We’ve been describing B2B products and services as “solutions” for decades, positioning them to eliminate a problem for our clients. There is little doubt that salespeople spend time helping their clients solve their problems. But as those problems get more and more complex, clients care less and less about finding a singular “solution”. The legacy approach that starts with a problem, identifies a pain, and inserts a "solution" rarely matches their reality. At best, selling solutions is a quaint throwback in today’s environment; at worst, it’s inadequate to improve our clients’ results. Let me suggest an alternative: selling outcomes.
The Trajectory of Sales: From Selling Solutions to Selling Outcomes
The idea of selling a solution arose because B2B clients stopped trusting simplistic products and services. Now, clients have developed a similar disinclination to buying a "solution," with an astounding number of them choosing not to solve their problems or address their pain, if you’ll excuse my legacy slang. If we follow this trajectory to its natural next step, solutions must give way to outcomes—a far more ambitious goal, but also a far more valuable one to our clients.
The challenge is that it's easier to far easier to sell a solution than an outcome: even customized solutions are generally consistent across clients since they draw on similar resources and skills. Outcomes are far more dependent on individual clients’ needs, markets, competencies, and willingness to change. But embracing that difficulty offers great rewards. As I document in the first chapter of Eat Their Lunch, many salespeople have already embraced Level 4 Value Creation, starting the sales conversation by focusing on their prospective client's strategic outcomes rather than a solution, as these strategic outcomes are far more likely to compel change.
Solving a Broader Set of Problems in Your Pipeline
The "problem→pain→solution" pattern that marked the solution selling era is fading, slowly losing its effectiveness as companies struggle to change, avoid decisions, and seem paralyzed by the complexity of their environment and their challenges—a natural response to uncertainty. The problems of buying now seem greater than the problems salespeople have been taught and trained to fix with their solutions.
To help decision-makers and stakeholders to produce the outcomes they need, it's necessary to solve the problems that prevent them from being able to decide and change. The reason so many pipelines are full of opportunities that have died on the vine is because of the meta-problems plaguing the buying process.
Why Change Management is About Solving a More Compelling Problem
In The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need, you will find a chapter on Change Management, one of the core competencies now required of B2B salespeople, especially those engaged in a complex sale. Most strategic changes require an organizational shift, so in the future you’ll have to decide which problem you want to solve.
If you want to compel someone to change, the best place to start is with what is already compelling them. Let me bring this home: you don't want leads; you want deals. Your company doesn't want deals; they want new clients and revenue. The senior leadership doesn't want clients and revenue; they want growth, or market share, or the possibility of taking the company public, or something else. The more senior the leader, the less they care about solutions and the more they care about outcomes.
Solving a More Difficult Problem
One of the more difficult challenges in selling outcomes is that a large part of the time, your client needs to change something beyond their existing provider and their solution. Displacing a competitor is often easier and faster than helping the client recognize that they have to change some bigger policy or practice to achieve the outcomes they need. One of the reasons clients don't achieve the intended objectives of their change initiatives is because their changes were mainly cosmetic, not conceptual. Change is difficult, and many companies are so busy running their business that they have little bandwidth available to manage a major reboot.
By definition, your solution cannot fix the problems of buying, address compelling strategic problems, or help the client recognize that they are an obstacle to the better outcomes they need. Yet you still have to find a way to create and win opportunities, including opportunities with clients riddled with these problems. As you transition from selling solutions to creating outcomes, you must learn to solve a different and more difficult set of problems, requiring not just a solid product but far greater resourcefulness and agility.