What is “Solutions Selling?”

By on March 25th, 2011

Elizabeth Gooding with view of BostonThe term “Solution Selling” has been around for a while. Frank Watts laid claim to the term as early as 1975 at Wang Laboratories and started a series of “Solutions Selling” workshops in the early 1980s. One of his major clients for the workshops was Xerox.

Subsequently, various spin-offs have emerged, each with its own spin on the methodology but, sharing a core philosophy that sales efforts are most effective when they are focused on identifying and alleviating “customer pain points.” (Sadly, one of the customer’s pain points may be the frequent arrival of sales people in person, on the phone or in the form of emails and social media pokes.)

In the 80’s and 90’s the solution selling approach took firm root across the print manufacturing industry. I can remember in the early 1990’s copier salesmen (and at the time it was mostly men) rolling their eyes saying “they want us to sell solutions now. I think that just means that we’re supposed to sell a bunch of new products that we haven’t been trained on.” I heard this lament many times at many companies. Solutions selling had emerged as a catch phrase for “selling more stuff” – software with the printers, services with the software, finishing equipment, etc. A buzzword was born.

Many manufacturers organized their software, printers, and finishing equipment into cookie-cutter “solutions” and thought that was enough to empower their sales staff to solve customer problems.   Truth be told – in some cases it probably was a dramatic step forward for the accounts that fit the target cookie – and when supported with solutions consultants – probably increased the size of the overall sale. But, if solutions selling means solving a customer’s problem – isn’t it a requirement to have an understanding of the customer and their needs? Are packaged solutions in the absence of a methodology or an understanding of what a customer’s pain points are enough to transform a sales force? In my experience, the answer is a resounding NO!

Today, Print Service Providers of all stripes are being told that they should become Marketing Services Providers (and I haven’t heard of much variation in the striping.) They are being told that they must position themselves to “sell solutions.” But what does that mean? How does calling yourself an MSP specifically equip someone to solve the communications problems of a bank, a retailer or a fund company? Of a manager of a marketing, operations, wholesaling, or human resources department? In my experience, it doesn’t.

Truly being a solutions salesperson requires intellectual curiosity, a willingness to listen to customers, a flexible array of offers and a willingness not to sell any of them if they won’t solve a customer’s problem. It is about truly engaging with the customer first, educating the customer second and worrying about what can be sold third. It may sound counter-intuitive to put the sales part last but, trust me – it works and it builds customer relationships that pay dividends for years.

So where does this leave PSPs or MSPs who want to embrace solutions sales and solve customer problems? Well, interestingly, print manufacturers are stepping up to eat their own cooking. Océ Press Go! will be offering a webinar on April 5th   (with Don McKenzie the President and CEO of SourceLink, Bob Radzis the President of RT Associates and Bob Boucher a VP and Creative Director with Cole Creative) on “Selling Marketing Solutions versus Selling Print.” The webinar will be moderated by Barb Pellow of InfoTrends who says, “Educating print service providers on how to grow and build their business is critical. The Océ Press Go! initiative is designed to help users of its technology build new business strategies that drive volume.” So, it seems that Océ has:

  • engaged with their customers to understand their problems (how to grow their business in a time of technological change and industry consolidation);
  • developed education intended to help them solve the problem and;
  • sourced independent experts to ensure that the presentation is not run by box jockeys in sheep’s clothing.

Kind of sounds like they are using solutions selling to teach solutions selling doesn’t it? (You know how I love it when people eat their own cooking!)

I’ll be on a plane back from the BCBS Best Practices event in Phoenix that day – but I’m going to listen to the stored version of the webinar when I get back to see if it lives up to expectations. Solutions selling requires more than buzzwords – it requires problem solvers!

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    5 Responses to “What is “Solutions Selling?””

    1. Nauman S. Says:

      the buzz word stays of course as you say using best practice of selling solutions. vendors need to have a unique purpose of selling solutions in their niche or say expertise.
      I posted something similar with my understanding of the buzz:
      http://www.docmentors.com/blog/sell-solutions-not-boxes/

    2. Tom Weber Says:

      Hi Elizabeth,
      Excellent article. Thanks for sharing.
      We met in Nashville recently. You were far and above the best presenter. I was encouraged by your presentation and thankful that the information shared that day, was not all new to me.
      Hope we meet again soon.

      Tom Weber

    3. Elizabeth Gooding Says:

      Thanks so much Tom. I wish I didn’t have to talk so darn fast but A) I am a Yankee and B) I was between you and free cocktails! Several folks from BPIMedia linked with me after the event and I’d be happy to follow up with you guys any time. From what I’ve seen so far, the Boaz to BPIMedia transition is moving along the right track.

    4. Bob Raus Says:

      Hi Elizabeth

      I agree fully with your outlined approach. The best sales calls I’ve ever been on are when the sales person leaves all product collaterals in the car and walks in with a blank pad of paper to take notes. I always ask prospective customers questions like “what do you wish you could do today that you can’t?”. It gets them to open up and share what they really need to solve. Once you understand that, its amazing what you can sell. Its all about helping them succeed – then sales come (too).

    5. Elizabeth Gooding Says:

      Thanks Bob. I saw your post today on “the end of overprinting… is here.” Nice job. I think that helping people with the cost-benefit analysis of going to white paper/inkjet is a perfect example of true solutions selling. Agreed?