In an era of rapidly changing business needs, evolving technology and supply chain shortages, office technology dealers are hearing more than ever that they should sell solutions. But what exactly does that mean? There is a tendency in the office technology industry to simply associate “solutions” with “software” – and while software is frequently a solution, a solution doesn’t necessarily need to be software. Solutions are more of a concept than a concrete item – solution selling has at times been referred to as a “methodology,” a “philosophy” and a “practice.”
Selling product is a technique that has been finely honed over the years. There are many proven sales techniques for selling copiers, MFPs and other office technology products. But all of those products can be part of a solution. It’s all in the way it’s positioned.
In the simplest terms, a solution is a customized combination of hardware or software that solves a business problem or increases productivity in some way. A solution might include one piece of hardware and one piece of software, but even in that case, there could be significant customization required to meet a specific need.
An example of the difference between selling product and selling solutions looks something like this:
Your customer, a company that has been working on its back-to-the-office strategy since July 2020, has finally decided to transition to a hybrid office. They don’t need pieces of hardware, infrastructure and software. They need solutions that help hybrid offices function. This can involve multiple pieces, including different manufacturers and distributors, third-party contractors, and so on.
The key differentiator here between selling a variety of products and selling a solution is customization. When we talk about solutions, we’re talking about how to customize solutions for customers; when we talk about product, we’re talking about the range of available products that can serve as solutions. In practice, there is significant overlap between solutions and available products, but it can be hard for a customer just perusing your website or catalog to tell the difference.
Solutions are a way of structuring your thinking around solving problems for repeating needs or pain points your customers have. Even if you can’t develop solutions from scratch, you’ll become more effective at finding existing solutions and determining which solution would best solve a particular problem. For sales reps struggling with the idea of selling software or services, this is important to keep in mind: the key to successful solutions selling is understanding customer problems, more so than understanding and selling solutions. But how do you know which solutions to recommend? What products are the most effective solutions? How do you measure ROI on a solution?
Because solutions are solutions to specific problems faced by your customers, the solutions selling process is much more a listening and discovery process than a delivery process. Solutions tend to be highly individualized for a particular problem, so it can take time to understand where solutions opportunities exist in the first place.
At the highest level, solutions selling requires four steps: Listen to your customer; ask questions and identify solutions opportunities; create solutions; implement solutions.
Step 1: Listen to Your Customer
Every time you talk to a potential customer, as well as when you’re talking with existing customers, listen carefully for pain points in their business that solutions could address. This might be new competitor activity, the introduction of a new product or service by a key customer, any number of things. If you can develop solutions-based answers to those issues, you’ll have some openings for new sales opportunities. Using our example of the customer going hybrid, you’ll want to understand what they are most concerned about – is it productivity? Security? Simply finding ways to keep workflows moving?
Step 2: Ask Questions and Identify Solutions Opportunities
Once you’ve identified an opportunity to sell solutions, the next step is to drill down into that opportunity. Ask questions until you can fully understand both the problem and potential solutions. This is where your sales expertise and product knowledge come into play – you’ll want to help identify potential problem areas they haven’t thought of — do home workers need to do mailings when they’re away from the office postage machine? How will they route paperwork between home and office workers? Are there specific compliance issues they deal with that will need extra layers of security in their cloud or transmission software?
Step 3: Create Solutions
Create solutions based on what you’ve learned from step two. In the simple example of a customer transitioning to a full-time hybrid office, this may include solutions for printing, computing power and security issues that might arise. For printing, this might include solutions for meeting future print demands, solutions for cost-effective toner usage and solutions that reduce downtime. For computing power, solutions could be based on the platforms adopted by the customer (e.g., PCs or thin clients). For security issues, it would include solutions to help secure data even when mobile devices are accessing corporate systems. Other solutions, like e-signatures, can help improve workflow as well as security.
Step 4: Implement Solutions
Finally, implement solutions based on what you’ve created in step three. For each solution, consider whether a pilot would be appropriate — do a small-scale test with the customer to ensure that solutions meet their needs. These solutions don’t have to include expensive products or services; they can include free solutions as well (like links to information that the customer might find valuable).
As with anything, there are some pitfalls inherent in solutions selling as well. Keep these things in mind to avoid common mistakes: Don’t assume you know what solutions the customer is looking for and don’t make assumptions about solutions.
Don’t Assume You Know What Solutions the Customer Is Looking For
The solutions sales process is built around listening, not talking; it’s about discovering solutions opportunities with customers rather than telling customers what solutions they need. Just because you’ve helped another business with its transition to a hybrid work environment, don’t assume you can simply put the same pieces into place. Not only do businesses and industries vary, so do people, and where one business leader may be comfortable with customized, more complex solutions, another may have limited tech skills and want more plug-and-play options. While getting to know individual needs can happen during Step 1 of the process, do some research ahead of time for the rest. Make sure to understand their business and industry and figure out where and which solutions might be possible before starting the selling process.
Don’t Make Assumptions About Solutions
After putting some research into the business, it’s easy to assume that the solutions you’ve developed are exactly the solutions the customer is looking for. But the danger of this is that selling becomes a negotiation process where you put solutions in front of customers and ask them if they will buy them, which is more like traditional product sales than it is solutions selling. Through the entire process, the most important thing to remember is that solutions selling is about listening to customers and building solutions based on their needs.
In short, solutions selling is a way of looking at your customers that focuses on their needs rather than the products you sell. Whether hardware, software, services, or a combination of all of the above, it’s an essential skill in this day and age of “diversify or die.” By taking small steps toward solutions selling — by focusing on solutions instead of product — you can create more success for yourself and your customers, and help future proof your own business in the years to come, no matter how the industry evolves.
Michael B. Hannon is an executive leader with extensive experience within the mailing equipment and financial services industries. Taking on the role of managing director in early 2020, he is responsible for all aspects of FP’s North American regional operations. Having moved up through the company, beginning in sales in 2007, he has a very hands-on, customer-centric and sales-focused approach. Gaining knowledge of the industry throughout his career, he has been able to develop and implement numerous processes and programs, like FP Finance and sales process automation, that have improved both sales and operations, leading to FP’s continuous growth in the region.