A Complete Guide to the Solution Selling Methodology

Jonathan Costet July 18, 2022

Too often, sales reps jump straight into their pitch without even considering their prospects’ needs or asking what they’re looking for.

And in most cases, that’s a losing sales strategy.

So how can you build rapport with your prospects? How can you position your solution and boost your win rates?

That’s where Solution Selling comes in.

In this article, we’ll explain what Solution Selling is, what sets it apart, and how to tell if it’s right for your team. We’ll also cover the steps of the Solution Selling methodology so you can adopt it in your organization.

What is Solution Selling?

Solution Selling is a customer-centric sales methodology. It involves focusing on your prospects’ needs and recommending a solution (your products or services).

Solution Selling was originally developed in the mid-1970s by Frank Watts, who worked at Wang Laboratories, one of the largest computer manufacturers at the time.

What sets the Solution Selling methodology apart?

What sets Solution Selling apart from other sales methodologies is it focuses on offering a solution based on your prospects’ needs.

Solution selling overview

That may sound like a “well, duh” moment, but it was a completely radical approach compared to the dominant sales methodology of the time: product selling.

When Watts was working for Wayne Laboratories, reps would spend much of their time going over product features. For its word processor, the Wang 1200, that meant talking about how a single cassette could hold 20 pages of text or how the text could be edited.

The problem is that prospects aren’t at the center of the conversation; the product is.

What sets the Solution Selling methodology apart is it shifts the conversation away from your products or services. Instead, it takes a more consumer-centric approach to sales. 

It asks:

  • What are your prospects’ needs?
  • What are their problems and challenges?
  • What’s the scope and impact of their pain?
  • What capabilities do they need to solve their issues?

Sales professionals following the Solution Selling methodology would start by asking a potential customer a series of open-ended questions to understand what they’re looking for. Then they’d offer a solution. Throughout this process, the rep isn’t aggressive or pushy.

When sales reps act as informative agents and make prospects feel heard when it comes to their needs, they’re more likely to trust their recommendations. It also makes buyers more open to suggestions.

Examples of Solution Selling questions

To properly “diagnose” a prospect’s pain, sales professionals ask three types of diagnostic questions: open, control, and confirm. Here’s a quick look at each:

  • Open: Open or open-ended questions get prospects to speak freely about the problems or challenges they’re facing. The goal is to build rapport, get insightful responses, and learn about their situation.
  • Control: With control questions, you’re asking closed-ended questions to elicit a “yes” or “no” response. You’re seeking specific pieces of information and guiding prospects in the direction you want them to go. 
  • Confirm: Next up are confirm questions. These types of questions are designed to keep you and buyers aligned. Summarizing what you’ve heard shows buyers that you’re listening and genuinely interested in helping.

The Solution Selling process takes these types of diagnostic questions and breaks them down further into three phases:

  • Diagnose reasons: Reps start by using open-ended questions to understand the issues that prospects are facing. Then they’ll continue asking questions to understand the reasons behind those issues and will summarize before moving on to the next phase.
  • Explore impact: After diagnosing a prospect’s pain, the next step is to explore its impact. The intent is to determine how much of an effect it’s having throughout the organization and to what extent. It can also intensify the perception of the pain and drive urgency. 
  • Visualize capabilities: The next phase in the questioning sequence is to get prospects to visualize a solution. This is when a sales rep will take on a more consulting role. They’ll describe in detail how your solution helps them address their issues. 

Together, these questions and phases form the “9-box vision process model,” as shown here:

9-box vision process model for the Solution Selling method

(Image Source)

Here are some examples of Solution Selling questions for each phase.

Phase 1: Diagnose Reasons 

Ask these questions to identify your prospects’ pain points:

  • “Can you tell me more about [pain]?”
  • “Is it because of…?”
  • “So the reason for your [pain] is because…?” “Did I get that right?”

Phase 2: Explore Impact

Ask these questions to determine the impact of the pain:

  • “Who else in your organization does this [pain] affect?”
  • “If you don’t solve this problem, then [description of consequence]?”
  • “It sounds like you….” “Is that correct?”

Phase 3: Visualize Capabilities

Ask these questions to get prospects to visualize a solution:

  • “What is it going to take for you to achieve [goal]?”
  • “What if there’s a way that you could solve [problem], how much would it help?”
  • “If you had the ability to [capability], what would your [process] look like?”

With this line of questioning, reps can learn more about a prospect’s issues, the impact those issues are having, and what kind of capabilities they need to solve them.

Is the Solution Selling methodology the right fit for your team?

But this approach to selling isn’t right for every team. If you offer low-price-point products with very concrete use cases and a short sales cycle, it might not make sense to invest that amount of time into each prospect.

Solution Selling focuses on selling a solution. As such, it’s a question-heavy methodology that’s designed to consider the needs of a prospect before making a recommendation.

There are two questions that you can ask to help you determine if this methodology is right for your team.

Do your customers require a custom solution?

Solution Selling isn’t really a good fit for companies that compete in well-established product categories.

If you’re looking to buy new desks for your office, you might compare features and price on your own or ask a rep a few questions before making a decision.

Solution Selling is a better fit for complex products or services, especially groundbreaking products that buyers don’t have a good reference point for.

Let’s use managed information technology (IT) services as an example. Companies can outsource their IT needs to third-party service providers. 

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach — some companies may only need network security services, while others may need more comprehensive solutions.

The Solution Selling methodology is a perfect fit in this case (especially back when the market was even younger than it is today).

A sales rep would ask the diagnostic questions from the “9-box vision process model” to identify a prospect’s pain points. Then they’d put together a bespoke solution and get them to see how it solves all of their problems.

I hope we’ve proved why Solution Selling is ideal for new and emerging products. Today, some examples include artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and edge computing. Reps for companies that sell these types of products need to understand what their prospects need before recommending a solution.

Why? Because buyers won’t actually understand what they need from you without guidance. That lack of understanding can damage customer relationships, as clients will feel like they were promised something you didn’t deliver.

Do customers need extra levels of support?

When you buy an app for your phone, you expect minimal levels of support. But if you’re deploying software at an enterprise scale, you’ll need extra support to ensure a smooth transition.

John Deere offers various support packages for its line of forestry equipment:

John Deere forestry equipment support packages

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A John Deere rep could use the Solution Selling methodology to determine the degree of support a customer needs and recommend a suitable package.

Similarly, if you offer products or services with different support packages, you can use the Solution Selling methodology to guide prospects in the right direction.

What are the steps of the Solution Selling methodology?

Are your sales reps falling short of their quotas?

Adding the Solution Selling methodology into your sales process could be just what they need to increase their close rate and boost revenue.

Follow these steps to implement the Solution Selling methodology effectively:

Solution selling steps

1. Understand your products or services

“Uhhhh, let me get back to you.”

Probably not something you’d want to hear more than once as a customer.

It goes without saying that sales reps must know the ins and outs of your products or services. If a rep can’t answer a question, they risk leaving a poor impression on buyers and losing a deal.

In fact, 65% of B2B buyers cited a strong knowledge of the solution area as a top reason for choosing a winning vendor over other options.

B2B sales stat on why buyers chose a winning vendor

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Before you implement Solution Selling (or any methodology for that matter), make sure that your reps have excellent product knowledge. This means they can match the right solutions to buyer needs and clearly explain why.

The best reps go beyond basic product knowledge and have a deep understanding of all areas:

  • Pricing: Pricing is an important consideration in any purchasing decision. Reps should know exactly how much each product or service is (and any wiggle-room in terms of potential discounts for large-volume deals).
  • Features: Your sales team should be highly knowledgeable about each of your product’s features and clearly explain their benefits.
  • Customizations: Sales reps should know how each product or service can be customized to fit a buyer’s needs. 
  • Use cases: Your prospects want to know what your solution can do for them. Reps should know specific use cases for your solutions. 
  • Competition: Make sure that your reps have a strong understanding of what the competition offers and how your solutions offer better value.

Here are a few ways you can help your reps build and improve their product knowledge:

  • Build your sales playbook: A sales playbook is a must-have resource, as it contains all the assets and resources that your reps will need to sell more effectively. Build a sales playbook if you haven’t already and have your team review it.
  • Offer hands-on experience: Give your reps the opportunity to fully try out your products or services. You can take this a step further and give them a “project” to complete. If they don’t know how to do something, encourage them to find the answers on their own.
  • Review customer testimonials: Your current customers are a valuable source of information. Have your reps read through reviews and testimonials. This will help them learn the specific issues that your solution has helped them with.
  • Collaborate with customer service and product teams: by facilitating communication and collaboration between these departments, your sales reps will, over time, get more familiar with common pain points, complex features, and more.

2. Ask the right questions

Today’s buyers often have unique problems to solve. But unless you ask the right sales questions, you won’t be able to properly diagnose their needs and identify their pain points.

How to identify pain points

Of course, there’s an art to asking questions. You can’t simply say, “Hey, what are you looking for?” and expect them to give you everything you need.

So how can you diagnose your prospects’ needs? How can you get them to give you rich, in-depth answers?

Start with open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions help you learn about your prospects and their challenges. They also give you the opportunity to craft a great follow-up question that lets you dig even deeper.

Examples of open-ended questions include:

  • “I see that you’re in [industry]. Can you help me understand your biggest challenge?”
  • “How is that [challenge] affecting the rest of the organization?
  • “What solution are you currently using to address [pain point]?”
  • “If you could solve [problem], what would success look like for you?”

As you engage with your prospects, don’t forget the three phases of the Solution Selling methodology: diagnose, explore impact, and visualize capabilities.

Pro sales tip:

Asking sales questions helps you learn more about your prospects and uncover their pain points. But be careful not to turn those conversations into interrogations.

According to our data, the “sweet spot” for how many questions you should ask in a sales call is between 11 and 14.

Number of discovery questions to ask

Too many questions feels like an interrogation, while asking too few may not be enough to dig deep into your prospects’ needs. 

3. Qualify your prospects

Not every prospect is a good fit. Your reps need to know which prospects are worth pursuing so they can prioritize their sales efforts.

Qualifying prospects

Well-qualified prospects have a greater chance of turning into customers. However, one of the downsides to Solution Selling is it doesn’t tell you exactly how to qualify prospects.

Not to worry.

First, create an ideal customer profile (ICP) — a description of the company that’s a perfect fit for your solution. It defines who you should be targeting. Most importantly, it helps your reps determine who not to target.

Of course, it’s not always obvious whether a prospect is a good fit. During discovery calls, reps should also ask questions to determine the following:

  • How much is the prospect willing to spend?
  • What is their decision process like?
  • What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What other solutions are they considering?
  • When do they need a solution in place?

The answers will help reps determine whether a prospect fits the company’s ICP. Again, limit the number of discovery questions you ask so as not to overwhelm your buyers.

4. Propose a solution

Once your reps have qualified a prospect and diagnosed their pain, the next step is to propose a solution. But don’t dive into its technical aspects (e.g., “This computer has 16GB of ram”).

The goal of Solution Selling is to show prospects how your solution solves their problem — in as simple terms as possible (e.g., “With 16GB of ram, you can use video editing software without your computer slowing down”).

Let’s say that your company offers invoicing software. 

A rep has learned that a prospect spends hours each day processing invoices, most of it on manual data entry. They’re growing frustrated because of how much time they spend on this task alone.

Well, it just so happens that your product features optical recognition technology that can automate data extraction from any document.

The rep’s job is to turn that feature into a benefit and get their prospect to see how it solves their problem. In this case, the rep would emphasize how the software automates data entry, which would free up their time to focus on other tasks.

This is just one example.

With Solution Selling, there’s no need to jump into technical specs the buyer won’t understand. Figure out what your prospects need, propose a solution, and explain how it solves their problem or pain.

5. Close the deal

The last step of the Solution Selling methodology is to close the deal. But don’t expect your prospects to pull out their wallets right away.

Even if things go well, you’ll likely have to overcome objections like:

  • “It’s too expensive.”
  • “I don’t see a need for this.”
  • “We’re not looking to buy right now.”

Hearing these statements can be frustrating, but don’t let them discourage you. So how do you maintain deal momentum?

According to our data, the top-performing reps handle objections with a question.

How to overcome sales objections

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Why is this effective?

Because upon hearing an objection, many salespeople default to a knee-jerk reaction: “oh, I can’t close this.” But that only puts them on the defensive.

Instead, a better way to handle objections is to “mirror” or repeat the last few words of what your prospect just said. Use an upward voice tone to indicate that you’re asking a question (e.g., “Too expensive?”) It’s a powerful technique that gets your prospects to clarify in more detail. 

PS: Struggling to overcome objections? This Objection Handling Masterclass will help you learn how the pros turn objections into sales opportunities.

Solution Selling vs. SPIN Selling

With Solution Selling, you’re building a relationship with a prospect and understanding what their problems are. Then you point to a solution and explain how it solves those issues.

It’s a customer-centric approach that’s similar to SPIN Selling in that it relies on reps asking the right questions to get prospects to reveal their pain points.

SPIN Selling methodology

To recap, SPIN is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation: Understand the prospect’s situation.
  • Problem: Identify pain points and problems.
  • Implication: Show prospects why they need to solve their problems.
  • Need-Payoff Questions: Help prospects come to these conclusions on their own.

A key difference between the two methodologies is that with SPIN Selling, you’re not just telling prospects how your solution can help. You’re getting them to connect the dots on their own with questions like:

  • “What makes [solution] appealing to you?”
  • “How much time would you save if…?”
  • “Would it be useful if…?”

Helping prospects reach certain conclusions on their own can often have a bigger impact than telling them outright. Either way, both methodologies offer effective frameworks for diagnosing your prospects and determining their needs.

Power up your sales process with Gong

Looking to boost your win rates?

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Want to test a particular sales message? 

With Gong, you can set up trackers that send alerts any time a keyword is mentioned. Get pinged as it comes up and see how it plays out. With the insights you gather, you’ll be able to build a winning sales playbook.

Want to see how Gong can turn your sales team into superstars?

Additional resources on Solution Selling

Check out the resources below to learn more about Solution Selling.

Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets

Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets was originally published in 1994 by Michael Bosworth, a sales leader with over 20 years of sales experience.

The book provides a more detailed look at the Solution Selling methodology. It covers the pain points that reps encounter in the sales process and suggestions on how to overcome them. It also includes plenty of examples for each.

While the book may be a few decades old, most of the sales principles it covers are still applicable today.

The New Solution Selling: The Revolutionary Sales Process That is Changing the Way People Sell

The New Solution Selling was published 10 years after the original by Keith Eades, the CEO of Sales Performance International. 

The book expands on the original text and includes additional tools to help reps increase the quality and velocity of their sales pipeline. It also includes a complete sales process that reps can follow to close more deals.

Solution Selling® Training

Solution Selling® Training is a comprehensive course from Richardson Sales Performance Training that covers the entire Solution Selling methodology.

Instructor-led workshops provide a blueprint for the Solution Selling framework, helping reps master the skills they need to engage with their prospects and secure business. 

Conclusion

Solution Selling ultimately comes down to identifying a problem and selling a solution. While it may sound rather simplistic, it’s an effective framework that can help you sell more.

Looking to give your sales team a competitive edge?

Then check out Gong’s sales tracking software today to gain full visibility into your pipeline and get actionable insights.

WRITTEN BY
Jonathan Costet

Senior Growth Marketing Manager @Gong | Au revoir opinions, bonjour reality