Myths and Misconceptions about “provocation-based selling” versus Solution Selling®

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:

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:

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!

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