In-Depth

Solving the Puzzle -- Together

In solution selling, partners and customers join forces to solve problems -- and both parties win.

When Michael Mahoney's team met with a large non-profit's comptroller to discuss the organization's need for new accounting software, the official seemed unaware that time was running out for his group's goal of getting a new system up and running within several months.


The 11th Installment in our Series on Management Best Practices.

"The process was moving slowly. They didn't understand the urgency of working through a number of issues," says Mahoney, CEO of Brittenford Systems Inc., a Reston, Va.-based Gold Certified Partner specializing in Microsoft Dynamics SL, Microsoft Dynamics GP and Microsoft CRM.

There were the inevitable delays of the approaching summer vacation months to consider, plus the time necessary for the organization's board of directors to approve the new system, followed by more time to complete all the necessary legal work. Eventually, the issues that Mahoney's team raised made their way up to the group's executive director and CEO.

"Once we sat down with a simple solution plan, they understood they had to act more quickly," Mahoney says. The result: "Got the sale, got the win, reduced the time it took to get the sale -- and we boxed out the competition."

That was a slam-dunk for Mahoney's firm and a solid example of solution selling for the rest of us. The Brittenford team moved beyond the simple issue of product -- the accounting system -- to help its potential client understand the larger issues: the challenges it faced and the solution it needed for a successful outcome. As a result, Mahoney's firm made a bigger sale and laid the groundwork for a valuable relationship.

Seven Tips for Solution Selling

Following are a few tried-and-true trips for taking the solution-selling plunge:

  1. Train and retrain. Solution selling has a set of definable methodologies that your staff can learn via seminars. But lessons fade and people move on, so it's important to provide regular updates. Make sure executives, managers and salespeople attend refresher courses.
  2. Hire wisely. When it comes to solution selling, natural-born salespeople may not be your best bet. Being charming, knowledgeable and able to close deals quickly isn't enough. You need people who can ask the specific questions necessary to get to the heart of your customers' needs and goals.
  3. Compensate carefully. You aren't likely to foster the slow, inquisitive process you need from your solution-selling staff if you base people's pay on the old model favoring those who simply reach sales quotas over short periods of time. Develop ways to also reward those who take more time, but ultimately bring in more lucrative contracts.
  4. Convince the customer. Just as your sales staff may be reluctant to spend the extra time necessary for solution selling, your clients may feel that they're also too busy to go through the process. Experts suggest emphasizing ways that the approach, though possibly more time-consuming up front, will generate greater success for customers in the long run.
  5. Seek all levels. Designing and selling a package of business solutions typically requires access to higher-ups on the customer's organization chart. But that can work in your favor: You may develop powerful allies who can help you move ahead with the deal. If you convince a company's key players to back your plan, you'll find it easier to win over the ultimate gatekeeper.
  6. Expect some reluctance. Some customers will simply chose to stick with more traditional ways of buying products and services. It's your choice whether to revert back to the old model to keep that customer -- or to move on other prospects.
  7. Find a comfort zone. Solution selling is a complex process that requires a steep learning curve, especially when it comes to factoring in a new technology or a new client in an unfamiliar field. Experts recommend consciously striking a balance between the need to bring in new business and the desire to avoid excessive risk.

--F.B.

The concept of solution selling is a logical step in growing your business. Rather than simply promoting the latest products, your company serves as a consultant, working to understand your clients' strengths and weaknesses and recommending combinations of products and services to help them solve problems and achieve their goals. It's a win-win proposition. Your clients get a more comprehensive and customized solution rather than just a specific product. You get a bigger contract and a closer client relationship that can help keep the competition at bay.

"The companies that are successful are doing solution selling at some level," says George LaVenture, president of Trinity Consulting Inc., a Marlborough, Mass.-based Gold Certified Partner that offers messaging, database and productivity solutions. "Industry-wide, people have realized that going from feature set to feature set no longer works."

For partners, solution selling hit its stride a few years ago with strong support from the Microsoft Partner Program, which began offering training sessions and other resources. An RCP report on the trend two years ago found a surge of enthusiasm for Microsoft's methodology, undoubtedly heightened by reports of sales growth percentages in the four figures (see "Solution Selling," September 2005). But since then, some of the air has leaked from the solution-selling balloon.

"There's been a decline in the utilization of solution-selling techniques," says Ken Thoreson, president of Acumen Management Group Ltd., a sales-management firm based in Knoxville, Tenn. "The missing element is the failure to go back and train the executives and the sales manager," adds Thoreson, who is also RCP's "Selling Microsoft" columnist. "If you don't reinforce and retrain in the field and in their offices, you won't see the ultimate impact that everyone wants."

So how do you maintain your sales staff's skills in and enthusiasm for what most agree is a winning way to build business? And, as importantly, how do you get your customers to sign on to a process that may require more time and money than simply buying a new piece of hardware or software?

The partners we've spoken with emphasize the need to educate clients about the advantages of taking a more global look at their goals and practices rather than just launching a bidding war for a new system.

"Most people aren't big technology geeks," notes LaVenture. "You implement technology because it solves a business problem or solves a goal. If you acknowledge that, then the whole concept of selling a product goes away."

A Way of Life
Solution selling isn't exactly new: It's been part of many sales organizations' strategies for decades. A few years ago, Sales Performance International Inc., a Charlotte, N.C., training company, partnered with Microsoft to develop the Microsoft Solution Selling (MSS) program, designed to train both Microsoft's employees and its partners in the methodology. The ongoing program includes classes, kits, tools, templates and other resources designed to help partners develop their marketing pitch and business focus.

"One of the key messages is: 'It isn't just a buzzword. It's becoming a way of life, a part of the fabric of the organization,'" Keith Eades, Sales Performance International's CEO, says of the company's overarching philosophy on solution selling.

Even as Microsoft tries to nudge partners toward solution selling, it's been challenging for the software giant -- a traditionally product-driven company -- to refocus itself on solutions. Robert Deshaies, vice president of the U.S. Partner Group, believes that the company's progress is evident in its "People Ready" initiative. "As we've done the launches over the past year, we haven't focused on driving products, we've actually gone and addressed things against customer pains," he says. "So we've turned the corner, in essence, of really selling solutions and working with partners to drive solution messaging out in the marketplace." The company continues to update and refresh the MSS program content for partners of all types and sizes, he adds.

The way-of-life message got through to PCMS IT Advisor Group, a Cincinnati-based Gold Certified Partner that saw its staff augmentation business grow by 2,400 percent between 2003 and 2005 after going through one of the first Microsoft MSS programs. The success continues today. The staff has doubled in size since 2005. Growth was up by 100 percent last year.

"Real solution selling is a methodology that gets you thinking in different ways," says Matt Scherocman, vice president of consulting services for PCMS. "You start asking, 'How do I get the customer to the next level?' If you can talk to them that way, the way they want to be talked to, it's Nirvana. You're building customers for life."

Scherocman tells the story of meeting a potential client at a Microsoft event who was interested in buying a suite of Microsoft products with a fixed cost per desktop.

"The customer expected me to say, 'You need an Enterprise Agreement,'" he recalls, referring to the Microsoft volume-licensing plan for large organizations. "What I actually said was, 'We need to sit down and understand where your company is going technology-wise and decide which piece of Microsoft you need and then figure out the cheapest solution.'"

Scherocman learned that his was the fourth company the prospect had contacted for a price. Ultimately, the customer signed on with PCMS; it's now a steady client.

This ability to take the customer beyond the idea of simply making a purchase is, of course, at the core of solution selling. Thoreson says that getting to that point hinges on the salesperson's ability to learn about a company's business, strategy and problems -- and then to "connect the dots" to make the right recommendation.

"The art that's most difficult in solution selling is the art of asking the 15 to 55 key business questions that are necessary to understand the emotional, personal and business challenges of the prospect," he says.

Scherocman says, if done correctly, this questioning process can also reassure clients: "You'd be scared if the doctor just gave you a prescription without asking questions," he says. "You expect them to do the diagnosis."

A Falling Away
But despite the success stories about and enthusiasm for solution selling, some partners feel that momentum for the practice has flagged. Even a true believer like Eades, the MSS trainer, says using the methodology successfully involves more than sending your sales staff to a seminar or two. "If companies look at this as simply training events, it doesn't last," he says. "If they're not looking at it as a transformational initiative, it doesn't stick."

Mike Ojile, national director of sales for Minneapolis-based Magenic Technologies Inc., which specializes in IT strategies for professional services firms, sees the constant churn of the industry as one reason the emphasis for solution selling has diminished at some companies.

"There's a lot of turnover in the partner community and Microsoft is constantly coming up with fresh ideas," says Ojile, whose company is a Gold Certified Partner. "With all those factors, you lose a little consistency."

LaVenture notes that even simple events, such as one-day seminars, held during the days when solution selling was on everyone's lips, need to be repeated regularly as new sales staff and managers join companies.

Some successful solution sellers have built retraining right into their processes. At PCMS IT Advisor Group, Scherocman brings in motivational speakers to focus his sales staff on selling solutions to customers. He regularly holds meetings where members of the sales staff are required to deliver presentations on some aspect of the program. "We'll turn off the selling engine for the day and pull people out of the field," he says.

"As a student you learn the curriculum," he says. "As a teacher you have to know it."

At Magenic, Ojile consistently emphasizes the tools and needs for solution selling both at regular meetings and in one-on-one sessions with sales managers and team members.

"It's a discipline of constant process that we have to get in and stay in to keep challenging our team," he says. "You have to constantly push yourself and your staff. They all have short memories, just as our customers do."

The Right Staff
But training can only go so far. Those who have made solution selling work say managers must be selective when adding to their sales staff. In a profession that values quick sales turnovers, hitting your marks and making your quotas, a switch to the more time-consuming techniques of solution selling can be a tough cultural change for even the best salespeople.

LaVenture cautions that traditional compensation plans for sales staff tend to run counter to the goals of solution selling. Reaching sales goals is much easier and quicker when you're pushing a product than when you're spending considerable time meeting with different players in a client business to determine larger issues of business goals and strategies.

"If you have a monthly quota that you're going to be judged on, the first instinct is to meet that quota," LaVenture points out. "There's a natural desire to start closing some things."

At Brittenford, Mahoney has stopped making a distinction between salespeople and the rest of his staff. "We have 20 employees and 20 of them are salespersons," he says. "We've found having pure salespeople isn't successful for us. We focus on practitioners with personal skills who work with clients and prospects."

Training the Customer
Your salespeople aren't the only ones who may initially lack the patience for the slower process of solution sales. Your customers may also balk at the idea of spending time talking about the broader topics of business goals and strategies rather than the specifics of a new e-mail system. In addition, there's the usual territorial imperatives of a department manager who may resist the idea of bringing in other department heads to talk about a company-wide strategy.

Mahoney says a key way to move beyond one department head is to play on his or her basic emotions, both the lust for success and the fear of failure. "You have to show what's in it for them," he says. In other words, it's important to convince those managers that "it's in their own best interest to introduce us to their organization."

Scherocman says you can often break down an organization's reluctance to invest the time needed to explore problems and develop solutions by calling attention to the successes you've provided other clients. "When we do a seminar, we walk through the way people are really leveraging this for a return on investment," he says. "If you can't show them how they can save money, the deal isn't going to go."

Still, you're likely to have times when you just can't persuade a prospect to get with the solution-selling program. Dealing with those cases often involves knowing when to gracefully back away. Eades admits that sometimes it's just simpler to set aside the bigger issues and make the sale. "You'd like to provide a total solution, but if the client is insistent, then let them buy the product," he says. "If that's all they want to do, they're probably a short-term client anyway."

Scherocman takes a more surgical approach. "Clients who only want a price aren't good clients for us," he says. "There're plenty of other businesses out there."

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