Forget Your Product: Start Selling 'Solutions' Instead

It's time to shift from pushing products to creating genuine connections with people -- using these four steps.

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By Sona Jepsen

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Transforming your team's approach to sales requires a shift from just pushing products to creating genuine connections with people. And those genuine connections don't include fraud and mistrust.

Related: 5 Ways to Align Marketing With Sales to Close More Deals

Along those lines, consider how 2016 had its share of the shady sales practices that dog the business world. From the Wells Fargo case of opening fraudulent accounts, to the allegations surrounding Trump University throughout the recent election, multiple examples of unfair sales tactics made front-page headlines on a regular basis last year. And 2017 probably won't be much different.

The latest dust-up? It's hitting the pharmaceutical industry, where Alexion Pharmaceuticals has been accused of falsely inflating the success of its drug, Soliris, which now costs $455,000 for a year's worth of treatment. This is the second class-action lawsuit to hit the company since November, and its stock market share has taken a serious hit.

While these examples may seem like extreme aberrations, the culture that incentivized them is not. Many companies have archaic systems and compensation strategies in place that drive sales teams to act in ways that aren't in their customers' best interest.

But sales don't happen in a silo. All departments -- from marketing to research and development to customer service -- have to work with sales to create true value for customers.

And that's a message that has to be spread, because the way the world does business today is changing at a rapid pace, and buyers' expectations are changing right along with it. In turn, ill-equipped companies tend to respond to these increased pressures by doubling down on old practices and hoping for the best.

But that old way of operating is not sustainable. To achieve the aggressive sales growth that many companies require, sales departments need to stop trying to sell products and start selling solutions.

The difference a solution can make

At first, the difference between selling a product and selling a solution may not be apparent -- after all, aren't most products created to solve problems?

But most products are designed as one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather than working to fit each individual customer's needs, products are usually made to be "good enough" for the widest audience. Solutions, however, combine products and services. They're designed to help the customer every step of the way, ensuring that each customer's unique problems are solved by the journey's end.

Selling a solution requires that companies fundamentally change how they do business: Instead of pushing products, they must create genuine connections with other people. The solution-selling methodology requires lasting relationships with clients in which the goal is always to find new ways to help.

Solution selling in action

I've seen the benefits of this system firsthand, watching my sales representatives help customers unearth and comprehend their most compelling problems. Switching to this methodology has forced our company to take steps to recognize and end the cross-functional dysfunction that previously went unnoticed.

Making the transition isn't easy, but the alternative can be disastrous. Here are four steps that will help smooth out that transition, turning a company stuck in the past into one ready for the future.

1. Prepare and qualify.

Treat sales like customer service. This means anticipating customers' needs and having a greater understanding of their issues and challenges than they do, themselves. To properly implement a solution-selling methodology, every member of the sales team needs specialized knowledge and expertise. Apple, for example, has trained its salespeople so successfully that many companies have chosen to copy its entire model.

Make sure that every lead coming from marketing is properly qualified. That way, sales teams can do their due diligence and remain experts for every customer, while early-stage leads will remain with the marketing department until they're truly sales-ready.

Related: Why 'Smarketing,' or Integrated Sales-and-Marketing Strategy, Is the Future for Small Business

2. Offer the buyer new ideas and perspectives.

A pervasive myth in sales is that the more knowledgeable clients are, the more likely they are to shop around and find an alternative. In actuality, improving customer knowledge has the inverse effect, fostering trust in a company and its products.

By assuming a teaching role, the "solution representative" becomes a trusted partner in a collaborative process. I work with a sales rep who exemplifies this mantra, helping customers recognize their pain points, anticipating and responding to potential problems, and aiding the entire process of implementing our solution. This enables the rep to offer a new perspective -- and can lead to more business from thankful customers.

3. Shatter archaic structures in every department.

The solution-selling methodology isn't just for the sales team; it's a prescription for the whole company. As such, any silos or archaic compensation strategies that impede solution selling should be rendered obsolete.

Leaders must be open to critically evaluating everything about their companies, including command structure and culture. This can be tough -- especially if the company has enjoyed a good ride. But sometimes, even if a company's culture isn't broken, it still needs to be fixed in order for the company to move forward.

Fruitful solution-development relies on open communication and broad inquiries. If there's evidence that the flow of information is being impeded, do whatever you need to in order to open those channels.

4. Create a sales liaison role.

Sales success hinges on marketing's ability to generate enough qualified leads. For this to happen, marketing needs to be clear about the sales team's needs, such as its communication preferences and demographics. The two departments should also engage in a free exchange of best practices.

A sales liaison -- one who works within the marketing division but can relate to both -- is an essential part of ensuring that this understanding occurs. This employee is the key to relaying the necessary sales information that will enable the marketing team to create initiatives that advance solution-selling goals.

Related: Aligning Sales and Marketing Needs to be Your Priority

Embracing a customer-focused ideology is more than just good PR. It's the path forward for every company wishing to embrace today's disruptive world. The modern customer is looking for tailor-made solutions, and it's about time startups took that to heart.

Sona Jepsen

In-house to Outsource Banking Sales Program, FIS

Sona Jepsen is responsible for the inhouse-to-outsource sales program at FIS. Her team empowers FIS’s clients with the knowledge, expertise and results of moving their technology needs to FIS, where those clients enjoy higher security and greater business efficiency.

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