Today, I want to introduce “solution selling” – the art of selling a remedy to a customer problem.
It’s one of literally dozens of different sales methodologies you can use to land sales and fuel your business.
So, what exactly is solution selling and how can you use it to your advantage?
What Is Solution Selling?
Okay. Here’s the obvious: in solution selling, you’ll be selling a solution to a problem.
But what does that really mean?
Solution selling is a philosophy that gained popularity in the 1980s – but it remains one of the most popular sales methodologies followed today.
Why does it have this lasting significance?
In part because it’s so straightforward.
Instead of selling the product, or the service, to your customer directly, you’re going to figure out what their main issues are, then sell them the solution to those issues.
But wait, isn’t that the same thing?
No. Your approach is going to vary.
Let’s say your product is a bottle of water. In a traditional sales approach, you might list all the benefits of this water. You can say that the water comes from a running waterfall in the Andes mountains, or that your bottles are 100 percent recycled plastic, or that the easy-open top makes it easy to get that first drink.
But in this example, you’re selling the product – not a solution.
Now let’s say you encounter a man in the desert who appears to be dying of thirst. Here, you can frame the bottle of water differently; you can point out to the man that he’s suffering from dehydration and that a sip of water is all it will take to save his life.
You have a solution to his pressing problem.
Real talk: if you find yourself in this position, I hope you’ll just give the man your water and not try to sell it to him.
But you get my point.
Selling the Solution
Remember, you’re selling a solution to a problem – not the product or service itself.
This can be tricky to delineate, especially if you’re used to selling the product itself and selling the solution simultaneously. And to be fair, there is some overlap between these two approaches.
One of the easiest ways to wrap your head around these distinct concepts is to figure out whether you’re answering a “what” vs. a “why” question.
If you’re selling a product or service directly, you’ll be talking about “what” the thing is. If you’re selling a solution, you’ll be talking about “why” your customer needs this thing.
Take this pair of pitches as an illustrative example:
I noticed your front entryway gets dirty really quickly. Have you considered adding a welcome mat so people can wipe their feet before entering?
This welcome mat is woven with the finest synthetic fiber, so it’s super resilient and absorbent. It’s also fully customizable!
Which one is selling the solution?
The Solution Selling Methodology in 4 Steps
Now, let’s dig into the “guts” of solution selling. The exact process you follow is going to vary. But here’s a generalized flow you can tailor to suit your specific needs.
Step 1. Discovery and Understanding the Prospect
Let’s trace this chain backward.
If you’re going to land a sale with this methodology, you need to offer a solution.
To offer a good solution, you need to understand the problem.
And to understand the problem, you first need to understand the prospect.
That’s why the first phase of this process is almost always sales discovery.
You’ll need to research your target demographics, build out customer persona profiles, and understand the thought processes that your customers go through. After that, you’ll still need to get to know your prospects individually.
Ask lots of questions. Figure out exactly how their business operates, their philosophy when it comes to problem solving, and if they’re currently using any products or services like yours.
The more you know them, the better you’ll be able to sell them a custom solution that fits their needs.
Step 2. Identifying and Evaluating Pain Points
Once you get to the end of the discovery process, you’ll be in a position to identify and evaluate the main pain points that your prospect is facing.
For example, are they wasting time?
Are they wasting money?
Are they struggling to find a true “all in one” solution?
You should be able to figure this out based on your previous research and a couple of discovery sessions.
• 35-50% of sales go to the first-responding vendor.
• Following up within an hour increases your chances of success by 7x.
• The average professional spends 50% of their workday on email.
And if your prospect truly doesn’t have a problem in this area – your product may not work as a solution for them. It’s perfectly okay to walk away from a prospect who isn’t a good fit for your company’s products/services.
Step 3. Building Trust
Like with many other modern sales methodologies, much of your success will stem from the trust your prospects hold in you.
If they come to see you as a respected authority – and as a valued advisor – they’re going to trust your solution recommendations much more than if they see you as a mere salesperson.
Take the time to offer resources, give advice, and show off your expertise. Over time, you’ll earn more trust. Then, closing the sale will be much easier.
Step 4. Resolving the Pain Points
After identifying the pain points and discussing them with your prospect, you’ll be in a position to offer a real resolution to those pain points.
In other words, what is it your product/service does that will make those pain points go away?
These could be things like:
Cost savings. Money talks. Profitability is always a big priority for businesses, so if you can figure out a way to save a prospect money, they’ll likely go for it.
Time savings. We all waste time in some ways, whether we realize it or not. Convince your prospect you’ll save them time every day and you’re a shoo-in. The hard part is convincing them they’re wasting time with their current setup.
Convenience and reduced stress. You can also pitch a solution as something that’s more convenient or less stressful to manage. It’s a subjective feature, but one that’s super important for long-term planning.
Perceptions and positioning. You might sell a solution that somehow alters perceptions of your target prospect’s business or puts them in a different position. For example, your solution may allow them to be seen as more efficient, more sustainable, or more trustworthy.
The bottom line. Any way you can, you should try to connect your solution to the customer’s “bottom line.” In other words, how does this solution help your customer achieve their long-term goals? Obviously, you need to know what those long-term goals are first. (Hint: it’s usually related to making money).
Pros & Cons of Solution Selling
There are a few big advantages to the solution selling approach:
Skipping the BS. Most of your customers have been through the sales process before – with other, more aggressive companies. They have a strong “BS detector” and will probably roll their eyes at you if you run down a list of product qualities in an attempt to persuade them to buy. In this approach, you’re circumventing the traditional sales process entirely.
Identifying the problem. This is also a good way to identify the problem your customer is facing – and do it proactively. Sometimes, customers don’t even know they have a problem until you come along and point it out.
Proving the benefits. If you’re selling a solution, you have to demonstrate, or prove, exactly how it’s going to solve the problem and/or make the customer’s life better. If you make a compelling enough case, it could be practically impossible to deny the benefits.
Solution selling first became popular in the 1980s, so naturally, there are some people who believe it to be outdated.
It does have some weaknesses:
Customer motivation. Modern customers have a lot of agency – and ample motivation to do their own research. They look up information online, compare you to competitors, and are generally well-informed. This makes it harder to share fundamentally new information with your prospects – and in some cases, makes it harder to close a sale.
Realizing/admitting there’s a problem. Prospects sometimes have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality – even though something genuinely is “broke.” Thanks to a mix of status quo bias, stubbornness, and (let’s face it) a bit of laziness, many prospects will be unwilling to acknowledge that a problem truly exists. And of course, without a problem taken seriously (or acknowledging there’s a problem to begin with), you’re never going to sell a solution.
Building trust. Your solution is only going to matter if your prospect trusts you. And with so much available information and constant spam from salespeople and marketers, it’s often hard to build that trust.
13 Examples of Solution Selling Questions
In the solution selling methodology, you’ll be asking a lot of questions.
You’ll have to come up with your own questions, based on the unique profile of your target customers and the unique properties of your business (and core products/services), but these should give you an idea for your starting direction.
During the sales discovery phase, your biggest priority will be figuring out who your customer is and what their main problems are.
1. What is your biggest challenge?
Sometimes, the best approach is to be direct. Simply ask your customer what their biggest challenge is, but try to be a little more specific than that; for example, ask what their biggest marketing challenge is.
2. How much are you spending on X?
If you think your solution can save your customer money, start with the financial route. Figure out how much they’re spending on a product like yours.
3. How much time do you spend doing X?
Similarly, if you’re going to save your customer time, get them thinking about how much time they spend on a given priority.
4. How important is factor X?
This question can vary wildly depending on your goals and your product. For example, you might ask, “how important is customer satisfaction?” or “how important is automation to your business?”
5. How often does this problem occur?
Once you have a vague idea of the main problems this customer faces, figure out its frequency and severity. By extension, you’ll learn the urgency and priority level of this problem.
6. What do other people think about this issue?
You can add pressure by figuring out whether other departments and/or other roles in this organization take issue with this same problem.
7. How does this affect your bottom-line goals?
Sometimes, it’s hard to get perspective on just how big of a problem this is. Asking this question can give your customer more clarity.
8. How did things get this bad?
Don’t use this exact phrasing. But do try to figure out what chain of events led your customer to be in this position.
Once you know what the problem is (or how your prospect views the problem), you can start selling the solution.
Ask questions that guide your customer to the solution (then close the deal).
9. What could you accomplish if this problem didn’t exist?
Try to paint the picture of a better world overall.
10. How much time could you save with a solution?
And as a follow-up, ask what they would do with that extra time.
11. How much money could you save with a solution?
The more specific you are, the better – be prepared with some numbers if your customer doesn’t have any of their own.
12. If you could do 20 percent more with a better tool, would you switch?
If your customer is already using a tool like yours, figure out what it would take to get them to switch.
13. What would you be willing to do to make this problem go away?
This is good for evaluating the priority level of this problem – and potentially getting a glimpse at their budget.
Are you ready to land more sales with your hot new solution selling sales methodology?
Awesome. I’m excited for you.
Now, I feel compelled to ask – do you know how many emails your team sends and receives every day? Do you know how long they take to reply to emails?
And did you know that the average professional spends somewhere between 28-52% of their time on emails?
And that 35-50% of sales go to the vendor who responds first?
With EmailAnalytics, you can start identifying who’s busy (and who’s not), boost your team’s email response time, and land more sales.
Our customers respond 42.5% faster than non-EmailAnalytics customers. That means more sales and happier customers.
Why? It’s simple psychology.
That which is measured gets improved.
Sign up for a free trial today – and get your hands on the tool that could completely change how you sell via email.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.