Solution selling

Assembling a sales force capable of selling solutions is arguably the most difficult challenge for any aspiring ‘solutions provider' that is committed to delivering a balanced mix of hardware, software and services.

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By  Andrew Seymour Published  February 7, 2008

"Selling products requires a competent individual with good product and market knowledge. Building a solutions-focused sales force is much more complex because solution-selling is a team effort," said Harik at Emirates Computers.

"It involves sales, pre-sales or technical consultants, business or industry experts in some cases, technologists and bid managers," he added.

A fully-functioning internal solutions model is comparable to a new car starting out on a long journey. If all the parts work correctly and do the job they are supposed to then optimal performance is virtually guaranteed. But if one or more components fail then the entire operation could quite easily grind to a halt without any prior warning.

It is important for resellers to share their vision to everybody involved in the solutions process so that clear objectives can be followed. Sami Abi Esber, president at MDS, admits it can be difficult for employees to get used to at first, especially if they hail from a product-focused background.

"The sales cycle is longer in solutions, but once they have got used to it they feel that there is more money in the solution sale. You must have sales people working closely with pre-sales consultants, and even technical consultants, in order to deliver the solution."

5. Getting to grips with the business benefits

Let's get one thing straight, solution-selling is not about thrusting a catalogue of products in a customer's face and telling them which order codes to select. If anything, sales staff which approach a customer with a technology hard-sell are far more likely to walk away from the conversation empty-handed than they are clutching a lucrative IT services and infrastructure contract.

The most important aspect for the reseller to understand is the value afforded to the client's business from deploying the solution. If the sales personnel are unable to do that then the solution will fail technically and financially. Solutions-based sales people must be able to establish the business drivers behind a particular organisation.

Abi Esber at MDS believes the secret to prosperous solution-selling lies in strong technical and vertical business knowledge. "If you are selling to a bank then you should know the banking business; if it's an oil and gas customer you should know that business. For example, when it comes to our Maximo [strategic asset management software] business, our emphasis is on looking for somebody who knows the maintenance business, rather than their technical skills."

Resellers that can instantly identify a customer's economic and business needs will also be in a stronger position to earn more margin points from the deal. Pricing a solution based on the business deliverables rather than a cost-plus basis promises far greater rewards.

6. Promoting the ‘after' value

Making a fixed margin from project design, consultancy and implementation is obviously part and parcel of all solution sales, but any competent solutions sales person will know that the real money is made through the after-sales support and services. If the solution is truly critical to the customer's business then they will want to know that it is being properly maintained and supported long after the initial deployment has taken place.

Support contracts are also an ideal way of strengthening the relationship with the customer to ensure a recurring revenue stream of future products and services. As the solutions model becomes increasingly tied to applications, resellers will need to be capable of providing niche software to customers, even if it is done so in alliance with ISV partners.

Applications also lend themselves to future support, updates and maintenance, creating another long-term revenue stream that can be used to solidify the relationship with the customer.

"You don't sell a solution without support," said Bruno Haubertin, partner and alliances sales organisation manager at the MENA operation of server and software vendor Sun Microsystems.

"The support contract is very often up to 50% of the price of the full solution. That's also an element that you don't find when you sell pure product. If you have a complex solution in place a customer cannot survive if they don't have a three-year commitment that there will be on-call people available to fix any sort of problem they may face."

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