The solution sales versus product sales mentality

Broadly, you can categorise what is being sold on a continuum between services and product sales. Within service sales there are further distinctions you can make. A new sales person who is asked to sell commoditised products like PCs or laptops will firstly need to understand the product characteristics, and it will take them some time before being able to distinguish their product from a competitors, and then further time before enunciating how it matches the particular requirements of a buyer. An accomplished product sales person will try to understand the client’s requirements and explain their product in the client’s terms. A poor sales person will not.

To use a crude example, the refills for a household stapler are completely commoditised and standardised, so there is no expertise required to sell them. They’re marketed, then stuck onto shelves.

Sadly, I have seen a few product sales people try to sell their high-tech infrastructure product as if it’s not so much different to a stapler refill: a laptop for example being described only in terms of specifications.

Less commonly discussed is the phenomena that services or solutions sales people can describe their service in the same way: through its specifications and metrics, as opposed to describing it in relationship to the client’s requirements. One reason this happens is that sales management and marketing do not generate material which translate the service offering into anything more meaningful than a statement of work or service description document. The value translation is left to be sales field, which in some cases might require a greater degree of analysis than the field has time for.

The right mindset for solutions sales person is to understand their client first, their company’s capabilities second, and their off-the-shelf service offerings last. The sales person then looks at their own company through the eyes of the client and works out what’s relevant or whether a bespoke service can be created which satisfies the client’s parameters.

A great product sales person does this too, but it’s less common. The best product sales people at IBM do it right. I remember in around 2001 the mainframe sales leader in Canberra (now called z series) was remarkably good at working out what a client really needed in order to engineer a product and service bundling that was meaningful to his government clients. And he was truly selling big iron.

A product sales person can fall into the trap of thinking their sale, and the relevance of their product, is only within the dimension of it satisfying the technical spec. The other important elements which should be considered are:

  • integration of the product into the client’s existing infrastructure
  • how will the change be effected, are there any compatibility risks which need to be determined and remedied, and if so by who
  • rollout, imaging, reverse logistics and any relevant data security issues on returned equipment
  • the actual change action from a user’s perspective of migrating from an old device to a new one
  • the design and testing of configurations for infrastructure devices
  • how the final installed equipment is handed to operations, what documentation they require, who will write it
  • operational maintenance procedures, knowing how to repair and restore failed devices.

If the client is allowing visibility into these elements, then the sales person can present a much more compelling and integrated story if they address each of them in the proposal. If the client is keeping the vendor at arm’s length, because the procurement department is handling the deal like a commodity purchase, then of course you have a different scenario for discussion another day.

The point here is that a good sales person will not think of the hardware specification, but of the lifecycle that hardware will proceed through when the client buys it. They’ll describe the solution in terms which show an understanding of the client’s needs, and that’s a step towards solution selling, rather than flogging products.