In the March 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), an article by Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin and Geoffrey Moore, entitled “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers” postulated that the best way to sell in an unpredictable economy is to confront customers with the absolute necessity to purchase solutions provided by sellers’ organizations.

In itself, this is a provocative idea. Rather than wait passively for customers to articulate their needs and then respond to those needs with a suitable solution, the article suggests that sellers should instead make an passionate case directly to executives about why they must invest in new solutions in order to improve their organization’s efficiency, effectiveness or competitiveness.

Lay, Hewlin, and Moore imply that “provocation-based selling” is a new idea – but this is incorrect.  The Solution Selling® methodology has shown sellers how to develop new sales opportunities by stimulating buyers’ interest – exactly as described in the HBR article – for more than twenty years.  Keith Eades describes this proactive approach to creating sales opportunities in his book The New Solution Selling (2003, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 978-0071435390) as latent opportunity development.

Further, while the authors of the HBR article express correctly the importance of creating new sales opportunities by stimulating high-ranking buyers’ interest, they do not fully explain how this should be accomplished. In The New Solution Selling, Eades not only describes the importance of latent opportunity development, he also explicitly shows sales professionals how they can do it effectively and consistently.  The Solution Selling® methodology includes:

  • Specific tools for formulating business propositions of interest to high-ranking buyers
  • Reliable methods for gaining access to executive-level prospects, and
  • Proven techniques for earning and winning their business

Eades, Touchstone, and Sullivan provide all of these tools and methods in detail in their companion book, The Solution Selling Fieldbook (2005, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 978-0071456074).

The value of this kind of proactive sales approach is profound. In fact, in independent research conducted by IBM, sales opportunities that were created using Solution Selling® latent opportunity development methods had a win rate in excess of 85%. This is consistent with additional surveys conducted by other SPI clients using latent opportunity development methods.

So, while the authors of the HBR article do a good job of reinforcing the value of  a long-held core principle of Solution Selling®, they unfortunately also harm their credibility by repeatedly disparaging “solution selling” throughout.

In the HBR article, the authors attempt to compare and contrast “solution selling“ with “provocation-based selling”, but their comparisons are erroneous, and in some cases, outright false.  The content of this article, in no way, represents the current practice of Solution Selling® by SPI clients, which includes over 600,000 practitioners in many of the world’s leading companies. In particular, in a sidebar in the article entitled “Why Not Settle for Solution Selling?”, the authors make a number of claims about “solution selling” — and all of them are completely inaccurate. Here are each of the specific misconceptions they issued, with our corrections following:

  • In “solution selling,” sellers compete for vendor preference within an existing budget, instead of compelling project investment outside of an existing budget: this is untrue – Solution Selling® enables sellers to create new opportunities when budgets have not been established, and preference when budgets have already been set. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: latent opportunity development, the three levels of buyer need, the Value Development Cycle, Value Proposition Templates, Key Player List, Business Development Prompter, Reference Stories, and others.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers align with the customer’s prevailing point of view, instead of challenging their current point of view: this is untrue – Solution Selling® provides tools for “out of the box” thinking with customers that are currently not looking to buy, and it also includes methods for re-engineering customer visions of a solution if they are actively looking for a solution. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods and tools that help sellers to do this include: advanced prospecting and stimulating interest tools, Reference Stories, 9-Block Vision Creation and Vision Re-engineering Models, and others.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers address acknowledged pain points, instead of unacknowledged angst: this is untrue – Solution Selling® shows how to address both acknowledged and unacknowledged pains, and in fact helps sellers to elevate customers’ latent needs to an admitted problem worth solving.  The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: the Three Levels of Buyer Need, Value Propositions, Vision Creation Model.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers target tactical problems, instead of strategic ones: this is untrue –  Solution Selling® shows how to find and address both strategic and tactical problems for customers, and prescribe the right solution for either. In fact, Solution Selling® provides specific tools for linking tactical departmental problems to strategic organizational issues, providing a more compelling case for change, and buying a related solution. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: Key Player List, Pain Chain®, Sponsor Letter, Power Sponsor Letter, Value Justification Tools, and others.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers begins with a technical proof and then build a business case, instead of vice-versa: this is untrue –  Solution Selling® emphasizes the importance of selling value throughout the entire sales cycle by leading with a strong Value Proposition and at least one Reference Story that illustrates the value of solving the customer’s problem, and then expanding on this understanding of value with additional diagnosis and value justification tools. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: initial Value Proposition template, Reference Stories, 9-Block Value Creation, and Re-engineering models, Value Justification tools, and Success Criteria.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers start with an IT or line of business dialogue, instead of an executive-level dialogue: this is untrue – Solution Selling® shows how to target executives, gain access to them, and how to have executive level dialog that builds trust and credibility, as well as how to converse with operational-level buyers. In fact, Solution Selling® includes specific methods for negotiating access to high-ranking buyers. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: Key Player List, Pain Chain®, executive-level selling dialogue models, Strategic Alignment Prompter, and others.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers ask questions to identify needs, instead of using an insightful hypothesis to provoke a response: this is untrue – Solution Selling provides methods and tools that enable sellers to share information about how to solve a relevant problem first, in order to encourage customers to reciprocate and begin a dialogue. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: Account Planning tools, Strategic Alignment Prompter, Reference Stories, Value Proposition template, and others.
  • In “solution selling,” sellers respond to issues described by the client, instead of being proactive and leading to force issues out: this is untrue – Solution Selling® provides methods for determining the state of the buyer, then using the right type of dialogue to either proactively raise their latent need to admitted pain, or to re-engineer their vision of a solution to one that favors the seller — or to qualify out of the opportunity. The specific Solution Selling® concepts, methods, and tools that help sellers to do this include: The Three Levels of Buyer Need, 9-Block Vision Creation or Re-engineering models, the Successful Sale Formula, and others.

We received a letter from one of the authors of the HBR article, who explained that they intended to contrast “provocation-based selling” against “generic solution selling,” not against SPI’s proprietary and trademarked methodology known as Solution Selling®. The problem with this excuse is that there is no such thing as “generic” Solution Selling®.  If you call something kleenex instead of Kleenex®, it is still a registered trademark and a brand that connotes specific qualities. There is no “generic” kleenex — there is a different term for that: facial tissues.

Government authorities awarded a registered trademark to the term “solution selling” and authorized SPI to designate this term with an appropriate mark — Solution Selling® — because this term connotes specific concepts, methods, and tools as a brand. The principles of Solution Selling® have been well established and published for more than two decades. The authors of the HBR article should know this and as a result, they should expect SPI to object accordingly to the improper depiction of our trademarked sales methodology.

Rather than use “solution selling” inappropriately throughout their article, the authors should have used a truly generic term that would have been far more accurate: needs-reactive selling.

In summary, we recommend that readers of HBR should realize the key point of the article is the importance of provoking customers with ideas and ways to solve problems that they haven’t thought of before. We agree completely with this point of view, and have been proponents of the “provocative” approach for over two decades. Even though the article misrepresents key tenets of Solution Selling®, the essential message is more relevant than ever in the challenging economic times we are in.

Good luck and good selling!

SPI, Sales Performance Review

Sales Performance International (SPI) is a global sales performance improvement firm dedicated to helping the world's leading corporations elevate their sales relationships and drive measurable, sustainable revenue growth and operational sales performance improvement.

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