Recognizing the danger in commoditized, undifferentiated markets, many vendors are determined to elevate themselves from selling products to offering solutions. It seems that the market for "solution selling" training courses, at least, has remained buoyant.
But according to everything I've been able to observe, this isn't a training issue, and most vendors who see it as such achieve disappointing results. The fundamental principle behind solution selling is that before you can offer a solution, your prospect has to acknowledge that the organization has a problem—and executives have to be motivated to do whatever it takes to solve it.
There's a common challenge here, unfortunately. It's unusual for vendors to ever believe that they have enough well-qualified leads, but at face value, they often seem to have reasonable pipelines. It's only when you dig into the detail that the problem emerges: a lack of buyer urgency. Some sales methodologies refer to this as a lack of a "compelling event" that will cause the buyer to make a positive buying decision. As a result, deals hover in limbo, not making any real progress from one quarter to the next.
Salespeople sometimes—often with increasing frequency toward quarter end—attempt to create an artificial compelling event by offering time-dependent discounts. I've found that prospects have become much more professional in their procurement processes over the past few years, and they can see this technique coming from miles away. These offers shift power into the hands of the buyer, usually to the lasting disadvantage of the salesperson involved.
The challenge to the selling organization, then, is to find ways of selling more solutions, and defending your value as a vendor, by uncovering more truly urgent needs. This requires a joined-up approach to the marketing and sales process. Without this, it's very hard to make the necessary progress.
We have found mapping out the "buyer's journey" to be an excellent starting point. Through a combination of in-depth surveys of existing customers and past prospects and workshops with the vendor's own customer-facing staff, we are able to identify the key steps that their typical prospects go through in their buying decision, the people who tend to be involved and the factors that matter most to them at each stage.
In all B2B sales of high-value offerings we've ever evaluated, the buying process is complex and passes through multiple stages. It's unrealistic to expect a sale to be closed on the first call, so it's particularly important to understand what it would take the buyer to move each time to the next stage in the organization's particular buying process.
Understanding what drives these transitions from one stage to the next is critical to driving the buying process. We call this "facilitating the next commitment." At each stage, we're keen to discover what the buying team needs to know before team members are comfortable with moving forward to the next stage.
In mapping these journeys, we have found one of the critical factors to be the "cost of inaction." We coach our clients' salespeople to ask a couple of critical questions:
- What has prevented you from addressing the problem before, and what has changed now?
- What would be the consequences of not dealing with the problem at this time?
Taken together, these questions are great predictors of the true urgency of the issue—and the likelihood of a short sales cycle. The salesperson often uncovers structural issues that are going to prevent a sale from being made in the short term, but equally they can uncover truly urgent motivations that can accelerate the sale.
One recent client has incorporated the above questions into a formal opportunity quality assessment process that seeks to systematically distinguish between prospects that have defined "urgent" needs from those who were merely "interested." My client is finding that those prospects who are prepared to acknowledge a clear cost of inaction are proving to have a significantly higher (300 percent to 400 percent) chance of closure in the current quarter than those who struggle to define one.
These questions force the "champions" within the prospect to think, as well. Once they have a clearer sense of the true cost of inaction, they often drive their own internal approval processes with greater focus, vigor and effectiveness. In one recent case, with only a little prompting, the prospect was able to monetize the cost of poor customer service by projecting the five-year impact of the organization's current unsatisfactory customer renewal rates.
We encourage clients to use what they have learned to create issues-based campaigns that are designed to focus on matters that are likely to be urgent, rather than merely interesting, to their target market—and that are associated with a clear "cost of inaction." We also work with them to create sales tools and collateral that have the specific purpose of addressing common buyer concerns as the prospect considers whether to take the buying process to the next stage.
To offer a solution, first you have to identify a problem. And to win a sale, you first have to convince the buyer of the cost of inaction.