Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sell Solutions Not Products. Thoughts for Delivering Long-Term Service

Strategy / Content

In his working days my dad, a general contractor, found nothing more frustrating than when one of his tradesmen ran into a problem and “patched it up” to make it work for now so he could move on to the next task. Dad used to say “there’s never enough time to do something right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over.” In a sense dad’s job as a general contractor and my job as a business analyst are very similar – we make sure that what’s being built meets the client’s requirements, but also fits into the realm of what can be done within the environment in which it is built. In dad’s case, the questions he had to answer included:

1. Will the requirement have an impact on overall structural support? If so, how?

2. Does the requirement meet local building code standards?

3. Does my crew have the talent or capabilities to build what the customer is asking for?

In my case, I have to answer questions like:

1. Is the requirement more about a process improvement initiative, a new web site or Intranet design, or to add a new level of functionality to a system?

2. Does the current environment have the technical capacity to support the requirement?

3. Does the requirement align with current strategies to achieve ultimate business objectives or corporate goals?

As consultants we often experience the same frustrations that my dad did with regard to finding patches to fix. In fact, many of our clients hire us to come in and fix something that was “patched up” or poorly put together in the first place. When faced with mounting pressure from bosses to “just get it done”, or from employees screaming that something “just isn’t working”, it often seems so much easier to apply the patch, especially when budget constraints are added to the mix. So we resolve to just make the pain go away rather than invest the necessary amount of time (and money) to fix the root cause of the problem. But what happens when the effectiveness of the patch wears off? This is where that pesky hindsight kicks in and it becomes clear that the time and the money we thought we were saving was wasted.

Enter the notion of solution selling: now the concept of solution selling is not new; in fact, it’s been around for a few years. A blog post written by Oracle employee David Dorf dating back to November 2012 still does a great job of describing just what solution selling is. Titled Selling Solutions, Not Products, Mr. Dorf offers great insight into how B2C retailers like Apple, Whole Foods, Lululemon and IKEA are realigning their focus to solve customers’ problems and not just sell them products. With just a simple question to the customer when he walks in the door, “What brought you in today?” the retailer is creating the opportunity to learning about the customer’s problem, facilitating the occasion to recommend some options, some solutions, for solving it. Solution selling is about establishing relationships with your customers and Mr. Dorf says that, “Good retailers establish a relationship, even if it lasts only a few minutes.” One of my favorite examples from the post refers to customers walking into a Whole Foods store for a can of soup: “You don't walk into Whole Foods looking for cans of soup.  You are looking for meals: healthy snacks, interesting lunches, exotic dinners.  It’s a learning experience where you might discover solutions to problems you didn't know you had.  Mention what foods you like, and you'll get a list of similar items you had not considered.”

In recent years the same trends that have reshaped B2C markets are affecting B2B markets too. As educated consumers the way we shop and make purchases has changed drastically, whether it’s for a new pair of running shoes for ourselves or for that firm that will help us solve our collaboration problem and build our new Intranet or public facing web site. Savvy B2B buyers are not just looking to buy the next cool new tool (e.g., that can of soup); they’re looking for someone to help solve their problems.

My dad loved building beautiful homes for his clients, knowing that a solid foundation and sturdy structure would enable them to build strong, happy families. Like him, I love helping my clients solve their business problems because having strong, effective processes and powerful, robust tools to support them enables companies to reach new heights, new levels of success and prosperity – it’s awesome knowing that I played a part in getting them there.