Solution Vs Insight Selling – A Complete Guide To Complex B2B Sales


Like or not, we’re all sales people. If you’ve ever attended a job interview, you’re in sales. If you’ve ever asked for a pay rise, you’re in sales. And if you’ve ever been in a relationship, you’re definitely in sales.

Selling is something that we all do, and yet somehow it feels like a dirty word. Even professional sales people seem determined to keep it hidden from view, calling themselves Business Development Managers or Account Executives or anything else as long as it doesn’t describe what it is that they actually do.

This is all nonsense.

Sales, when done right, is a beautiful thing and one of the most valuable skills a person in business can possess. The question, therefore, is how should organisations build effective selling into their DNA? And, in particular, which of the many methodologies should they follow?


The Solution Sell

There have always been lots of sales models, but for most of the last 40 years they almost all fell under the broad description of “Solution Selling”, in which the seller asks questions to build a picture of what the buyer needs, and then sells a corresponding “solution”.

“It’s a mutually shared answer to a recognized problem, and the answer provides measurable improvement.”

— Keith M. Eades, Founder of Sales Performance International

Some of the more prominent solution based sales methodologies include:

  • SPIN – in which the seller firsts asks questions designed to establish the Situation, then to highlight the Problem, then to highlight the Implications of not solving that problem, and finally to highlight the value of the Need being met via the solution that the seller is offering.
  • MEDDIC – The MEDDIC sales process serves as a simple checklist for your sale (Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Identify Pain, Champion). As you discover more about your customer, you’ll know whether they’re a worthwhile investment of your time.
  • Conceptual Selling – the seller asks a range of questions (questions to reassure, questions to explore new territory, questions to establish the buyers attitude and questions to gain commitment) to help the buyer work out for themselves what it is that they need.
  • SNAP – SNAP positions itself as the answer to today’s busy world where customers have huge quantities of information but less time than ever to digest it, as the seller delivers helps the buyer to arrive at the solution as quickly and clearly as possible (Simplicity, being iNvaluable, Alignment and Prioritise).
  • NEAT – yep, another acronym essentially acting as a simple checklist. This time standing for Need, Economic Impact, Access to Authority and Timeline. Very similar to the more commonly known BANT.

The common theme with all of these methodologies is that they use questions to build rapport and enable the buyer to build up a picture in their mind of the solution they need.

The largest solution sales training organisation in the world is Sandler.


The Sandler Model

First developed in 1967, the Sandler methodology once again uses questions to help the buyer arrive at the desired solution. However, what really distinguishes the Sandler model is its desire to redress the balance between seller and buyer.

  • In the Sandler sales model, the seller spends more time qualifying than they do closing.
  • If the solution is not right for the buyer or the buyer isn’t ready to buy, the seller doesn’t push it. It’s about getting to a point of mutual commitment.
  • No demos or presentations are used in the initial meeting. Instead, the seller asks a large number of questions to determine what is required, whether or not they are a good fit for one another and whether the buyer has the authority to take action.
  • The seller’s goal is to facilitate a detailed conversation about both the technical problems at hand, and also the business implications of those problems.
  • Through asking these questions the seller is able to develop a level of rapport with the customer (as Dale Carnegie taught us 80 years ago, there’s no better way of getting someone to like you than by getting them to talk about themselves!) with the aim of being viewed as a trusted advisor. Relationships and rapport are key throughout the sales process and in the follow up.


“You can’t sell anyone anything, they must discover that they want it.”

David Sandler


The Challenger Sale

While each of the solution sales methodologies offered a unique approach, they were fundamentally all connected by their use of questions to lead the buyer to the solution being offered by the seller.

In 2011, that all changed.

Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson, and their colleagues at CEB Inc published a book called The Challenger in which they argued that to sell complex business-to-business solutions, salespeople needed to radically rethink their approach.

CEB based their findings on research conducted across 6,000 sales people, who they categorised into the following groups

  • The hard worker – self motivated, interested in receiving lots of feedback
  • The lone wolf – follows instincts, self confident, difficult to manage but gets results
  • The relationship builder – classic solution seller. Builds relationships and consensus
  • The problem solver – detail orientated and great at solving problems but more focused on existing customers than getting the next deal in
  • The challenger – loves to debate, has different views, strong understanding of both the product and the customer’s world

In complex sales environments it was shown consistently that the challenger profile most likely to be a top performer, while the relationship builder was least likely. A finding that caused a great deal of upset among the sales training community, largely due to misinterpretation (which we’ll come back to later).

So what are the characteristics of a challenger?

  • They offer a unique perspective to the customer based on deep insight
  • They possess strong two way communication skills
  • They know the individual customer’s key drivers
  • They know the key drivers of the customer’s business
  • They are comfortable discussing money
  • They are comfortable creating tension and applying pressure to the customer

Or to compress this further, they are able to:

  • Teach the customer something new and valuable – this is the most important aspect of it.
  • Tailor their sales pitch.
  • Take control of the discussions around pricing – this is the most challenging part, and can only really come from the first…

The challenger doesn’t lead with open questions. Instead they work through the following process:

  • The warmer – show credibility and that you understand their world (I work with lots of your competitors…) and their challenges.
  • The reframe – connect those challenges to a bigger problem or opportunity that they hadn’t previously considered. This is where you dislodge their existing way of thinking and open up a gap for a conversation.
  • Rational drowning – then flood them with data and examples so that they can’t contest the notion that they need to think differently.
  • Emotional impact – Then find an emotional touch point based on that problem/opportunity.
  • A new way – introduce a solution to the problem.
  • Your solution – explain why your version of this solution is the best.

If we compare this to the Sandler model – a classic example of solution selling – we can immediately see the differences:

  • Sandler talks less and asks more questions to help the buyer arrive at a solution.
  • The challenger is more confrontational – they ask fewer questions as they believe the customer already has enough information to build their own solution and so if you merely ask questions you are going to end up in a bidding war against other providers with no point of difference.
  • The challenger therefore believes you either need to capture their attention before they’ve begun the buying process (something the Sandler seller would never do!) or dislodge their preconceptions about what they need so you are positioned distinctively from the rest of the market and don’t have to compete on price.
  • In short, the challenger seller leads where the solution seller follows.

If CEB were right and this is the most effective way to drive sales without compromising on price, then how did Sandler and all the other solution methodologies get it all so wrong?

The truth is that the creators of The Challenger aren’t suggesting that Solution Selling didn’t once make sense, but rather that things have changed. Information is more accessible now – through peer networks, research organisations and, in particular, the internet. They claim that on average the customer doesn’t contact the sales person until they’re 57% through their journey, by which point they have already formed a sense of what they need, what they will likely have to pay, and even who they may want to work with.

Therefore, to the challenger, it isn’t enough to merely know their customer’s world, they must know it even better than their customer so that they can dislodge their preconceptions and shift them on to the unique value offered by the challenger’s insight.

This isn’t just about the first sale but about repeat business. They argue that the key driver of customer loyalty is no longer brand loyalty, value or even product. They argue that it is the ongoing sales experience and, in particular, the unique insight provided by the sales person throughout that experience.


A Common Misconception

The Challenger was a stroke of marketing genius. By positioning itself seemingly at such odds with the bulk of the industry, it immediately made itself known, largely because so many took issue with it.

Perhaps the greatest objection towards The Challenger is the notion that relationships don’t matter. On the surface that’s what the book appears to suggest and it flies in the face of everything sales training has taught for nearly half a century.

This was brilliant marketing, but actually when you dig into more detail, you realise that they’re not saying that at all. They are very clear that trust and personal relationships will always matter and explicitly state that a successful challenger needs advanced two way communication skills. Nobody does business with someone they don’t like (certainly not twice!) and if you are operating in a limited customer universe where most of the key decision makers know one another, then personal relationships are critical to strategic networking.

What the book actually said was that reps for whom personal relationships were the dominant characteristic, were unlikely to be a top performer. The best challengers are strong relationship builders, but that is not their defining feature. Their defining feature is their combination of skills –  they are able to combine great two way communication with an ability to lead with insight and a willingness to apply pressure when required.

In other words, the challenger rep doesn’t see the relationship as the end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. And ironically, in the long term they build some of the strongest relationships as they are able to combine great people skills with real commercial value to that customer, through their unique insight.

This hypothesis supports research we conducted several years ago in which we surveyed senior decision makers on the factors that would most influence their decision to purchase. The response was overwhelming. The two factors that drove their decision above everything else was whether or not the person they were dealing with understood their market and whether they were able to offer commercial insight. The other stuff – trust, personal relationships, technical expertise – were all seen as hygiene factors (a reason NOT to work with someone), and price came right at the bottom.


Aligning Sales & Marketing

One of the most powerful features of the challenger model is how it highlights the need for alignment between sales and marketing – marketing must serve as an insight generation machine so that your sales team have a core group of market or industry insights, that they can then combine with their own research into the specific customer they are targeting (and the close competitors of that customer!).

The Challenger explains that these marketing insights must:

  • Lead to your unique strengths – sales decks should begin with insight and finish with USPs
  • Challenge customers assumptions
  • Catalyze action – show why the “pain of same is worse than the pain of change”
  • Scale across customers


Insight + EQ

When The Challenger heralded the end of solution selling, there was a fierce and immediate backlash. Sales professionals from around the world took great issue with the notion that they had failed to adapt to the modern buyer. However, as discussed, much of this was a misunderstanding, and one that the authors of The Challenger were only too pleased to see as it served to inflate awareness of the book.

The best sales people will bring together different skills. They will have the insight to demonstrate need and value to any prospect in their customer universe, and the people skills to remove barriers and develop profitable long term relationships.

As Falon Fatemi wrote in Forbes, “The bleeding edge of insights selling occurs when insight selling is coupled with emotional intelligence. 79% of business buyers say it’s absolutely critical or very important that they interact with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor (according to Salesforce). The winners of the future will marry insights and EQ.”

In summary, I believe there are three components to a great modern sales rep:

  1. High emotional intelligence – They have a deep and genuine interest in others. Just as the Sandler model advocated, they ask lots of questions and build rapport by making the other person feel important. The kind of person that walks into a restaurant and comes out knowing the names and backgrounds of every member of staff. That genuine interest in others is an asset that should never be underestimated.
  2. An eagerness to learn and an ability to assimilate and organise information – for this high performer to lead with insight and tailor the solution to the exact requirements of the customer, they need the organisational skills and discipline to collect the necessary information about the customer’s world and combine that with the insight they are provided by marketing. For the modern sales rep, every day is a school day.
  3. Commercialism – Sandler taught us the importance of never forcing the sale but rather maintaining parity between the buyer and seller. The challenger goes a step further and suggests that the sales person should be actively seeking tension. This can only come from an inner confidence and instinctive awareness of the value of one’s time.

So where do you find these unicorns? Needless to say it can take some work and the recruitment process has to be structured with these specific characteristics in mind, but they are worth it – their value to a business can be transformative at both a commercial and strategic level.

By definition, they know what they’re worth, so if possible try to find them early, just as they’re starting out on their steep trajectory to sales stardom. And best of all, these people learn quickly, so you’ll know within weeks if your unicorn was in fact just a donkey with a horn glued to its head.

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