Did longtime tech marketing guru Geoffrey Moore just publish an obituary for one of the most successful forms of selling in our industry’s history? In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “In a Downturn, Provoke your Customers,” Moore and his TCG Advisors team propose a new method for selling complex offers called Provocation-Based Selling. The TCG team states that in this tough economy, top sales teams need to provoke their customers with interesting and possibly game-changing options for their challenges. The authors contrast provocation-based selling with solutions selling, suggesting that solutions selling may no longer be effective in these tough times.
Well, I’ll give Moore points for provocation, but I would argue that solutions selling is not only alive and kicking, but in fact is more relevant and important than ever.
With all due respect, I think Messrs. Moore, Hewlin, and Lay have misrepresented what solutions selling is. My colleagues and I have spent years providing solutions selling training and process consulting to a wide range of technology and professional services firms, and our approach more closely resembles the attributes and features that Moore, et al, portrayed as Provocation-Based Selling than the straw man they presented as solutions selling. Most of the professionals I know in the solutions selling development business would say the same thing.
It strikes me that the article portrays solutions selling as what I would refer to as the “old school” way of selling, usually prior to the introduction of solutions selling methodologies and approaches. Let’s remember some of the core concepts of solutions selling. Most of the solutions selling methodologies that I’m familiar with – and certainly the programs that we’ve developed – stress a deep understanding of the customer’s situation and business needs. They emphasize focusing on strategic challenges and looking for creative new approaches. Some programs we’ve worked on have even involved scenario planning, with account teams investing significant time exploring “what if” scenarios for the customer and then developing potential solutions. And they all involve developing a strong point of view on one or more important issues that are highly relevant to the customer.
I’m fine with sales teams and companies being “provocative” in their marketing and sales approach, but I don’t think this is anything new. Thought leadership in areas that map to customer wants and needs has always been part of solutions selling, which relies heavily on sales people providing real insights and ideas to prospective customers, not just an order form.
Neither is selling higher in the organization anything new. Every solutions selling initiative that I’ve been involved with has been aimed at getting the sales force to sell higher up in the customer organization. We’re kicking off a major sales training initiative this month with a large technology-based company, and their mantra is to get to higher level customers earlier in the sales cycle, They want their salespeople to be shaping the customers’ ideas on how to address their business problems. The salespeople should be seen as collaborative problem-solvers instead of waiting for the customer to send out RFPs. To me, this also lies at the core of solutions selling, even though it seems to be a main attribute of what the authors are calling their “new” selling approach.
Now I will agree with the authors on one point: Quite often companies that claim to do solutions selling don’t actually take the approach seriously. They allow their sales forces to fall back into bad habits of simply pushing products, features, and functions. They begin the dialogue with little customer knowledge or insight, focus only on tactical problems, and fail to understand or react to customer situations and needs. These are the individuals and companies that give solutions selling a bad name. I liken this to the people that talk endlessly about their commitment to the Jenny Craig diet but fail to lose weight. The fault is not with the plan. People who are disciplined in following it do indeed see the results. Unfortunately, many of us fail to stick to our commitment.
Similarly, there are no shortcuts with solutions selling. It’s hard to do. It takes real behavior change, hard work, and discipline. Those who follow through tend to be very successful. Those who don’t, well, they stay a Size 10.