By Alan C. Brawn CTS, DSCE, DSDE, DSSP, ISF-C
In the beginning of technology sales, we sold features. In those days this was the “wow” factor revealing things that has heretofore been non-existent or impractical. As new technologies seemingly came out of the woodwork, buyers became more knowledgeable and sophisticated and as a result the salesperson’s message (necessarily) evolved into selling the benefits. The features had become a given or price of entry for a sale and the benefits became the differentiator. The sale was made on how well a salesperson communicated the benefits as they related to solving a problem. This has become the famous solution sales approach. Of course, as buyers came to understand features, benefits, and solutions (all things being equal among competitors and their products) price has reared its ugly head. The net result of this has been a decline in technology prices and the need to sell increasingly more just to keep up. This begs the question as to what the next phase of technology sales might be.
In the early days of technology sales, the salesperson was the bastion of information. For decades this was a huge value for buyers, but times have changed. Today, the internet has transformed the way information is accessed—with one tap on a website a customer can easily access your technology world and that of your competitors the same way that you are hopefully doing to learn about their company. As a result, customers have changed their expectations of salespeople and their organizations that want to do business with them. Simply explaining the details of your products and service capabilities is no longer of recognized value. The customers already know what products and services because they accessed your website. This means you have a new job to do.
What they want is value beyond the nature of the core technology or product. There is a famous story I love to recount. A large power company had a catastrophic failure in one of their main generators. The cost of lost service was in the tens of thousands of dollars and growing by the hour. The internal service team had no solutions, so they called in an expert. The expert came onsite and in less than an hour had the problem fixed. He invoiced the power company for $10,000. The company balked at the fee and asked why the seemingly high price. The expert simply replied that the invoice was not for the time spent and the use of tools but for the years of acquired knowledge and knowing what to do. The invoice was promptly paid. This explains the new salespersons expanded role today.
Customers expect a salesperson to develop and provide a point of view based on their expertise and observable understanding of their industry, market, and specific business. And even more, they expect the salesperson to present a specific hypothesis with evidentiary support about how your offerings can improve their business outcomes.
One of the biggest points of confusion for salespeople is understanding the difference between solutions and outcomes. A solution solves a specific problem but keep in mind there’s usually more than one solution that will get the desired outcome. An outcome is result of something, or the consequence of the solution. The noun outcome refers to the result of a process. Outcomes are the end game that transforms the prospect’s business and, in some cases, personal life. If you stop with the solution, you won’t evoke an emotional response and may fail to persuade your prospect to buy.
In order to be successful, you need to adjust the way you engage with customers. The outcome-focused sales approach is designed to do just that. To succeed in this approach, you need to enter the customer’s paradigm so you can think like them and better understand their needs (even if they might not know whatthose needs are themselves) and employ this mindset as you engage in all customer conversations.
One business expert opines, “You need to shift from selling product features and functions to focusing on the business value your solution delivers to the customer. Thus, understanding your customers and their needs is far more crucial than trying to persuade them to buy another product; providing industry and market insights is more valuable than pitching product specific benefits and features; and building longterm, meaningful relationships based on delivering business value is more effective than creating a series of short-term business transactions.”
Sherri Sklar, CEO of GrowthTera, shared some interesting thoughts in her presentation “Sales Planning: Strategies that Leave Your Competition in the Dust”. She recounts an interchange with one of her clients on the topic of selling business outcomes versus solutions. Her client said that “a customer of theirs was angry with them because they are not receiving the perceived benefits of the solution that was sold to them. It was noted that nobody from our sales team helped them track the business outcomes to make sure that they received the benefits our salesperson told them they should be receiving. This has impacted our customer’s ability to demonstrate measurable results from their decision to go with our solution. Our whole account relationship is in jeopardy over this. What should we do?”
As Ms. Sklar points out in her presentation, there is a big disconnect between the value we say we deliver and what customers are actually experiencing. It boils down to this. “In the sales process, find out which outcomes your customer cares about and how they measure their business. Ask them what success would look like to them. Engage in joint planning exercises. Most importantly, if you promise something, deliver it. This means sales, service, support, and product development all need to come together to develop a shared understanding of how to deliver the business outcome expected by this customer. Create a scorecard to measure and track the progress your team is making.” This process is the up to date roadmap to meet customers’ expectations and how they are gratified.
Before we wrap up, please stop for a moment. You may honestly think you are already practicing an outcome-based sales approach and you may be right, but research shows that most are not (yet). According to an Oracle report, “Competing for Customers,” 77 percent of salespeople believe they understand their customer’s business and how they are measured, in reality, buyers say only 7 percent of salespeople truly get it. This backs up Salesforce’s finding that 82 percent of salespeople are still not aligned with the needs of their buyer. File this under food for thought and words to the wise!
Adopting a customer-based and outcome-oriented mindset has significant and existential implications for many companies. The old ways simply don’t compute in the modern age. New roles and responsibilities are emerging throughout many organizations as we initiate and enable an outcome-based sales ecosystem. Once example of change is a new class of “salesperson” called solution architects. Their role is to help customize solutions by first understanding customer specific roadmaps & implementation plans, and most importantly their desired outcomes and means of measurement. Their role is to manage and track the outcomes using a variety of solutions at their disposal. Sales titles aside, this is where we are headed leaving the transactional sales approach behind as we reintroduce and reinforce the value in value added sales.