More than a decade ago, companies shifted from the sale of single products to combinations of goods, services, and intellectual property – the ubiquitous and often misused term solutions. In an ideal world, solutions enable companies to integrate a range of capabilities and assets to address the unique needs of buyers. Sounds good on paper, but as all too many firms have learned, hard to pull off. Let’s face it, even a below average sales rep can close a standard product deal every once and a while. But in complex solutions selling, your highest performing rep will be tested.
So what makes a great solutions sales rep? How can we separate the good from the hopeless? This is a question many of us have struggled with for years as we’ve seen client after client and rep after rep fail when confronted with a new solutions sales model. A quick Google search confirms there’s a lot of stress and noise on the topic, but little clarity.
Brevet began serious research into this issue more than five years ago* and our work continues today. Our findings reveal some intriguing insight into high-performing solution sales reps. At the heart of our research is the idea that reps who excel in selling complex solutions have a different way of thinking about customer problems. Specifically, the brains of effective solution reps process information and problem solve in unique ways. These reps have powerful opportunity recognition capabilities that are laser-focused on finding improved ways of doing things. Where others might simply take a prospect’s word on what they need, high-performing solution reps see situations differently.
It turns out this sort of opportunity recognition ability is just the kind of thing that makes great entrepreneurs. The field of entrepreneurship has received an increasing amount of focus by psychologists and business school faculty in recent years. These scholars have come to define entrepreneurship as the process of introducing something new into the market in response to a resource mismatch.
Dust off your old Economics 101 textbook and you’ll likely be reminded of Joseph Schumpeter, the pioneering Austrian economist. Schumpeter characterized entrepreneurship as simply the carrying out of new resource combinations. Another scholar eloquently put it this way: the entrepreneur recognizes the “possibilities of escape from what might otherwise appear to be incomprehensible, or from what might otherwise appear to us to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world.”**
In short, great entrepreneurs are successful because they have the ability to uncover opportunities, situations where resources might be creatively deployed in a more efficient or effective manner. We all have a friend or a relative who always has a good idea. But entrepreneurial opportunities are more than just good ideas. Ideas become true opportunities when the entrepreneur discovers or creates a way for the idea to be commercially viable or create economic value.
Does this sort of mindset sound like it could be helpful to solution sales reps? Well, of course it should. Good reps don’t just take what the prospect says about their problem at face value. They probe, question, explore. They think about how to help their customers address their issues and exploit opportunities in new ways or, as Schumpeter phrased it, via new resource combinations. They focus on the “possibilities of escape” from conventional thinking.
In our next post we’ll talk more about how this understanding of the successful entrepreneurial approach can help us identify and enable reps with the potential to be effective solution sellers.
* Previous findings from this research program were published in the European Journal of Marketing, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal focused on the scientific study of marketing and sales.
** Lee Thayer, “Leadership/Communication: A Critical Review and a Modest Proposal,” in Handbook of Organizational Communication, 1988