Everywhere you look, sales organisations of all descriptions are promoting their so-called “solutions”. It’s become such an overused term that for years the UK’s Private Eye magazine published a fortnightly column satirising the most amusingly egregious misuses of the word.
Hopefully neither you nor any of the companies you have been involved with achieved your two weeks of fame by being featured in this way. Because it is my fervent belief that your potential customers don’t care for - and aren’t looking for - generic solutions.
I contend that a solution cannot exist in isolation from a clearly defined problem that a customer is determined to address. But a cursory review of sales and marketing literature shows that many of these mismarketed “solutions” are no more than another way of labelling a set of products or services, with no reference or relevance to an underlying problem or opportunity.
At the very minimum, this is an unforgivably lazy habit. Without an anchoring issue, marketers and salespeople cannot legitimately refer to anything they seek to promote as a solution. But it gets worse. Because even if the customer has acknowledged that they have a problem, and even if the salesperson believes they have a credible answer to that problem, it’s not at all probable that the customer will buy from them or that they will do anything at all.
This is amplified by the regrettable tendency of many salespeople to rush to pitch the features and functions of their “solution” the moment the customer acknowledges an issue that the salesperson believes they can address, rather than continuing to explore the costs, consequences of the issue.
What your customers really care about
In today’s climate in particular, what potential customers really care about are better business outcomes. Finding a functional “solution”, although necessary, often isn’t enough to cause them to take action.
Despite the obvious current difficulties, potential customers are still investing, but potential projects have a far greater chance of being approved if they satisfy three critical criteria.
From the customer’s perspective, in addition to being functional, any project must be seen to be:
- Strategically relevant,
- Tactically urgent, and
- Capable of delivering rapid time to value
Strategically relevant means that the proposed investment must be seen to support the customer’s key long-term business objectives and strategic initiatives.
Tactically urgent means that the proposed project must also support the customer’s short-term business priorities, and action must be seen to be urgent.
Rapid time-to-value means that today’s customers are not prepared to wait years to enjoy the first payback from a new project - tangible initial benefits must be delivered within weeks or months.
A question of contrast
Persuading a potential customer of the need to take action often comes down to the contrast that can be established between their current situation and a significant better future outcome - in other words, the “outcome gap”.
The customer’s current situation isn’t just about their immediate circumstances - it also reflects their current trajectory, and where they are likely to end up if they follow their current path. Sticking with the status quo is a particularly dangerous strategy when organisations are confronted (as they are today) with powerful external forces over which they have very little control.
The customer’s better future outcome reflects what they could achieve in the not-too-distant future and beyond if they are prepared to make positive changes to their business - but they need to be confident that the projected outcomes will actually be delivered. This is why the rapid delivery of initial value is so important in today’s climate.
When the outcome gap between these two positions is seen by the customer to be small and stable, they are likely to decide to continue on their current path. But when the outcome gap is seen to be large and growing, they are far more likely to accept the need for urgent change. The contrast between the pain of staying as they are must be contrasted with the realistic potential gains from embracing change.
Confidence in outcomes
Confidence in the expected outcome (or more accurately, the lack of it) is one of the primary reasons why apparently well-qualified sales opportunities end up with the customer deciding to “do nothing” - and this factor has become even more apparent in recent months.
If the customer’s decision-making group is not absolutely convinced of the need to change, they won’t. If the decision-making group is not absolutely convinced that they have chosen the right option, they will delay their decision. If the decision-making group is not absolutely convinced that the promised outcomes will be achieved, they are equally likely to delay or abandon their quest.
Convincing a prospective customer that they will achieve their expected business outcomes, within the expected timeframe, and for no more than the expected investment, is perhaps the single most important thing any salesperson can do in the current business climate.
Pitching the superiority of your “solution” won’t be enough. Your salespeople need to stretch the customer’s outcome gap to the maximum possible extent, in order to make the strongest possible case for change. And that requires that they develop a deep understanding of the customer’s challenges and opportunities, and the implications of failing to address them.
Your proposed “solution” must be seen to be directly important to the resolution of these challenges and opportunities, without any unnecessary bells and whistles, and without brushing any missing capabilities under the carpet.
Your differentiation - the thing that sets you part from all their other options, including “do nothing” - cannot be based primarily on product or feature superiority, but must be based instead on your customer’s belief that your approach and your accumulated experience represents the best way of achieving their all-important expected outcomes.
Do that, and you will be clearly seen to be strategically relevant, tactically urgent and capable of delivering rapid time-to-value. But if you can’t, I wouldn’t advise you to hold your breath waiting for the customer’s order.
This article was first published in the November 2020 Edition of Top Sales World Magazine. You can subscribe for free here.
About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, an active member of the Sales Experts Channel and the Sales Enablement Society, 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.