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Apples And Oranges

by David Brock on December 8th, 2019

Let’s imagine that for some reason you want to evaluate the performance of apples. You might develop criteria and compare apples to those criteria. You might do a comparison, for example looking and apples and oranges.

You’d immediately observe apples are relatively thin skinned fruit, at least relative to oranges. Possibly, every pound of oranges produces more juice than a pound of apples. When you bite into an apple you get that resounding crunch, biting into an orange you just get a squish. You’d observe it’s difficult to use oranges in making a pie. You could come up with a number of other observations about apples and oranges. Apples and oranges have many similarities–they are fruit, edible and have other similar characteristics, but they have many differences.

But in understanding apples and their performance versus oranges, you’d quickly realize that the comparison is like……..well, comparing apples and oranges.

Recently, I read an article, “What’s Wrong With Solution Selling.” It was the result of deep research into the performance of organizations with solution selling approaches and those with transactional selling approaches.

There were some interesting aspects of the research. It assessed roughly 12 commercial capabilities of organizations, going beyond the sales function, looking at things like innovation capability, product management, talent management. It also identified differences in performance between the top performing organizations and the rest, finding that in each area, top performing organizations were roughly 10% better than the average in each category. Interesting, but not surprising.

They also looked at differences in roughly 8 sales execution capabilities. Comparing the performance of those engaged in solutions and transaction selling approaches.

But then the article went further, it started making comparisons in performance between organizations that had solutions focused engagement models and those having transaction focused engagement models.

In virtually every category, transactionally focused organizations were more effective than solutions focused organizations.

There were some “insights,” like: “Value propositions in solutions focused organizations are difficult to tailor or quantify.” Or, “In solutions selling, channel partners may struggle to understand their role in contributing to your value proposition and solutions.”

Well, duugghhhh…..

Isn’t it obvious? Solutions selling is deployed where customers have very complex buying processes–the space of unknown knowns or unknown unknowns*. Transactional selling is deployed in simple buying processes–the space of known knowns*. So these differences are not at all surprising and and the analysis provides little insight into performance.

It’s really a false comparison, it’s, I hesitate to say, like comparing apples and oranges.

Of course there are things that solutions seller can learn from transactional sellers, adapting and applying to their engagement strategies. Likewise, the reverse is also true. But comparing performance between the two different approaches is relatively meaningless because each approach is tailored to respond to very different buying processes and contexts (and of course the article focused exclusively on selling, ignoring the customer buying process–more in another post).

The article concludes, that many organizations try to move to solution selling, but few get it right…

Well, yes and no. But the same could be said of transaction selling, consultative selling, insight driven selling. There are huge gaps in performance in each area. The study, itself, identifies the gaps. But this is not a surprise, there is endless data about declines in sales performance. We see customers voting, daily, in choosing alternatives to dealing with sales people.

But if we are to understand and improve commercial as well as selling performance, perhaps the best starting point is our customers, understanding how they buy and how we create the greatest value in whatever their buying process is.

Working backwards from how our customers buy always gives us greater insight into how we effectively and efficiently acquire, serve, retain, grow, and create value for them. Sadly, the research didn’t not assess this.

* Refer to my articles exploring Cynefin and Sensemaking.

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