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Are You Selling a Solution or an Idea?— and Why the Distinction Matters a Lot

Because salespersons usually sell existing, familiar, tangible products and services, they’re often unaware that their successful selling techniques usually fail when the subject of the sale is an idea rather than a solution.  The “bigger” the idea, the harder it is to sell:  truly new ideas are rarely feasible, and feasible ideas are rarely new—  but your clients want it to work, right now.  Here are some thoughts on how to sell ideas.

In most consultative selling situations, the salesperson is presenting a true solution— i.e., a product or program that is practical and implementable now.  The selling strategy here usually involves two major elements:  persuasively showing how your (existing) offering genuinely meets this particular client’s needs, and working out the process of product customization, if necessary.

The game changes dramatically when “selling” an idea, e.g., suggesting new tactics or strategies; making clients aware of opportunistic business needs, etc.  Here, they’re far removed from immediately-feasible solutions— and they’ll likely inundate you with perceived flaws and gaps, even rejecting your idea out of hand.  Forestall this with these steps:

  • Clearly define your offering as an idea, not a solution (yet).  Make sure the client understands that it’s work-in-progress, whose potential makes it worth the effort.
  • Tell the client you’ll need his/her help to refine and evolve the idea into a workable solution.  Make this a partnership collaboration, not a seller/buyer transaction.
  • Present the positives of the idea first; showing how it breaks new ground in meeting the clients needs.  Invite the client to add to the list of positives (thus acquiring a degree of “ownership” at the outset).
  • Next, freely volunteer the idea’s negatives, if you perceive any.  Invite the client to add to the list of negatives, too.  Ask the client to prioritize his/her concerns.
  •  Agree on the mechanics of the idea-evaluation meeting.  Can this group go to solution here and now, or should others also be involved, at another time and place, etc.?  Is this necessarily a series of steps?
  • Idea Evaluation:  Starting with the most worrisome negative, redefine each obstacle as a task to be accomplished.  An example: “We don’t have the staffing to handle this” becomes, “Find ways to implement this without creating staffing problems.”  Use the group to generate ideas to accomplish each task.  (Lesser negatives tend to evaporate as the key concerns are resolved.)
  • Be sure to agree on tangible next steps— specific actions assigned to individuals, with precise due dates.  Your idea has been successfully launched; now gather some inertia and move it forwardtogether.

Existing solutions can often be sold immediately; not so with innovative ideas.  Your initial “sales goal” is to generate client enthusiasm and commitment to partner with you in the process of going from idea to solution.