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Uncommon Sense (for Software)

This blog has been moved to www.UncommonSenseForSoftware.com.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Customers don't buy "solutions", they buy products and services. May the best products and services win.

Several years ago, I remember being enlightened by some Marketing folks about "solution selling". The idea is that there are some strong advantages to elevating the discussion with prospects from simple feature lists and head-on comparisons with other products, to the broader topic of which "solution" is better than the other "solutions". See, a "solution" is fuzzy concept. It's really hard to quantify a solution, or say with certainty that one solution is better than another solution. Unlike feature lists. With feature list comparisons, one product typically comes out quantifiably ahead. Not good if yours is the weaker product. And so for many companies, solution selling became a great way of taking attention away from the feature lists (where they didn't look so good) and also made them feel like they were taking the high road. "Oh, Mr. Customer, feature lists aren't important. Look over here."

Over the years, I allowed myself to be convinced of this tidbit. After many years of working in the enterprise software space, I've come full circle and no longer believe it. Customers don't buy solutions. They buy products and services. The reason they buy products and services instead of solutions is that in the buying cycle, they typically only hook up with a prospective vendor after they've gone through the first few steps:

  • Feeling the pain of some problem

  • Understanding what that problem is in broad strokes

  • Looking around to get at least a light understanding of what some of the categorical solutions may be

  • Choosing the most suitable "category" of solutions

  • Begin researching products and services in that category

For example: If I have the problem of not being able to get everywhere I need to go with the two legs I was given at birth, then I don't start looking around for a "transportation solution". I already know enough about the various categories of transportation options (bikes, cars, buses, motorcycles) to weigh the various pros and cons of each, without ever talking to a vendor. If I settle on the idea of a car, then a bike vendor is going to have a real tough time convincing me I should go with a bike instead of a car. But, I've still got several car vendors and products (and services) to choose from, so there the selling game begins. Either I approach a handful of vendors on my own, or they "pull" me in with various advertisements, cold calls and free x-boxes with the purchase of every new vehicle. By that time, I'm a qualified lead. I'm not so much looking for a conceptual "solution" to my transportation problem, I've already narrowed it down and I'm now looking for a product or service with which I can solve my own problem.

Sales people know that it is way too costly and difficult to "create" demand. They land more sales and get bigger commissions by seeking out prospects that already have demand, and have determined what kind of "solution" they need. They are now at the product (or service) comparison stage. Now it's your product vs. the other guy's.

Besides. If a legitimate business problem is "we can't keep track of each time we interact with a customer", then most businesses figure out on their own that a CRM system is a categorical solution, and then enter the product comparison stage all by their lonesome, without the CRM company having to do too much to convince them that they actually need to keep track of all their customer interactions in the first place. And as further proof, I submit to you: When's the last time you saw a contract or invoice that read: "Ability to keep track of all customer interactions = $50,000". No, but many read:

  • Server license: $10,000

  • User licenses: $30,000

  • End-user training: $5,000

  • Telephone support: $5,000

There we go. They bought products and services. Not a solution. It's the things that appear on the invoice and in the contract that they actually bought. Not what problem they intend to solve with those things.

The reason this is significant is because it informs some strategic decisions for software companies. If you're selling a "solution", you're probably one of those companies that doesn't put a feature list, sticker price, or screen shots of your product on your web-site because you feel it cheapens you. You expect prospects to call you to ask to get a demo from sales rep that's going to hound them until they either buy or tell them to bugger off. I can tell you from experience, droves of possible customers will turn away without going past your front page if there aren't clear links to some or all of those things prominently displayed on page 1. The reason is, they don't need you to tell them what their problem is or what the solution is. Rightly or wrongly, they already believe they know, and now just want to easily compare your product (or service) to someone else's. I really can't see why hiding important information like that is a smart move.

In the last year I've gone looking through several product categories: Project Management software, Content Management software and Web-site Tracking software to name a few. Those companies that thought they were selling me a "solution" to "knowing my Web-site visitors", "creating predictability for my projects", or "consistent customer service" and hid their key feature lists, screen shots and price from me, didn't get more than 5 seconds of my attention. I don't have time to call a sales rep for each of the 20 products I want to have a peak at. Nor do I want to give you permission to keep emailing me or calling me just because I asked you how much your product was or if I could see some screen shots. If all of that kind of information is hidden, then I proceed to assume: it's too expensive, too hard to get started, and I generally won't like the product.

All this to say, put the focus where the customer is going to put it. On the product. What does it do? How does it do it? Is it easy to use? How much does it cost? What's better about it than the competing products? The one exception to this rule is if you're in a space that is so entirely new that consumers in general haven't even figured out that they have a problem yet, or what any possible solution may be. In which case, you've got a lot of education to do before you can sell anything, and I don't envy you.

It's not that I'm advocating your message and materials should only consist of a price and feature list for comparison shoppers. But somewhere in between the two extremes of completely abstract solution selling, and totally comoditized selling of a bag of features, lies a happy medium, where the focus is still on the products that solve the problem. Being "product" (or service) focused with your messaging doesn't just mean you're a list of features and nothing more. In fact, many times, products with less features are better than their bloated competition. The magic is how those features (I prefer capabilities to features) are sewn together in ways that are more useful, valuable or easier to use than the competition. Those things translate into competitive edge.

The funny thing is, I hear from several Marketing folks as they flip through product web-sites, particular technology companies' sites, a snort of contempt: "They're all so product and feature focused. They don't understand solution selling. They need to elevate the discussion." Actually, I think they just know their audience and want to make it real easy for them to make a qualified decision. If your product is weak, then invest in making it stronger - don't go hiding it from plain site behind a lot of abstract "solution" talk. Stand by your product, and at the end of the day, may the best products win.


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