Sales Best Practices

The Complete Guide to Solution Selling

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Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices

As the sales industry evolves, so do the methodologies sellers use to bolster their processes. Several new techniques have popped up in recent years to better accommodate today’s savvy buyers, globally competitive market, and remote sales landscape.

But not every sales team has shifted their strategy to align with these modern methodologies. In fact, many organizations still rely on sales techniques founded and popularized in decades past — including solution selling. While there is certainly some debate around the current efficacy of solution selling, some sales teams swear by its promised benefits and continue to thrive using the framework.

Below, we’ll discuss all things solution selling; including its benefits and disadvantages, how to find value in the approach, and step-by-step instructions for implementing the technique.

What is Solution Selling?

Solution selling is a sales technique wherein sellers focus on identifying a prospect’s needs, then recommend a particular product or service that addresses those needs. Instead of simply pushing their product or service on potential buyers, reps use solution selling to thoroughly diagnose a prospect’s problem and offer tailored solutions.

The term “solution selling” was coined in the 1970s by Frank Watts, who then began teaching his method to sales teams as an independent consultant. After receiving Watts’s training, salesman Michael Bosworth went on to found the Solution Selling sales training organization in 1983, which helped popularize the method moving forward.

There are many variations of solution selling, and the technique has taken on a life of its own throughout the last fifty years. But the foundation of the methodology remains the same: To provide a problem-led answer to a prospect’s concerns and holistically address how a product or service will result in their intended outcomes.

Benefits and Disadvantages

For several years now, there’s been an ongoing debate among the sales world about solution selling. Some say the methodology in its original form is still incredibly valuable; others say it has evolved to better address modern sellers and consumers; and others, still, say it’s dead.

Regardless of where on that spectrum your opinion may lie, there are undoubtedly some benefits and some disadvantages to solution selling:

Benefits of Solution Selling

Unlike many product-focused methodologies, solution selling enables salespeople to develop genuine, long-lasting relationships with their clients. The technique, by nature, requires sellers to gain an in-depth understanding of their prospects’ pain points, objectives, and limitations in order to suggest an appropriate solution. Thus, sellers must develop deeper relationships with customers than they would by simply touting the benefits of their products or services.

Solution selling also tends to make customers feel as though they’re solving large-scale business issues rather than just buying a product or service. Because the salesperson takes the time to address their unique business challenges and goals, they’re typically more confident that the solution will have a greater, more holistic impact on their organization’s objectives than a one-off purchase would.

Sellers can use this mindset to their advantage by offering end-to-end solutions to their customers’ needs. Instead of pedaling an individual product or service to resolve a customer’s singular problem, reps can sell clients multiple things at once; each as part of a collective, comprehensive solution.

It’s a dynamic, useful technique across both small and large businesses because it prioritizes the seller’s value proposition — and how their solution distinctly solves the customer’s pain points — instead of their product’s features. And since 66% of buyers expect sales reps to tailor solutions to their individual needs rather than pitch products, solution selling can help sellers avoid traditional, generalized methods that drive prospects into their competitors’ arms.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of solution selling is that it has a long history, and is therefore a well-defined approach. Whether your sales team is made up of veteran sellers or newbie reps (or a combination of the two), solution selling offers a time-tested training system and many available resources.

Disadvantages of Solution Selling

Because solution selling is a complex methodology, it requires a significant amount of knowledge on the part of a seller. With other product-focused techniques, reps can simply study the product features and memorize sales messaging. But solution selling relies on a salesperson’s ability to dig deep with each prospect, diagnose the problem, and develop a fully-tailored solution that offers value. If the potential buyer asks a question that the seller doesn't know how to answer, they can come across as ill-prepared or uninformed.

Solution selling hinges on salespeople asking prospects an array of leading questions, all of which are intended to uncover issues that their solution can resolve. But, if handled poorly, this line of questioning can quickly back customers into a corner and make them feel as though they’re being manipulated.

One of the biggest reasons some sales leaders argue that the value of solution selling has expired is the shift in consumer expectations and knowledge. With so many research resources at their disposal, many buyers already fully comprehend their pain points and the available solution options on the market. In fact, 94% of B2B buyers conduct research online before making a purchase — so the juice from investing the time, resources, and energy into implementing solution selling may no longer be worth the squeeze.

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The Solution Selling Methodology

At the end of the day, the merits of a solution selling approach are truly dependent upon your specific team. If, for instance, your sellers have excellent commercial capabilities, they’ll likely find great success in leveraging the technique; as it requires a great deal of interpersonal communications, active listening, product or service expertise, and confidence.

Solution selling can be an effective method for teams who have adequate face-to-face time with clients, like those with multiple outside or field sales reps. Because the technique demands in-depth knowledge and understanding of each prospect’s pain points, goals, and constraints, solution sellers must actually be able to interact with them on a regular basis.

For sales teams who feel this approach would be beneficial to their process and buying’ journey, it’s essential to follow some basic steps to get it right:

1. Research

Solution selling really depends on your team’s knowledge of its products and services. After all, sellers can only offer valuable, customized solutions if they know the ins and outs of what they’re selling. They need deep expertise in more than just basic features and jargony messaging: They must also master how those features can solve a wide array of customer challenges.

To gain next-level proficiency, reps must conduct thorough research into their prospects, existing clients, and key decision makers. They should study their target buyers’ industries, competitors, and the solutions they’ve already leveraged. Sellers should also reach out to existing customers to better understand how their products or services have impacted their business.

With solution selling, it’s imperative to remain a step ahead of buyers. Reps should identify possible pain points before they even initiate a conversation to demonstrate their empathetic understanding of their primary challenges. They should consider how they can thoughtfully position their messaging to prove they’ve put the time and effort into how their solution will fit the buyer’s needs (rather than why their product is awesome).

2. Start with Questions

Once the seller has successfully made contact with a prospect, it’s time to start identifying the problem. Be careful not to pull the trigger on the diagnoses too soon, though, as it can come across as pushy. Instead, ask thought-provoking questions that gradually increase in specificity, like ones below:

  • What are your business goals?
  • Are your current solutions helping you achieve those goals? If not, why do you think that is?
  • What obstacles are keeping you from achieving your goals?
  • Why are you looking for a new solution, and what are your must-haves for that solution?

It’s important for the seller to take the prospect’s answers into careful consideration to determine if their solutions are actually a good fit for their use case. Don’t just pursue a buyer because they seem willing to make a purchase, as this will likely lead to issues in customer satisfaction, attrition, and brand perception down the line. Reps should take the time to first qualify the prospect, then develop a relationship that’s built on curiosity, honesty, and understanding.

3. Educate the Client

Now that the rep has gathered all the pertinent information, they can easily build and present a value proposition that’s well-aligned with the customer’s needs. It’s crucial for sellers to provide a detailed explanation of how each of their product’s features will help move the buyer closer to their desired objectives. Rather than providing generalized information about their offerings, this is a chance for reps to demonstrate their understanding of the customer’s pain points and goals — and that they know exactly how to bridge the gap between the two.

4. Provide Value

Next, the rep must engage the client’s interest further by focusing on the ROI of their products and services. Sellers specifically share what the buyer can accomplish with their tailored solution as well as the savings they can realize in comparison to their current products or services.

At this stage, it’s important for the rep to think long-term and holistically and to provide substantial proof to back up their claims. They can share case studies from existing customers, craft a customized slide deck that outlines the numbers, and illustrate exactly how each feature compares to what the client currently uses.

The goal here is for reps to show prospects that it would be in their best interest to purchase their product or service; and that failing to do so would be a mistake. They should highlight all the ways in which the solution will eliminate the buyer’s problem (both right now and over time) and why that’s vital to the success of their business.

5. Close the Sale

At this point in the sales process, buyers may jump ship for a variety of reasons. They might be uneasy about the value a rep has promised them; they might have budgetary concerns; they might not have proper buy-in from key stakeholders; or they might have any number of other concerns.

Solution sellers should understand how to get those waffling prospects across the finish line without being too aggressive. The key here is to consider previous lost opportunities and sales that have fallen through in the final stages of the process. Reps should have a list handy of all possible client objections and prepare appropriate responses for each. 

By relying on the information they’ve gleaned throughout the process and the rapport they’ve built with the customer, the rep can handle the buyer’s protests with authenticity and conviction. Once they’ve alleviated the buyer’s doubts, the seller can guide them to a mutually beneficial decision and ultimately close the sale.

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Solution Selling in Action

To help you gain an even clearer picture of how the solution selling methodology might play out in the real world, let’s walk through a hypothetical scenario.

Jenna is an outside sales rep at a technology consulting and services firm. Her team uses the solution selling approach because they interact in-person with prospects and customers on a daily basis. Her manager has also chosen solution selling because the B2B technology sales cycle is generally longer and more complex, and their offerings have a relatively high price point. Thus, they need a technique that allows them to clearly illustrate their solutions’ value as they relate to their customers’ actual needs and objectives.

After receiving a lead from her marketing team, Jenna begins researching the lead’s industry and competitors, and speaks to existing customers who operate in a similar space. She collects this information, then uses it to craft a personalized email to the lead.

Once Jenna has her foot in the door with the prospect, she meets with them face-to-face and begins asking thoughtful, specific questions; which helps her to prove she won’t be force-fitting a product or service that won’t actually suit their needs. Though her questioning, she learns the prospect is currently facing the following pain points:

  • An overall lack of automation within their workflows, which is slowing down their operation
  • A lack of adequate communication channels with hardware and software vendors
  • Inflexible purchasing processes due to rigid partner agreements and inadequate procurement resources
  • Disparate tools and systems, which are causing data silos within their tech stack and inefficiencies in their workflows

After actively listening to these concerns, Jenna pivots the conversation to uncover what the prospect is looking to achieve. She finds they want to resolve their technology challenges without having to purchase from so many vendors, since it’s costly, inflexible, and ineffective.

At this point, Jenna takes stock of the prospect’s issues and goals and evaluates whether or not her company can offer a viable solution. It’s an important part of her solution selling process, because it helps her avoid wasting her prospects’ time or running into customer satisfaction issues in the future.

Fortunately, her organization’s holistic technology solutions can address this particular prospect’s needs. While a seller using a different methodology might simply offer the prospect sales collateral or a feature list at this stage, Jenna focuses on crafting a unique value proposition for the buyer. She builds a presentation that demonstrates exactly how a solution from her company can solve the customer’s challenges. Her custom solution offers:

  • A one-stop shop for purchasing, implementing, and maintaining hardware and software
  • A dedicated team of data engineers, technical architects, and project managers who can deploy tailored technology solutions
  • A streamlined tech stack, wherein all systems are connected and can be updated over time, as needed

After presenting the solution, Jenna also communicates the ROI of her offering. She explains how the customer will save both time and money by investing in her company’s solution, since they’ll no longer need to deal with a variety of hardware vendors and software providers to manage their operation. She also conveys the value of working with a single team who can implement and maintain these technologies, since they can easily pivot without knowledge loss.

Jenna’s experience in solution selling helps her at the next stage of the sale, too. As is typically the case, the buyer raises several objections and concerns about her pitch. But Jenna is prepared to handle the opposition because of her deep product knowledge and ability to clearly and confidently express her solution’s benefits.

After some back and forth, Jenna and the buyer are able to settle on agreeable terms, and the deal closes. She’ll continue to look for opportunities to even better support this client, and will use the knowledge she gained throughout the process to continue building on her solution selling skills.

    Resources

    If you’re looking to learn even more about solution selling, check out these three helpful books, which offer even more in-depth information about the approach:

    1. “Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets” by Michael Bosworth - Though he didn’t technically create the solution selling technique, Michael Bosworth certainly spearheaded its movement and helped it evolve into what it is today. In his book, Bosworth provides a deep-dive of solution selling, including common pitfalls, how to navigate the method, and why it’s more valuable than traditional sales frameworks.
    2. “Solution Selling: The Strongman Process” by Ed Wall - Because this book was penned in 2016, it offers a highly relevant perspective on solution selling. Wall walks readers through the process step-by-step and clearly illustrates how to ensure success with the technique.
    3. “The New Solution Selling” by Keith M. Eades - Eades’s take on solution selling picks up where Bosworth left off. He provides insights into Bosworth’s initial concepts and builds off of them with some new tips, too. This book also includes a workbook for sellers to leverage in their daily process, so they can hit the solution selling ground running.

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    Robust Tools for Effective Solution Selling

    Solution selling is just one of the many popular sales methodology that teams can implement to improve the customer experience, shorten their sales cycles, and boost their revenue. It offers a more customer-centric approach than other traditional techniques, and helps reps sell with their clients’ challenges and objectives in mind. But if your team doesn’t have the proper tools for support, a solution selling approach can still only get them so far.

    Outreach Guide, part of the Outreach Sales Execution Platform eliminates the time-consuming, repetitive sales tasks that hinder your sellers’ ability to focus on what’s really important: their customers. With deal health scores, buyer engagement signals, and AI-powered virtual assistant, Outreach Guide helps your team leverage AI to win more deals — and reap the many benefits an effective solution selling approach has to offer.

    Learn more about how the right solution can empower your solution-based sales team to succeed, or request a demo today.