New research finds it's outcomes-not solutions-that sell

Key for sales success in this new world is adopting a customer-centric mindset

Published: May 30, 2019

g_116753_selling_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

The B2B sales routine used to go like this: A prospective customer would describe the challenge s/he faced. The sales rep would look at his/her company’s current offerings and present a solution to solve it. 

But in the past decade or so, the buying process has changed. So too, must the sales process.

Today, prospective customers have far more opportunities to assess their own needs and identify the companies that can help address them. Key for sales success in this new world is adopting a customer-centric mindset. (And yes, that goes for businesses that sell to other businesses (B2B) as well as those that sell to consumers; B2B companies have benefited as much from broad transformation of their customer-experience processes as B2C companies have, according to McKinsey.)

Focusing on Outcomes, Not Solutions

Three colleagues and I published research on this topic, the 2018 Q2 Survey on B2B Customer Outcomes. My colleagues in this work are practitioners from State Street in Boston, Avnet in Phoenix, and Type 2 Consulting in NYC. Among our findings: “As the B2B environment becomes more dynamic and demanding, enterprise customers want their suppliers to stop selling prepackaged ‘solutions’ and actively contribute to their commercial success.” 

Things are changing, but slowly. Our survey of 640 business managers reveals that most companies claim their mission is to make their customers more successful. However, as my colleagues and I reflected in Selling Solutions Isn’t Enough, published in the Fall 2018 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, most companies’ internal processes and goals remain more focused on sales than customer value.

My co-authors and I suggest that B2B companies move away from a solutions mindset in favor of identifying and delivering the “business outcomes” that customers want. A focus on selling solutions has led to the definition of a valuable customer being skewed toward the value extracted from that customer rather than the value generated for that customer.

We’ve observed that when prompted, B2B customers define their desired outcomes in widely different ways. Beyond the obvious financial metrics of revenue growth and profits, B2B customers value these leading indicators of future business performance:

  • Delivering a better experience to buyers
  • Fostering a more vibrant internal culture 
  • Achieving efficiencies, or revamping the company’s reputation

This concept – that B2B companies are in business to make their customers more successful – requires salespeople to focus on their customers’ customers.

A New Role for Sales

An often-quoted B2B sales study from 2012 revealed that prospective customers complete nearly 60 percent of a typical purchasing decision – researching and ranking options, reviewing requirements, benchmarking pricing – before they even make contact with a supplier. Six years later, we know that two-thirds of today’s business buyers would prefer to research on their own and report that they are able to develop selection criteria or finalize a vendor list based solely on digital content.

In other words, today’s business buyer is a more engaged and active participant in the selling process. And sales reps are no longer the buyer’s primary source of influence. This shift means the job of marketing has become more important in guiding the buyer through the purchase journey, especially in the discovery phase. It also means that the role and the composition of the sales team needs to be reevaluated.

No one wants to buy your solution. Your customers don’t care about their value to your bottom line. They care about their business – their products, services, solutions and what they can do for their own customers. So an outcome-oriented, or customer-centric, sales team is concerned about how they can help their customers deliver better products, services, and solutions – better outcomes – for their own customers.

One way sales teams show customer centricity is by collaborating with customers even before the sales process begins to enable them to better understand their industry, the competitive dynamics they face, and ultimately to help them articulate quantitative and qualitative business objectives that are achievable and make good sense for their organization. As my co-authors and I conclude, “Companies that develop an outcomes-based approach will be able to collaborate more directly with their customers and take on shared responsibility for creating greater, and more sustainable, value. When their customers win, they will also win.”

Richard Ettenson is professor and Thelma H. Keickhefer Fellow of Global Marketing and Brand Strategy in the global business faculty at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. His areas of expertise include helping companies align their business, marketing, and brand strategies to create value for customers, employees and shareholders. He is also a senior partner in Type 2 Consulting, a NYC-based business strategy and brand consultancy.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management https://thunderbird.asu.edu/knowledge-network/]

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