The Death Of Solution Selling? No, Birth Of Problem-Solution Selling

The folks at Harvard Business Review know a few things about magazine publishing.  They have been holding their own in today’s tough circulation and ad sales environment, most recently increasing single copy sales by 4.8% to more than 38,000 while charging $16.95 per copy (that’s not a typo).  And advertisers seem impressed with the publication’s audience, as reported advertising revenue was up 7% in the first half of 2012 on almost a 3% increase in pages.

Long-time readers of HBR know that it publishes cutting-edge research and brings insight that isn’t easily found elsewhere.  How else could it charge $99 a year for a subscription and hold its rate base above 200,000? 

My sales training clients know that occasionally I license a cartoon from HBR to help me make my points about sales strategy.  So when it recently ran a story called “The End of Solution Sales,” I sat up and paid attention. 

Advertising media sales has been a very fast-evolving business the last 10 years.  These changes have been driven by customers who are on a 24-7 search for new and better alternatives and greater certainty their spending is effective, and by the entry of new media opportunities and measurement systems.  Have we sales management and salespeople kept up?  Generally not.

Entrepreneurially driven new-media companies are redefining our clients’ needs for them, not waiting to be told what the client needs.  Established media needs to step up to the plate to plug the hole in its leaky boat by taking the same approach.  Let’s define the needs of the marketers we work with, rather than let others do it.

For 10 years I have been telling sales teams I work with that they need to flip their viewpoint just as Howard Schultz did at Starbucks.  As he told Fortune years ago, a key reason for Starbucks’ success is, “We’re not in the coffee business selling to people.  We are in the people business, and we just happen to be selling coffee.” 

Salespeople at media companies of all sorts, print, TV and digital, need to re-orient their approach like Schultz did for Starbucks --  not “we’re in the media business selling pages and web ads to (for instance) car companies;” but “we’re in the automotive marketing business, we just happen to be selling print ads in our magazine, online ads, and event solutions.” 

When you begin to think this way as a salesperson, it demands that you think -- on behalf of your clients -- like an agency.  This will put you in a conversation with your clients and prospects that they want to have, about how to move the needle for their business.   And it avoids the conversation the client -- especially at a high level – doesn’t want to have with you: How you compare to your competitor.

Now, HBR has brought its credibility to support my story that in today’s world, media salespeople need to bring value to the sales conversation and open a dialog.  The conversation isn’t “Tell me what you need to sell more cars, Ms. Automotive Marketer.”  The conversation needs to be more like: “I know your competition is gaining market share and I have research that shows that your vehicle isn’t getting into the consideration set of prospective buyers.  Let me show you a way to make a difference.” 

The most successful and fastest-growing media are successfully defining new needs for their prospective clients, then selling them the solution.   If you are letting your competition define client needs, it should be no surprise that you don’t win the business.

Internet media provide enterprising advertising salespeople with thousands of new resources to assess who needs their media and how to define the marketing needs for their prospects.  Myriad research is available online, and quick-and-dirty research can be fielded overnight using web tools. 

This should be the golden age of media sales.  Few media companies are supporting their salespeople properly to take advantage of the new world where clients really don’t know what they should want and are ripe to be helped.

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1 comment about "The Death Of Solution Selling? No, Birth Of Problem-Solution Selling".
  1. Mark Carter from MetroSalonPro, LLC. , August 23, 2012 at 8:21 p.m.
    My sales are down. Business is slow. This is what I needed. A new angle. A new perspective on the approach to selling. A change. I have always defined defined new needs for my prospects and clients---this is one of the reasons I started my publication. And my publication has always been postured as the answer to their needs. Just that I need to dig in deeper with the confidence that clients don't know what they should want, and that i am there to help them by defining what their problems are and selling them my ad products as the solution. I found this article motivating and encouraging. I am inspired. Thank you.