New Year’s resolutions have a spotty history of success. Made in January, they are usually broken and forgotten by spring. But despite repeated failures on a personal level, there is a lot to like about business resolutions. They are another name for plans and when made by self-confident, decisive and resolute people, they often work.
Thanks to Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson and Nicholas Toman, writing in the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), there are a few new ideas that sales training managers might include in their New Year’s strategic mix. Should sales staff stay with the solution sales model that has guided sales training since 1975 or transition to Dixon’s 21st century-based insight selling model? Their article leaves little doubt as to their bias; it’s titled “The End of Solution Sales.”
Solution selling comes to the table with a long and successful track record. It radically changed the role of sales representative from product knowledge expert to a coach who seeks solutions to customer problems. Solution sales reps are trained to ask open-ended questions about what keeps their customers up at night. They learn to locate customer pain, build relationships, relieve angst through a sales solution, and deliver satisfaction.
Dixon finds that organizations where solution selling works—those companies with a clear vision, clear need for change and established demands—are not venues that attract top sales personnel. Organizations that are in flux with emerging needs, appeal to star sales performers.
In a recorded interview on the HBR website, Dixon examines the way we buy automobiles today. It’s a good example of how the sales environment has changed since 1975. Long before customers visit a dealership they have checked Consumer Reports ratings, Internet-based analyses and peer reviews. If unaware of their options by this stage of their research, they have at least narrowed the field. Potential car buyers then go on to obtain price reports that reveal a dealer’s true cost of the car or cars that meet their needs. They learn too what others have paid for similar cars and a suggested target price.
Dixon estimates that with help from the Internet and other resources, 60 percent of all purchase decisions are made before consulting a sales rep. There is precious little pain for the rep to relieve and few obvious problems left to solve.
So what is the role of a successful sales rep? Her job according to Dixon et al. is to focus on unacknowledged and unrecognized needs, the issues that should keep the customer up at night. “Here are the issues that could seriously disrupt your life if left unattended,” says Dixon’s idealized sales star. This is the essence of what he calls insight selling.
Customers don’t necessarily believe these tea leaf readers. They are skeptical and that is exactly what Dixon encourages. Challenger reps, as Dixon calls top sales performers, prove their worth by steering doubters away from disaster and into purchases that prevent pain from ever occurring.
A clever idea, but is it worth including in your 2013 sales training? We asked six Charlotte area sales training experts to weigh in.
“It is the worst article I’ve ever read about sales and relationships,” says Jeffrey Gitomer of Buy Gitomer and Train One. In Gitomer’s view, the author’s advice is “dangerous to sales people and their careers” because “there is nothing in there about value, respect, trust and relationships.”
As far as seeking out skeptical clients goes, Gitomer doesn’t buy that either. “If a client doesn’t like you, they won’t do business with you.”
Then there is the title of the article, “The End of Solution Selling.” Gitomer goes it one better. “Solution selling was dead the moment it was written,” he says. It relies too much on techniques and systems. “The key to selling is harmonizing,” he emphasizes. Techniques create barriers to authenticity and impede harmony.
Tim Conner, an author of 80 books on selling, sides with Gitomer. “The authors present a lot of old school stuff repackaged to look new and relevant,” he says. He finds that many successful people in sales are already following what the authors recommend.
Bob Henricks agrees. He heads up Henricks Corporate Training & Development/Sandler Training, a Charlotte sales training company. He says, “Insight selling sounds new and fresh, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure there is anything new here.”
Neither Conner nor Henricks are ready to write the obituary for an old, reliable workhorse. “Solution selling is not dead,” affirms Conner. “Solution selling still has a place,” agrees Henricks. “People buy for the same reasons they always have—to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.”
Keith Eades, founder and chief executive officer of Sales Performance International, would know if solution selling were dead or dying. He was an associate of Mike Bosworth whose research at Xerox Corporation helped develop the solution selling methodology, and has written The New Solution Selling and co-authored The Solution-Centric Organization. His take on the HBR article is more nuanced than Gitomer or Conner.
“The attributes ascribed to solution selling in the article and associated chart don’t remotely resemble what the documented methodology actually teaches—in some cases they are the antithesis of what is taught.
“Take the issue of the type of organizations where solution selling and insight selling are supposed to work—clear vision and established demands for solution selling and in flux for insight,” continues Eades. “If people or organizations already have clear visions of what they need to solve problems, they wouldn’t need salespeople. The real value solution sellers bring is when they can help someone see a way to solve a problem they didn’t know existed or a problem they didn’t know how to solve.”
“We teach the concept of latent pains, latent problems or latent opportunities,” Eades explains. “This is the world that exists within a buyer’s mind where problems or opportunities are hidden, dormant or inactive.” In these cases, solution selling provides clear vision; it doesn’t need clear vision at the onset.
Pat Heidrich, a Cornelius-based sales trainer, gives insight selling a passing grade on many of its ideas. After all, insight is what led Steve Jobs to revolutionize the computer marketplace with the iPad. And challenging a client has a lot going for it. He is quick to add qualifiers, though.
“Take insight…The problem is how do you transfer insight to others? If it is transferable, I can’t teach it in a one-day seminar,” says Heidrich. Enlightened organizations take the time to encourage and support insight and then develop salespeople who believe they can deliver it.
And delivery matters. “It is okay to challenge a prospect’s beliefs,” continues Heidrich. But it must be done short of insult. “There are techniques for getting away with challenging a client while maintaining rapport. You always keep a client in an okay state,” he says. That’s okay as in I’m okay, You’re okay, the classic 1967 text on transactional analysis by Thomas Harris. It’s a book that Heidrich refers to often.
Henricks thinks challenging clients even when done with rapport is not always a wise strategy. What if the client is a highly dominant personality type? “They don’t like to be challenged,” says Henricks. “Do that and you’re out of the office in 15 minutes.”
Jim Dunn of Dunn Enterprises of the Carolinas/Sandler Training is the one sales trainer that has gone beyond the HBR article. He has read The Challenger Sale, the 2011 book by Dixon, Adamson and Toman; it was a gift from one of the best salespersons he ever met.
His take: “Insight selling is dead on. I believe that 20 percent of salespeople have figured out the market. They are the professional salespersons the authors write about. The other 80 percent are getting bad advice, not reading books on selling and not doing the kinds of things that raise the bar of performance. They will find themselves out of a job.”
And does he believe that we have seen the end of solution selling? “Yes, I think so. The article and book express a different approach. They make a unique, valid and important statement.”
Selling Solutions for 2013
Putting differences aside, we asked all six for their best recommendations for building sales in the New Year. Where do they think the gold is buried in 2013?
• Increase prospecting behavior. Make more cold calls, says Pat Heidrich. “You can easily make 10 to 20 cold calls in an hour and it is an activity that is 100 percent under the control of the salesperson.” Whenever he can, Heidrich attaches social media to the call. He checks Linkedin for a prospective buyer’s profile to see if he and the client have contacts in common. If there is a common link, “I call my friend and ask a favor. Would you call X and see if he would take my call?”
• Ask negative questions. Jim Dunn approaches prospective clients with this observation: “You are probably not experiencing these trends that I’m seeing in other companies.” Surprisingly, clients often open up to that type of inquiry. “For established clients try asking, ‘What would I have to do in 2013 to lose your business?’” The result, says Dunn, is an honest conversation.
• Reinvent yourself. “The number one reason companies fail is that they have lost relevance in the marketplace,” maintains Tim Conner. He encourages CEOs to read books and articles by futurists and then ask how their own marketplace has changed. Conner recommends blending those trends into company policies and procedures.
• Get close to your customers. “Relationships matter,” says Jeffrey Gitomer. “Provide your customers with enough value and they will be loyal to you and refer others your way. If you can get every customer to refer one customer, you can double your business,” says Gitomer. Value comes from telling what Pat Heidrich calls—third party stories. For example, “Here are some of the issues others like yourself have shared with me. I don’t know if you are experiencing the same thing, but I’m hearing a lot of that.”
• Track prospecting. There are 70 cameras trained on every play in the National Football League. Coaches know what their players have done and what might improve player performance. “Sales managers could achieve the same result with prospect tracking software,” says Pat Heidrich. “The best salespeople will react positively,” he maintains. Keith Eades calls them “sales enablement tools” and advocates that they be linked to a company’s customer relationship management program.
• The universal truth. Bob Henricks reiterates, “People buy for the same reasons they always have—to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.”
• Probe, learn, listen, ask questions. Keith Eades says, “If people or organizations already have clear visions of what they need to solve problems, they wouldn’t need salespeople. The real value solution sellers bring is when they can help someone see a way to solve a problem they don’t know existed or a problem they didn’t know how to solve.”