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    You can’t offer a complete solution until you understand the whole problem...

    Bob Apollo
    Post by Bob Apollo
    May 5, 2010

    Many B2B-focused organisations to prefer to talk in terms of delivering “solutions” rather than selling products.  CEOs speak about becoming solution-driven rather than product led.  But, as I’ve observed in a previous article, that transition is by no means straightforward – or necessarily appropriate.

    The s-word is over-used and frequently misapplied – to the extent that British satirical magazine Private Eye used to have a column that regularly poked fun at the worst excesses, including one hapless vendor that described the humble cardboard box as a “flexible storage solution”.

    Solving the solutions problem...

    Before accepting any more abuses of the English language, it’s probably worth getting back to basics. defines a solution as “the act of solving a problem”.  It’s clear (or it ought to be) that without a problem, you can’t have a solution.

    But there’s a world of difference between identifying a potential problem and understanding its implications for your potential prospect.  Many sales people suffer from what I’ve described as a premature elaboration problem – they rush to propose a solution at the first sign of an apparent problem.

    Diagnose before you prescribe...

    DoctorThis is not only irritating for the prospect, it’s deeply damaging to the sales person’s chances of success.  Research by the TAS Group and others has shown that sales people who take the time to diagnose the prospect’s underlying issues and carefully qualify the real opportunity enjoy dramatically better success – in terms of increased win rates, higher deal values and shorter sales cycles – than their over-impatient peers.

    You can’t offer a complete solution until you understand the whole problem...

    I’m often told by my client’s prospects that “as long as I’m learning something, I’m willing to listen.  But as soon as the sales person starts pitching to me, I lose interest”.  Your prospect’s first acknowledgement of an apparent problem should always be used as an opportunity to explore, to really get to the heart of the matter, to open doors rather than to slam them shut - and to uncover the whole problem.

    Understanding the “whole problem” includes identifying who else is affected, determining the consequences of preserving the status quo, and – perhaps most important of all – understanding what else would need to change before a solution could be agreed and implemented.

    Only then are you going to be in a position to propose a solution that addresses all of the implications of your prospect’s current situation and which stands any realistic chance of resolving the real issues.

    Solutions are an exercise in change management...

    Many sales people under estimate the degree of change required for a proposed solution to be effected.  Some deliberately shy away from confronting the complexities in the hope that this will simplify the sale.  

    But this is a bad tactic on two levels:  first, the buyer is going to have to navigate these complexities anyway with or without your help before they decide if and how to solve the problem, and secondly, if you do succeed in winning a sales where your new customer is faced with unanticipated issues, it’s going to do nothing to improve their chances of finding a complete resolution to their problem or of becoming a loyal, dedicated and profitable customer in the longer term.

    Improving your problem solving skills...

    So how can you systematically improve the problem solving skills of your organisation, and enhance the quality of the solutions you provide to your customers?  At the risk of prescribing before I’ve had the chance to diagnose your unique situation, here are a few pointers from other organisations that appear to exemplify best practice in this area:

    • Learn from the winning habits of your top sales performers – what questions do they ask, and what techniques do they use to qualify prospects during the all-important need identification stage of the sales process?
    • Encourage all your sales people to adopt a questioning framework that really gets to the heart of the problem, rather than accepting the prospect’s first acknowledgement of a solvable problem as their signal to propose a solution
    • Ensure that your sales people explore the consequences of the prospect simply continuing to live with the status quo – and identify who else would be affected
    • Never underestimate the degree or scope of change within your prospect’s organisation that may be necessary before a complete solution can be achieved.  Expose and confront the issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet

    Please share your comments and experiences.  And if you’d like to hear more about what I’ve learned from observing best solution selling practice across some of the top-performing B2B sales and marketing organisations, please drop me a line at or give me a call on +44 7802 313300.  I look forward to hearing from you.

    Bob Apollo
    Post by Bob Apollo
    May 5, 2010
    Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Institute of Sales Professionals, a regular contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation and Top Sales World Magazine, and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading proponents of outcome-centric selling. Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - teaching them how to differentiate themselves through their provably superior approach to achieving their customer's desired outcomes.