Why it’s time to stop selling 'solutions' - and start delivering outcomes
The first wave of B2B selling was product orientated - salespeople were taught and encouraged to think in terms of their product’s features, advantages, and benefits. This inward-focused perspective has, in most sales organisations, been overtaken by a solution-centric approach, which focuses on addressing the customer’s problems.
Many salespeople, and many marketers, are keen to promote their so-called “solutions” - but there’s an obvious weakness in this approach, as well - because the only people who are entitled to call anything a “solution” are the ones who have a problem they are trying to solve - i.e., the customer.
Arbitrarily (and lazily) labelling what we are trying to sell a “solution” clearly fails this test - as any intelligent potential customer can recognise. What our customers are really looking for are positive outcomes, and it is only when these positive outcomes have been proven to have been achieved that they will be happy with their solution.
You see, traditionally minded salespeople typically regard the sale as over when the order is booked. But our customer only regards their buying journey as being complete when they are satisfied that the outcomes they are looking for have been achieved.
Addressing the Challenge of Change
This is, of course, much more important when it comes to new initiatives, and somewhat less important when it comes to simple transactional or repeat purchases. But if their solution involves change, then unless and until that change has been shown to be successful there is always the prospect of failure.
And it’s this fear of failure - the Fear of Messing Up [FOMU] that explains why so many apparently well-qualified and highly motivated opportunities fade away leaving the customer deciding to do nothing and stick with the status quo instead.
That’s why understanding, influencing, and building confidence in outcomes is so important, and why we not only need to sell the benefits of change, but also give our customer the confidence that the change they desire will actually be achieved, and that we be there for them throughout the journey to eliminate any issues that could stand in the way.
Our customers know through often-bitter experience that change can be challenging - it’s why they are so often fearful of it. And it’s why we shouldn’t portray our offering or our approach as a semi-mythical “miracle cure”. We need to communicate honestly and openly that change always brings challenges - and convince our customer that our experience and our attitude will ensure that - with our help - they navigate the inevitable twists and turns successfully.
At the most basic level, outcomes can be defined as “changes that follow as a result or consequence of an action or situation”. As we’ll see, these outcomes can be positive or negative - and they can (and typically do) operate at both the organisational and personal levels.
Positive outcomes are things that improve on the current situation. They are usually the consequence of a successful change program, and they make those responsible for the decision happy and/or pleased about the choices they make.
Conversely, negative outcomes are things that make the current situation worse. They are usually the consequence of an unsuccessful change program (or no decision at all), and they make those responsible for the decision unhappy and/or angry about the choices they make
When customers are hopeful about the potential consequences of their decisions and their likely outcomes, their decision-making is often initially propelled by their Fear of Missing Out [FOMO], but when the key stakeholders become concerned (as they inevitably do) about the potential consequences of their decisions and their likely outcomes, their decision-making is often restrained by their Fear of Messing Up [FOMU].
FOMO and FOMU create tension, and decision making becomes a battle between the positive consequences of making a good decision and the negative consequences of making a bad decision. All the research published on the subject tells us that the customer’s fear of failure is more powerful than their hope of success.
Organizational outcomes are valuable to the customer’s organization as a whole - or to a significant department or business unit. They are typically related to key corporate priorities or initiatives and/or significant business performance metrics or indicators, and they are important to formally justifying the organization’s decision to change on a logical/rational basis.
These outcomes have a widespread positive impact across the organization as a whole (or a key function or business unit), for example:
- The organization is recognized as a market leader
- The organization or business unit reaches its revenue or profit targets
- The organization exceeds a key performance indicator
- The organization achieves a key strategic objective
- The organization or business unit successfully completes a significant transition or transformation
Organizational outcomes are important because if we can show how we contribute to our prospective customer’s organization achieving its strategic priorities, the project - and our approach - is much more likely to be approved
Personal outcomes, on the other hand, are valuable to significant individual members of the stakeholder community. They are typically related to reputation, the scope for promotion/advancement and/or key personal performance metrics or indicators, and they are essential to stakeholders becoming comfortable with a decision to change on an emotional basis.
These outcomes affect specific individual stakeholders, for example:
- A key stakeholder’s reputation is enhanced
- A key stakeholder is promoted to a more senior position
- A key stakeholder achieves their KPIs/performance targets
- A key stakeholder improves their efficiency/effectiveness
- A key stakeholder’s sense of self-worth is enhanced
- A key stakeholder achieves one of their key personal priorities
Personal outcomes are important because if we can show how we can help the key stakeholders achieve their personal goals, they will be much more likely to support both the project and our approach.
Both types of outcome are important
In any complex buying decision, both organizational and personal outcomes are important in securing a decision to change, and a decision to implement our approach to achieving that change. If we only focus on one type of outcome and ignore or undervalue the other, the chances that our prospect will choose another option - or choose to do nothing - are dramatically amplified.
This is why restricting our focus to proving the superiority of our “solution” is such a limiting strategy. We must appeal to both the organization’s goals and those of the key stakeholders. We must convince them that our approach is the one that is most likely to lead to the successful achievement of both their organizational and personal priorities and outcomes.
In these latter stages of their decision making process, we must do everything we can to eliminate their fear of making a bad decision - their Fear Of Messing Up - and convince them that the decision we are asking them to make - at both the organizational and personal levels - is the one that will deliver their best possible results.
And then - most important of all - we must ensure that we deliver on our promises and exceed their expectations. Nothing less will do.
About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a recognised Sales Futurist, 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.