The 40-Year Solution Selling Echo Chamber

June 18, 2014 0 Comments Best Practices by Jack Dean

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, says, “The only way to get ahead is to find errors in conventional wisdom”.  If you are a B2B sales executive trying to “get ahead” of your competition, Mr. Ellison offers some good advice.  As you race to establish your business advisor credentials with executive-level decision makers, you may discover that your commonly used sales methodology doesn’t work very well with the unique executive persona and decision mindset.  Is there an opportunity to “find errors” in conventional wisdom by adapting your sales methodology and separating yourself from the crowd?

One of the most universally accepted sales methodologies goes by the label “solution selling” or some variant of that theme. For over forty years the merits of the solution selling sales methodology have been passed down through three generations of sales professionals, from Boomers to Gen-Xers and now on to Millennials.  This solution selling “echo chamber” has been reverberating for nearly a half century within the sales and marketing profession, self-reinforcing the selling behaviors of its devotees and punishing the occasional deviants who may have strayed off the ranch from time to time.  Suffice it to say, solution selling is as “conventional wisdom” as it gets in the sales profession.

Wikipedia helps to define the solution selling sales methodology.  “Rather than just promoting an existing product, the salesperson focuses on the customer’s pain(s) and addresses the issue with his or her offerings (products and services).  The resolution of the pain is what constitutes a “solution”.  Keith Eades, author of The New Solution Selling, offers further clarification of what constitutes a solution.  He says, “It’s a mutually shared answer to a recognized problem, and the answer provides measurable improvement”.

In my experience from the executive buyer’s side of the desk, I think solution selling has been widely valued by buyers at lower levels in the customer organization.  By virtue of their role and persona, project teams, analysts, and lower-level managers have come to appreciate the problem-solving orientation and expertise offered by solution selling sales people.  Solving problems is what keeps these folks up at night and solution sellers help them get their rest!

But, in most cases, problem solving isn’t what keeps an executive up at night.  The unique persona and decision mindset of an executive isn’t primarily focused on solving problems.  Consequently, if a sales executive or an account manager wants to journey down the solution selling/problem solving path during an executive conversation, they are likely to observe the signs of disengagement: impatience, distraction, short answers, and lack of business curiosity.

I believe “problem solving” conversations aren’t the best choice for making the executive connection for the following reasons:

1. You are speaking to the right person (the executive decision maker) but you are having the wrong conversation (around pain, problems, challenges, and issues).  This does not reflect the executive persona and decision mindset.

2. By definition, you are limiting the subjects that could be discussed by constraining the topics to identified problems.  Unknowingly, you may be leaving a lot on the table.

3. You risk calling the executive’s baby “ugly” if you don’t understand the internal politics of the problem.

4. If you are lucky, you will be delegated down to the “problem solvers”.  If you are not lucky, you will be shown the door.

5. You look/talk/act just like the next solution seller who comes around so the value of the sales interaction to the executive is diminished.  Your message isn’t differentiated and “sticky”.

I believe the sales organization needs to challenge the “conventional wisdom” of solution selling when applied to interactions with customer executives.  “Finding errors” in the solution selling methodology and correcting for them will lead to more compelling executive conversations and greater value for the customer.

The Challenger® Sales Model starts down the right path with its emphasis on insight-led selling, but even this forward thinking organization reverts back to conventional thinking that problem solving is the raison d’être for the role of sales and marketing.  Challenger’s prescribed commercial teaching pitch starts with a reframing comment around some unrecognized “problem”, need or assumption, and the remaining phases of the pitch flesh out the business case and emotional impact for finding a “new framework for addressing the problem – implicitly tied to the supplier value proposition”.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Challenger is a breath of fresh air in terms of “finding errors in conventional wisdom”, but their continued acceptance of conventional thinking around problem solving fails to correct for the unique decision-making persona of customer executives.

In my next blog post I will offer suggestions for challenging conventional wisdom and changing your executive conversations from pure problem solving excursions.  In the meantime, I encourage you to share your point of view on this important subject.  Have you “found errors” in the “conventional wisdom” around engaging customer executives?

About Jack Dean:  Jack is the co-founder of FASTpartners, a unique sales training firm where 21st century buy-side CXOs help B2B sales and marketing professionals “Learn from Executives ~ How to Sell to Executives”.  A former Fortune500 CFO, Jack has over a decade of experience working with sales and marketing professionals in a company-sponsored training environment to improve their customer-specific business/financial insights, solution impact articulation, and executive-level selling interactions. For more information on FASTpartners learning experiences, go to www.fastpartners.com or contact Jack at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .