Harvard Business review

Is Your Sales Team Struggling to Sell Solutions?

One of the most common concerns expressed by CEOs about their sales organization is that they aren’t consultative enough and that they need to do a better job of selling solutions. In fact, global spending in the IoT market is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2024, and the research think tank Gartner highlights that a critical factor for success in this market will be a “well-trained consultative sales organization.” But, the approaches for consultative selling and the solution sale have been around for four decades. So why hasn’t the shift to selling solutions happened already? The author outlines three primary reasons and explains why it’s more a leadership issue than a sales issue.

It seems after four decades of talk about the “consultative” or “solution” sales approach, companies would be adept at selling this way by now. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: Many sales professionals struggle to move beyond pitching their products or services to providing solutions that are connected to customer business outcomes. This is one of the most common concerns I hear from CEOs about their sales organization.

Traditional selling tends to focus on a pitch or capabilities presentation to communicate the value of a company’s products or services, then closing on a commitment to purchase.

In contrast, the consultative approach requires sellers to create value by helping customers identify issues and opportunities they haven’t recognized and provide solutions they hadn’t anticipated. In this way, the sales process is more about understanding the customer’s circumstances, needs, and objectives and positioning products and services to meet them. That connection to the customers’ goals is what turns products and services into solutions.

Solution selling has become a critical skill set as markets evolve. Global spending in the IoT market is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2024, and the research think tank Gartner highlights that a critical factor for success in this market will be a “well-trained consultative sales organization.” Using a consultative sales approach is a key recommendation for being able to “effectively sell complete IoT solutions, not just parts and pieces,” according to Gartner. Here is a trillion-dollar market with no single market leader, and a primary key to success is having a team that can sell business value and outcomes by understanding customer pain points.

So why hasn’t the shift to selling solutions happened already? There are three primary reasons:

Consultative selling is far more difficult to do well than most realize.

When I speak at conferences, many leaders still suggest that sales success is largely about personality and drive. In fact The Wall Street Journal reported in July of this year that a primary barrier to filling sales jobs, which are plentiful and high paying, is the stigma of “Mad Men”-style representatives and used car salesman that won’t seem to go away. This isn’t a new realization: the WSJ published an article making the same point in 2015.

For the most part, sales effectiveness is not taught in school. At the few colleges that have sales curricula in the business school, courses are largely centered on operationalizing sales — things like territory sizing, quota setting, analytics and so forth — not mastering the behaviors for effective consultative selling.

What’s more, unlike old-school tips and tactics training that focuses on pitching and closing techniques, from the Ben Franklin to the Puppy Dog (yes these still exist), executing a strategic sales process requires a lot of practice to gain mastery. It requires strategic thinking while simultaneously conducting a disciplined process of interaction with one or more people. It’s unlikely that anyone could reach the level of mastery, let alone competence, after attending a few training sessions, any more than one could become good at playing golf or the piano with a similar amount of instruction.

Understanding the skills for consultative selling is easy and can be learned in about an hour. But knowing doesn’t equal doing. While training is necessary when tackling a challenging skill set, it is insufficient without what K. Anders Ericsson’s research calls Deliberate Practice. Deliberate practice — having a clear model of success, the opportunity to practice in a safe environment (e.g. not with top prospects and customers), and receiving precise coaching and feedback on where to improve — is the key. And practicing just a few times isn’t enough. It requires a commitment on the part of executives to coaching and developing sales talent. Without any disrespect to Human Resources, where I started my career, it can’t be led by HR. Creating a culture of coaching and building sales capability must be a strategic imperative. It’s the only way you’ll develop the kind of consultative sales organization that enables you to win big chunks of a trillion-dollar market.

It’s not central to business strategy and doesn’t get proper focus.

While it’s one of the primary factors in winning or losing in your chosen markets, the sales experience is conspicuously absent within corporate strategy. Most corporate strategy decks focus on which markets to pursue and which competitive advantages you’ll employ to win. This is important information at the heart of most strategy models. But how you sell a product or service can be nearly as vital as what you are selling.

When competing alternatives are similar, or even perceived as the same, delivering a sales experience focused on value, insight, and expertise can be the differentiation that enables you to win. In my work with clients on growth strategy, I always advise they pay the same kind of strategic attention to how they are selling as they do to what they are selling. I suggest answering the question, “How will our sales experience create value?”

The answers to this question can change the role of your sales organization. It moves sellers beyond simply communicating your competitive advantages and makes them an important part of the competitive advantage. By helping customers to think differently about how to address issues they are facing or how to capitalize on opportunities they haven’t considered, the sales process itself becomes a point of value. This will not happen by simply telling the sales team that they need to go sell more, sell better, or sell differently. It starts with making the sales process a central ingredient in the go-to-market strategy. Then the role of sales becomes integral in the execution of that strategy.

Sales management and leadership practices don’t support the consultative sale.

After every consultative sales training program, I hear this from participants: “I’m not managed this way.” The issue isn’t just the lack of effective coaching and development. It’s about fundamental management practices associated with everything from revenue forecasting and metrics for progress reporting to product and service education.

Too often, management spends most of their time on late-stage opportunities in the pipeline, while the real action for a consultative sales process is in the early stages. That’s where customer opportunities expand and the scope of deals are determined. Leaders should prepare reps to create value in the early sales process by doing joint call planning, account strategy and identifying issues customers may be missing or opportunities they haven’t considered.

Most importantly, management should not pressure reps to close a deal within the month or quarter. I worked with a services division of a Fortune 100 company where 83% of their revenue was coming in the last two weeks of every quarter. That revenue also had 30% lower margins than the other 17%. Why? Management put intense pressure on driving a quarterly close number, which led reps to behave with desperation, offering significant discounts to make any sale happen. Over time, customers got wise to this and knew they could wait for the fire sale. No amount of training or strategy could overcome this behavior if management practices for revenue forecasting and managing the numbers didn’t change. Consultative selling is a long game, and pressure to close something — anything — to make a quota runs counter to the principles you need your salespeople to embrace.

It’s easy to point your efforts at the sales team to get them to sell differently. There is no shortage of good sales training in the market, and it’s existed for decades. The primary reasons sellers struggle to be more consultative and effectively sell solutions have more to do with leadership than sales. Focus on addressing these three issues to build a high-performance sales organization that is a part of your competitive advantage.

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