospect needs your product/service to solve their problem.

Pro-tip: If your sales reps are struggling to close deals because of objections, there’s a way they can get expert responses to help overcome them. Using Pipedrive’s Sales Objections Tool, sales reps can get expert responses to common sales objections around pricing and timing. All they have to do is type in their objection—and they’ll receive a number of possible responses instantly.

Wrapping up

Solution selling may not be the most complex selling strategy out there, but its success rate depends entirely on its implementation.

For your reps to succeed, they must be able to take a customer’s problem and show them that your product will make it disappear. With solution selling, your rep needs to clearly join the dots to showcase exactly why and how your solution is the right one for their prospect. By targeting their prospect’s pain points and asking the difficult questions, sales reps can carve out the best solution for the prospect through persuasion and value-adding.

The key to solution selling is giving prospects a glimpse into what their future will look like by picking your company. It’s up to your reps to convince each prospect that the future they’re painting can become a reality. All they need to do is buy your product.

Want to Learn How to Influence Your Prospect’s Buying Decisions?

Get inside the head of your customers and take advantage of consumer psychology with this Psychological Selling Guide.

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