In 2016, I published a book titled The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need. In the chapter on Accountability, I wrote that you sell "outcomes," making the case that your prospective client isn't interested in your product or your service. Instead, they want to reach an outcome, one that would improve their results. Your clients would love to produce the outcome without buying your product or solution! As Theodore Levitt, a marketing professor at Harvard, once said, "people don't buy drills, they buy holes."
The Four Levels of Value in Sales
In Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away from Your Competition, my first chapter explains there are four levels of value, which most salespeople address in exactly the wrong order. This was my second attempt at explaining that you are selling outcomes, and that trying to sell anything less will harm your results.
Level 1: The first, and lowest, level of value is the value of your product. Focusing on your product is all but certain to prove that you are selling a commodity and that you have no greater value to offer a client, except perhaps to explain the features and benefits. Unless you are Apple, no one has a burning desire to buy your product just because you make it. This is why your client’s decision-maker or executive has zero interest in looking at your SDR's SAAS demo. In a word, they don't care about software.
Level 2: The second level of value is helpfulness, adding good support to a good product or service, thus increasing its overall value. You might score points here with the stakeholders who need greater support, but mostly this level is table stakes. While it might be a factor in a decision to buy, it isn't likely to be the reason your client purchases what you sell. Decision-makers expect you to support their teams.
Level 3: The third level of value is a way to understand the outdated, legacy, and totally commoditized discovery call, the one where you ask your client about their "problem" and their "pain." At this level, you sell the tangible result your client needs as it pertains to their problem. Imagine a credit card company that needs to send mail to people between 18 and 28 in the lower half of the United States. Delivering that mail is Level 3, and if the mail shows up, the problem has been solved.
But what if that isn't what the client really wanted? What if there was some other motivation, one that was more important, something strategic?
Level 4: This top level of value captures the strategic outcomes the client is pursuing—or should be. It transcends the other three levels, even though all the levels are necessary. Let's revisit our credit card company to understand why you sell outcomes. I would argue that the credit card company doesn't just want to send their prospective customers mail. The outcome they want is new credit card customers. Like Levitt suggested, if they could have the new customers without sending the mail, they wouldn't send the mail.
The path looks something like this. No one just wants to send mail. No one just wants someone to fill out an application for a credit card. No one just wants a customer to use their credit card. Instead, they want revenue growth, improved profitability, greater market share, or some other outcome that drives their decisions.
The Evolution of Professional B2B Sales
The older your sales approach, the more certain it is that you focus on your product or its tangible results, theoretically because tying your product to a “problem” lets you magically present it as a “solution.”
The evolution of sales started with products. The next evolution may have occurred when pitching products that companies didn't need required salespeople to connect the product to a problem the client actually had, often to displace a competitor. It's also possible that buyers decided that they needed more help solving some of their problems. Maybe both developments occurred together.
The reason that professional B2B sales is so difficult now is that the people responsible for leading their companies are struggling to make sense of their environment, while those responsible for buying need something more from salespeople than asking them about their problems. Again.
When you instead start a conversation with strategic outcomes, you improve the conversation by addressing what your prospective client wants. You also make it more likely that the conversation can help them better understand the limits of the way they are doing things now—and how they can improve their results. Many of the problems with selling and buying can be improved by discussing the strategic outcomes your clients are pursuing.
Consultative Sales and Business Advising
Anyone whose advice and recommendations is limited to “buy my solution from my company” is not anything close to consultative, and in no way can be considered a business advisor. The salesperson who asks their prospective client about their problem, after the client’s heard that same question in every prior interaction with a salesperson, provides their client with evidence that the conversation will be the same as all the others they've impatiently suffered through.
How is it possible not to recognize the problems your clients have after meeting with dozens or hundreds of them? How could you not know what outcomes you can improve for your clients?
Those who are unwilling to update their approach by providing their prospective clients with a more valuable conversation, one that speaks to the client's strategic outcomes, will find prospective clients less and less willing to give them their time. By raising the stakes and addressing the strategic outcomes, you prove you may be someone worth space on their calendar and a line in their budget.
Imagine a Board of Directors discussing the future of their business and the results they need. At any point in that conversation, would anyone at the table say, "you know, I really think we should get a demo of this SAAS software"?
Don't sell drills. Sell holes.