How To Sell Online
Sales has changed in the past few years. It’s changed quite a bit, to be honest.
I’ve sold (a heckuvalot) without ever knocking on a door, sticking my foot in said door, or scribbling figures on a legal pad in front of a customer.
Advertisers and sales professionals alike have changed and are changing.
One such change is in the area of sales methodology — from selling solutions to selling benefits. It has profound implications for conversion optimization. Read this article and follow my suggestions, and your conversion rates will grow.
What’s changing? Solutions vs. Benefits.
There are many sales techniques and methodologies. Here’s Wikipedia’s list of sales methods:
- Cold calling
- Consultative selling
- Direct selling
- Guaranteed sale
- Needs-based selling
- Persuasive selling
- Hard selling
- Heart selling
- Price-based selling
- Relationship Selling
- Target-account selling
- Solution selling
- Sandler Selling System
- Challenger Sales Model
- Action Selling
- Open source
- Giving away for free
No one uses all those methods. There is currently one method that is largely praised, broadly practiced and highly promoted as the best method of all — solution selling.
What is Solution Selling?
Also known as “conceptual selling,” this method assumes that the customer buys a solution, or at least their concept of that solution. The salesperson first determines what the customer wants by asking them questions. Once the salesperson finds out the problem or pain point, he develops a solution, and makes a sale.
Solution selling doesn’t talk much about the product in the early stages of the sale. In fact, all throughout the sales process, the product is downplayed. It is only grudgingly presented as a tool that will help to alleviate the customer’s pain. It sells by virtue of its solution.
Legendary sales professional Mike Bosworth is often regarded as the father of solution selling. His approach is built on “the power of story and connective listening to build trust with and influence change in others.”
(Image from Mike Bosworth Leadership)
HubSpot describes solution selling in terms of its emphasis — on the customer, not the product.
Notice that the emphasis is on what the potential customer wants and needs, not what you want and need from the potential customer.
HubSpot prefers to call it “consultative” rather than “solution,” to focus on the interaction with the customer in the process.
Sales Performance International also describes solution selling, a term they actually trademarked, as a relationship with and knowledge of the buyer — an “acute understanding of the evolved buyer.”
Solution selling is the predominant form of sales today.
Solution selling is one of the most influential sales methods of all time. According to a LinkedIn article by Sue Barrett,
Since the 1968-1980 period, the most revolutionary process in selling ... is Solutions Selling.
Solution selling was first devised as a B2B technique. For the seller, the process was to listen and learn from the customer. The customer, in turn, would open himself up to learn from the seller, discover a solution, and then buy it.
Barrett calls solution selling the “real next revolution in selling.” Although it is solution-centric, it is also customer-centric. Instead of forcing a product down a customer’s throat, the solution approach seeks to understand the customer, and then propose the solution.
Solution selling is at the heart of the IT industry. Tiffani Bova, VP and distinguished analyst for Gartner Research, writes that “the Future of IT sales” is that “everyone sells ‘solutions.’”
For many companies, software would cease to be software if it weren't somehow solution-focused.
The broad idea of solution selling has defined the entire sales processes for many organizations and spawned a huge variety of iterations and variations.
One company creatively diagrammed their solution-focused sales process as a house.
Their “solution” verbiage is “results” — a term that captures the attention of their target audience.
The “typical sales process” as outlined by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, looks like this:
Right there at the crux of the issue is the “solution,” assumed to constitute the sale.
Microsoft has long used the solution selling process to push their products.
We’ve become accustomed to “solutions” being part of sales verbiage. Some companies even use the word “solutions” in their company name.
In spite of its glittering glory, its rampant popularity and its seemingly endless application, solution selling is defunct.
Solution Selling is dead.
Hate to say it, but solution selling is dead and/or dying.
In its place is benefit selling.
The first naysayers regarding solution selling were a trio of sales researchers and executives who declared in Harvard Business Review, “The End of Solution Sales.” Their announcement seemed apocalyptic to sales professionals like Neil Rackham, author of SPIN selling, who opined, “The Armageddon approach to sales doesn't help anyone."
“Armageddon” seems a bit of an overreaction, but Harvard’s release of the findings did cause quite a stir.
The authors of the HBR article wrote:
“Owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves."
In other words, customers know their own solutions. They don’t need to be sold solutions, and they don’t even have the patience to listen to those solutions.
The article traced a brief history of what has been successful. “Under the conventional solution-selling method that has prevailed since the 1980s, salespeople are trained to align a solution with an acknowledged customer need and demonstrate why it is better than the competition’s.”
But times, they are a changin’. “Customers have radically departed from the old ways of buying, and sales leaders are increasingly finding that their staffs are relegated to price-driven bake-offs.”
Let’s face it. Most customers who are shopping online:
- Know how to Google stuff.
- Are able to read.
- Are able to research.
- Are present on social media.
- Know how to find answers to their questions.
In other words, customers can Google the right queries, read what they find, do some more research, listen in on the social media discussion, and come up with their own solution to the problems they are facing.
They don’t need to be sold on the “answer.” They’ve already figured it out.
Solution selling still pushes the product; it just does it under the guise of “collaboration.” Just because you listen to a customer doesn’t mean that you’re going to create a tailored solution.
Earlier in the article, I cited Tiffani Bova of Gartner research. She takes a shot at solution selling with this statement: “Fact is, for many IT vendors, ‘solution’ is just another name for a product. ... The clear disconnect between what solutions actually mean to a provider versus a customer seems to be getting wider.”
She’s right. How does a collaborative selling environment actually change the solution? Most of the time, it doesn’t change a thing.
A sheen of “listening” followed by a push for the product isn't a solution. That’s just sales, no solution required.
So what now takes the place of the defunct solution selling? It’s benefit selling. Instead of trying to push your solution, you push benefits.
The Advantages of Benefits Selling
Benefits selling assumes that the buyer knows what they are looking for, that they are competent and that they are knowledgeable.
The customer has performed their research, found their solution, and is ready to buy — once they find a solution that has the right benefits.
In this way, benefits selling places more real trust in the customer.
Solution selling declared the preeminence of the buyer, but often used it as a front. Even though the process was collaborative, the ‘solution’ was pretty formulaic.
Benefits selling has a greater degree of confidence in the buyer’s competency.
Sales Performance International, the company that trademarked “Solution Selling” appears to have faltered on this point. They glibly compliment buyers by describing them in the following way:
What has changed is the profile of today’s buyer. They are now an informed, educated buyer who is comfortable using technology and social media to guide themselves through their buying process. This informed buyer not only expects vendors to add tremendous value but they expect the seller to accommodate a more complex buying environment.
They still perceive the customer as not knowing what solution they need, despite this buttered-up profile of a customer who is “informed,” “educated,” “comfortable using technology,” and “guid(ing) themselves.” What kind of buyer has intellectual credentials like that, but doesn’t even know what the right solution is?
A brief look around at the sales environment should show us that all the solutions we need are readily available, and only a Google query away. As long as you know what problem you’re facing, you can find a solution.
Let’s take a quick example. Let’s say you’re a small business owner, and you need more online storage.
- Step 1: Realize you have a problem — Need storage that is easily accessible. Need something secure. Need it to be totally online.
- Step 2: Have an idea of the solution — online storage.
- Step 3: Google it.
If you’re ready to buy, you can click an ad for “Secure, Fast & Easy on the P&L.” If you still want to do some research, you can read an article from Small Business Computing on the “10 Top Cloud Storage Services for SMBs,” or you can read about the “24 Cloud Storage Solutions for Small Businesses” from Business News Daily.
This is the process that most people follow when they are ready to buy.
Any company that is trying to sell you a solution at this point is merely wasting their time.
How to Apply Benefit Selling to Improve Online Conversions
I’ve taken some time to discuss sales, because if we change our approach, or method, we can fundamentally improve our conversion optimization. Now, I want to show you the solution, and how you can boost your conversions.
The solution for online conversions is obvious: Promote your benefits, not your solutions.
There are several specific ways to do this.
Assume the solution, but state it for the sake of reassurance.
It’s okay to state your solution; just don’t try to sell your solution.
Selling a solution is a waste of space, keywords, copy, time and, yes, indeed, life itself. However, your solution needs to be obvious enough to keep the user from bouncing. Mention your solution, but don’t emphasize it to death.
Even so, the solution is not front and center. It’s still the benefits. Potential customers know their solution, and they know the verbiage that they see in the headline. Now, all they need to hear about is the benefits.
Create landing pages that list the product’s benefits.
When you go to create the content for your landing page, you want to list and emphasize the product's or service’s benefits.
I’ll provide a couple of examples of this.
But that’s all. Just three words. Then, they go on to list benefits, lots of them.
It’s all about the benefits.
Feature customer testimonials that refer to these benefits.
You’ve probably seen Highrise’s landing pages. They are entirely benefit-focused, and the testimonials refer to all the benefits of the software.
Testimonials are one of the most important and powerful features in landing page creation and CRO. The way to make them even more powerful is by having your testimonials preach about the benefits of the product or service.
If you’ve been selling a solution, it’s time to stop. In its place, raise the flag of your benefits.
Selling solutions is like trying to persuade customers in an ice cream shop to buy some ice cream. “Can I interest you in some ice cream? It really beats the heat, and plus it tastes good. Come on. Go ahead. Try it.”
The customers are there, standing in your shop, because they already want to eat ice cream, duh! You don’t have to sell it.
Instead, you can sell them on flavors. “Look at these flavors! We’ve got bubble gum for the kids, praline for you, ma’am, and some Oreo ice cream for you, sir.”
Flavors are the benefits. That’s what you want to sell.
Reverse your strategy. Promote your benefits, and watch those conversion rates soar.