Even with the best of intentions, businesses don't scrutinise spending the same way in good times as during a downturn. When the economic highs reach their zenith and begin to fade, however, the spotlight suddenly shifts to issues such as business cases and costs.
The channel has long understood the implications of such cycles. Over the years, integrators, particularly in the mid-market and enterprise, have refined the way they sell products and services so as to not only weather market downturns, but to take advantage of growing markets. It's not an easy path; sales strategies must align with the business objectives of both the company and its customers. It has, however, become the key to survival, and indeed prosperity, in an industry infamous for its highs and lows.
It doesn't help that the term “solution” is as broad as the day is long. Each organisation, be it channel or customer, defines the term differently. On the surface, selling solutions is about addressing business needs. But in real terms it is far more complex, requiring a sophisticated approach that takes in trust, risk, strategy, process, project management and buy-in, not to mention product and technical knowledge. It's no longer simply a matter of packaging up a set of technologies.
"A real solution delivers an outcome to the business. And we take a lot of that responsibility on our shoulders, including supporting it moving forward," NSC Group managing director, Craig Neil, said. "Most of the solutions we sell are a combination of technologies, services and a mixture of hardware and software that addresses a business need. And it's normally not an IT business need. It's a cost saving or a new way an organisation is going to connect with its customers through the contact centre."
A different approach
Over the years, selling solutions has become somewhat of a catch cry for channel companies. But it's not just the technology that has evolved over time. With technology now extending far beyond the IT department into every level of business, selling a solution in today's market is both more challenging and rewarding than ever before.
"The CIO is going to be our sponsor in the discussion, but it's definitely a different approach. You need a different set of skills and capabilities," Frontline Systems professional services general manager, Michael Chanter, said. "We're helping customers with things like IT strategy and IT program development. That's not a technical discussion, but you need to be able to bring in expertise on various practice areas so you can have the right discussions with the business. You still need technical knowledge, but you are not talking about product X or Y; you are talking about a discipline."
Undoubtedly, working with customers to understand their business objectives, drivers, requirements and problems is part of the equation. But integrators are going beyond the software and hardware angle.
"The one I am probably more hot on is when you engage a customer and you work with them to peel back their own view of their environment and identify latent opportunities," Data#3 national manager of marketing and alliances, Mark Phillips, said. "I think that is where the real opportunity is and where the real value for the customer is.
“It's very easy to go to a customer and ask, 'what's happening, what's on the go, what are your focus areas?' and get a shortlist of things where you could potentially help them. But we also need to engage in a different conversation around what they're doing today and over the next year and [identify] things they haven't even anticipated yet, and help build influence and strategy moving forward.”
Moving to the Data#3 solutions selling model means structuring the business to enable those kinds of conversations to occur. Phillips is realistic about the outcome – the sale is the objective, after all. But it is also about meaningful interactions that generate value for the customer, and that requires trust.
"Building that kind of trust to have those sorts of conversations, and for them to give us a little bit of a runway for things that aren't in their immediate horizon, is what I see as true solution selling. And that's what we have to continue to do and strive towards doing better,” he said.
Voice and data specialist, 3D Networks, is another integrator that understands the importance of selling a solution rather than a point-based offering.
"From a customer perspective, they have always bought solutions from us. The difference today is that the customer is looking for a partner who can make the experience ‘turnkey’,” director and CEO, Rod Taylor, explained. “By that, they need a partner that will look at their business need, describe the solution, design the solution then implement it according to the business needs.
“We are doing this aggressively in our business within three areas of expertise. As we become more vendor agnostic, we need subject matter experts who have a detailed understanding of Avaya, Juniper, Cisco, Mitel and Microsoft – as those physical components operate. We also require a level of expertise in the business to transcribe those functional characteristics to a business deliverable.
“That’s where our solution architects and the investment we have made in them deliver the best value.”
Business case first, technology later
One big difference about selling a solution lies in how integrators approach conversations around technology. From a business perspective, solutions require far more than technology to succeed: It's one thing to have the backing of an organisation's IT department; it's quite another to get cross-organisational buy-in.
“Traditionally, companies have very much sold to IT or CIOs. And CIOs are connected to the business but they don't actually run the business,” NSC's Neil said. “I find the most important thing in selling a solution is you have to get out and start selling to HR [human resources] directors and call centre managers and business owners such as sales and marketing directors. You can't talk technology to these people. You have to be able to talk about business benefits. It's something that many IT sales people don't do naturally.”
It also requires negotiation skills and issues management experience. With IT budgets tighter than ever, it can be challenging to convey the business benefits to customers.
"Sometimes, it's actually difficult to sell a solution to a customer because they're trying to drive cost out when pulling a solution together and being able to integrate it all is sometimes even greater than the sum of the parts," Data#3's Phillips said. "That's where the maturity of our engagement model has to kick in. You have to say, 'listen, we're respectful of the fact you may have a very fixed budget and fixed time phase, but that doesn't mean you can have open ended requirements'.
"It comes down to the relationship you are able to build with the people inside the account and the trust that you are able to forge in the candidness of the conversation you're able to strike," he said.
Selling solutions requires commitment and tends to lengthen the sales cycle. But despite the difficulties, the benefits of selling solutions are many. Integrators are in the unique position for knowledge sharing, being able to work across organisations and market segments. And, done properly, it strengthens the customer relationship, leading to deeper engagement across segments and customers who stay with their providers for longer.
Data#3 also undertakes an annual customer satisfaction survey, which is underway. It goes out to about 1200 customers and serves as an important touchstone for engagement. The integrator uses the results in its business planning activities for the year.
"It talks about all elements of our engagement model – from the products and service that we offer to account management, to the pre-sales, post-sales and the delivery, to the order placement process," Phillips said. "It's a pretty comprehensive survey and we do really thank our customers for taking the time to provide that information."
The survey provides a forum for candid comment and, along with field sales and marketing events throughout the year, offers a combination of structured and non-structured feedback.
3D Networks has also invested in the consulting side of its customer engagement model, increasing the ratio of pre-sales consulting and solution architects to its existing sales team.
"It is an investment in understanding what the customer may require and spending time with the customer ensuring the solution we provide for them is fit to purpose, not specifically targeted on a product we choose to sell," Taylor said. "We are investing in skill sets so that we become more collaborative in assisting the customer in identifying the value they are going to receive in this transition to a new financial marketplace."