When Tim Sullivan started his sales career in the early 1980s, sales was considered an art. You pitched your product and relied on charisma to seal the deal. You either had the touch or you didn’t.
Then one day in 1983, Sullivan, who was a sales rep at the time, and his sales peers at Management Science America sat through a training session with Mike Bosworth — and everything changed.
Bosworth introduced them to a new sales methodology: solution selling. The strategy, which Bosworth helped formalize, revolves around two core principles:
Reps should understand the customer’s problem first and then focus on how their product can help them solve that issue.
Reps need to meet buyers where they are in their buying process and align the sales process to their needs.
Up until that point, sales reps focused on selling their product, not the problems they solved. The buyer carried the burden of sifting through those pitches to find the best product for them. Solution selling changed that dynamic with a formula that required reps to research their buyers, ask questions and customize the conversation to meet their buyer’s needs.
It played a critical role in turning sales from an art form into a process-oriented science, Sullivan said.
“It was revolutionary in that it elevated the status of the sales profession by requiring more discipline and a higher level of professionalism that wasn’t heretofore required,” Sullivan said. “It gave me a whole new respect for the sales profession and that continues to this day.”
What Is Solution Selling?
Sullivan went on to build a career around the sales methodology. He now works as the VP of business development at Richardson Sales Performance, a training firm that specializes in solution selling. He’s also co-authored two books on the strategy, with a third coming out in August.
Meanwhile, solution selling has had an undeniable impact on the sales profession. Problem-solving and consultation are now considered core components of any tech sales process.
But while many organizations still adhere to the methodology, questions have arisen in recent years about whether it’s still relevant to the modern buyer. In 2012, Harvard Business Review published a story titled “The End of Solution Sales,” while a Forbes story in 2018 declared traditional solution selling dead.
The reason: Buyers now have access to more product information than ever before. They also have less time to sit with a seller and rehash their research and solve a problem they’ve already identified.
Sullivan argues that buyers still want a consultative experience with a rep. The core principles of solution selling still stand today, he says, but the model has evolved.
What Is Solution Selling?
Solution selling first emerged in the mid-1970s out of Wang Laboratories as a collaborative and solutions-focused sales concept to help buyers understand the value of abstract solutions like software.
In 1982, Frank Watts, the person who developed the idea at Wang Laboratories, taught solution selling to a team of sales reps at Xerox. It was there that Bosworth became exposed to it, and after studying hours of sales calls listening to how reps approached it, created a formal strategy, according to Sullivan.
Bosworth eventually wrote a book on the methodology and launched his own training firm to spread the strategy to other sales firms. The process he came up with will seem familiar to many tech sales reps.
It starts with prospecting the buyer and stimulating their interest in the product. This step requires researching the buyer’s company and role, understanding what problems they might have and how your product might be able to help them.
The next step is to diagnose the customer’s current situation, which involves asking questions to discover where they are in the buying process and the scope of their problem. In the traditional model, this is where reps might ask questions like “What keeps you up at night?” or “What are you doing to solve this problem?”
Once a rep understands the buyer’s pain point, their job is to educate them on how their product can solve that issue and the value it brings to both them and their company. From there, the rep asks the buyer to connect them to other key decision-makers and demo the solution. The final step is to negotiate and close the deal.
“It also builds a relationship that, if you treat it right, can last a long time.”
Throughout each step, the rep relies on their expertise with their product and solving similar problems to provide insight to the buyer. Over time, the return on investment and the vision a rep creates becomes the motivating factor to advance the deal forward throughout the sales cycle.
That focus on providing value and serving the customer is what makes solution selling so effective, according to Mike Wendahl, director of sales at the sales enablement platform provider Lessonly. Wendahl trains his team to be customer-focused sellers via a sales process that aligns with solution selling.
The solution selling model creates urgency throughout a long sales cycle because the focus is on solving a problem, not the product, he said.
“It also builds a relationship that, if you treat it right, can last a long time,” Wendahl said.
Buyers Don’t Need Sales Reps to Hold Their Hands Anymore
If you ask AirDeck CRO RJ Stephens, the tried-and-true solution selling process doesn’t work anymore.
The days of asking endless open-ended questions like “Tell me about your problem” or “What’s your highest priority?” are over. Buyers don’t need reps to sketch out their problems anymore, he said. In fact, a Gartner Future of Sales report indicates that 33 percent of buyers prefer a sales-free experience.
“There’s a risk that the buyer will interpret your actions as you devaluing what they’ve already done,” Stephens said. “You’re not embracing the fact that I’m further down [in my buying process], and I don’t have the time or interest [in starting over].”
That doesn’t mean he believes solution selling is dead. The core elements of understanding a buyer’s problem and mapping your solution to their needs are still critical, Stephens said. The difference is in how the rep does that.
“There’s a risk that the buyer will interpret your actions as you devaluing what they’ve already done.”
Since buyers are more likely to be inundated with information and product choices, it’s more important for reps to approach calls with the mindset of helping them make sense of those options, Stephens said.
“If you can say, ‘I know there’s 40 different things you could be looking at, here’s what we’ve seen to be most important when solving this problem,” Stephens said. “This helps you select down to a more manageable amount of information you need to consume.”
To do that, the rep needs to answer a lot of the common discovery questions before the call. This includes questions like “What problem are you looking to solve?,” “What solutions are you considering?” and “Tell me about the makeup of your team.”
At AirDeck, Stephens’ reps sell a tool that enables users to add voice-over to their presentations. He encourages his reps to research the buyer’s role, their company’s closest competitors and similar customer stories. Most of that information can be found via sources like LinkedIn and company press reports, and by researching the company’s closest competitors.
From there, the rep can then make some educated assumptions about how the buyer will use the product and their expected return on investment.
It’s still a consultative conversation, but it respects the buyer’s knowledge and time, Stephens said.
“When it is a more consultative, trusted adviser dynamic ... that’s where it becomes more aligned and organic,” Stephens said.
Adapting Solution Selling to the Modern Buyer
When Sullivan reflects on the evolution of solution selling, he’s reminded of a joke. It starts with a sales rep chit-chatting with the buyer for five minutes. As the conversation lulls, the rep asks: “So, what keeps you up at night?”
“We could get away with that in the eighties, but we can’t get away with that today,” Sullivan said. “Buyers are like, ‘If you don’t know anything about me, then why are we having this conversation?’”
One of the methodology’s core components is that sellers adapt to the buyer’s needs, which means the strategy itself has had to evolve to keep up.
Being a solution seller today means researching buyers before the call and providing a value proposition at the onset of the call. Providing relevant customer use cases and understanding what information your customers might be looking at is more important than ever.
From there, you can check your assumptions with questions like “Is that true here?” and shape your advice based on the buyer’s responses.
“We find that it can be more iterative today, where you can go back and reconnect with people and have a sprint of activity, achieve consensus and move on to the next step.”
Sullivan said the methodology is on its sixth iteration since its inception. The newest version also adds a twist to how a rep approaches customer meetings. It’s called sprint selling and it’s designed after the concept of sprints in the agile methodology.
“We find that it can be more iterative today, where you can go back and reconnect with people and have a sprint of activity, achieve consensus and move on to the next step,” Sullivan said.
Under the new model, the rep approaches each customer meeting as a sprint. A sprint has an objective and three phrases:
The preparation stage.
The engagement stage.
The advance stage.
For example, an objective might be to introduce the solution to a member of the buying committee.
The preparation stage involves mapping out the member’s role, what they will care about and a hypothesis for how you can help them. The engagement stage focuses on packaging that information into a presentation. The advance stage involves confirming that they’re ready to move to the next step in the buying process.
Every meeting should end with a mini-close advancing the buying process, Sullivan said. The goal of this model is to keep the seller focused on the buyer’s situation and provide the information they need to proceed.
A more tech-savvy buyer may not need a demo, for instance, but they may need relevant customer stories to understand how others applied your product to make a decision.
Sprint selling is designed to make the rep consider what the buyer needs to move forward after each meeting, rather than following a rigid, step-by-step sales process.
How to Implement Solution Selling Today
If there’s one piece of advice Sullivan can give sales leaders looking to adopt solution selling, it’s that it takes time to master.
Sales reps need training and experience to adapt to the buyer and customize the solution to their problems. Expecting them to make the leap overnight will set them up for failure, Sullivan said.
Before you adopt the methodology, Sullivan suggests observing how your sales reps currently interact with your customers. You’re looking for signs that the current process is misaligned and that a solutions-oriented approach is what your buyers want. If your reps’ pitches are focused on features or pricing, and it leads to excessive discounts or no deals, then it’s a sign that solution selling might be a good fit, Sullivan said.
“Don’t let your reps live on an island. Coach them, listen to their calls, be on their calls because their success is my success.”
From there, it’s about change management. Solution selling is hard. The manager has to sell the benefits of the approach, otherwise, reps will stick to what they know. One of the best ways to convince reps is to talk about performance benefits.
And there is a performance boost, Sullivan said. Sullivan’s firm, Richardson Sales Performance, found that the average sales team experiences a 16 to 35 percent boost in sales performance with solution selling.
“Managers need to understand this is not just a change in technique, it’s a change in mindset,” Sullivan said. “That’s the biggest challenge in implementing a solution-oriented methodology. Sellers have to want to step up to become more consultative.”
At Lessonly, commitment to solution selling starts at the top. Wendahl learned the strategy from Lessonly President Conner Burt, and he now takes a hands-on approach to coaching it to his reps. He often joins his reps on calls and reinforces strategies for digging beyond surface-level pain points in discovery and delivering value.
“I do that as an example so they start to pick up those habits,” Wendahl said. “Don’t let your reps live on an island. Coach them, listen to their calls, be on their calls because their success is my success.”
Solution Selling In Action
Lessonly’s solution selling strategy starts with researching their prospects and identifying areas that the company can provide value. Since Lessonly provides employee training software, they’ll look at company 10Ks for things like financial growth goals and hiring plans. They’ll also look at text that the buyer persona shares on LinkedIn to understand their training and engagement style.
From there, the reps tailor their outreach to address those goals and needs to pique the buyer’s interest. Wendahl describes those messages as a snippet of a song that will get them hooked to hear more.
Once they arrange a meeting, he pushes his reps to ask discovery questions like “Where are you bogged down?” or “Where do you experience time inefficiencies?” The goal is to get the buyer to share a relevant story, like their company releases new features every quarter and they can’t train their reps on the updates fast enough. This is good, but the real key is to get the buyer to go beyond the surface pain point and ask “Why is that important?,” Wendahl said.
“People want to be heard, they want to tell people about their problems, and sellers need to be good listeners and ask the right questions to get to what’s emotionally valuable to them. And that’s solution selling.”
He’ll also coach his reps to go negative, which means asking “What happens if you don’t fix that?” This will get the buyer to share why solving this issue matters to them and the company, which will be the value proposition that drives the sale.
“This drives urgency for your buyer,” Wendahl said. “It gives you a foundation to stand on three months from now ... and your champion has to present this to the board.”
Wendahl acknowledges that sales reps might not be able to get all of the information they need on the first discovery call, so he encourages them to review their calls to look for additional objectives that might be important to the buyer.
From there, it’s all about reiterating the challenges the buyer is facing and the value proposition of solving them in every meeting, and building on it with new information. This helps to maintain momentum throughout a lengthy buying process. Wendahl provides his team with a slide that they work on with the client during each call to assist with that conversation.
The slide is composed of three sections. The first tackles the priority and challenges the customer is trying to solve. The second section includes an executive summary of the solution, which will be the buyer’s pitch to their boss. And the third section is the return on investment and metrics that Lessonly’s product will impact.
That slide is never going to be perfect, but by the end of that sales cycle by learning and bringing value that will be filled out and be incredibly impactful.
Ultimately, Wendahl doesn’t see solution selling as ever going away. The strategy provides a framework built on communication, trust and listening that will always be relevant to buyers. Those same skills are also essential to cultivating a positive sales environment and successful reps. Lessonly has had several reps move on and lead other sales teams because of the skills they picked up from solution selling.
“Humans are emotional, and they buy on emotion,” Wendahl said. “People want to be heard, they want to tell people about their problems, and sellers need to be good listeners and ask the right questions to get to what’s emotionally valuable to them. And that’s solution selling.”