Can You Solution Sell without Selling Solutions?

Yes.  And for those who get the distinction, I’d might add, somewhat obviously.

But too many people don’t get it.  Too many folks equate “solution selling” with “selling solutions.”  In fact, they’re quite different.  So, in this post, we’ll try to make the world a better place by explaining the difference between selling solutions and solution selling [1].

What is Solution Selling?

First and foremost, Solution Selling is a book [2].  And it’s a book written by a guy, Michael Bosworth, who, if memory serves, was trying to sell Knowledge Management Software in the 1980s.  Never forget this.  Solution Selling wasn’t written by a guy selling easy-to-sell products in a hot category, such as (at the time) Oracle database or PeopleSoft applications.  Solution Selling was written by a guy trying to sell in a tough category. Look at the subtitle of the book:  “Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets.”

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

When you’re selling in a hot category [3], this is what you hear from the market.

“Yes, we’re going to buy a business intelligence tool and Gartner tells us it should be one of Cognos, Brio, and you — so you’re going to need explain why we should pick you over the other two.”

Nothing about value.  Nothing about problems.  Nothing about ROI.  We’ve already decided we’re going to buy one and you need to convince us why to buy yours.  [4]

When you’re selling in a cold category, the conversation goes something like this:

“A what?  An XML database system?  Wait, didn’t Gartner call that ‘the market that never was’ about two years ago — why in the world would anyone ever buy one of those.” [5]

In the first case, the sales cycle is all about differentiation.  In the second case, it’s all about value.  In the first case, it’s why buy one from me.  In the second, it’s why buy one at all.

Solution selling is the process of identifying a business problem that the product solves, finding the business owner of that problem, and selling them on the value of solving that problem and your ability to do so.

To use my favorite marketing analogy [6], solution selling is the process of selling the value of a ¼” hole.  Product selling is talking all about the wonderful titanium that’s in the ¼” drill bit.

For example, at MarkLogic we sold the world’s finest XML database system and XQuery processing engine.  In terms of market interest, that plus $3 will get you a tall latte.  That is, no one cared.  You could call up IT people and database architects and database administrators all day and tell them you had the world’s finest XQuery engine and no would care.  They weren’t interested in the category.

Certain businesspeople, however, were quite interested in what you could do with it.

  • If you called the SVP of K-12 Education at Pearson and talked about solving the tricky problem of customizing textbooks to meet many and varied state regulations, you’d get a call back.
  • If you called an intelligence officer at your favorite three-letter agency and talked about gathering, enriching, and querying open source content to build next-generation OSINT systems, you’d get a call back.
  • If you called the SVP of Digital Strategy at McGraw-Hill and talked overall about how the industry needed to separate content from the container in building next-generation products in response to the massive threat to media caused by Google, you’d get a call back.

Simply put, if you called a person about an important problem that they needed to solve, they’d call you back.  Whether they’d buy from you would come down to the extent they believed you can solve the problem based on several factors including a technology assessment, conversations with reference customers for whom you’ve solved the problem before, the cost/benefit associated with the project, and whether they wanted to work with you. [7]

What is Selling Solutions?

Geoffrey Moore refers to an important concept called “whole product” in Crossing the Chasm.  And it’s the idea that you’re not just selling technology platform to your beachhead market, you’re selling the fact that you know how to solve problems with it. Solving those problems might require hundreds of hours of consulting services, integration with complementary third-party software packages, and data integration with existing core systems.

But nobody said the “whole product” had to be packaged up, for example, as a set of templates that you customize that help accelerate the process of solving the problem.  This is the zone of “solutions.”

Many companies, early in their lifecycle for focus reasons or late in their lifecycle to increase the size of a saturating market [8], decide they want to package up a solution after repeatedly solving a problem in a certain area.  This often starts out as leftover consulting-ware and over time can evolve into a set of full-blown applications.

At most software companies, particularly bigger ones, when you start talking about packaged solutions, this is what you mean:  the combination of know-how and leftover intellectual property (IP) from prior engagements not licensed as software product but nevertheless used to both accelerate the time it takes to build the solution and reduce the risk of failure in so doing.

For example, during my time at MarkLogic, we often debated whether and to what extent we should create a packaged custom publishing solution or simply think of custom publishing as a focus area, something that we had a lot of know-how in, and re-use whatever leftover IP we could from prior gigs without glorifying it as a packaged solution.  Because the assignments were so different (publishers used as the the platform to build their products) we never opted to do so.  Had we been selling a business-support application as opposed to do product development platform, we probably would have.

The Difference Between Solution Selling and Selling Solutions

Solution selling is an approach to (and a complete methodology for) the sales process.  Selling solutions means selling packaged, typically application-layer, know-how typically built into a series of templates and frameworks that help accelerate the process of solving a given problem.

They are different ideas.

You can solution sell without a single packaged solution in your product line.  To again answer the question posed by the title of this post:  Yes, you can solution sell without selling solutions.

Solution selling is simply an approach to how you sell your product.  Certainly it can be easier to solution sell when you are selling solutions.  But it is not required and one is not tantamount to the other.

# # #

Notes

[1] In fact, rather perversely, you can sell solutions without solution selling.  If your company built a custom-tailored solution to solve a specific business problem and if you sold it emphasizing the features of the solutions (i.e., “feeds and speeds”) without trying to understand the customer’s specific business problem and its impacts, then you’d be guilty of product-selling a solution.  See end of the post.

[2] Which has largely been replaced by the author’s next book, Customer Centric Selling, but which – like many classics – was better before it was “improved” in my humble opinion.

[3] Which leads to one of my favorite sayings:  “if you have to ask if you’re working in a hot category, you’re not.”  If you were, two things would be different:  first, you’d know and second, you’d be too busy to ask.  QED.

[4] Which results in what I call an “axe battle” sales process, reminiscent of knights in heavy armor swinging axes at each other where each is blow can be thought of as feature.  “We have aggregate awareness, boom.”  “We have dynamic microcubes, boom.”  And so on.

[5] Gartner did, in fact, say precisely this about this XML database market, but that didn’t stop us from building MarkLogic from $0 to an $80M revenue run-rate during my six years there.  It did, however, provide a huge clue that we needed to adopt a solution-selling methodology (and bowling-alley strategy) in so doing.

[6] “Purchasing agents buy ¼” holes, not ¼” bits.”  Theodore Levitt.

[7] Because a startup can only develop this fluency and experience in a small number of solutions, you should cross the chasm by focusing on an initial beachhead and then build out into other markets through adjacencies (aka, bowling alley strategy) as described in Inside the Tornado.  In many ways, the solution selling sales methodology goes hand in hand with these strategy books by Geoffrey Moore.

[8] Geoffrey Moore calls these +1 additions that help grow the market as the once-hot core technology market saturates and you need to switch back to a solution focus if you wish to increase the market size.

3 responses to “Can You Solution Sell without Selling Solutions?

  1. Brilliant, as usual. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. AMEN! Couldn’t agree more. One thing I look for when hiring – did they work for a company selling something ugly that doesn’t work. If they managed that – they probably can solution sell…

  3. As always insightful and focused on topics that many people don’t find interesting, as it seems easier to focus on the levers such as quota, replacing salespeople, yelling, rather than taking a little time to fully understand the operational aspects of our business.

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