Have You Provoked a Client Lately? – Part 2

In my last blog post I discussed the first major change in today’s selling word, the difficulty in reaching senior executives. In today’s post I’ll talk about the second major change, how traditional selling approaches (i.e. product-based selling or solution-based selling) have become obsolete.

Most of us know, at least intellectually, that product-based selling has not worked for years now. Having product specialists come in front of the new hire and present their products can only lead to selling failures. Guest what? Sales people are mimicking creatures. What they learn is what they will present to their prospects. So they will describe their offering, demo (poorly in most cases) their products, discuss pricing and purchasing processes, and wonder why the client did not buy. Oh well.

This is an old story no longer worth discussing.

Then there is the solution-based selling that many still talk about. The likes of Solution Selling®, Holden®, The Complex Sales®, Sandler® and many others still have some traction in the market place of selling. It is somewhat unfortunate that Chief Sales Officers still want to use 10, 15 or 25 year old selling techniques and technologies to address today’s market needs and demands. But habits, and sometimes proven results through mastered processes, are hard to combat.

That said, buyers’ behaviors have changed quite radically over the past 24 months. They source their information without ever talking to a sales person. They are developing their requirements, needs, and wants on their own, while surfing the web, reading white papers, talking to colleagues and other members of their professional and personal communities. They turn to trusted advisors, lawyers, accountants, existing consultants they use and like, bankers at times, and other third party sources to determine what solutions they should consider, whom they should talk with, and at times ask for introduction. So what are the sales executives, his (her) manager, and the Chief Sales Officer to do?

One possible option was described in a November 2009 article of the HBR and authored by Lay, Hewlin, and Moore, “In a Downturn, Provoke your Customers.” As much as I enjoyed this article and the author’s position, I have two rather important exceptions.

First, what does this article suggest? It brings forth a new definition in selling approaches: provocation-based selling.

Provocation-based selling helps customers see their competitive challenges in a new light that makes addressing specific, painful , problems unmistakably urgent. The vendor identifies a process that was critical for customers in the current business environment, develops a compelling point of view on how it is broken, and what that means in terms of cost, and then connects the problem to a solution that the vendor is offering. The delivery is by telling the customers what SHOULD keep them awake at night based on across industry discoveries of existing unmitigated risks in a comprehensive and integrated way. Underlying provocation-based selling is the idea that the vendor should help the customer find investment funds even when discretionary spending appears to have (at least temporarily) dried up.”

My first exception deals with their statement that provocation-based selling is applicable only in a downturn. I believe that is no longer the case. Provocation-based selling is applicable any time and under any circumstances, depending on the context of the engagement, the receptiveness of the target, and the maturity of the sales executive (senior or not) using this technique.

My second exception has to do with timing and organizational context. Before you can develop an organizational provocation-based selling approach to deal with acquiring new customers, your entire sales organization must have moved on and away from product-based and solution-based selling. It must have embraced in its core, in its system and behaviors, a true and rigorous customer-focused selling mentality and approach. It has to have understood that it is not selling products or services, and that attempting to impose solutions is in general misguided sales behaviors. It has to have realized and embraced that what it is selling is its members, the sales people, to a myriad of buyers, decision makers, and reviewers who have names and job titles with very specific critical goals to achieve, problems to solve, or needs to fulfill. Sales people have become, or must become, a trusted resource for the economic and business buyers. They need to help them navigate their buying cycle from confirming their requirements to proving that the solution they are considering can help them solve their challenges, meet their needs, or achieve their goals.

Provocation-based selling can only work after an organization and its sales people have completely and totally embraced and implemented a customer-focused selling approach with all its processes, behaviors, tools, and management framework.

Bringing this back to the original title, “Eat or Be Eaten – The Selling World has Changed,” the two major challenges I see in today’s selling world are an increased difficulty in reaching senior executives and using traditional methods and traditional selling approaches that are no longer valid. Two possible avenues to address these are pro-active, disciplined, and embraced referral-focused selling, and bringing one’s sales organization into the world of customer-focused selling, prior to using provocation-based selling as one of its new tools.

Reference: In a Downturn, Provoke your Customers – HBR, November 2009, by

Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin, and Geoffrey Moore 


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