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The Power of Customer-Centric Solutions

As CX professionals, we are largely compelled to align with our respective organization’s sales and marketing functions, and for good reason—they are generally the ones carrying out the strategy and business goals established by leadership and guiding the rest of the organization forward.

All is well and good except when it comes to product-centric organizations believing and acting as if whatever they manufacture and sell or offer as a service is perfectly aligned with client needs and wants. Economist Lawrence Abbot observed way back in 1955 that, “What people really desire are not products but satisfying experiences. People want products because they want the experience-bringing services which they hope the products will render.”  A profound statement, especially considering this was made over 60 years ago.

I’m using the terms service and product interchangeably here to illustrate a point.  Think of service as an intangible product that, through an exchange, delivers a tangible benefit to the customer.  In a sense, both products and services can be considered as products from the provider’s perspective.  It’s simply a matter of form.

Hands-on Experience

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to serve customers in a pure sales capacity with all the challenges that accompany a sales role, including quotas both achievable and unrealistic. But that’s a topic for another blog.

During my tenure in sales, I was introduced and trained in what is called the solution-selling methodology.  I was selling complex and highly customized laboratory robotic and automation systems into the biotech and pharmaceutical industry.  Essentially, there was no product to demonstrate or even discuss until the process to be automated was fully understood by me. Once I translated that over to the engineering team, they would then develop a concept for me to present back to the customer, to show them what it might look like, and how much it might cost. Overall, a highly intangible sales process for sure, accompanied by an extremely long sales cycle. It became clear that we needed to learn how to sell a “solution” to the customer, versus a “product.”

The solution-selling idea was originally developed in 1975 by Frank Watts, at Wang Laboratories. It was later adopted by Mike Bosworth, who founded a sales training organization of the same name based on the concept.

My sales colleagues and I were trained by the Bosworth organization back in the mid-90’s and the original book, Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets, published in 1994, remains available today. Bosworth and Holland have also published a more updated version of the concept in a book published in 2010 titled, Customer-Centric Selling, Second Edition, which is worth checking out as it addresses more of the current trends in the digital sales and business environment.

Wikipedia defines solution-selling very succinctly as a sales methodology, where rather than just promoting an existing product, the salesperson focuses on the customer’s problems and addresses the issue with appropriate offerings (products and / or services). The problem resolution is what constitutes a “solution.” Solution-selling is usually used in sales situations where products are just one of the elements that lead to a solution. Often the real solution develops after the sales process—as with software or large plant-engineering and construction projects. It is typical for solution-selling situations that the buyer only rarely purchases such a solution, and instead needs the additional knowledge of the solution partner.

Shifting the Mindset

Transforming an organization’s approach to selling solutions requires a shift in mindset from just pushing products to creating genuine connections with people. If this starts sounding a bit more like CX, which hopefully it does, then please continue reading.

Assuming we work within organizations that are not overly siloed, then perhaps we can begin having this discussion internally; more appropriately addressing customer needs, wants, and concerns earlier in the customer journey and in a more collaborative, partnering, and humanistic manner. Selling itself doesn’t happen in a silo. All departments from marketing to research and development to manufacturing and customer service must work with sales to create true value for customers. Customer experience encompasses all the cumulative efforts.

In a 2017 article written by Sona Jepsen for Entrepreneur Magazine entitled, Forget Your Product: Start Selling ‘Solutions’ Instead, the author asserts that the old way of operating is not sustainable. To achieve the aggressive sales growth that many companies require, sales departments need to stop trying to sell products and start selling solutions.

According to Sona, selling a solution requires that companies fundamentally change how they do business. Instead of pushing products, they must create genuine connections with other people. The solution-selling methodology requires building lasting relationships with clients in which the goal is always to find new ways to help. Does this sound familiar? This is the front-end of the customer journey where building relationships for repeated business begins.

Steps to Smooth Transition

Managing and making the transition from a product-centric approach to a customer-centric solutions approach isn’t easy, but the alternative can be disastrous. Here are four steps that Sona offers to smooth out the transition, turning a company stuck in the past into one ready for the future.  As you read each one of these steps, do so through your CX practitioner lens and see what resonates with you.

1. Prepare and qualify

Treat sales like customer service. This means anticipating customers’ needs and having a greater understanding of their issues and challenges than they do. To properly implement a solution-selling methodology, every member of the sales team needs specialized knowledge and expertise. Apple, for example, has trained its salespeople so successfully that many companies have chosen to copy its entire model.

Make sure that every lead coming from marketing is properly qualified. That way, sales teams can do their due diligence and remain experts for every customer, while early-stage leads will remain with the marketing department until they’re truly sales-ready.

2. Offer the buyer new ideas and perspectives

A pervasive myth in sales is that the more knowledgeable clients are, the more likely they are to shop around and find an alternative. Improving customer knowledge has the inverse effect, fostering trust in a company and its products. By assuming a teaching role, the “solution representative” becomes a trusted partner in a collaborative process.

I work with a sales rep who exemplifies this mantra, helping customers recognize their pain points, anticipating and responding to potential problems, and aiding the entire process of implementing our solution. This enables the rep to offer a new perspective and can lead to more business from thankful customers.

3. Shatter archaic structures in every department

The solution-selling methodology isn’t just for the sales team; it’s a prescription for the whole company. As such, any silos or archaic compensation strategies that impede solution-selling should be rendered obsolete.  Leaders must be open to critically evaluating everything about their companies, including command structure and culture. This can be tough, especially if the company has enjoyed a good ride. But sometimes, even if a company’s culture isn’t broken, it still needs to be fixed for the company to move forward. Fruitful solution-development relies on open communication and broad inquiries. If there’s evidence that the flow of information is being impeded, do whatever you need to be open those channels.

4. Create a sales liaison role

Sales success hinges on marketing’s ability to generate enough qualified leads. For this to happen, marketing needs to be clear about the sales team’s needs, such as its communication preferences and demographics. The two departments should also engage in a free exchange of best practices. A sales liaison, one who works within the marketing division but can relate to both, is an essential part of ensuring that this understanding occurs. This employee is the key to relaying the necessary sales information that will enable the marketing team to create initiatives that advance solution-selling goals.

Conclusion

As I underlined in step #3 above, the solution-selling methodology isn’t just for the sales team, and knowing that the concept and language around it has evolved into more customer-centric terms. There’s a great deal of commonality, with an overlap of goals and objectives plus knowledge and skills between sales teams, customer experience teams, and customer service teams. Perhaps the biggest area of commonality and overlap that I’ve seen in my 15 plus years as a CX practitioner and consultant, is in the areas of communication and trust.

As discussed in one of my previous Power of Listening blog series, those of us in the CX discipline can benefit tremendously from building improved listening skills which is of course a key element in effective communication and building customer trust.

As before, whether you are a practitioner, a provider, or a consultant within the CX discipline, there’s a lot to be gained by becoming a better listener, communicator, and thus becoming a more trusted business partner for your personal success and the success of your organization as well.

“You cannot force me to trust you.  However, you can influence my decision and what influences my decision is based on your level of trustworthiness.”  —John Blakey