Are You Still Selling Like It’s 1999? - How Today’s Best B2B Reps Set The Stage and Win!

Ken Rutsky, Founder & President, KJR Associates, Inc.

Are You Still Selling Like It’s 1999? - How Today’s Best B2B Reps Set The Stage and Win!

In the late 1980s I had the privilege to attend IBM’s vaunted sales training.  We learned techniques for rapport building, need finding, objection handling, and closing, even including, and I kid you not, the highly praised “assumptive/alternative close” which went something like, “Do you want that mainframe cabinet in White or IBM Blue?”

But most of all, we learned and practiced the hallowed technique of  “NFAR”, or Need, Feature, Advantage, Reaction. The idea being – question until you understand need, then describe your feature and its advantage, then wait for the reaction.  

Many of these techniques, while feeling dated today, were backed by the sound principles of solution/diagnostic selling, which was the dominant B2B selling philosophy from then all the way through the opening decade of the new millennium.  Then a funny thing happened called the Internet. All of a sudden product and solution information was widely available, and buyers were no longer dependent on sellers for product information.  Buyers as a result, have become fiercely independent, and often have more product knowledge than the sales rep selling to them.

However, old habits die hard, and even today, many reps cling to solution and need feature advantage selling.  And while some may succeed, research from many corners of the globe, and a logical look at how buying has changed, say this is no longer the best approach

Today, the best performing reps know how to capture attention, add value and satisfy the buyer’s needs.  I call them Breakthrough reps. Breakthrough reps are strategically driven by sharing their Viewpoint with the customer and tactically driven by demonstrating and delivering Value. Today’s high performing B2B sales reps keep these three principles in mind:

1. Establishing a shared context with the customer

2. Teaching the customer and enabling them to be a teacher, too

3. Never hesitating to demonstrate the Value of the product, service, or solution

This represents, in many ways, a radical departure from traditional “solution/diagnostic selling” to more expert- and authority-driven selling model. In the old school, an initial conversation might look like this:

Joe (solution-selling rep): “Hi Carl, I'd like to understand what you are doing about problem X in your business?”

Carl (customer): “Well Joe, what does your product do and how can it help me?”

Joe: “Sure, we have an X, but before I tell you how it can help, can we spend 30 minutes where I can ask you some questions?”

Reps who try this technique today are often shown the door before they even get started. First of all, customers expect the rep to know their business before arrival and second, they already know about the product from their network or research online prior to the sales call. Successful reps transition that first conversation to this:

Jane (Breakthrough rep): “Hi Carl, I’d love to talk to you a bit about our perspective on issues/opportunities X, Y and Z facing our industry, and how our solution is helping organizations just like yours in this new world. Do you have five minutes?”

Carl: “Sure, but please make it quick, I have a lot on my plate.”

Jane: “No problem. What we see is that customers like you now live in a world that…” (tells her Viewpoint Story, teaching the customer and creating a shared context).

Whether you call this Solution Selling 2.0, The Challenger Sale, or something else, the fact of the matter is, buyers already know about your product’s features and functions from your website. They need the why. Great sales reps establish and reinforce the why from the very beginning of the sales cycle.

The value of this to the sales rep is immense. First, they gain a foothold in establishing the context of the sales conversation. When they transition to describing and demonstrating value, they do so in this shared context. They tilt the entire sales process to their advantage.

Second, they have established their personal credibility and value with the customer by teaching the customer something meaningful.

Third, they have begun to lay the groundwork for establishing why their solution is not only valuable, but strategic. Before a buyer can make the decision to purchase, they have to consider and prioritize your solution. Traditional solution selling doesn’t help much here. Only by creating context can sales reps rise above the noise to the top of the priority list.

Lastly, they have armed Carl, the buyer, with the knowledge he needs to spread the context within his organization. Jane transfers her expertise to Carl, who then uses it to establish and drive the sale internally within the organization. Carl becomes the context champion to help Jane influence and accelerate the buying process.

Later, in our traditional solution-selling process, we’d likely have this conversation:

Carl: “Can I see a demo of your solution?”

Joe (Hopefully with a bit more subtlety than shown here) : “Sure, Carl. But before we do that, I’d really like to understand your goals a bit better. And I’d like to know when you think you can make a purchase decision. And I want to make sure the budget is in place. And I’d like to understand the entire procurement process. Then after I know all that, I can schedule my solution engineer/manager/consultant to show you the demo.”

And while Joe waits and qualifies until he is satisfied, Carl has already implemented the online trial version of Jane’s competitive solution. Carl is busy experiencing the Value and Jane is establishing control of the sale at Joe’s expense.

Breakthrough  reps are thrilled and enthusiastic about revealing information early in the process when the opportunity may not be fully qualified, because they understand they can control the context and manage the perception of value effectively in that context. And if they have confidence in the value of their solution, then having Carl experience the value can do nothing bad and a lot of good. It will accelerate and grow the deal far faster than Joe’s qualification solution strategy does.

Clearly, the Breakthrough rep needs marketing’s help. She must be armed with the Viewpoint Story and with the ability to articulate the Value of the solution in that context. She must also have the tools to demonstrate that Value throughout the buying cycle. The journey to market leadership is a shared journey between sales and marketing teams, but must be driven at the coalface by a re-invented, re-invigorated breakthrough sales approach. 

About the Author

Ken Rutsky is Founder and President of KJR Associates, Inc. and author of LAUNCHING TO LEADING:  How B2B Market Leaders Create Flashmobs, Marshal Parades, And Ignite Movements.  For more information, please visit or