Solution Selling Is Dead: Why This is the Year of B2B Insight Selling

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Matt Dixon, author of The Challenger Sale, and Steve Richard, co-founder of Vorsight explain why insight selling is the name of the game in B2B sales, and provide tips for converting your salespeople into challengers.

solution selling is dead - 2013 is the year of insight selling

Many B2B sales managers and executives assume that things like customer relationship building and a solution sales-based strategy are the key to B2B sales success. Unfortunately, those people are mostly wrong.

The reason? According to CEB executive director Matt Dixon, author of the The Challenger Sale, relationships and solution-based pitches are far less relevant in the information age. Today, rather than relying on B2B sellers to perform a needs diagnosis and problem assessment for them, B2B buyers are doing much of that research themselves. And while relationships still matter, the currency of what constitutes a valued relationship has changed dramatically.

As a result, Dixon explains, B2B sales has devolved into little more than a price war. And if your sales team isn’t comprised of salespeople who are willing to challenge buyers’ perceptions and deliver fresh insight that they haven’t yet considered, it’s a war that your company may very well lose.

In this roundtable interview, Dixon joins fellow B2B sales expert Steve Richard, co-founder of sales consultancy Vorsight, to define “challenger sales,” talk about why insight selling – not solution selling – reigns supreme in B2B sales, and share tips for converting customer-centric salespeople into thought-provoking challengers.

OpenView: Can you give us a quick overview of what “challenger sales” is all about?

Matt-DixonMatt Dixon: I think it’s important to start with what prompted the transition from solution selling to insight selling in the first place. There are a lot of ancillary causes, but the obvious culprit is the sheer volume of information that buyers have access to today.

By the time the average B2B customer reaches out to a company or is contacted by a sales rep, that customer’s purchase decision is almost over. They’ve started to benchmark price and develop a list of detailed capabilities. Essentially, those customers have done the work that salespeople have long been trained to do for them.

Ultimately, that’s made B2B selling more of a fulfillment process than anything else.

Steve Richard of VorsightSteve Richard: Unless, of course, those salespeople fit the challenger sales persona. Those types of salespeople have figured out that B2B sales is now all about not just engaging customers where they’re buying, but where they’re learning, as well.


MD: That’s exactly right. One thing that we found in the challenger research for CEB’s membership is that the best salespeople are engaging customers where and how they learn – social media, social groups, web forums, online communities, blogs, etc. Doing that allows salespeople to position themselves as sources of unique insight, and gives them the opportunity to assertively challenge what customers think they know.

Article continues on the next page: Core Characteristics of Challenger Salespeople



  • marty tascona

    What I find interesting is that regardless of the supposed advances in sales technology, techniques, and training, the single biggest change in the market is the NoDEC or no decision rate, up nearly 10%. The buyers are presumably more capable, informed, educated, etc…. yet are particularly hamstrung in their decision making. This may be a function of perceived career risk if an error is made, of possibly a subset of engaging vendors so late in an abbreviated process.

    By engaging towards the end, these same buyers invite vendors to show up, and throw up, meaning engage in presentation focused selling. True solution selling is consultative in nature, and it takes time to truly understand the symptoms, problems, reactions, and consequences of any action in a corporation. That takes time, trust, and effort. When that effort is not forthcoming by a company presumably with a problem to solve, then vendor beware. You are probably not dealing with a company invested enough in solving the problem. Punt!

    Solution sellers that do not consult effectively lose. Mature over supplied markets do not tolerate mediocrity for long.

    Those that know how to ferret out the ‘truth’ of a situation have a chance, truth being a relative term at best.

    Back in point though, the ability to ask good, tough, timely questions is at the core of effective consultative selling. Leading back to some fundamentals about preparation and an understanding of human nature. I believe that Questions that create uncertainty are the best questions, and to ask them, you need to know your prospect, their plight/problem space, and be able to recognize the limits of their understanding (if any), or commitment to some sacred cows / keystone beliefs. Our old friend NIH or Not Invented Here kills many good ideas, from the outside or the inside. Reframing an executive’s perspective is itself challenging, high level work, assuming you can get past issues of ego. Do-able, but challenging nonetheless.

    In short, no matter what you call it, the bar has indeed been raised.

    • SD&P

      Some excellent points. My take is that “solution selling” is being somewhat oversimplified to make way for the new buzz word: that is “insight selling.” For example, the notion that solution selling involves merely asking questions to uncover prevously customer-dicovered needs is grossly understated. Top consultative sellers know that a key sales action involves in learning about the prospect’s business and industry and based on the organization’s needs AND “business objectives,” provide meaningful insights on how a particular solution might help solve a problem or accelerate the prospect in achieving their objectives. Because of how larger business are organized, top-level strategic objectives often are “disconnected” from potential solutions that can advance those strategies. Professional sales consultants play a vital role in connecting these dots for their clients. Don’t get me wrong, some of the paradigm shifts outlined in insight selling are real and some enterprises certainly are more informed of their problems via having access to vasts amounts of information. But that is really an “emerging” trend that does not apply everywhere and certainly not to all selling offerings.

      Solution or Consultative sellers have longed engaged prospects with new, though-provoking ideas that drove sales solutions. My sense is that there aren’t enough of these sophisticated organizations (who have figured out their problems to the degree of 60% of the potential solutions that are available), to come anywhere close to salespeople meeting their revenue goals. Just like the transition from transactional to solution selling must be taken with great care, insight selling is a good topic to think about and incorporate its elements as required in the sales environment, but I would not recommend doing a hard stop of the current sales process. Every salesperson must understand their industry and each of their customer’s unique needs, approaches and buying criterian.

  • Great conversation, gents! Certainly addresses some of the key points that people have been clamoring about. People get so emotionally polarized on this issue, and I simply don’t get that.

    Matt, I think some of that polarization, however, is because of the either/or stance that the CEB communicates.

    For example, I don’t get why Solution Selling has to be dead for Insight Selling to be viable? If you think across all of the sales nuances (B2B, B2C, long-cycle, short-cycle, high-ticket, low-ticket, etc.), and all of the various situations that reps find themselves in, are you really suggesting that Insight Selling is the *only* way to effectively win business and serve prospects and clients? I’d be curious to hear your viewpoint on that.

    I think the challenge with those of us who proffer sales advice is that we get our favored-solution blinders on and forget that the real-world is much more complex.

    To be clear to readers, I do *not* intend that as a slam on Matt or the CEB, I mean it as a generalized statement. I do think it applies here, though, when you continue to reference the death of Solution Selling. (Especially without clearly defining what exactly we mean by it – which might help. Do you mean the specific methodology… an attack on SPI’s view of selling? Or a generic use of the term? I probably missed this somewhere – if so, please feel free to point it out.)

    To me, a great craftsman always uses the right tool for the job. And that is rarely the same tool. It’s situational, right?

    In any case, I look forward to your thoughts and encourage you to keep the research and communication going. I’m fascinated to hear how the ongoing frontline execution goes, and what you learn through more experience in the
    field, in various industry, and various sales nuances.


    • Charles Hoff

      I couldn’t agree more Mike. Its not an either or situation. A good salesman adapts to changes in the marketplace, adding new tools to his toolbox.

  • Mike & Marty,

    Great points. Insight Selling is a sub category of Solution Selling in many regards. The question is if you can help someone discover a problem that they didn’t even realize they had 10 minutes ago. That’s how you become an insight salesperson. With B2B buyers so well informed, the B2B salesperson can now only trade on 3 things: insight, information, and expertise.

    So we are all saying the same thing in many respects. But how interesting would the article be if it didn’t stir up some controversy? Insight Selling: sub category of Solution Selling = lame title for blog.

  • The point about preparation is key. The web goes both ways and much can be learned via effective pre-call planning and research to make sure not only that you are not wasting the prospects time, but your time either. Is this prospect a good fit for you and your company? If not, move on. Marty raises a great point on the ND decision. IMO, this is more frustrating than battling competitors in the “searching for alternatives” stage.

  • Derren

    Insight selling seems similar to what “Mastering The Complex Sale” calls ERA 3 selling: 90% of sales are won during the Dx phase; prospects buy from sales people that ask the best question and elevate thinking; many prospects don’t understand their problem so you can ask them questions all day long with the likely result a dry-run or ND; because of complexity you have to educate propsects on their problem – diplomatically. Sounds like Insight selling to me. Although I like Insight’s emphasis on research.

    Does anyone know a good book that focuses on pre-call research methods? The www of course but what sites are best – process, apps, etc……

  • Good read – very interesting. The key is to constantly update your sales benchmark to ensure you are hiring and retaining top performers.

    Always analyze sales reps in conjunction with sales performance to generate a profile of your top performers, otherwise you’re only getting half the picture.

  • At Vorsight we use a term called 3×3 Research (sometimes called 3 in 3 Research) that describes how to best do pre-call research. By call I’m referring to the cold or warm call and not the first scheduled sales call. For the unscheduled call you need to do research fast. You need to find 3 key points on the company and contact in 3 minutes of research. You can’t research all day (the librarian) and you can’t just shoot from the hip with no research (the cowboy). 3×3 Research instructs your sales reps on the right stuff to research, the right amount of time to research, and how to use the research. I’ve included a link to a webinar that goes into more details on using 3×3 Research and forming a Hypothesis of Need (both Vorsight terms).

  • Dennis Willis

    Great. Thanks. Shines the light forward in sales evolution.

  • Matt talks about the need for active support from marketing for organisations to fully implement “Challenger Thinking”. In our experience this is one of the critical foundations for implementing “The Challenger Sale” and realising the full potential of the approach. It certainly requires that sales and marketing collaborate closely in facilitating the buying decision process.

    Relevant, thought-provoking contant is clearly a part of the equation. But the content needs to be interconnected – it needs to lead the prospect on a journey that is directed towards the vendor’s particular capabilities in addressing the highlighted issue(s), and in helping the prospect acknowledge the need for change.

    Marketers need to develop connected, thematically-related content that supports the start, middle and end of the buying decision process. Marketing can also help lubricate the sales conversation by developing and sharing sales conversation planners, stories and anecdotes that can give direction and credibility to the discussion.

    Challenger Selling is a team sport. Simply having only the right sales personalities on board (even if that could be achieved) is just part of the process. It also requires a new mindset from marketing.