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“The End Of Solutions Sales”

by David Brock on July 21st, 2012

In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, the folks at the Conference Board have declared “The End Of Solutions Sales.”  Upon reading this, I immediately thought of Mark Twain’s quote, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  While, I suppose, it stirs up the pot to declare the end of Solutions Selling and may sell more workshops or consulting services, in the end I think it is wordsmithing and positioning.  Instead of this, we should be driving greater clarity in how sales people can create great value for their customers.  That’s by helping them identify and solve problems.

Yes, I said provide customers solutions to their problems.  The Challenger Conference Board folks say this is the outdated idea.  Frankly, they create an artificial definition of Solution Selling, saying Solution Selling starts with a customer who has identified a problem they want to solve.  The sales person then identifies the customer needs, then proposes a solution to those needs.

They say this is too late.  By the time the customer has reached this point, they probably have already determined their own needs and determined solutions to those needs.  They do this through leveraging resources on the web, displacing the traditional solution sales person’s role, leaving them as RFP fodder.

Well, I’m not sure where they came up with that definition of solution selling.  I’ve participated in dozens of solutions selling programs over my career, offered by many companies.  In addition, our company has trained over 100K sales people in solutions/consultative/customer focused selling approaches.  I’ve never seen the definition of solution selling  being limited to starting with a customer who has identified they have a problem, discover their needs, solve the problem.

That certainly is a part of solution selling (and undoubtedly a part of Challenger selling), it does not define solution selling.  Anyone who has read extensively in solution selling or taken a quality training program realizes that a major aspect of the Solution Selling approach is to help customers see new possibilities for growing their businesses.  Every program I have participated in, designed, or taught includes the idea that the customer may not know they have a problem or an opportunity and the role of the sales person is to help them recognize this and decide to take action.  Great solution sales people have always come to the customer with ideas, has identified problems and opportunities the customer has previously been unaware of, has shown them new ways of doing things. 

As the Solution Sales person progresses from helping the customer recognize problems and opportunities and gains their commitment to do something about them, the Solutions Sales person, helps the customer define what they want to achieve, identify their needs–many of which they may be unaware of, and present solutions to those problems or ways to capitalize on opportunities (sounds a lot like a solution).

At least that’s what I was taught when I went through my first solutions selling class in the late 70’s (it wasn’t called solution selling, but it was IBM’s version at the time).  I think that’s what I was doing when I sold my first $20M computer system to a credit card processor in the late 70’s.  I had discovered a productivity problem they were unaware of in processing credit card approvals by phone.  It was costing them millions in lost productivity–but they were unaware of it until I showed them the data on the impact.  Once they saw what I presented, they immediately asked, “What do we do about it, how do we solve that problem?”  You know the rest of the story.

I can recount hundreds of similar stories from my peers at the time, from teams I have managed through my career, and from clients I have worked with in the past 20 years.

Solution Selling IS about helping the customer identify new opportunities, making the customer aware of problems they were previously unaware of, helping them define the problem, what they wanted to do, what their needs are, and how we can help them solve the problem or address their needs.  The effective Solution Sales person guides the customer through recognizing a problem or opportunity and the rest of their buying process.

Challenger Selling is, by definition, a form of Solution Selling.  Reading the book, the authors focus on the Teaching Pitch (my God, I thought the days of the sales person “pitching” were dead—I guess that’s untrue, as well).  They then go on to talk about the sale of “pre-built” solutions or as one of their customers calls them, “Happy Meals.”  In fact, once you have gotten agreement from the customer about taking action on something you may taught them, we still have to discover the customer needs and priorities, then shape a value based solution.

I think if it looks like Solution Selling, smells like Solution Selling, sounds like Solution Selling, then it must be Solution Selling.

I like Solutions/Consultative/Customer Focused Selling!  It provides a very broad context for intercepting the customer at different points in their buying journey.  It provides a framework for helping customer recognize problems and move forward.  It also enables you to intercept a customer who has already identified a problem and may need help to identify and prioritize needs, despite the research they have done on the web—or in spite of the research they have done on the web.  Not all customers need to be Challenged, some just have problems they need to solve and they need help in doing so.  It would be foolish to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t want to address that, but we want to talk to you about the problems you haven’t even discovered yet.”  There are many places Solutions Sales people can intercept their customers and create value.  We need to leverage all these opportunities.

Solution Selling Is Dead, Long Live Solution Selling!

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30 Comments
  1. Dave, once again, one of your posts got me thinking, and you know how dangerous that can be! I mostly agree with you, although I think it’s useful to distinguish between the two, as I’ve written in this article: http://jackmalcolm.com/blog/2012/07/the-end-of-solution-sales/

    • Great post Jack. I think it emphasizes the importance of the sales person having a rich array of tools to leverage. Each sales situation is different. Each requires a different approach to align with the customer and where they are in the buying process. Regards, Dave

  2. Thanks David, Jack for your posts.
    FAB, Solution or Ideabased; isn’t the essence of selling the genuine intention to begin by finding out 1) what exactly drives the customer, 2) what in the best possible manner would fulfill his needs and 3) to serve him accordingly? And if so, isn’t the art of selling to always approach him (or her) in a consultative way? Before anything else.
    It is my conviction that whatever the time span or situation, the course of the interaction is determined by commencing, connecting and questioning in a clever way. There is no exception to the A&I in AIDA.
    What are your views?

    • Wim, thanks for your comment. I agree the essence of selling is to find what drives the customer and to provide recommendations, insight, solutions that enable the customer to achieve his goals. Whatever you call it is irrelevant. There are some underlying principles that cross all approaches and we can’t lose sight of them.

      At the same time, the various approaches enrich our ability to intercept the customer and to provide meaningful value. Great sales people will learn as many as they can, leveraging what’s most appropriate for where they have intercepted the customer.

      Great comment, thanks for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  3. Dave, at least get the name of our company right! “The Challenger Conference Board?” As they say on Sunday Countdown on ESPN, “Come on, man!!” 😉

    Kidding aside, let’s put terminology (“solution selling,” etc.) on the back burner for a moment and get to the heart of the article and research that underpins it.

    At the end of the day, our research is less about what solution selling means or doesn’t mean according to which sales expert you ask (and specifically, we aren’t criticizing SPI’s trademarked Solution Selling methodology). What we ARE criticizing is the way sales is practiced by average performers and, frankly, the way it’s taught (typically under the general label of “solution selling,” mind you) in the vast majority of companies around the world.

    Folks may disagree with the characterization we give to the solution selling approach (i.e., find a customer with known needs, one that scores highly on the BANT scorecard, pump that customer for information, ask them to coach you on how to sell to their company, etc.), but there can be no disagreement that this is nearly perfect description of the way average salespeople sell right now. This view is based on quantitative research of tens of thousands of sales people around the world. It’s also highly descriptive of what you’ll find in most every sales training binder around the world (I was just at a sales training seminar for a large, global company the other day where they spent a whole session training reps and managers on the importance of finding customers with known problems and needs, those that rate highly on the BANT scorecard). Again, we’re not criticizing anybody’s methodology, we’re just describing the way average salespeople sell and are taught to sell by most companies.

    As you know from the article, in our research, we find high performers selling very differently. They’re leading with insights, finding demand that is emerging (vs. established), engaging Mobilizers, coaching customers on how to buy, etc. Again, this is based on quantitative analysis across a large sample of B2B salespeople. We call this “Insight Selling.”

    Now, where we differ is that you would say that Insight Selling is simply a recast of the way solution selling SHOULD be practiced (and the way it’s been described in the literature), so the idea of Insight Selling or Challenger Selling isn’t really anything new–old wine, new bottle, in other words. We argue, as you know, that Insight Selling and Challenger Selling are actually quite different. The sales environment has changed dramatically–customers no longer need salespeople as they once did.

    In fact, in your April 3rd post “The Early Bird Gets the Worm” (http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com/the-early-bird-gets-the-worm-lessons-for-sales/) you point this out and suggest that there is a new role for the salesperson in light of the way customer buying has changed. To quote from your post:

    “It used to be that customers relied on sales to learn about new solutions and how they could use our products to solve their business problems. Customers, now are leveraging the plethora of information on the web–displacing the need for sales to educate and inform…Now freed of the role of educator, sales can step into the role of business strategist–for their customers. They can help the customer see new opportunities to grow their business, to see possibilities for improvement they may not have imagined, to find ways of accelerating the ability for customers to achieve their goals, to identify threats and strategies for the customer to overcome them…Today’s sales challengers engage the customer before they know they have a problem. They help the customer understand the need to change. As a result, they have tremendous influence in the way the customer shapes their definition of the problem, and the process by which they will buy and evaluate opportunities.”

    What you describe in this post sounds like a different approach to selling than the “same old, same old” solution selling you first learned in the 70s (before Al Gore even invented the internet that put all of this information into customers’ hands!). It would be surprising to me that the tried and true solution selling approach that worked in a world in which customers had no information at their finger tips (and instead relied on sales reps to educate them) would work equally well in a world in which customers have nearly all of the information they need. It’s like saying that solution selling is the Newtonian Law of sales No matter what changes in the customer’s environment–no matter how radical and fundamental–solution selling is always the right answer. Call me crazy, but that that smells a little fishy.

    But, just to get back to the point, whatever view you subscribe to (is Insight Selling is new or just a rehash of solution selling), let’s agree that it doesn’t characterize what average sellers do right now or what salespeople around the world are taught to do by the companies that employ them.

    As a closing thought, the difference in reaction to the article between practitioners and the sales expert community has been really eye-opening to us. While the experts, consultants and training vendors take us to task for using a “strawman” definition of solution selling in our article, CSOs from some of the biggest companies of the world readily admit to us that the way we define it is exactly the way they tell their average salespeople practice it–and, what’s more, the way they’re taught to practice it in the classroom and by their managers. The reaction has been, quite literally, night and day.

    When all is said and done, I think we could probably agree that we need to sell differently (whether you call that Insight Selling or just solution selling the way it’s supposed to be done) to win in the current environment. Hopefully, our work has added to the collective understanding of what “good” looks like out there, even if you disagree with some of our terminology.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful post, Dave!

    Best regards,

    Matt Dixon

    • Wow Matt, I must have touched a nerve! But I’m delighted to have your comment–perhaps we should turn this “discussion” into a blog interview.

      Also, good catch on the name. I thought I had referred to the company as the Conference Board, guess my fingers were flying over the keyboard too fast.

      As I would have expected, we are in violent agreement. We have always agreed the sales person needs to engage the customer differently than they have traditionally. It’s not simply a matter of engaging early, before they recognize they have a problem, (though that is very powerful and has been the secret to whatever success I’ve had in my professional selling/sales management career). Wherever the customer is in their buying journey (or pre journey, as the case may be), we have to engage them differently—we have to focus on them, their business, and how we can accelerate their ability to achieve their goals.

      I do believe there are some underlying principles that have applied since even before I started selling in the late 70’s. Various authors and vendors have applied differing labels to those same principles, calling them PSS, Solution Selling, SPIN SelloingConsultative Selling, Customer Focused Selling, Provocative Selling, even Challenger or Insight base selling. I’d put money on someone trying to come up with the next one, perhaps calling it Supercalifragilisticexpalidocious (sp?) Selling. Each has nuances, each has some very powerful ideas. But at their core, they are based on the same principles of helping the customer grow their businesses, address new opportunities, eliminate problems, more effectively achieve their goals, visions, and dreams.

      Having been a practitioner for most of my career (and working daily with practitioners as a consultant), it’s the underlying principles that are fundamental. Being well grounded in the underlying principles is fundamental. I can’t tell you the number of sales calls, difficult deals, etc when things start going south, being able to go back to the basic principles, when all else is failing and using those to determine a strategy forward has done more than any of the sales training, books, etc. Those principles are the Newtonian Laws of professional selling. Solution Selling and all the others, including Challengers represent various incarnations of these fundamental principles.

      The beauty of each of these implementations is that, taken together, they provide the sales professional a rich array of tools, methodologies, ideas to leverage with the customer and the specific situation and moment of time. Any sales person would be foolish not to study each and learn how to apply them in executing these base principles every day.

      Like you, I am with sales practitioners everyday, I speak to many of the same sales executives you speak to. For those few who are thoughtful about this discussion, the issue is the inability of consistently and sustainably understand and execute on these basic principles (regardless of whether it is Solution Selling, Customer Focused Selling, etc). Likewise, the buyers I speak to have the same complaint. They don’t express it in terms of solution selling or anything else. They don’t even talk about it in terms of the vast availability of information and not needing sales people as teachers of products. They say, sales people don’t talk to them about what’s relevant to them, what helps them succeed and grow their businesses, achieve their goals, etc.

      This feedback also reminds me of the many conversations Mack Hanan and I had before his death about why Consultative Selling (while Mack created Consultative Selling, we always reflected more generall across all incarnations). Sales is one of the few areas in business, where we seem to be talking about the same thing, in different clothing, for decades. While this is probably more relevant for another discussion, I suspect it’s a leadership problem — not just limited to sales leadership (which harkens back to some of your and my first exchanges about Challenger being a corporate strategy).

      I sometimes wonder if we pundits and so called experts do ourselves a disservice by focusing on the merits of one implementation of the basic principles over the other. Instead we should root the discussion of our own implementations in the basic principles, constantly reinforcing these. I suspect all of us might make more progress in our own implementations and in advancing the profession, rather than declaring the death of one in favor of another.

      I’ve been studying lean a lot, exploring it’s application to sales and marketing. One of the things I like about all the discussions and books I see on lean is they all start with basic principles–the same basic principles. They then go on to build ideas, methodologies, tools, etc. in implementing those principles. I wish our conversations about professional selling started the same way. The richness of the discussions, the ability to constantly reinforce these principles will do more for the profession and practitioners than the wordsmithing and positioning.

      So I think we are in violent agreement.

      Having said that, you started your great commentary by asking that we put the terminology aside and get to the heart of the matter, driving a rich and good commentary. I wish that was the way you had positioned the original HBR article. Instead, you chose to make terminology the core of the article, making it worse by choosing a definition of the terminology that I and many others found to be inaccurate. So in some ways it’s unfair to make terminology the center of something when it’s convenient for your point and then to set it aside when you want to get to the heart of the matter.

      In any case, while it may not seem like it, I am a tremendous supporter of Challenger. I would prefer to see discussions extending Challenger into deeper and richer aspects of selling–many of which you have not touched on, but where Challenger can really thrive.

      Thanks for taking the time to engage in the discussion, I really do appreciate these exchanges we have.

    • Robert Kear permalink

      Matt-

      Having read the various threads on this discussion, and contemplated them for a few days – a few comments. While you can dismiss the use of terminology as secondary, there are some cases for which nomenclature does have critical relevance. You (and your colleagues) have essentially pronounced a methodological approach “dead” in a well respected global publication for an explicit reason – to position your ideas as a new and better way of thinking. As a research firm, you decisively have chosen in blogs, papers, and articles to contrast your methodology ideas to something called “solution selling.” You’re not saying it’s the end of “traditional selling,” or the end of “needs discovery selling,” or spin selling, or strategic selling, or customer-centric selling for that matter. You have decisively pronounced the demise of solution selling.
      And the reason that a number of objective, reasonable experts from around the world (including some of our competitors) appear to have problem with what has taken place is as follows:

      1. The definition you provided for “Solution Selling” (yes, the HBR article used capital letters) is completely erroneous as it pertains to the actual Solution Selling methodology (registered trademark, copyrighted materials, etc.) – it flat out misrepresents what is emphasized and taught in Solution Selling workshops

      2. Many of the concepts that have are defined as key tenets of “Insight Selling” are strikingly similar (philosophically and methodologically) to what is taught in Solution Messaging and Solution Selling Sales Execution workshops – we will provide some specific examples in future posts
      3. There seems to be a presumption that the Solution Selling methodology is immutable, and incapable of evolving to address the shift in buyer behavior (have you read Buyer 2.0 Meets Solution Selling or seen the release of Social Media for Sales?)

      4. Who stands to commercially gain by creating the perception in the marketplace that the “solution selling” approach is no longer relevant or useful? (hint: not us)

      Further, in subsequent discussion forums you (and your colleagues) have attempted to diffuse these objections by conveying that this is all in the spirit of research and new thinking, and that what you’re really talking about is the way you’ve observed most sales people selling – and apparently many of these “bad practitioners” call what they’re doing “solution selling,” per the following:

      “ irrespective of what you might call it”

      “general state of sales practice that most commonly reference as solution sales”

      “we’re just describing the way average salespeople sell and are taught to sell by most companies”

      “CSOs from some of the biggest companies of the world readily admit to us that the way we define it is exactly the way they tell their average salespeople practice it–and, what’s more, the way they’re taught to practice it in the classroom and by their managers”

      I’m not exactly sure what research methodology is being applied here. If sales organizations say they’re using solution selling methods, but they’re actually doing the opposite – then overriding the actual, documented approach with misinformed popular opinions to support the point you’re trying to make seems suspect. That’s not real research – and trying to spin it otherwise is questionable, at best. We know a lot of CSO’s and sales professionals too (we’ve interacted with around 1,000,000 of them) – and if they have misconceptions about “insight selling” we’re not going to propagate those perceptions as fact.

      Ironically, we think your research has tremendous value, because it vividly illustrates that the ability to market and sell high value solutions still remains elusive for most companies – and that most organizations need to make a significant change in their methods. It largely bears out what we have been teaching for years – that most sales organizations “over pursue” active opportunities where needs have been identified, or often fail to challenge and reframe (to use your terms) “active” opportunities.

      As your organization moves from research to actual transformation initiatives, a few cautionary notes; the research aspect of this discussion is the easy part. We all know that insightful and pre-emptive approaches to selling work best. And we know that marketing and sales need to become “social media literate” – to engage where and when today’s buyers are forming their initial ideas about a potential problem or opportunity. And we know the sellers must be highly “situationally fluent” with respect to the buyer’s industry, business issues, and competitive alternatives – and be agile and capable of objectively validating or challenge the buyer’s premise. And we know that marketing has to become the “insight factory” – to create compelling and innovative ideas to uncover latent pain (or as you call it, “undiscovered drivers”). And we know the best buyer sponsors are agents of change (we use the phrase “VP of Change”), not just people who are willing to have conversations and be advocates.

      And we also know (through third party research) that companies that apply these ideas effectively realize significant improvements in key sales metrics. But the really, really challenging part is rolling up your sleeves and effecting meaningful, sustainable change in large-scale sales originations – that have hundreds of products sold through multiple sales models by widely dispersed sales organizations in 50 different countries.

      That’s the world we live in. So if we agree that the concepts enumerated above are solid tenets for selling in today’s marketplace (and it appears we do), then to paraphrase Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade – “Solution Selling is just getting warmed up.”

      • Robert, thanks for joining the discussion and for the very insightful comment.

        The disappointing thing about this discussion has been that we, fundamentally, are in violent agreement. Leading training companies, consultants, and others have for many years said that sales people need to change the ways in which we engage our customers. We have long said, in various different ways, that we have to help our customers identify new opportunities to grow and improve their businesses, we have bring ideas about new opportunities, or ways to be more effective in achieving their goals. This is not a new conversation in the community or with sales executives.

        As you point out, the ability of sales professionals to engage customers in these discussions, the ability for sales organizations to execute consistently and to sustain this over time, remains elusive. This challenge has been the fodder of thousands of articles, dozens of books, and many different approaches and methodologies. Whether it is labeled Solution Selling, Consultative Selling, Customer Focused Selling, Provocative Selling, Insight or Challenger Selling, the issues seem to be less in basic principles and philosophy, but more in implementation and execution.

        The excitement that many of us in the community had about Matt and Brent’s work is it provided great data to complement research and opinions that many others have had for many years. Their data reinforced the importance of engaging customers in a different way.

        Each of us has differing approaches and methodologies, nuanced in different ways–some significant, some subtle but important. EVP’s of Sales, CSO’s all have different challenges and things they need to achieve in transforming and sustaining the transformation with their organizations. Each of us in the consulting and training communities will offer differing approaches and compete based on how effectively we can help these executives transform their organization.

        I’ve spent 2/3’s of my career managing large sales organizations faced with the tough work of transforming, improving, and sustaining performance improvement in the organization. I’ve spent 1/3 of my career with my sleeves rolled up, working with some of the top sales organizations in the world do the same thing. The tough work is not identifying the problem–we all know it exists. The tough work, honestly, is not the methodology or the approach. For the major players, each has merit, each can be very impactful, depending on what the executives are trying to achieve, one might be better than another. The tough work is in implementation and execution.

        Frankly, there is no thought leadership in declaring a methodology or approach dead. That’s not the real issues my clients face. Based on your comments, I would guess it’s not the core issues your customers face. The real issue is the dirty, tough, detailed work of change management, behavioral change, implementation and execution. Conversations and experience focusing on this bring the greatest value to the community. The core issue we, as vendors and consultants, must focus on is less the nuances of the methodology, but nore how we maximize the time to results and sustained success in implementing and executing the approaches our customers have chosen.

        Thanks so much for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

      • Matthew Dixon permalink

        Robert,

        Thanks for your comments. Likely against my better judgment, I am again jumping in to what is starting to become a silly discussion by presenting a few facts.

        You’ve accused us specifically of misrepresenting SPI’s methodology and, in so doing, raise a number of points that should be addressed:

        1) In other forums—notably, your comments on HBR.org—you have claimed that there is “no such thing” as the generic approach to “solution selling” that is different from SPI’s branded Solution Selling methodology. I understand your desire to protect your brand and trademark, but that claim is factually inaccurate. A simple Google search reveals dozens, if not hundreds, of instances of the term “solution selling” used by sales experts, practitioners, bloggers and journalists. None of these people are referring to SPI, but rather to the generic approach commonly referred to as “solution selling,” “solution sales,” and/or a “solution-based sales approach.”

        In fact, in Dave Stein’s recent article, he says as much: “”As a generic term, ‘solution selling’ is perhaps more broadly recognized than any other among the dozens of sales approaches available today. That could be the primary reason why it has been under attack for years.” As you know, he then goes on to explain the difference between what’s commonly understood as “solution selling” and what SPI teaches in its branded Solution Selling methodology and workshops—an important distinction.

        2) You asked the very fair question of why we didn’t title the article “the end of traditional sales” or the “end of [fill in the blank] sales approach.” The rationale won’t make you happy, but it’s the reality: When you ask practitioners what the opposite of “product selling” is, they unfortunately don’t say “consultative selling,” “needs diagnosis-based selling,” “strategic selling,” “SPIN Selling” or even “traditional selling.” Like it or not, they say “solution selling.”

        Frank Watts, Mike Bosworth and the other thought leaders who came up with this approach should absolutely be commended for changing the vernacular of an entire profession in a very powerful way. But, please make no mistake, this is a term used by practitioners every day to describe a non-product selling approach. To claim otherwise is simply disingenuous—as numerous other people have pointed out to you in responses to your comments on other blogs.

        From a personal perspective, I can tell you that we’ve presented our research to hundreds of CSOs, head of sales effectiveness, sales operations, sales L&D, etc., and have never (not even once) been asked whether, when we say “solution selling,” we’re referring to the generic approach or the SPI methodology. This is a debate that people like us have on forums like this one, but it’s not something that practitioners think about, to Bob Thompson’s recent comments.

        Incidentally, I found it interesting while watching a video of Keith Eades, SPI CEO and author of The New Solution Selling, talking about Buyer 2.0 that he says quite clearly “the concept of relationship selling is dead.” While you vilify us for the title and argument in our HBR piece, you seem perfectly comfortable declaring the end of other sales approaches. I wonder if people like Jim Cathcart, author of the book Relationship Selling and head of the eponymous Cathcart Institute, or Charlie Green, author of Trust-Based Selling and head of Trusted Advisors Associates, were as upset about that proclamation as you were about our article. I could turn your own question back on you and ask why Keith instead didn’t say “the concept of traditional selling is dead?”

        3) You and others seem surprised by the definition we’ve given to the generic “solution selling” approach. Dave (Brock) even asked in his original post where we came up with our definition as it struck him to be completely made-up. While I respect the right of anybody to challenge us (no pun intended) on our definition, we believe quite strongly that we’ve accurately captured the core of what is understood by the term general term “solution selling.”

        To recap from our article, we write that “Under the conventional solution-selling method that has prevailed since the 1980s, salespeople are trained to align a solution with an acknowledged customer need and demonstrate why it is better than the competition’s. This translates into a very practical approach: A rep begins by identifying customers who recognize a problem that the supplier can solve, and gives priority to those who are ready to act. Then, by asking questions, she surfaces a ‘hook’ that enables her to attach her company’s solution to that problem.”

        I know you want to make a big deal over the fact that we capitalized the “S’s” in “solution selling” on the top of the graphic in our article (suggesting that we were clearly out to get SPI), but let’s be honest here. If you read the quote, we clearly say “the conventional solution selling method” not “SPI’s trademarked Solution Selling methodology.”

        It is also worth noting that there are many, many others who define the conventional approach in the same way we do. Lay, et. al., in their 2009 HBR article, “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers,” ” (http://hbr.org/2009/03/in-a-downturn-provoke-your-customers/ar/1) define “solution selling” as an approach wherein the salesperson “responds to issues described by the customer,” “addresses acknowledged pain points,” “aligns with the prevailing point of view,” and “asks questions to identify needs.” This is nearly identical to our own definition–and there are at least a dozen similar definitions found online after a cursory search.

        Most notable amongst these, however, are the comments of Keith Eades himself, who writes in The New Solution Selling: “So what is the definition of the word ‘solution?’ The typical response is, ‘An answer to a problem.’ I agree with this response but feel it’s important to expand the definition. Not only does the problem need to be acknowledged by the buyer, but both the buyer and working woman must also agree on the answer. So a solution is a mutually agreed-upon answer to a recognized problem.”

        Even to the most careful observer, a “mutually agreed-upon answer to a recognized problem” is not that far off from our description of “aligning a solution to an acknowledged customer need.”

        4) For better or worse, since the generic “solution selling” is the industry standard term for what has constituted “state of the art” in selling since the 1970s, it’s a concept that’s long been viewed as conventional wisdom and has therefore been the subject of numerous critical articles suggesting that maybe it’s time for a change.

        Here are but a few: In addition to Lay, et. al.’s HBR article, Geoff James wrote his own “Solution Selling is Dead” article in his Sales Machine Blog for CBS News in 2007 (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505183_162-28540158-10391735/solution-selling-is-dead/) and Jeff Thull wrote an article for Sales and Sales Management called “The End of the Solution-Based Sale” in 2007 (http://salesandmanagementblog.com/2007/12/27/guest-article-the-end-of-solution-based-selling-by-jeff-thull/).

        Even Mike Bosworth, the author of the original book, Solution Selling, states in his comments to our HBR article that “A profession based on ‘asking questions’ stopped asking questions about itself. I ignored this for a long time, myself. And that was a hard pill for me to swallow. I, in part, helped to shape ‘the model’. We had been teaching a diagnose and prescribe model for the past 30 years and it still had not moved the 80/20 rule.”

        With all due respect to your comments and with compliments on the great business SPI has built, we should agree that (1) there exists both the generically understood “solution selling” as well as SPI’s branded “Solution Selling” methodology, (2) we did not make up our definition of “solution selling” to suit our needs as there is a long history of the term being defined in exactly the same way we defined it, and (3)we are not off our rockers to ask questions about the efficacy of what has become the conventional approach to B2B selling out there, especially in light of the fact that other noted observers have asked the same question in the past.

        Robert, I understand your frustration but I believe that the root of it is, in fact, not that we misrepresented SPI’s methodology, but that we accurately represented the generically understood approach of “solution selling”—a term that is, unfortunately, identical to the branded term you use at SPI. I’m sorry that your trademarked term happens to be identical to a generic, broadly understood sales approach, but we aren’t to blame for that.

        Your frustration is surely exacerbated by the fact that SPI’s methodology sounds more advanced and nuanced than the generically understood concept of “solution selling.” Added to this, while your firm’s methodology has evolved over time, generic concepts don’t change as readily and so, there is now (I think you would agree) a big gulf between what SPI teaches in its workshops and what people think of when they hear the term “solution selling.”

        The quotes from myself and my colleagues that you cite in your comments represent an honest effort by us to try to keep the debate at the altitude where Dave and others have tried to keep it (e.g., is it that “solution selling” was executed poorly…or is it an approach that is now only necessary, but not sufficient in today’s sales environment…in other words, is it the “what” or the “how” of “solution selling” that should be criticized?).

        In other words, we’ve tried to keep the discourse focused on the substance of the research and the data supporting it, not get pulled into a war of words about whether we’re attacking “solution selling” (lower-case “s”) or “Solution Selling” (capital “s”). That’s not a discussion worth having, in our view, as we’ve been very clear with anybody who’s asked that we’re talking about the former, not the latter. In this sense, I wholeheartedly concur with Bob Thompson who wrote that these definitional debates aren’t worth having and detract from the important conversation of how we get better as a profession.

        It is indeed exciting to hear that SPI has adapted its offerings to reflect the importance of insight in sales, the emergence of social channels and the ability to engage customers where they learn, the importance of change agents when selling insight, etc. It’sgreat to hear that another firm is seeing the same trends and changes in the sales landscape that we are. As Dave would say, it sounds like we’re in violent agreement on many fronts. At the same time, it’s also not surprising to hear that you and the SPI team have adapted your methodology with the times—you wouldn’t be a successful sales methodology and training provider if you didn’t.

        Again, thanks for your comments. Best of luck out there and I look forward to our paths crossing again sometime soon.

        Matt

        • Matt, you speculate whether I would be offended by Robert’s proclaiming an end to various sales approaches.

          I am not in the least offended by such proclamations, personally; in fact, let me argue that we all ought to be become a little more atheistic about “approaches.”

          In my particular case, I have always declared that Trust-based Selling should not be considered a methodology or a process. I have always said it is methodology-neutral, process-neutral. It is a set of attitudes and perspectives that ought to inform and infuse every step of every sales process of whatever stripe, as long as that process is not inherently unethical.

          But let me go further. This whole debate, and your most recent note here, has had the positive effect of making me realize how silly the whole capital letter Methodology Process debate has become. It’s a bit like Lutherans and Methodists arguing about the interpretation of the Nicene Creed, while Catholics, Jews, Moslems and atheists all watch bemused from the sidelines. [Note: in this metaphor, most of us are not in the Lutheran/Methodist category].

          Good selling ultimately is situational. Insights have to be delivered; challenges have to be made; relationships have to be developed; empathy and brains are critical. There is no model in the world that will ever be able to prescribe with 100% accuracy just how those needs should be met. There is no substitute for informed field-calls on the spot by salespeople and organizations.

          And yet so much of “sales” has become not about developing mature human beings and helping them cope with the challenges (no pun intended) of selling, but instead about XYZ Selling. In our passion for sequences of steps, CRM systems, and Magic Questions, we have mistaken the metrics for the things being measured; we have confused Process with the goals process was supposed to serve.

          SPIN selling, IMHO, is a great example. A massive insight, grounded in data and psychological analysis by Neil Rackham, has a number of truths in it, but the biggest is this: people don’t buy until they feel understood at a human level. To dumb that down and make it most semiconsciously available to the widest audience at the most points in time, we have a sequential prescriptive model – Situation, Problem, Implications, Needs-Payoff.

          That’s also the prescribed sequence for a shrink with a patient: ask questions, probe, let the patient talk. Only when the patient has fully articulated an issue do you start bringing in solutions. First listen, then talk.

          It’s a profound insight. It’s also helpful for us to make it into a mnemonic, an acronym, and so forth. But when we start deifying methodologies – and capitalizing the letters on them is a good tip-off – it’s a sign that we’ve forgotten what the shorthand was short for. The point is not not to execute on a methodology; the point is to have a meeting of the minds with the customer – in whatever way that takes.

          As Dave Brock said originally, almost always this stuff comes down to execution. The debate over Models is so much angels on the head of a pin. Matt, I blame you a little more than the others in this debate for starting it off by attaching normative model names to empirical data, and then setting up Your Model as the good guy and others as the bad guys. We are all hard-wired to respond to name-calling, and of course we all lived down to those expectations.

          I can’t unilaterally call a halt to this discussion. But I will try and say with all the clarity I can muster: stop the Great Process Debate and focus on what matters – practice, execution, end results. A good sales person can do well with any process. A great salesperson will be an agnostic, picking and choosing from them all, recognizing that a great sale doesn’t come from a process map and a CRM tool, but from human connection done right.

          • There is no end to intriguing ideas, new methodologies, great processes, new methods, systems, toools, new techniques. Each has merits, each will have its supporters, each will have detractors, all compete for the attention of customers in the marketplace. These all help us improve and innovate.

            Having said that, ideas, methodologies, process, methods, systems, tools, techniuqes don’t produce results. Implementation and execution do!

            As a line executive, I’ve spent 10’s of millions in training, systems, tools, methods, and processes to improve the impact, effectiveness and productivity of my people and organizations. In the end, the biggest issues I faced had less to do with “did I select the right one,” Frankly, I probably could have flipped a coin. The biggest issues were implementation and execution. Getting people to embrace the change, own it for themselves. Getting people to execute—not just for a few weeks, but to sustain the execution over time, to sharpen and improve it.

            As a consultant, I work with some of the brightest and most accomplished executives in the world. The core issues they face are the same–implementation and execution.

            The “mine is bigger and better” discussion is never helpul to our customers or our profession. Sales Execs, CEOs are accountable for results. We provide the greatest value for them by helping them produce results. Methodologies, process, systems, methods, tools offer the potential for the organization to produce results. However, the sustained implementation and execution do. Perhaps we create greatest value for our customers and our profession by spending more time on this thant the meaningless debate about “mine is bigger and better.”

            Thanks for the always thoughtful comments Charlie.

  4. I love it! We’ve started a donnybrook of argumentation, and I hope the end result will be some light and not just noise.

    In my own very humble opinion, salespeople can make a very good living if they only pay attention to one goal: Improving customers’ outcomes, profitably.

    Sometimes the customer knows what they need to improve their own outcomes, and sometimes they can use a little help. So, I think the argument is really about who contributes the ideas. In the end, value will be created by the quality of the ideas, and value will be shared out in proportion depending on who created the insights that lead to improved customer outcomes.

  5. Matt and David,

    I think you two are being a little too nice to each other. So at the risk of being a little blunt, let me weigh in.

    Actually, I have to do my own caveats first too. Matt, I agree strongly with the substance of Challenger; as with Dave, we’re in violent agreement.

    But I think Dave lets you off the hook too easily. I think you are being disingenuous with the promotion of the book, and doubling down with disingenuousness again here in this blogpost.

    You say, “let’s put terminology…on the back burner for a moment and get to the heart of the article and research that underpins it.”

    Not so fast. Let’s DO talk about terminology, and about how you chose to sell a book on Selling; that seems quite apropos to me.

    In your HBR article titled “Selling is Not About Relationships,” you have the interesting sentence, “It’s not because relationships no longer matter in B2B sales–that would be a naive conclusion.” Yet that sounds remarkably like what you assert in the title.

    You note above that, “Folks may disagree with the characterization we give to the solution selling approach.” Yes, they do! Particularly when you pronounce its irrelevance and/or death.

    More personal to me is your characterization of “relationship selling.” Personal because I wrote “Trust-based Selling,” which is very much about relationships, and because your characterization of it feels bizarre to me.

    Your definition: “Relationship builders…focus on relieving tension by giving in to the customer’s every demand….[they] are focused on being accepted into [a comfort zone]. They focus on … being likable and generous with their time. The Relationship Builder adopts a service mentality. While the Challenger is focused on customer value, the Relationship Builder is more concerned with convenience….A conversation with a Relationship Builder …isn’t as effective because it doesn’t ultimately help customers make progress against their goals.”

    Matt, I have no disagreement with you about this being an all-too-accurate way of describing what “relationship” selling frequently devolves into. But you don’t make that distinction — not in your headlines, not in the articles, not in your promotion.

    Certainly it is the precise opposite of everything I teach about relationship selling. I teach that the inability to confront is the source of all management failures; stronger language than even you use! And that comes under my definition of “relationship.” So we are using the same word to describe polar opposites. What do you call that?

    I haven’t gone through Brock’s material, or solution selling, or SPIN selling, to deconstruct how they all felt about “relationships,” but I kind of doubt that anyone advocates the spineless, go-along-to-get-along whimpering that you describe as “relationship” selling.

    I note well your swipe that “real salespeople” love this stuff, it’s only the consultants and authors who feel galled by it. Sorry, not buying it, Matt. FIrst of all, it’s the consultants and authors whose job it is to keep track of the history of ideas–and who tend to have grayer hair and longer memories and are better suited to do so. It’s the users who are getting sold “new and improved” time after time and being told it’s materially different; meanwhile, here you are having back-channel discussions with the authors and theorists about how we really don’t disagree all that much “except in terminology.”

    Here’s why I call that disingenuous. You’re using a normative term to describe your model, and a descriptive term to describe other “models.” It is an unfair comparison. Either compare the Ideal Challenger to an Ideal Relationship or Consultative or Trust-based approach; or let the market define approaches and give them non-value-laden labels like A, B and C. You are deliberately obfuscating the difference.

    Does it sell books? You bet. Negative campaigning always works. Take all your write-offs at once and blame the previous administration. Impugn the old models; out with the old boss, in with the new.

    You may think this is some tempest in a theoretical teapot. I believe it’s not. Here are two real examples. The first is McKinsey, who years ago, when faced with the reaction of the their consultants to the word “sales,” chose not to fight the dictionary. Instead, their mantra became, “We don’t sell.”

    I can understand McKinsey’s choice, but note the long term effects of “we don’t sell” were to significantly set back the cause of selling in the consulting industry, and to avoid facing the very real psychological conflicts their consultants felt by allowing them to pretend that up was down and black was white.

    By the same token, you’re sacrificing some very good concepts – relationships, consultative, solutions – for what I have to say looks like the desire to sell books. I get selling books; I sell books myself. But there are ways to promote books on the basis of their own virtue that don’t require inventing straw man versions of others’ books (particularly when you later characterize the differences as “just terminology”).

    The second example is very personal: just this past week I got an introduction to a potentially good-fit client for my business. The person who introduced me to the EVP sales said, “Charlie, I believe he is into this new Challenger selling thing, and is quite impressed with it, so you might want to go light on the trust and relationships angle – he’ll more respect something hard-hitting.”

    That’s real. That’s personal. It’s not “just” terminology; it’s misusing words intentionally to create contrast where it doesn’t exist, to generate the appearance of differentiation. I believe you and I are selling very much the same idea (actually I believe I’m probably harder-edged and more radical than you are); but you’re making it harder for me to do my job, because you have intentionally denigrated my terminology.

    But never mind me; how does making a client cynical about relationships help advance the ball? It’s like telling an alcoholic that the source of his problems is whiskey, and if he just switched to gin and drank a little less, all would be well. If you allow him to focus on gin vs. whiskey and not on the “drink less,” you’ll not have gained much.

    There is a world of differentiation to be had between what’s professed and what’s done. You could have described your work as “unveiling the hypocrisy,” or as “calculating the gap between belief and reality,” or many other ways of describing good practices vs. the oatmeal approaches that are out there in the real world. I agree with you about that. But you didn’t go that way.

    A thought exercise. Suppose someone comes along in a few years and pronounces the “death of Challenger selling.” They might go look at how people are actually implementing programs that have that name in the title, and discover that salespeople are becoming arrogant, picking fights, developing metrics about how frequently they succeed in antagonizing clients, coming to believe not only that getting kicked out is a badge of honor, but that generally clients are stupid and need to be taught how things work. The net effect, it is concluded, is that “Challenger selling isn’t effective because it doesn’t ultimately help customers make progress against their goals.”

    Would you accept the characterization that “Challenger selling is dead?” Somehow I suspect you might feel it’s unfair, that it wasn’t Challenger selling that was wrong at all, but the execution. And you’d be largely right. In any case, you might wish someone focused on the meat in the sandwich, rather than denigrating the terminology you took great care to develop.

    I’m sure you see the parallel.

    • Charlie: I wish you would tell us how you feel and stop holding back!

      You’ve mentioned a number of really important things, I’ll only focus on a couple. There have been many studies and very good data (particularly that from Dave Stein of ESResearch) about the failure of Sales Training. The issues underlying the failure of training has less to do with the appropriateness of the model, but failure in implementation and execution. I suspect Matthew’s comments about VP’s of Sales concerns with Solution Selling, when really studied will reflect this is more the key factor. Both vendors and management bear responsiblity for this. Vendors need to make sure, in their sales process, that they make sure that management understands the importance of ongoing coaching and reinforcement, and have a plan in place to do this. Managers and executives have to make sure th training they implement is integrated into everything they do—strategies, priorities, methods, systems, tools, and most of all ongoing coaching. If they don’t, the initiatives will fail–and not because the methodology is bad but the implementation and execution is bad.

      This impacts everyone selling a model and training related to the model, and will, if it hasn’t already impact Challenger. As you point out, would it be fair to call Challeger a failure because the implementation of the model failed.

      More targeted to some of the positioning Matthew and his colleagues have taken, it does seem a little odd that they create an arbitrary definition of something, whether it is relationship selling, solution selling, or what ever; because that definition helps prove their point. It is also odd that, when the definitions don’t serve their purpose, they set it aside. The discussion of sales performance and effectiveness is too important to be diverted by semantic nuances. I wish they had the confidence in the merits of Challenger on its own, which it is very powerful, and stopped trying to declare the death of everything else.

      It took a lot of courage (and time) to make the comment. I really appreciate it!

    • Charlie, I appreciate your comments. You’re clearly upset about our work (or, to be fair to your criticism, just the way we describe our findings and how we tell the story), so I want to just offer a few thoughts in response–not to get the last word or incite another response from you, but to explain our perspective since you’re attacking our credibility at some level. I don’t expect you’ll agree with me, but I think a response is warranted since we take our role as a research organization very seriously.

      Both you and Dave are criticizing what you perceive to be arbitrary definitions used to create arbitrary strawman opponents that we can then dismantle with our research. I understand why you’re upset about this since our findings don’t jive with the way you see things, but I don’t agree that these labels are arbitrary and reject the argument that this is a cheap “political campaign tactic.” Such an accusation is as baseless and deserves to be addressed directly.

      You have criticized the fact that we label the losing profile in our study the “Relationship Builder” because you have written about the importance of relationship selling in your own work. Your obvious bias in this matter aside, the fact remains that the six variables that loaded in our model under this profile—which describe a sales professional who is likeable and generous with his time–would be described by nearly any sales leader as a “Relationship Builder.” Similarly, if you look at the variables that loaded for the Challenger—a rep with a unique perspective, who is comfortable pushing the customer outside their comfort zone, who is comfortable with tension—you would be equally hard-pressed to find a practitioner who would have said that individual sounds like a Relationship Builder. I have shown the variables to sales leaders without the labels and they’ve drawn nearly the same conclusions that we have from the data. So, you might not like the labels, but sales leaders find them to be pretty accurate descriptions of the sellers on their teams. We’re not yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, in other words.

      On the topic of Relationship Builders, I feel it’s necessary to point out that, ironically, you use the same contrast techniques that you chide us for using. You’ve selectively quoted from our book to help your own argument. In so doing, you have deliberately left out a lot of the underlying discussion in our book about the importance of relationships in B2B selling. For example, you make no mention of the important finding that, statistically speaking, Challengers actually “minor” in relationship building (so we can say with some certainty that the ability to build relationships is quite important). You also left out our observation that Challengers actually bring more value to the customer and thereby end up building better relationships with customers than Relationship Builders do. In other words, you’ve created your own strawman of Challenger (that our objective is simply to make clients “cynical about relationship building”) to draw contrast with your own argument. Anybody who’s read the book or heard us present the research knows that we argue that customer relationships are critical to sales and that to conclude otherwise would be foolish—it’s just the nature of those relationships that sellers often get wrong. I understand that you’re doing this to make an argument and it feels good to wear the white hat here, but you’re actually doing exactly the same thing you accuse us of. It’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black for you to accuse us of arbitrarily defining things to make a point.

      By the same token, Dave’s criticized us for setting up a strawman definition of solution selling, but again, I would counter that what we describe in our work—a sales approach predicated on prioritizing established demand (BANT scorecard opportunity prioritization), leading with questions to find a hook for your solution, finding your coach or advocate, asking that person to coach you on how to sell to their company—is what most sales leaders think of when you say “solution selling.” It’s also what most of them teach in their sales classrooms and reinforce through frontline manager coaching. And, for the record, we’re not the only ones who describe solution selling in this way. It’s worth pointing that Lay, Hewlin and Moore use nearly the same definition of solution selling that we do in their 2009 HBR article “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers.” In that piece, solution selling is described as an approach wherein the salesperson “responds to issues described by the customer,” “addresses acknowledged pain points,” “aligns with the prevailing point of view” and “asks questions to identify needs.” We didn’t borrow our definition from them, but it is worth noting that we both independently came up with a nearly identical definition. We didn’t just conjure this definition up, in other words, it’s the conventional wisdom in B2B sales.

      Sales often falls into the trap of believing that methodology is infallible. It’s a strange world in which customers can change dramatically in terms of how they buy, but the method for interacting with them is the same that it’s always been. How does a profession advance if it can’t ask questions of itself and look critically at what’s held up to be right answer? If we equate our current methodologies and approaches with “sales done right,” then you are trapped in a tautology. If solution selling is defined as effective selling, then effective selling must (by definition) always be solution selling. In such a world, there’s never anything new to say, never any break-throughs, never any upending of conventional wisdom.

      As a research organization committed to studying sales effectiveness and how it changes over time, we vehemently disagree with this notion. Solution selling has many terrific qualities and foundational ideas (ideas that savvy sales reps would be well advised to consider and incorporate into their approaches, as Dave argues in his latest post). Solution selling was transformative for its time. But it isn’t infallible and it isn’t permanent and the truth is that many companies are finding it to fall short in today’s selling environment. We may quibble over whether this is because it’s been implemented incorrectly or whether it’s actually not as effective anymore, but for sales leaders, that’s a pretty academic argument. The reality is that times have changed and, as implemented, the returns companies have seen from solution selling have started to diminish for many organizations. Sales leaders aren’t draw to the Challenger story because they’re stupid or gullible as you seem to suggest in your comments. They’re drawn to it because it because they see the current approaches coming up short and this represents a better way forward. It sounds like you’re accusing us of some kind of parlor trick on a massive scale. We give sales leaders more credit than to be “tricked” into thinking that Challenger is the right approach. I have been presenting our Challenger research to sales leaders in audiences large and small all over the world since 2009 and have never come across a single leader who hasn’t asked hard, pointed questions about the data, what it means, and what they can or should do about it.

      As a closing thought—since you asked how we would feel if somebody declared the “end of Challenger selling,” we can answer that definitively. As long as there is data to back up the claim, we’d welcome such a finding. We are researchers and one of our pet peeves about the sales industry (something that Neil Rackham has spoken extensively about) is how little actual research is done and how much of what’s out there is based on personal opinion and anecdote. It’s a big part of the reason that sales doesn’t have many (if any) respected journals, why sales isn’t taught in many universities (and certainly not in top-tier business schools), etc. As Dave says, sales is one of the only (maybe the only) function in the company where we seem to have been talking about the same thing for decades. There’s something wrong with that, in our opinion. My suspicion isn’t that Challenger and Insight Selling are permanent–there will be a time when it comes to characterize what average performers do and we start to see high performers doing things differently. It’s not personal for us (and, believe me, it’s not about making money off of book sales). It’s about advancing the state of the art of professional selling. Research that effectively does that should be applauded, not rejected because it makes it harder to sell one’s book.

      Lastly, there is no intention here to make anybody’s life difficult and I regret, on a personal level, that you or anybody else have felt put on the defensive by our research. I’m not sure how to respond to that other than to say this is about the free competition of ideas. What we don’t regret is trying to shake things up, to get sales leaders to question their assumptions, to provide research and analysis to a function sorely lacking it and, ultimately, to present a different point of view on what good selling looks like. That’s our business and we’ll make no apologies for it.

      My response to the story you shared in your comments would be to tell your customer that you’re not going to “go easy on the trust and relationship stuff.” Instead, go in and challenge your customer’s assumptions. Show your customer why your own view of relationship selling and trust-based selling are the right approach and his assumptions about Challenger are misguided. At the end of the day, the question is really whether you go in and agree with the customer and tell him that he’s absolutely right and your offering is “just like Challenger,” ultimately landing yourself in a price-driven bake-off with all of the other consultants who’ve told him the same thing… or do you present a different point of view that leads to a solution that only you can provide? Is the person you’re engaged with (the one who’s worried about upsetting his boss) a Mobilizer who is motivated to pursue great ideas or is he a Talker who’s just interested in currying favor with the higher ups? Is this a company that already knows what it wants or is it an organization where demand is still emerging and you have an opportunity to shape that demand with your own ideas? The irony, of course, is that your story is a perfect illustration of the difference between a solution selling and an Insight Selling approach.

      And–just to end on a lighter note (!)–while you lament the fact that your life has been made more difficult because you have to defend your own views to people who subscribe to the Challenger research, try presenting Challenger to a world of sales leaders who’ve been conditioned for decades that pushing the customer outside his comfort zone is a bad thing. Trust me, you’ve got a much easier row to hoe!

      Again, I appreciate your thoughtful comments and thank you for considering my response.

      Matt

      • Matt, clearly we are getting past the point of reasonable discourse on this issue. But I will make a few observations:

        1. Definitions are important in having a reasonable discussion. Until we agree on definitions, it is impossible to move forward on the discussion, we are simly debating the shape of the table. Dave Stein, of ESResearch, provides a fact based definition of Solution Selling. If we want to discuss the merits what it is or isn’t, and how Challenger makes this approach dead, I suggest we agree on Dave’s carefully researched definition as the basis for discussion. Dave makes clear in his assessment that he has no position positive or negative, he just wants clarity of what it is and then to see a healthy debate based on facts, not anecdote. Dave’s research can be found at: Is Solution Selling Dead Or Is it Misunderstood.http://davesteinsblog.esresearch.com/2012/07/23/is-solution-selling-dead-or-is-it-just-misunderstood/
        2. Your opinions on the failure of Solution Selling seem to be largely andectotal (“This is what Sales VP’s tell us). Since you rely so heavily I would like to see the data that supports this. Specifically, I would like to see research that indicates that customers have tried to use the methodology to create insight for their customers but found that it failed to be able to provide that because a flaw in the methodology. I would like to understand the research that supports the flaw is in the methodology, and not that the flaw is in implementation and execution. I have seen no data that supports this. You only provide anecdotes that companies have failed to get what they want from solution selling and not provided the root cause analysis. Clearly for you to have that position you have carefully understood the root causes and have absolutely eliminated implementation and execution as a major reason for failure. There is other carefully researched data that indicates greater problems with implementation and execution. So it would be interesting to actually see the data that has examined this issue. In my experience good research always starts with based on well defined and accepted definitions, asserts some premises, then tests those premises. So a sound approach might be to go to SPI and ask, “What Is Solution Selling?” then to go out and test whether people understand it, if they don’t why. One might go further, if they do understand it, what causes them to be successful and what causes them to fail. And there are a whole series of other things that could bring great insight and be very helpful both to the purveyors of Solution Selling approachs and the executives who struggle with implementation and want to produc results. But of course, such research probably doesn’t help sell Challenger.
        3. It is difficult to understand how your organization can be a research organization focused on sales effectiveness, yet be simultaneously tied to promoting a model and providing consulting services with the solution to sales effectiveness. One would question your objectivity and the potential conflicts of interest. Most research organizations try to maintain strict independence in these areas. As an example, what if Gartner all of a sudden became a software company, in addition to it’s research and analysis, and all it’s software was, somehow, well placed in the magic quadrants and the competing vendors were poorly placed? One might suspect the objectivity of their research. In my experience, most research organizations tend to avoid these potential conflicts. Many of the other training companies do some thoughtful research, but one does always look at that research, realizing there may be some design bias, and read that research appropriately. I suspect if SEB members, joining to get insightful research, then seeing that research always results in “Buy my solution,” they might question the research they are getting. But I’m just engaging in late night speculation, not founded on anything other than random musings.
        4. No one has claimed any methodology is infallible, so why are you suggesting we are. Personally, I resent this. The way you bring it up in the discussion, while it is difficult to discern in your writing, may not explicitly accuse me of this, but implicitly does. There is nothing that I have written in this post, comment stream, or any other post. So for some reason you are inventing something that is untrue, unfounded and personally offensive.
        5. You point out that Solution Selling, as implemented, is failing and use that to say Solution Selling doesn’t work. Couldn’t it be the very people that you are asking about solution selling are failiing in their implementation and that solution selling properly implemented and integrated into a company’s strategies, processes, systems, tools, coaching, etc could be very effective. I have seen no data, just anecdotes, so again, since you are a research organization please present the data that the model is no longer relevant and flawed and not the implementation.
        6. I further resent the implication that we (I, I’ll let Charlie speak for himself), that I am upset because it doesn’t jive with the way I see things. Personally, I am methodology agnostic. Personally, I was really excited, orginally to see Challenger and had been an avid promoter, because I thought for the niche it addresses, it offers some great potential. If you read much of what I have written, evern far before Challenger or your HBR articles were published, you would see it jives with my thinking and what I am trying to achieve in our consulting practice. I am open to any methodologies or approaches that address the root cause issues impacting sales effectiveness. Not being wedded to a methodology leaves our company free to diagnose and help our clients implement the solutions (s) that are most impactful to driving sales effectiveness. Having a rich array of alternatives available actually increases the array of solutions we can offer the client, so I tend to embrace many. I suppose, when you are wedded to a singular model and construct, you have to, through whatever means, force fit every situation to fit your model.
        7. The most amazing thing about your entire stream of comments is that you have spent little time talking about the results people are achieving in the implementation of Challenger and what sets it apart. Instead you have spent most of your time focusing on the deficiencies and inadequacies of everything else. Experience has taught me this strategy is usually an act of desparation.
        8. I appreciate great conversations and very diverse opinions in this blog. I appreciate constructive discussions, and while we may agree to disagree, we each have the opportunity to learn a little from the differing points of view. That strengthens the discussion and builds the profession. This discussion is no longer constructive. So we are probably best stopping it here.

        • Dave,

          No offense was meant to you by my comments. To your point, I agree that this debate has crossed the line of professional discourse—though, personally, I felt that way after reading Charlie’s withering attack on our credibility, which I found to be rather insulting. You applauded him for his comments, but his accusations of our using cheap political campaign tactics to tell our story was, I think most would agree, well over the line.

          In many respects, this is an unwinnable debate. It’s like debating religion…or, at least like those old “tastes great/less filling” beer commercials.

          You and Charlie suggest we use arbitrary definitions to make our point, so I offered an explanation for why we define Relationship Builder and Challenger the way we do and even offered you both a citation of others who’ve been published in HBR and used the same definition of solution selling that we did. Your response is that we relied on the wrong citation and should’ve cited somebody else. To be true to Dave’s article, he draws a clear distinction between the generic solution selling approach and the trademarked SPI Solution Selling approach. The former is a generic term that can be broadly described and defined in the way we and others have defined it. The latter, as Dave explains, is a specific trademarked methodology that is different (and arguably, superior) to the generic concept. SPI teaches reps to surface “latent pain” and engage in “vision reengineering,” but these aren’t concepts normally associated with the generic approach of solution selling. So, to Charlie’s initial point, terminology is, in fact, at the very heart of the matter here. We are offering a counterpoint to the status quo, the commonly taught approach to solution selling, not the branded SPI methodology. I pointed this out in an earlier comment here, but it bears repeating. I would agree wholeheartedly with anybody who argued that our definition of solution selling isn’t how SPI defines it…but our goal was never to disagree with SPI’s specific approach, it was to disagree with the generally accepted approach that is taught in sales classrooms around the world.

          I suggest that companies are seeing diminished returns from solution selling approaches. Your response is that they were likely executed badly. I wouldn’t disagree with you here, they probably were. Poor execution is, no doubt, why anything fails—not just selling approaches, but corporate and military strategies, football plays, weight-loss plans, you name it. A very well-implemented solution selling approach will almost certainly beat a very poorly implemented Insight Selling approach, I think we’d both agree with that. Our view is that the diminishing returns have a lot to do with the changes in customer buying behavior that make this approach no longer as effective as it used to be, not just poor execution, but I can’t argue with your assertion that poor execution is often why the best laid plans fail.

          You suggest that we’re being desperate by attacking the status quo instead of offering concrete results of companies implementing Challenger. My first response to that is, well, you never asked. If you had, what I’d tell you is that the returns we’ve seen (with the caveat that Challenger has been around for a very short period of time relative to solution selling) have been terrific—reps getting in earlier, selling more at better margins and in less time. But, I suppose that if I did offer those results, your response would be (not putting words in your mouth, just guessing) that people who’ve implemented other methodologies have seen similar business results.

          You ask where the research is that suggests solution selling is diminishing in its effectiveness. I’d tell you it’s all around us—some form of solution selling is the approach of record for nearly every large B2B sales organization in the world but, despite training and coaching reps to do this, we find that customers are contacting salespeople later and later in their purchase decision—something you yourself have written about and, if I’m not mistaken, suggested that this trend indicated that a new approach was necessary for salespeople to be effective. We serve nearly 750 head of sales and their leadership teams and coming up with a new, more effective approach to selling in light of the huge changes in customer buying behavior we’ve seen over the past 5 or so years is, by far, the #1 issue that has come back in our research agenda polls for the past three years. But, truthfully, I don’t know that you’d buy this as sufficient evidence that these approaches aren’t working as well as they used to.

          You ask how we can be a research company but also sell consulting and training around things like Challenger. What I’d tell you is that we continue to validate the Challenger model in both the aggregate and before any client engagement for specific companies. The book was written on an initial sample of 6,000 reps. This is now up to 20,000 and counting and the story hasn’t changed. And before every client engagement, we run an in-depth quantitative diagnostic to understand how their salespeople break out into the five profiles and to see what profiles their high performers fall into to make sure Challenger is the right answer for that organization. Sometimes, in fact, we find that the story for hipers at a company level doesn’t foot to the overall findings from the study and so, we need to figure out how and where it is appropriate to deploy Challenger and where that model doesn’t actually make sense. As I said in my earlier response, we welcome the day when the story changes—we monitor that continuously and continue to validate the model as we collect more data. I think that’s unique and isn’t something that most methodology shops do. As soon as we find that high performers have again adapted how they’re selling, we’ll be working with companies to help them scale this across their sales organizations. I suppose a cynical response would be “yeah, well, we’ll see about that!” I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you that that the foundation of CEB’s business is research and best practices and that our bedrock principle is to provide unbiased guidance to executives. To continue to tout Challenger as right answer if its time has passed would be the tail wagging the dog, as it were. It is part of the reason that research and consulting are separate businesses here, reporting up through separate chains of command.

          This sort of medium is a terrible one to have constructive dialogue because comments are taken out of context and meant to mean things that they don’t. To reiterate, there was no offense meant by my comments and, per your earlier comment, I do believe we are—in many respects—in violent agreement. To the extent that you felt otherwise, I do apologize. We have the utmost regard for you and what you do to keep the sales community on its toes and to challenge our collective thinking about what right answer is. Personally, I found Charlie’s comments to be crass and offensive, but maybe I’m not being fair to him. I did not find your comments to be offensive in the least—I thought you were asking pointed, but tough and smart questions that deserved to be addressed (which is why I jumped in to begin with, something I don’t normally do).

          I enjoy this sort of debate, in general, because disagreement is the best sign that your ideas are making people think. If everybody read the Challenger book or the HBR article and said “I couldn’t agree more!,” we wouldn’t have really taught them anything…we’d merely have confirmed what they already thought was right answer and then they’d start wondering what was for lunch 😉 And, we are surely in violent agreement on your last post—that there is no silver bullet out there and salespeople would be wise to develop a deep and rich toolkit of techniques for selling, one drawn from many methodologies. Even in our work, Challengers are 40% of hipers, not 100%…so, there are other ways to be successful, we just think Challenger gives companies the greatest probability of success.

          With that, I’ll now bow out and look forward to future posts from you.

          Best regards and keep up the great work,

          Matt

  6. Very interesting debate. Personally, I don’t think success in selling has changed that much over the years. Great reps built relationship and also challenged their customers to think more deeply about business issues and solutions.

    I read much of this debate as just squabbling over how to define things, putting all the “good” practices into one definitional bucket or another, and then claiming it’s the best.

    Meanwhile, customers are off figuring out how to be better buyers, trying to avoid talking to reps unless they absolutely have to. The sales profession needs to face up to that problem better, not play these definitional games.

  7. Matthew Dixon permalink

    Excellently well said, Charlie. Agreed on all points…well, minus the point about how I shoulder more of the blame here. I think one person’s normative label put on empirical data is another person’s attempt to draw inferences and tell a story from data (which Neil Rackham does to great effect in SPIN Selling). I apologize if what was an honest attempt to tell a story from the data came across to you or anybody else as insulting or derogatory in anyway. That was clearly not our intention. To be candid, this is the first I’ve ever heard this criticism of our work and it has really troubled me since you first raised it. Not because I agree with it, but because I think we’re all out here in this marketplace together, trying to do what we can to improve the profession and it really bummed me out to think that we’d deeply offended a peer.

    Just one other thought: Your comments about it taking all types of selling techniques to win really rang very true to me, especially in light of a presentation I gave on the challenger work just the other day when somebody acted surprised that challengers were only 39% of hipers. I think the exact comment was “huh…given the buzz about this work, I guess I was expecting the percentage to be higher.” To which I had to respond that there is no silver bullet when it comes to b2b selling and that a great sales person has all 5 profiles–they can challenge, build great relationships, try work hard, they an solve customer problems and even will go “lone wolf” once in a while when they need to. Our data suggests challenger behaviors give you the highest probability of success but they don’t guarantee success and it wouldn’t be accurate to claim that this is the only way to sell effectively.”. So, exactly as you suggest, Charlie.

    Thanks again for these great comments and for helping us all to stay focused on what matters.

    Matt

  8. Wow, who says long form text is dead? And this thread from “sales guys”!

    The distinction between transactional selling, especially where buyers do understand their problem, solution alternatives, and how to buy; and complex, divergent and solutions sales is critical.

    With the former, go ahead and “BANT” them to death. With the latter, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

    Without clarity about which we’re talking, the article introduces noise not clarity. With clarity, the article is moot.

    I like the idea of “selling ahead of the RFP.” This definitely requires the skills of professional selling.

    • Jim, thanks for joining the “discussion.” We have gotten a little carried away with the “whose is bigger” discussion. Having said that, I think all of us would agree in the non-transactional sales space, there is wide room for improvement. Even within the transactional sales space there is lots of room for improvement–in fact we see a lot of reaql innovation in that space, going far beyond BANT.

      One area I would tend to disagree, is that with clarity the discussion is moot. In fact, I tend to think this is where the biggest issue is. Since the mid 70’s, there have been various forms/incarnations of solutions, strategic, consultative…… and on to insight, challenger, and whatever comes next. In my experience the biggest challenge with any of them has been consistent and sustained implementation and execution. This is the true pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the difficulties in doing this is what will never make this part of the discussion moot.

      Thanks for joining the discussion and helping bring us back to our senses. Regards, Dave

  9. Hawk McIntosh permalink

    The title: “The End of Solution Selling” and the demeaning of relationships is utterly stupid. Also, I the 5 types salesmen as described is arbitrary and doesn’t reflect the typical behaviors that I have seen in my 45 year career selling huge deals of over $100m deals in complex selling environments. For example, the biggest sale that I participated in was for $1.5 billion dollars, cost $8m in sales cost and was extremely competitive. We won because we understood the buyers better than our competitors.

    By far the better and more sophisticated approach is in the book: “Insight Selling.”

    Another thing is that the Challenger people put little to no effort into trying to figure out how buyers are different as too their needs and behaviors. Doing so improves relationships and much higher success rates.

    In my experience, the two problems that had to be addressed was first to teach people to question, listen and probe and second, to have them stop selling to themselves.

    • Hawk: Thanks for the comment. The post was originally written a couple of years ago, a lot has changed about Challenger since then. Some thoughts

      1. I think the authors (Matt, Brent, Nick) were to some degree being deliberately provocative. I had many of the concerns you outline, as I spoke to them and got to understand things a little more, I found I was misunderstanding things. I think they would be the first to say good Challengers, recognize the importance of strong credible relationships. So that becomes a foundational skill for Challengers. I think the point they were making is that just building off a relationship approach only is no longer sufficient for top performance. As we’ve talked, I’ve understood better and I think they have evolved their thinking that Challengers tend to be very nimble and incorporate many aspects of the five types of sales people they describe. By contrast, those 5 types don’t grow any further.
      2. There are a number of great books that have come out to expand on the idea of Insight. Insight Selling is a one everyone should read, along with Challenger and the others. Each has a slightly different perspective, taken together they can be very powerful
      3. It think everyone would agree we have to be customer/buyer focused in our sales efforts. Focusing on our own products/pitching what we do is no longer relevant or competitive.
      4. I would guess in your 45 year career of doing big deals, you have been applying some of the approaches in Challenger and Insight Selling. The ideas are not new. It was how I was trained as a brand new sales person in 1980. The perspectives and research of Challenger and others have reignited an important conversation that has been lacking in sales and selling for some time.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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