By Barbara Pellow June 21, 2006 -- The printing industry is being redefined, driven largely by influences of rapidly evolving information technologies. This means printers can no longer expect business to improve when the economy does. Drastic changes in how printers manage their businesses are vital to success. I recently re-read Guerrilla Marketing Excellence by Jay Conrad Levinson, where he reviewed the 50 Golden Rules for small business success. His Rule # 4 explains the major transformation that printers and their sales people need to make as the market undergoes redefinition. The successful firm is driving solutions sales. Guerilla Marketing's Golden Rule # 4: It is far easier to sell a solution to a problem than sell a positive benefit. According to Levinson, "Right now the products and services that are attaining the most success are those that help people quit smoking, lose weight, earn more money, improve health, give the appearance of growing hair, eliminate wrinkles, and save time. These are problem-solving products and services." So What is "Solutions Selling"? Solutions selling sounds like a buzzword, but it is actually a formal sales methodology that aims to help salespeople get beyond selling products and become more like trusted advisors to their customers. Solution selling has three critical components. 1. A sales force inspired to sell strategically 2. A strategic selling process 3. The ability to offer and deliver a customized offering A sales force inspired to sell strategically Graphic communications service providers need to either hire or develop strategic sales talent. A strategic salesperson has to know the industry, the players, the trends, the opportunities and the challenges related to their field and have the confidence to apply those to real-life problem-solving and planning. The tactical salesperson has a firm grasp of sales skills, the product and unique benefits, sales tools available and competitors. Strategic skills take time to acquire and come not only from a combination of knowledge and creativity, but real-life experience. The salesperson needs to have the ability to see the big picture, ask the right questions and communicate the value of a proposed solution to business executives in their own language. Nothing compares to personal involvement in multiple successes (and even failures) in terms of having some chance of predicting the potential success or failure of a new idea. You may find individuals that don't have the knowledge, but have the inspiration. As an owner, development of a solutions selling process may require patience and the management team often needs to adjust their expectations during the transition. Managers in the solutions selling process need to be sales coaches rather than "sales screamers." The most successful sales managers take a mentoring approach. They work with salespeople to identify and qualify opportunities and help them succeed as opposed to simply driving sales by numbers. The salesperson needs to have the ability to see the big picture, ask the right questions and communicate the value of a proposed solution to business executives in their own language. A strategic sales process A solutions sale involves an honest analysis of a prospect's objectives, needs and situation to impartially determine whether or not your product or service makes sense. Instead of spending much of the early communication time on selling print, more preliminary time is spent asking questions that both help establish your credibility with the client and help you qualify the prospect in terms of true potential. If solution selling is done right, the actual product or service you want to sell may only come up in passing. The emphasis needs to be on how well the overall solution addresses customer needs. A sales person cannot solutions-sell unless the client truly believes he would walk away if the product or service does not make sense. The ability to offer and deliver a customized offering The final differentiator of a solution is its degree of customization. True solutions providers acknowledge that not all customers are identical. Solutions providers typically offer some degree of customization to industry verticals or customer segments ranging from differences in marketing brochures to major differences in technical specifications, pricing and service levels. Digital print "solutions" providers offer highly tailored, customer specific implementation, typically to their very largest accounts. Success with customization means that you must have insight into the account, segment or vertical market and the business problems that your offering can solve better than any other alternative. Solutions providers have also identified enough customers in horizontal or vertical target markets where the solution can be deployed with minor modification. This means that the costs associated with building a custom offering can be more than offset with incremental revenue across multiple customers. A sales person cannot solutions-sell unless the client truly believes he would walk away if the product or service does not make sense. Solutions Selling Trade-offs McKinsey & Company published a report titled "Solutions Selling: Is the Pain Worth the Gain?" Its overriding message was that solution selling is not for the faint of heart, but that in today's competitive market, firms need to differentiate themselves. McKinsey summarized the pain/gain as follows: Potential Gain Potential Pain Value created by solution above and beyond the sum of the components or reduced cost of delivery creates increased margins. Cost of transitioning sales force to solutions model or replacing it altogether Ability to create greater business value for customers results in increased win rates and/or reduces competition. More strategic and consultative selling demands longer sales cycles New solutions enable you to address new markets that would not previously have been addressable Additional people and greater skill requirements imply higher sales and marketing cost Ability to serve customers more broadly provides increased share of wallet/deal size with them Need for distinctive solutions and execution excellence drives incremental investments in solution development and delivery Becoming a more strategic business partner delivers improved customer retention. Cross functional nature of solutions mean higher interaction and governance cost both internally and with business partners Taking on the Solutions Challenge Firms like One to One Gulfcoast have decided to take on the solutions selling challenge. The firm has established expertise in the not-for-profit market and a customization model built around variable data and personalization. Co-founded by friends Brian Weiner and Dana Place, this business was born in Venice, Florida, in October 2003. From a vision perspective, Brian and Dana wanted to offer innovative products that increased communications impact and response rates through the use of personalized text and graphics. They wanted to provide the tools to leverage customer knowledge to increase loyalty and retention while utilizing printed pieces that employ everything from simple personalization to 100 percent variable content. In developing its business model, One to One Gulfcoast looked for potential customers that had good data. With that in mind, Brian and Dana decided that One to One Gulfcoast's primary focus would be the non-profit market. It was a market segment where targeted campaigns could be very effective. According to Brian, "Some of the most data intensive organizations are non-profits. Non-profits tend to know a lot about their donors, and donors tend to select non-profits for personal or philosophical reasons. You can reach these donors with a knowledge-driven campaign and improve both response rate and the level of donation." One to One Gulfcoast has proven to clients that it can deliver value to the non-profit segment. Direct mail has long been personalized with the recipient's name, but the material inside is rarely customized to the individual. Most of these documents are sent out in large volumes, and response rates are measured in fractions of a percentage point. One to One Gulfcoast goes way beyond simply inserting a recipient's name and address into a letter. Its strategy employs known data about the recipient such as race, age, past donation history, and geographic location, weaving this information into the body of the letter along with the graphics each recipient is most likely to respond to. One to One Gulfcoast has generated excellent overall response rates–-in some cases 6 percent to 19 percent , says Weiner. Probably the most compelling message from Brian Weiner was the need to focus and differentiate your business with knowledge about a specific target market. Today, 20 percent of his revenue is sourced from print--and 80 percent is the result of the ability of One-to-One Gulfcoast to add value to the business results in the non-profit market. Weiner is delivering results for his clients as well as to his bottom line. Solutions Selling…Is it For You? While some might say that solutions selling is not for everyone, in today's highly competitive graphic communications market, it needs to be for you. Each and every one of your customers has some sort of business problem. Your company can be geared to solve at least one of those problems. You must first identify the right markets and solutions and the customization/integration "sweet spots." You will need to assess the distinctive strengths and execution capabilities you can build on. And finally, you will need to instill a culture that keeps the problem solving alive. It will need to be the core of your sales process, marketing materials, sales presentations and company mission. Solutions selling isn't just a buzzword any more. According to Guerilla Marketing Excellence, "The rule is so important to your business, it's golden."