Customers want value, not “solutions”!

When I first moved into a sales role, it was drummed into me that I was to sell “solutions”, not products. Solution selling became the mantra for decades, and it even became a trademarked methodology. Unfortunately, the term has become so over-used in sales circles that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. If you ask a sales executive if they sell products or solutions, they will usually say “Solutions, of course”. Unfortunately, that misses the point.

Selling solutions is still seller-centric. Whether you are selling products or “solutions”, it is still a solution looking for a problem. Until you change the mind-set and start looking for problems to solve first, you are not solution-selling.

I have been worrying about this for years. I have led many sales teams and I thought we were thoroughly immersed in solution selling, but our actions did not always follow our words. We were still selling products and services, and stopping if our prospects didn’t want what we had to sell.

Recently, I was asked by the directors of a large software business to put together a workshop on value-based selling. It was a revelation to our clients – and me. I made use of the value proposition design techniques described in the Strategyzer series (well known for the book “Business Model Generation”). This helps you retro-fit a value proposition to existing products and services, and also create new products and services from initial value proposition onwards.

Really, deeply understanding the customer is key to the creation of a value proposition. (Isn’t that meant to be true of solution selling too?) For sales teams, creating a unique value proposition for the customer enables them to understand what the customer needs, and communicate in the customer’s language how they can help. Enough of the words. Here are the practical steps.

Firstly, map your customer. There are three areas to list:

  • What “jobs” does the customer do (try and capture all of them, large and small)
  • What “gains” are the customer looking for. Why are they there? What drives them?
  • What gets in the way? These are “pains”
  • Now prioritise the lists, from important down to minor.

Secondly, list three areas from your side as a supplier.

  • What products and services do you have, or have access to?
  • What can you do to help your customers achieve their “gains”?
  • What can you do to help your customers avoid their “pains”?

Now map your customer’s priority jobs, gains and pains to your solutions and capability. Don’t worry if you can’t address all of them, no supplier can cover everything.

The light-bulb moment comes when you cover up the bottom half of both lists and ask yourself – are you addressing the key issues for your customer with your proposition, or just addressing those that are covered up?

This is a very common result and there is a way around it, but that is for a workshop rather than an article! This is just the start of an important journey that needs to include sales, marketing, product managers, services and senior management. But even if you just get this far, you are starting to think in your customers’ terms – about what they do, what they are trying to achieve and what is getting in the way. If your sales conversations revolve around that, you are back to solution selling, but really doing it this time.

Pure Potential runs workshops to help sales, marketing and cross-functional teams develop compelling value propositions that win more business and retain profitable customers.

Neville Merritt