Great Salespeople Think Like Entrepreneurs, Part 2

Brian Williams, PhD

 In our last post we began to share insights from Brevet’s research into high-performing solutions sales reps. For years companies have tried to find the secret to effective solution selling, but the results have been mixed at best. New organization structure, metrics, comp plan, roles – firms have tweaked nearly all of the sales management levers to make the solution model work. We believe these items are necessary, but not sufficient conditions. 

Our work on this topic has focused on cognitive science and what scientists have learned about effective problem solving. Using this perspective, research by Brevet finds that sales reps who excel in selling solutions have a special way of thinking about customer problems. Where others might take a prospect’s word on what they need, high-performing solution reps see situations differently. These reps have unique cognitive abilities that make them especially good at recognizing opportunities to improve a customer’s business. Literally, the brains of highly effective solution reps are wired differently. They discover, evaluate, and leverage resource gaps better than most. 

It turns out this approach is remarkably similar to what scholars have learned about successful entrepreneurs. Great entrepreneurs aren’t conventional thinkers. They effectively detect new patterns, solve unique problems, and develop novel responses to changing environments. We believe this entrepreneurial mindset and way of working is critical for effective solution selling.

Our study in this area finds that the entrepreneur’s effort to identify and exploit marketplace opportunities parallels the activities of a successful solutions salesperson in three critical ways: 1) accurately identifying the customer’s issue, 2) configuring the right solution, and 3) defining the solution’s value proposition. In this post, we’ll focus on the problem identification or discovery phase of the sale.

Nearly all sales training preaches the importance of this stage, but beyond loading up reps with long lists of questions to use with prospects, what do we really know what good discovery in complex solutions selling looks like? One hint: there’s more to it than simply telling your reps to be a “challenger”.

Obviously solutions salespeople need to invest a lot of time and effort understanding a prospect’s business and identifying an underlying problem. But for high-performing reps, this process is taken to another level. They go well beyond simply identifying the types of products or services the customer requires. 

Like entrepreneurs, effective reps are curious. They pursue a deeper and broader awareness of their customer’s internal workings, significant market events, and their prospect’s position in the wider market. These salespeople work hard to develop an accurate projection of where both the market and customer are headed. Just like the mindset of successful entrepreneurs, successful solutions sales reps are highly sensitive to changes in customer and market patterns. They excel at the discovery because they devote more time and engage in a deeper analysis of the presenting issue. 

Economist believe successful entrepreneurs are great “resource managers” – they find and exploit gaps or mismatches in how resources (time, money, focus) are used. In the same way, the mind of successful solutions reps is focused on understanding opportunities to better allocate their prospect’s resources to achieve better business results.

A big part of this discovery phase is making sure the customer is addressing the right issue. High-performing solution reps are obsessed with uncovering and defining the real problem affecting their prospects. This work isn’t easy. It includes helping buyers articulate their fundamental problem as well as evaluating possible response options. Some of these options may or may not be addressed with products or services provided by the sales rep’s firm.

Our research finds that while buyers of complex solutions typically express a specific need or problem to solve to their reps, some 70% of these buyers have it wrong. They feel the pain, but they either don’t know what to do about it. Or worse, customers want to do something that won’t really help. It probably comes as no surprise to many reps that what buyers need may be something altogether different than what they asked for. The requirements definition effort involves significant and often delicate work to accurately define the problem and possible solution. Again, this aspect of solutions sales is akin to the discovery element of entrepreneurial cognition.

Just as being a successful entrepreneur is a rare feat, effectively selling complex solutions is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s sales organizations. In future posts we’ll talk more about what reps can learn from successful entrepreneurs, especially when they configure their proposed solution and when they articulate its value proposition.

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.