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Research update: The end of solution sales? HBR July 2012

The July / August edition of the famed Harvard Business Review features the headline grabbing article “The End of Solution Sales”. Is it really?

Adamson & Toman, the authors, contend that sales people are becoming less valuable with highly educated B2B buyers (thanks to the internet). They back up the argument with research involving 1400 B2B customers (Source: Corporate Executive Board) saying that 60% of the purchase decision is made before the sales person even enters the building (e.g. setting a specification, reviewing and ranking options etc.)

Talking about the “Trap of Established Demand” they go on to say that sales people normally come into late to the purchase process. Instead, they argue, sales people would be better to help customer identify problems earlier in their business (so-called “Insight Selling”) knowing their organisation can provide an unique, valuable answer.

They also make the interesting point about “targeting mobilisers, not advocates” i.e. people who get things done, rather than people who like us.

It’s hard to argue against the individual points the authors raise. For sure we have also identified that the procurement profession is “leading the dance” and by the time an RFP emerges, sales people typically have a tough time, mostly playing with price in order to win business.

At the same time, there is a little bit of smoke and mirrors in the article: Customer still need practical, effective solutions to their problems, and many sales people can still add value in constructing them. Also, many sales people have been playing the problem identification game for a while now, it’s not so new.

It seems therefore, that the article is more of a refocusing of solution sales, rather then a total damnation of the approach. Good news for those who have invested heavily in it. For sure, every sales organisation needs to get smarter in how they sell, and engaging earlier in the purchase process is definitely an excellent way to start.


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