Death of a solution salesman

Death of a solution salesman

"Sell solutions!" is the rallying cry at every vendor's sales training session. Manufacturers denounce traditional sales approaches that stress product benefits and closing techniques. They exhort integrators to sell solutions, not products. Of course, what they really want is for us to sell solutions that include their products.

The solutions that integrators pitch to their customers reflect the manufacturers' self-serving agendas. Salespeople recommend products they understand and that their engineers support. And they're not immune to manufacturers' quota pressures and product spiffs. As a selling CEO and technology junkie, I'm an example of solution selling gone awry. I start out with the best of intentions and try to really listen to a prospective customer's issues. But the client inevitably reveals a need that would fit just perfectly with a preconceived solution. The customer's concerns fade out as I become enamoured with spouting technology talk. Solution selling is not new. As far back as the late 1800s, John Patterson of NCR Corp was advising his salespeople: "Don't talk cash registers; don't talk machines. Talk the prospect's business."

Unlike NCR, which still uses mostly direct salespeople, many major IT manufacturers sell the majority of their products through the channel. Integrators and VARs fill the equivalent role of the independent mobile tool dealers. Instead of selling tools out of trucks, we hawk computer goods to anyone willing to buy. This approach is surprisingly effective with smaller customers who lack knowledgeable technology staff. It doesn't go over so well with professional IT managers, however. Thomas Watson of IBM famously remarked that unlike most men his age, who foolishly gambled or chased women, he hired salespeople. Unfortunately this is no longer a sure formula for success in the computer industry. The abundance of incredible technology that we push to IT people has eliminated virtually every minute of their free time. IT managers want pertinent information and results, not integrator pals.

Better e-commerce sites and the general maturation of our industry enable even moderately sophisticated companies to purchase products without third-party help. Resellers will either be forced to exclusively serve small customers - ie the mobile tool-dealer model - or grow into larger integration organisations that work with bigger companies. Resellers caught in between will be squeezed. Midsize and larger companies have internal IT departments in which people are paid to handle issues on their own. Only those integrators that provide clearly superior expertise and services will have an opportunity to work with them, but they must add demonstrable value.

Efficient organisation

Building an efficient organisation with superior engineering skills is half of the equation. The other half is getting the word out to potential customers. Increasingly, engineers will have to bring in their own business.

This idea is foreign to the VAR model, but it's the accepted norm in most consulting fields. Law firms, engineering companies, investment-banking firms, architectural firms, and CPA firms generally have partners or high-level consultants who not only do the work, but also generate it in the first place. Good engineers are given more respect and trust from IT staff than salespeople, because they're better equipped for the sales task. Noted computer guru Alan Kay has been quoted as saying: "An important technology first creates a problem, then solves it." Engineers can build business by first showing clients that they have a problem in terms of performance, reliability, or scalability. The engineer's recommended solution will be more pertinent and effective than a salesperson's. Clients appreciate the difference and are willing to pay for the analysis as well as the fix.

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