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Dear Challenger: Sincerely yours, Willy Loman

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In their article, The End of the Solution Sale, Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson, and Nicholas Toman explain that there is no longer a need for salespeople to uncover customers’ needs because customers define solutions for themselves.

Article Critique

They propose that salespeople “altogether change how they sell;” for example, deliver a teaching pitch that enlightens customers and tells them what they need and what they should do.  The authors assure us with their research that this is how the new breed of successful salespeople win.

They make it hard to critique them for two reasons.  So much of what they say is true and insightful:  how customers buy has radically changed; customers are smarter and more prepared, and many are researching and even deciding on solutions before they have a conversation with a salesperson.  Customers value salespeople that can teach them something, they are looking for ideas and insights, and they have little or no tolerance for answering a list of traditional discovery questions.  The authors explain how salespeople should focus on customers who are motivated to act quickly (which has long been referred to as a compelling event, i.e., regulatory reform) and how salespeople should gravitate toward mobilizers and engage customers earlier.  The authors underscore the value of disruptive ideas and innovation and the need to change selling.  Their research regarding the new buyer was needed and makes us yearn for more data.  It is clear that they, like all of us, care about sales.

Yet, although it is true that customers have profoundly changed their buying habits and selling has and must change, so many of the author’s conclusions lead me to question if they have started with a misconception of where sales was pre-Challenger.  For example, they suggest that salespeople sold only to customers who agreed they had a need.  Wish that it were so easy.  For the new buyer, insight, ideas, and proof of value are must haves.  But regardless of how brilliant these are, if they are unencumbered by the customer’s perspective, they lack what it takes to mobilize customers to act.  Of course, as critical as the sales conversation is in creating the customer experience, it takes more than an effective conversation model to enable and sustain sales performance.  For example, there must be a comprehensive sales and sales management methodology, a sales process, the right talent in the right roles, and organizational alignment from senior leadership to the front lines.  At Richardson Sales Performance, we have recalibrated our consultative selling models and our sales performance system to support the change needed to succeed in the new sales environment.

And while all the data makes it tempting to subscribe to the idea that all it takes is research to understand selling, what defines high performers is more complex.  Insightful ideas backed up with research won’t persuade if the customer is not open.  Most customers are reluctant to accept advice from a salesperson who they think does not understand their perspective, unique challenges, or what drives them personally.  In fact, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research shows that even after people see statistical evidence, the statistical evidence alone is usually not enough to persuade.  Other factors are needed based on what people believe or are ready to accept.

The title of the article, The End of the Solution Sale, made me think of Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller.  When I founded Richardson Sales Performance, and consultative selling as a need-based sales methodology was new, I wrote to Arthur Miller, and he was kind enough to answer but assured me that he didn’t know much about selling.  But he did know about human nature.  Audiences seeing or reading the play root for Willy every step of the way even though they know he won’t be able to change.  Audiences don’t want to write Willy off so fast.  His customers loved him — but times changed.  Willy could have succeeded had he kept his heart but found a new way to sell.  This is pretty much what salespeople today have to do:  keep the best elements of their relationship foundation but embrace and adapt to the demands of the new buyers. It is not a matter of competing against the solution type sale but rather completing it.

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