Have you ever walked into a store, told the salesperson what your requirements were, and they pointed you in the direction of the solution that answered your needs?
Congratulations! You’ve just been “solution-sold.”
Solution selling gained traction in the 1980s and has been popular ever since. Though the Harvard Business Review prematurely declared it dead a decade ago, today’s top sellers have found new ways to leverage solution selling that speak directly to the attitudes and needs of modern buyers.
I’ve been selling with PandaDoc since 2017, and in my journey from SMB to enterprise AE, I’ve learned solution selling like the back of my hand. I’ll walk you through what solution selling is, why you should adopt it as part of your sales process, and how to do it right for today’s buyer.
Table of contents
- What is solution selling?
- A brief history of solution selling
- Why solution selling works
- How to use solution selling for success
What is solution selling?
Solution selling is a sales methodology in which the seller diagnoses the prospect’s problems or pain points and presents their product as a solution to that problem.
You’ve got a unique problem? Here’s how my product is the unique solution. Simple, right?
Simple and powerful. A whopping 50% of your prospects may not be a good fit for the product/service you sell. Asking questions helps you disqualify quickly and move on to leads that are more likely to convert.
Is solution selling really dead? (A brief history)
The solution selling methodology was invented in 1975 by Frank Watts, who began teaching it at the Xerox Corporation in 1982. Mike Bosworth, who was affiliated with Xerox at that time, popularized this method and started licensing his technique in 1988.
So why did HBR declare the solution selling methodology dead in 2012?
Well, they had a fair point. Buyers in 2012 had come a long way from the buyers of the 1980s. Before the information age, a buyer could understand they had a problem but genuinely not know what solutions were out there.
Now, procurement teams are armed with loads of data. Chances are good they know what solutions are on the market — and have likely done an enormous amount of research on you and your competitors by the time you reach them.
Join the discussion: Getting creative in the enterprise procurement process
So…is solution selling dead? Absolutely not. I’ll explain why.
Why solution selling works for today’s customers
Solution selling is far from dead. It works exceptionally well, even in this day and age.
A while back, the PandaDoc team was in contact with Autodesk, a software provider company. They wanted a document solution tool which would provide analytics and reporting, merge with their existing systems, and would be fit to scale.
Aside from just meeting their current needs, the PandaDoc team was also able to point out use cases that the Autodesk team had failed to consider. But here’s where the magic of solution selling really worked:
Travis Evans, Manager of Sales Execution Strategy at Autodesk, had the need for an editorial solution, but didn’t know if any product could seamlessly fit with their existing systems.
The PandaDoc team noted his requirements, and we were able to match him with PandaDoc Editor 2.0, which ensured no hiccups occurred during the transitioning process.
Here are a couple of other key ways solution selling adds value to your sales process.
1. Solution selling helps provide customized solutions
Think of the times a prospect has needs which extend beyond the scope of your off-the-shelf products.
Imagine you run a hair salon. You offer basic services: short cut, long cut, blowdry, and coloring.
You have a client come in the door, scrutinize your board, and look disappointed. You lean into a hard-sell for coloring. You talk up the benefits. You offer a discount. The client is visibly shutting down. What did you do wrong?
Instead, start by asking questions. What does the client need? What is she looking for?
Identify the customer needs, then present a customized solution. What? All she really wants is a super classy mullet? Amazing. Figure out a pricing option for a short-long cut, and offer the desired result, tailored exactly to her (questionable?) needs.
2. Solution selling gives the prospect one-on-one attention
Sales may be a “numbers game.” But nobody wants to feel like a number.
Think about it: if you entered a store, and the sales rep there was just trying to sell you stuff, what would you think? Possibly one of the following scenarios:
- They’re trying to sell things because they’re obligated to.
- Their sales process is focused on earning a commission.
- This is nothing more than just a sales transaction to them.
Let’s flip the script: if a sales rep asked you questions, understood your pain points, and genuinely tried to assist you with the decision-making process — what would you think then?
When you spend time getting to know the prospect and their needs, it makes them feel heard. This builds trust and empathy and a genuine relationship — which drives your sales performance.
As an added bonus, when a prospect genuinely enjoys their interaction with you, they’re likely to recommend you to other buyers — and become your champion within their org.
How to solution sell for success
Are you (solution) sold? I hope so. I’ll walk you through five steps you need to master the solution-selling process.
1. Know your product offering
You’ve got to thoroughly know the product/service you sell.
Explore your product or service in detail. Understand its unique selling point/proposition (USP) and its functionality, the value it will add, what problems it solves, and what features it has.
Use your product yourself. Uncover benefits and use cases you might not have thought of.
You can even gain a ton by seeking mentors in your org outside of sales.
Join the discussion: How do you find the right mentor?
If the product team is giving a presentation, focus in. Find out what they’re building and why — if they’re doing their jobs right, their releases should be addressing a market need. Learn what that need is, and help your prospects understand how your product was built specifically to address it.
2. Prepare for questions your customers might have
Practice makes perfect, right?
Practicing and preparing for questions your customers might have during the buying process will help you perfect your approach and response.
As an exercise, write down all the common questions you have received from customers and jot down the answers you gave. Now, on a new sheet, take the best part of each response and create the perfect, award-winning answer.
Alternatively, you can also anticipate customer questions if you identify their pain points. Which brings me to our next topic…
3. Understand customer pain points
Want authenticity? Understand pain points before the sales calls even begin.
Your company’s sales training should provide you with scripts and talking points on these topics. If not, tell me, and I’ll go (figuratively!) shake some sense into your director of enablement.
You can also learn a ton by sitting in on sales calls, especially if you’re new to the product and the org. Shadow more experienced reps in the field. Take note of the common customer pain points.
Join the discussion: To attend or not to attend? SDRs on demo calls
Finally, make friends with your customer success (CS) team. When they or marketing share new case studies, read them and see what problems your premiere logos are solving for.
4. Show value
Focus on the value your product will provide instead of its features.
For example, consider arguments like how much time your prospects will save with your product, what tedious processes it can eliminate, is it a more economical choice than the current systems set in place, etc.
Don’t let price be the defining feature of your product. Rather, focus on what your customers can do with the product and how it will impact their lives.
Perhaps also important to mention: you can’t just read out features or speak in generic statements. Customize the solution as per your prospect’s needs and let them know how the product can address their distinctive pain points.
5. Build a relationship
Building relationships is common advice among salespeople.
And the principles of solution selling agree with this philosophy, too. So, how to build relationships in sales, you ask?
First and foremost, be human. No, really. Don’t communicate like a robot stuck with a script. Be human, speak human — it’s okay to add some playful tone to your pitches, or show a little personality when talking to prospects.
Also, show your customers that you care about them by being proactive in communication, addressing their queries, and being prompt in your responses.
And, as a final touch, always aim to exceed your customers’ expectations. Always!
Edited by Kendra Fortmeyer @ Sales Hacker 2022