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Fri 8 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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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.

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.

Fear not, for help is here in the shape of Channel Middle East's six-step guide to building an all-action sales team with the skills to make a fortune from solving customers' IT problems.

If it hasn't already caught your attention, the term ‘solutions provider' is rapidly gaining momentum among the first-tier channel in the Middle East.

Companies which were once satisfied with being referred to as ‘resellers' are now branding themselves as members of the solutions family in an effort to demonstrate that they truly have the answer to all of their customers' IT needs.

Astute resellers are quickly coming to terms with the fact that customers which once procured individual chunks of technology are now seeking the type of business solutions that ensure productivity and growth. Consequently, the reseller's call of duty no longer stops at providing a standard list of products, but round-the-clock support and complete IT management.

Given the increasing sophistication of end-users, it is perhaps no surprise that the term ‘solutions provider' has become the de facto alias for resellers eager to stress that they are more than just a product-pusher.

But any resellers who assume that getting in on the solutions act requires nothing more than a new corporate tagline and some slight rebranding are wildly mistaken.

As true solutions providers will testify, transitioning to a business model that involves delivering a delicate mix of hardware, software and services presents more than its fair share of obstacles - none more so than when it comes to constructing an effective and flexible sales force. While recruiting product-focused sales people might not pose a massive problem in such an expansive industry as IT, the challenge is comparatively tougher when it comes to solutions experience.

"It is quite difficult to find people who are well-placed to sell solutions," admitted Sami Abi Esber, president at Abu Dhabi-based IT group MDS, echoing a sentiment likely to strike a chord with other resellers in the Middle East. "We are facing a problem in finding resources, however we are investing a lot in training our people - mainly people with technical backgrounds that know how to find the right solution for the customers."

Indeed, it takes more than your average salesperson to successfully sell IT solutions and such personnel are rarely found in abundance, as many resellers will attest. Selling solutions requires a methodology or approach that is based on the needs and challenges of the end-user rather than standalone products or services, creating a need for a more sophisticated sales force and supporting resources.

The ideal characteristics of a solutions sales person will vary from reseller to reseller, but you can be sure that it all boils down to finding an individual capable of processing an organisation's business needs, comprehending the technology available and designing a solution that delivers the strongest benefit - in a way that bears the most profit for the company of course.

Resellers which have already built a successful solutions-focused proposition argue that a solid technology or business background, an understanding of market dynamics, and soft skills such as communication, negotiation and public speaking represent the key ingredients required to be a competent solutions sales person.

"A solutions-focused sales person has to focus more on the customer's needs than the offering of the vendor," admitted Hani Harik, president and CEO of Emirates Computers. "A solutions-focused sales person needs to have more in-depth knowledge of the customer's business and to help them adopt technology that enables innovations such as driving results, not just satisfy a technical or functional requirement," he added.

TN Rajan, division manager for enterprise computing systems at Alpha Data, says there are certain qualities that any solutions sales candidate must exhibit to stand any chance of success. "Somebody who has clear account visibility and is reactive enough to sniff out an opportunity - those are skills you require in enterprise sales," he said.

"When it comes to a fresh graduate or somebody who has only been used to selling product then the sort of attributes we'd look for would be an aptitude for learning, a persistency quality and the stamina to look for opportunities and follow up. We're talking about somebody who is never happy unless they are selling a solution, but who doesn't get disappointed and show desperation to close a sale."
An assertive personality is also a useful characteristic, simply because of the need to approach customers, understand their IT infrastructure and provide consultancy. The persuasive nature of product-focused sales staff can therefore prove valuable if channelled properly.

"Turning a product-focused sales person into a solutions-focused sales person is very difficult, but it is not impossible," said Abi Esber at MDS. "People who will be successful are those with a business knowledge background and technical knowledge background."

That emphasis on business or industry knowledge continues to be regarded by many as the most important factor.

Bruno Haubertin, partner and alliances sales organisation manager at Sun Microsystems MENA, commented: "If you want a solution sale in the telecommunications sector, you need to make sure that your sales person understands who the top three ISVs are in the given solutions range or who the top ERP sellers are - they need to understand the ecosystems. Selling solutions is only possible in a high-touch type of model where the reseller and vendor are very close and work together almost in synergy," he added.

For many resellers, the route to a solutions provider model is a gold-paved one that potentially dilutes dependence on product margins and increases the possibility of securing long-term, recurring contracts.

A reseller capable of morphing into a solutions model is also ideally-positioned to command more support from the growing number of Middle East vendors seeking partners focused on value rather than volume.

6 steps to solution selling

1. Galvanising the troops

Any reseller underestimating the contrasting qualities between product-selling and solution-selling can wave goodbye to their prospects of success before they've even started. For the vast majority of resellers taking their first steps towards building a solutions-focused sales force, the natural strategy will be to pluck product-based sales staff from their existing posts and transition them into new roles.

That approach is perfectly logical, but only if it is managed carefully! For instance, product-focused sales staff are accustomed to being measured on volume targets, so transferring to an environment where that emphasis is significantly reduced could cause contention. Resellers need to set out a common agenda of where the company is heading so that employees can follow clear objectives.

Although small resellers might not have the luxury of being able to make wholesale changes, larger contemporaries must show a degree of ruthlessness if necessary. If a sales person is resistant to change and won't buy into the solutions concept then they must either be placed elsewhere in the organisation or released altogether.

Should they prove perfectly capable of making the transformation to solution-selling then it is vital that these employees are managed closely and receive constant training. Failure to provide those basic fundamentals will simply give them reason to revert back to their former product-selling sales habits when the situation occurs.
2. Training for success

If resellers do choose to go down the path of attempting to convert their product sales staff into solution-selling employees then the transition will only turn out to be a smooth one if a comprehensive blend of training, education and guidance is provided.

Companies take it for granted that technical staff need training to acquire the knowledge they need to do their job - and the same attitude needs to be taken where sales staff are concerned. Sales training, for both new recruits and former product-sales staff, has got to be taken seriously or it will hamper the reseller's long-term goals. Whether it's account management skills or technology sales training, a standard curriculum needs to be available so that sales staff are able to develop the proficiencies they need to be part of the solutions team.

Hani Harik, president and CEO at Emirates Computers, insists that training programmes are necessary to ensure that sales staff who start out in product roles are taught the additional skills they require to market IT solutions.

"Product-focused selling has its challenges and builds basic sales instincts within an individual - those instincts include competitiveness, benefit-selling and closing techniques," he said.

"Once a sales person proves themself on a product then they could be initiated into solution-selling by being placed on a training programme that includes foundation technical knowledge, strategic account management, solution design basics, technology-to-business mapping and industry insight," he suggested.

3. Getting the reward mechanisms right

Let's face it, sales incentives and commission structures make sales people tick and it's the same in the IT solutions business. The difference, however, is that while product-focused sales personnel generally achieve financial bonuses for the quantity, specification or value of goods they sell, solutions staff work to different criteria.

It is not an impossible job to transform product-focused staff into highly competent salespeople, but if the internal remuneration systems are not structured sufficiently or become misaligned with the rest of the company's objectives, they will fail to serve their purpose.

A solutions rewards system needs to take into account longer sales cycles and reflect key performance indicators such as gross margin, product and service mix, account development and customer satisfaction.

Enterprise reseller Alpha Data, for instance, has designed a weighted incentive programme that encourages solution selling among staff. "We operate a special value-based solutions sales scheme which allows more money to be earned from selling solutions, even if somebody else has sold three or four times the same revenue in hardware," said enterprise systems division manager, TN Rajan.

Making a remuneration system flourish in a solutions-focused environment also requires every member of the organisation to correctly interpret their role in the sales cycle and clearly understand what part they have to play in delivering the overall solution.

4. Extolling the virtue of teamwork

While selling single product lines or technologies may be an isolated job at times, solution-selling is completely the opposite due to the number of stakeholders involved in making sure that all aspects of the solution are designed, managed and implemented correctly.
"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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