Solution Selling: 3 Killer Secrets to Success

Here’s some really good news.

First off, if you’re selling a solution or service of any kind, the chances are your competitors are doing a pretty terrible job. 

How do I know that for sure? 

Simply because the people they’re selling to tell me that 9 out 10 sales meetings, presentations, sales discussions or sales pitches they get are dreadful.

The main complaint is that for the customer it’s very rarely a useful, insightful and productive conversation. More often than not, it’s a death by PowerPoint boast about turnover, number of employees and a meaningless page of “big name logos” followed by a series of banal and self-serving “discovery questions” which all too rapidly are followed by a clumsy “feature blast” and product pitch that almost inevitably will end with a trail close of some sort or other.

The customer is left feeling they’ve just wasted the last hour of their life, they’ve answered the same questions they always get asked and they’ve actually learnt or achieved nothing of tangible value that will help them in their role or with any of the things that challenge them day-to-day.

So how can you make sure you’re not the next “terrible” “solution” selling product pusher who walks through the door?

How can you stand out as being someone they are keen to open up to, are happy to meet again and someone they would choose to do business with over and above everyone else that’s knocking at their door?

Well here are 3 Killer Secrets to Success that come directly from the very people you’re trying sell to…pay attention… they WANT you to know this stuff:

1. You are NOT providing them with a SOLUTION 

Whether you like it or not your beautifully packaged “solution” is simply a component as far as your customer is concerned. What you happily present as a complete package of products or services in reality has to fit into and alongside all manner of other such “packages” and myriad other internal and incumbent systems or processes that the person you’re selling to  has to consider, deal with and integrate, in order to get ANY value at all out of what you’re offering.

Interestingly, not only do I KNOW this from having been told it by senior level decision makers over the years, but it is also backed up in extensive research by the Corporate Executive Board in their seminal book The Challenger Sale, which evidences that in buying a “solution”, it is in fact the CUSTOMER that has to do all the work to customize your “solution” to integrate it into all the other elements they need to consider, BEFORE they can derive any value from it at all.

So what do you need to know?

  • Understand that the customer’s “problem” is bigger than your “solution”
  • Prepare your proposition by considering this up front. How will you help the customer to buy and what do you need to incorporate in your offer to make what you’re presenting, easy to for them to implement?
  • In the sales meeting or presentation make your INTEREST and UNDERSTANDING of your customer’s need to integrate your solution clear. Ask probing and empathetic questions that EVIDENCE you “get it”.

2. DON’T Ask them “What Keeps you awake at night?”

I know most sales people consider this to be a great way to get the customer to “open up” about where their pain points are. I can assure you that the same sales people haven’t got a clue that it not only drives your customer nuts, but it is actually damaging your chances of making any real progress.


  • Because it’s the same uninspired “out of the text-book” question that every other “clockwork” sales dummy they see that day will ask.
  • It evidences that you haven’t got a clue about the person you’re speaking to. That you haven’t bothered to research them or their company or their industry enough to be able to ask anything even a little bit more tailored.
  • It shows that to you, they are simply part of the “numbers game”. One more “pitch on the list” one more “no” on route to a “yes”. Do you think that makes you look like someone who could add value to the customer or someone they can’t wait to leave?
  • Most Importantly though…it will get you the same answer the customer has given to every one of your competitors who’s been dumb enough to ask it! You won’t get any real insight, you won’t get any deep understanding of how you can position your offering to add real value, create real differentiation and to be able to sell at the highest price. You’ll just join the list of competitors selling something that can now be boiled down simply to price.

So what should you do or ask?

I suggest you aim for a conversation rather than a presentation. I suggest you do your homework when you develop your proposition (that’s the marketing bit) so that you can offer real insight and I suggest you make sure you’ve done your research on the people you’re meeting before you meet them. Design and discuss an idea or insight with them that both evidences your understanding of the wider issues and challenges THEY face, and enables them to think and talk expansively about how they might use it, change it, incorporate it into their business. You and THEY will get a good deal more from a meeting when you do this than if you turn up with a “solution” you need to “punt” at the first sign of any “need” you can match it to.

Again, The Challenger Sale is great at helping you explore this. I also use the Business Model Canvas and of course SureFire Excellence for preparing propositions that make this work brilliantly and open up much bigger opportunities more quickly.

3. Who’s really BUYING?

It probably goes without saying (I hope) that in most instances and where you’re selling a complex or big-ticket service or solution, there will be more than one person or department involved in the decision to buy.

A well constructed value proposition will provide the sales person with the tools they need to engage and talk confidently to each and every member of the  Decision Making Unit. It should also enable the sales person to make the proposition relevant, valuable and a priority decision for each party too.

The real key here though is to understand how the decision process really works. And be aware…it’s changed since you last looked at it. Again (and I’m not on commission here!) but the Challenger Sales research evidences that post recession, just about all big-ticket decisions are now made by consensus. Be clear, that’s important. A few years ago when you were selling to one “department head” or VP you could be sure if you closed them, the deal was done.

Not any longer. Now even the most senior of decision makers will reach out to their peers across the business as well as down into their team to gain consensus before going ahead. Buyers (as individuals) are now highly risk averse. So be prepared.

Here are a few pointers:

  • ASK and understand how the decision is to be made up front.
  • Determine (and you should do this when you develop your proposition) how you will HELP your customer to take and sell YOUR Proposition UP and across into the business.
  • Make sure you know and understand what the CFO/FD’s top priorities are this year. Unless what you’re selling addresses one of those, you will be in for an uphill battle.
  • Find out what the CFO/FD (The business) sets as their “hurdle rates” – this is important. These are the terms or criteria set by the CFO/FD for any business case or proposition that comes across their desk for approval. If your proposition doesn’t get over the hurdles, it doesn’t even get to first base.

Those are the top three things I think you need to know and consider when selling solutions.

What do you think?

PS: I can help you think differently about your sales and marketing approaches. If you’d like more insight, ideas and support get in touch.


More Sales People = More Sales….. Right?

I’ve just finished one of the sorts of conversations that stop you dead in your tracks.

I had been discussing a particular challenge I come across a lot in companies of all sizes today. It usually starts with, “We just need more sales” and usually ends with…”So we’ve hired some more sales people“.

There are some standard variables to this such as “my sales people are rubbish” ….and then the stock answer “So we hired some more sales people“.

“My sales people are chasing too many low value deals”….”So we hired some more sales people”…etc.

The problem with this approach is that in time the new sales people end up in the same position as the old sales people who you will remember are “rubbish” and “chasing too many low value deals”.

Of course when you stand back and look at it, it’s pretty obvious that at least in some instances it may not be a sales problem at all. In fact in my experience it is invariably not wholly a sales problem.

Good sales people are smart, commercially savvy, driven, focused, hard-working, intelligent and successful.

They are not – magicians. No, honest, they’re not (not even if they tell you that they are).

No matter how smart, commercially savvy etc…they are they will need you to have done your thinking first if you want them to succeed. 

You will need to provide them with a compelling, robust, differentiated and competitive proposition and tell them what a good customer looks like and where they can find them. If and when you do that, they will turn on the magic. Until you do, they will be just as “rubbish” and “busy” as the old ones you’re so annoyed with.

So back to my conversation….it went like this….

ME: “So in order to make the step change in top line growth they’re looking for, what did they do?”

Consultant: “They went out and hired a load more sales people”.

ME: “What are these people going to sell and to whom?”.

Consultant: “They’re going to work on that”.

ME: “When?”

Consultant: “Well there’s nothing in the budget for that”

Me:”Right” “So when are they expecting to see a return for their investment in these new sales people?”

Consultant: “Well the pressure’s on from day one really”.

Me:”So the equation goes need more sales = buy more sales people?”

Consultant: “er..Yes. I guess that was it really”.

Me:”That sounds like an expensive and time-consuming way to lose money and market share”.

Consultant: “Yes. I told them that”. “They said they didn’t have any budget for getting their marketing planning in shape this quarter”.

Me: “Don’t tell me, they said they need to sell something first?!”.

Consultant: “Yep”.

Good Grief Charlie Brown.

FYI – If you get your marketing planning in place (your proposition, your target market, your differentiation, etc.) first. Then you can hire sales people and they should stand every chance of being successful. If you skip that pretty vital step…then all your sales people will fail and it will cost you a fortune.










Demand Generation – Building your business intelligently

I recently wrote an article for SureFire looking at what must be one of the most common issues for organisations of all sizes today – Demand Generation. I.e. generating new business opportunities.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re a multi-national or a small local business. Finding a way to generate consistent new business opportunities cost effectively is tough. The problem is that when business is thin on the ground everyone simply “turns up the volume” and invests every penny they’ve got in “shouting” louder than the competition in a bid to be heard.

Tempting though it might sound, it’s mug’s game.

There will always be someone with deeper pockets who can “out shout” you and can keep investing in doing that long after you’ve burnt through every penny you’ve got to spare.

So what are the options for an SME in today’s market:

1. Join the bun-fight, jump in with both feet and be prepared to lose all that you have.

2. Think differently, work on what you’re selling and to whom you’re trying to sell it. Make sure you’ve “innovated” around your product and service offering, look to optimise what you do currently and seek out those “blue ocean” opportunities where only you can play. Engineer your proposition so that you can respond to market and competitor challenges and take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves.

If you engineer your proposition you will be able to out “market” and out “position” your competitors far more easily, quickly and cost effectively than if you simply try to “out shout them”. What’s more fun is they won’t have a clue how you’re doing it!

If you’re interested in learning how to do this, drop me a line. We’ve developed some tools and processes to help businesses do this rapidly, cost effectively and without the need for lots of expensive external consultancy. We even have a free, anonymous and no obligation trial assessment for those who are keen to explore it in more detail and you can find that here. Why not try it out and get in touch to find out more…



Discounting? Product Creep? You’re in trouble…

A sure sign that things are “going south” is when sales people are discounting to get the deal or having to pad the proposition with all manner of “bolt on” add-ons in an attempt to differentiate.

How often is that happening in your organisation?

Marketing’s job is to maintain the margin by differentiation – really, that’s it.

Adding more stuff confuses the customers (and confused customers don’t buy) it also erodes the margin. Discounting is a mug’s game and it’s only a matter of time  before you’re out of the game all together.

If you spot any of these two things happening, you need to act fast.

Good old-fashioned marketing will do the trick…remember that?




Bonkers or Not?..You decide…

So you’ve done your research. You know it’s “IT Managers” who buy your sort of product. You’ve got their postal and email address and even their phone number. You’ve invested in some great witty graphics – and a great new strap line. Of course you’ve got your “call to action” all worked out too. The database you have has 10,000 names on it and with that many on there you can’t fail, so off you go then – target circa £30M Okay?

You may laugh.

It’s a true example, spelled out to me only six months ago by a Sales VP of an organisation of some considerable stature. He had his head in his hands. He’s not there now.

I asked if this was the usual approach taken by his marketing department.

He laughed.

He said, “no”. “It’s the approach taken by the CEO”.

We all laughed.

They send out the campaign to 10,000 names.

What happens next?

A: They get enough responses and expressions of interest from qualified prospects to keep the team of 20 sales people busy on good opportunities for the next 3/6 months. The sales people follow-up and close in excess of 30% of the leads and everyone’s happy.

B: They get very few responses and certainly none of any quality. The sales people wonder what all the fuss was about and were getting on with making their number under their own steam/or not…as they had been for the last x years , marketing is busy planning the follow-up. The agency is fired because it was probably their fault and also it’s worth giving the database company a quick kick as well because they’re just rubbish anyway. We’re now a quarter behind, the market is none the wiser about the company, the company is still none the wiser about the market.

Answer: B.

What can the next step possibly be?

1. Do it again, only this time to more people, send it more than once (obviously), oh and get telemarketing on it this time – stupid. That will do it. With 20,000 names you can’t lose.

2. You decide…..



What on earth is a “vertical” anyway?

For those who have never really known (or perhaps even cared!), here are some “formal” definitions: Vertical Market  and Horizontal Market 

So what?

Well let’s start by saying that in the main, marketing is largely common sense. Clearly it makes sense to offer your product or service to people who have a need or an interest in it as opposed to asking everyone just in case (although this approach is still widely championed by the few).

It makes it a lot easier for your sales people too if the group they’re selling to have similar problems – ideally solved by your product or service. Of course as a business if you can sell to a niche you can dominate , you can name your price and maintain your  margin…at least that’s the plan.

The converse is trying to sell to everyone, not controlling the price in the market, having to discount, eroding your margin…going bust slowly. It’s happening more and more in B2B and organisations are starting to realise that a “volume” sales and marketing strategy  is simply not going to cut it as this hyper-competitive marketplace evolves.

So in an attempt to address the challenge organisations often elect to “go vertical”. I.e. to pick a smaller group or an industry and focus on that instead. That works (if you do it well) a bit.

The problem is that too often organisations think that “going vertical” means simply re-organising the account teams and creating P&L responsibility for the person running each one. I.e. You now run “Automotive” and you have a target of £5OM – good luck.

Of course addressing a specific market requires a good deal more than a re-org of the sales team and targets. If you want what you’re doing to work, you may need to do a little more than add “Automotive” to the top of all your standard brochures or product literature. To be successful in a vertical market to you need first to understand it well enough to know if you have a proposition that actually makes any kind of sense in the space. You need also to understand if that proposition is in any way unique, or interesting, or valid or competitive…and if you can really deliver it. So it’s not a case of simply taking your existing proposition, sticking a new label on it, hiring a salesman from that “vertical” and off you go. That way lies doom…usually about 9-12 months later when you realise it’s never going to work out.

Of course you may also have to accept that life is just not that straightforward.

More often than not, the world will not organise itself in an orderly fashion around the neat names you had in mind for the new teams.

You may find, if you do just a little research, that what you have actually doesn’t fit “a vertical” but more likely a small group of companies with similar issues…

So for example, an innovative hedge fund may have more in common with an online gambling company than a retail bank (thank you Paul Bevan). Sounds obvious? Yep, but a hedge fund would sit in the traditional “Financial Services” vertical and you’d be unlikely to find  an online gaming site in the same place (!).

The other common error is making your vertical so large it may as well be horizontal. So Financial Services covers…Retail Banking, Investment Banking, Hedge Funds, Funds (generally), how many types of insurance are there? Pensions, investments etc.

Do you think that the conversation you have and the proposition you make to a Retail Bank is the same as you’d make to and Insurance broker? Do you think they think they consider themselves to be part of a huge and undefined market with the same issues and challenges?

That doesn’t mean that getting your proposition nailed and in front of people who instantly understand its value is hard, or complex or costly. In fact it’s the complete reverse (remember marketing is really just organised common sense!) . The key is not to be fooled into thinking that the job’s done, once the teams all sit under a nice neat heading.  That way lies doom, all your competitors and another year of fighting your way to your number.




Lipstick on your pig sir?

Be careful. There are no end of “Porcine beauticians” out there who will happily take your money and your hope and expectations and in return, provide you with a stunning looking, responsive website, an elegant “brand execution” and product and service literature which will doubtless position you as the “global leader” in your chosen field.

These organisations have no real interest in whether you can actually do what you say you can do. They’re not stupid though, far from it. They simply know that if it looks great, you’ll love it.

You know what they call this in the design and creative world?  Rolling a Poo in Glitter. 

So what’s wrong with that?   What if it’s all cobblers?

There’s a vast difference between “entrepreneurial flare” and outright BS.

The former will get you noticed. The latter will put you out of business.

Caveat Emptor and all that!

Bon weekend!

Getting Away with it – ness

There’s a lot of it about.

Look around you, in your industry, your competitors and perhaps in your company or even your office or department too.

There will be people who have largely “got away with it” for years. Decades even.

A few years ago no one noticed. That was because they could hide. Usually hiding meant doing the bit you were tasked with doing, only. So it didn’t matter if the marketing campaign didn’t actually make any money…they had “delivered it” and that bit was their job.

It didn’t matter if the customer service issue was actually and properly resolved, they’d passed on the message.

And from sales, it didn’t matter if in reaching their target they’d left a trail of carnage behind them, the cleaning up of which wiped out all margin and good will….because they’d hit their number.

Look out for these people. Point them out in public. It is your duty to do so. They are killing your business and jeopardizing your future.

If you are a sufferer. Wake up. The world can see you now….