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Developing Tailored Made Solutions to Increase Sales

Developing Tailored Made Solutions to Increase Sales

To grow a business, there’s a need to improve the commercial capabilities.

Solutions selling is fast becoming the norm for many B2B players, driven by commoditizing product markets, shrinking margins, and increasingly complex customer demands. Companies in industries from chemicals to medtech are developing individually tailored combinations of products and services to meet customers’ needs more completely and grow sales. Yet for many of them, solutions selling has not yet delivered on its promise. Why not?

A series of analyses and benchmarks have been developed and has made it clear that the answer to this question lies in the fact that most solution-selling companies have less developed commercial capabilities than their more transactional peers.

That is a significant shortcoming, since analysis has also clearly shown that commercial capabilities are closely correlated with solution-selling performance. One company analyzed, for example, was a commercial real-estate company with above-average commercial capabilities as well as a compound annual revenue growth rate of more than 15 percent over five years—four times the average for its market. That kind of connection between commercial capabilities and performance came through again and again in the analysis.



Analysis of solutions providers delivered a clear message: if you want to grow your business, improve your commercial capabilities. Success hinges on three main factors.


Build the Right Institutional Capabilities

“Good products sell themselves,” says an old adage. While there’s obviously an element of truth to that, there was a need to learn more about what capabilities are most important in solutions selling today. Thus, 101 B2B companies across eight capabilities, from strategic marketing to commercial support, plus four enablers, from organization design to information systems were benchmarked and the following leapt out.

  • An average B2B solutions provider does not outperform its product- or service-focused counterpart in commercial capabilities,  but lags behind. The gap between the top and the average solutions provider is even wider. In other words, solution-selling companies have great potential to unlock value by boosting their commercial capabilities.
  • The gap between average and top performers is far greater among solutions providers than transactional sellers in innovation and product management. This confirms that, for solution-selling companies, customer-backed innovation and constant renewal of products to meet customer needs are key differentiators, in which insights from sales provide the competitive edge.
  • Solution-selling companies seem to have marketing programs that struggle to support sales effectively. Value propositions that sales reps can take to their customers are often difficult to tailor or quantify, nor are they modular.
  • The biggest gap to close between top and average performers lies in managing channel partners. In solutions selling, channel partners may struggle to understand their role in contributing to the value proposition and solutions. If training channel partners to sell your portfolio of products is important, it is even more so for solutions.

Improving commercial capabilities isn’t just relevant to customer-facing sales teams but also to entire end-to-end sales processes. One professional-services firm struggled to manage global sales across its broad portfolio of solutions and decided to address its organizational effectiveness. It discovered that salespeople with queries often had to wait two or three days for a reply from their lean technical-support team, even for high-priority bids and customers. To reduce these delays, the firm set up a cross-functional team of service experts, marketing specialists, and salespeople, led by a newly appointed presales project manager who acted as customers’ main point of contact. This dedicated role meant that when a customer had a question, there was someone responsible for quickly getting them an answer, which cut response times way down. Under the new setup, queries were resolved within a day, helping the firm cement its reputation as easy to do business with and an expert in its field.

Cultivate the Right Individual Skill Sets

If a wide gap in institutional capabilities separates top solution-selling companies from average performers, does the same gap exist for individual reps’ selling skills as well? To find out, a survey was conducted and the following were revealed.

  • Solutions providers are less confident in their commercial skills than their counterparts at more transactional organizations. The focus on the technical and operational side of the business may, in practice, prevent solutions players from developing best-practice commercial acumen among its sellers. This is especially true early in the deal cycle—account planning, prospecting, resource management, and pipeline management—where solution sellers lag their transactional peers. Even when both solutions and product sellers are well prepared, the complexities of selling solutions require greater selling skills.
  • Top-performing solutions sellers excel at understanding customer needs, delivering on the value proposition, and negotiating and closing deals compared to their more transactional peers. When moving to solutions selling, these are the skills that need to go above and beyond the best practices of transactional sellers and require active training of the sales force. All these items center around clarity of value created for the customer and how to price that over the lifetime of the product.

One digital-solutions provider was able to grow its business by a double-digit percentage every quarter simply by hiring more sales staff. But when sales growth started to slow down, the company decided to analyze its selling skills and discovered big variations between reps. Closer examination revealed that they were given little support after onboarding and that the company had weaknesses in its performance measurement, training, and coaching. By comparing reps’ sales proficiency with sales outcomes, the company found it focused too heavily on prospecting and could achieve better results by refreshing reps’ product knowledge, equipping them with proven tactics for negotiating prices, and improving their ability to handle customers’ concerns. After upgrading sellers’ skills, the company saw revenues rise by more than 4 percent.

Dedicate more Time to Customer Interactions

Despite the attention it has received in recent years, improving the way sales reps allocate their time is often overlooked in sales-effectiveness efforts. Yet even the best reps need enough time in front of customers to deliver distinctive results.

To uncover the obstacles that prevent reps from dedicating enough time to selling, their most value-creating activity, an analysis was conducted on how they spend an average working week. And the following was found:

  • A typical rep spends less than a third of the working week on sales interactions with clients, with transactional sales reps having the edge over solutions reps, with scores of 29 percent and 22 percent, respectively. This highlights how much still needs to be done to relieve sales reps of non-sales activities through, for example, industrialized, streamlined, and effective sales operations as well as motivating them to take greater advantage of support.
  • Not surprisingly, reps at solutions providers spend far more time on sales preparation than transactional sellers do: 28 percent of an average week compared with 21 percent, respectively. Cutting that time requires adopting easy-to-use tools, such as value-proposition modules, customer-value calculators, and solution configurators.
  • Some reps were able to spend twice as much face-to-face time with clients as the average for their peers—up to 45 percent for top-performing solutions sellers. Make time management more transparent so that the sales force is aware of how their time is spent and can better see how to strike the right balance in activities.

One chemicals company was concerned when it discovered that its reps spent less than 13 percent of a typical week interacting with clients. That meant just five hours dedicated to direct selling activities and 35 hours spent on non- or less-value-adding tasks. The company found the biggest drain on reps’ time was aftersales activities: booking new orders into the system, chasing missing or incorrect invoices, and resolving issues. The answer was simple but effective: setting up a specialist team to handle postsales requests and free up reps’ time for selling.


In companies that excel at solutions selling, sales leaders typically do three things.

Get much closer to the customer to innovate

As B2B companies shift their focus from products to industry expertise, and as companies work with their customers to drive innovation, listening and inquiry skills become critical. For instance, one upstream chemicals company set up a new marketing organization to engage with its customers’ customers—the end users— to understand how its products affected the performance of the paints, inks, and other products they used. Armed with insights from this team, reps then spearheaded innovation by committing to project sales targets and cocreating solutions with each customer to meet their individual needs, enabling the company to double its success rate for new projects.


Maximize sales time for salespeople

The complexity of solutions selling can trap salespeople into spending the bulk of their time answering customer requests, orchestrating internal activities, and reinventing the wheel for every new pitch. Smart companies avoid this trap by transforming their sales operations, customer support, and marketing as they switch to solutions selling. They work hard to focus sellers’ time on the actual selling interactions with the customer. When one high-tech company moved its customer support from local sales offices to a central organization, it improved efficiency, response time, and quality. By locating customer support next to its training center and introducing clear career tracks for staff, it deepened its expertise in helping customers and left reps to do what they do best: sell. 

Quantify each sale in terms of customer value and lifetime profitability

To close deals, reps must be able to translate each solution into value for the customer and profitability for the company throughout the solution’s lifetime. One power-equipment company moved from selling products and services to offering digital systems for operating the grid. Rather than focusing on profitability at the point of sale, sales reps sought to maximize the system’s lifetime profitability using a tool to calculate annual capital-expenditure and operating-expenditure savings for each customer. The company won a big deal by helping the client understand which of its costs mattered most: the price of the land needed to house its equipment and the travel expenses incurred by its maintenance engineers. With the company’s help, the customer achieved substantial savings by reducing their buildings’ footprints and installing remote monitoring for maintenance optimization.

How Businesses can thrive in a world of continual turbulence

How Businesses can thrive in a world of continual turbulence

In the face of rising uncertainty, businesses should get ready for the unexpected; To build resilience, accelerate productivity improvement and operational flexibility.

Economic and business uncertainty is rising across the world. After more than a decade of strong growth, expansion in many major economies has slowed significantly in recent months. Businesses are feeling the repercussions of political and economic tensions, from disputes over trade to questions over the growth trajectories of economies from China and India to the European Union and the United States.

At the market level, meanwhile, further forces are at work. From the rise of e-commerce in retail to the impact of alternative power trains, new mobility solutions, and autonomous driving in the automotive sector, few industries have been spared the impact of technological disruption. New digital technologies are also reshaping the way operations are done, with sophisticated automation powered by the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, or the use of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence technologies to support or augment human decision making.

These changes bring significant opportunities as well as risks. In response, companies in multiple sectors are already transforming their products, processes, and business models. Now they need to go even further, accelerating internal initiatives and pursuing new forms of collaboration with customers, suppliers, and partners. With so many variables in play, however, the challenge for many organizations will be to learn how to thrive in a world of continual turbulence.

The past provides a clue. Some companies have made structural, strategic, and operating decisions that dramatically improved their ability to perform in the face of volatility and uncertainty. Businesses need to draw on proprietary research that shows how resilient organizations succeeded. It is important to understand that future challenges may require an even bolder approach, and that companies should strive to build greater flexibility into their end-to-end value chains.

Learning from the Past

The most significant period of volatility in recent history was the global recession triggered by the financial crisis of 2007. Over the ensuing 18 months, global GDP fell by 1.9 percent, its steepest and most widespread contraction in the modern era. Industrial output, trade, and investment plummeted in most developed countries. The US unemployment rate doubled.

Some companies rode out the turbulence far more successfully than the majority of their peers, however. In a research by McKinsey, an analysis was conducted on the performance of around 1,000 large, publicly traded companies from multiple industry sectors through the crisis. That research identified a subgroup of resilient organizations that delivered a growth in total return to shareholders (TRS) that was structurally higher than the median in their sector. The performance of these companies dipped less overall during the recession, and improved faster during the ensuing economic recovery. By 2017, the cumulative TRS lead of the typical resilient had grown to more than 150 percent over their non-resilient counterparts.

That difference wasn’t down to luck. Resilient companies were not insulated from the impact of the downturn: their revenues fell in line with their peers during its early stages. By 2009, however, the earnings of resilient companies had risen by 10 percent, while industry peers had lost nearly 15 percent.

The analysis suggests that these companies succeeded because they moved further and faster before, during, and after the crisis. In 2007, for example, resilient companies were cleaning up their balance sheets, reducing debt while most companies were accumulating it, and selling off underperforming businesses. They doubled down on operational effectiveness too. By the first quarter of 2008, resilient companies had cut their operating costs by 1 percent, while those of their peers continued to grow. That decisive action meant resilient organizations had access to more cash, and they used it wisely: maintaining their relationships with key customers through the recession and acquiring assets and companies from distressed rivals as the upturn began.

The past is not a Blueprint for the future

The experience of the past can inform companies’ planning for future challenges, but it doesn’t provide a blueprint for action. In part, that’s because history is unlikely to repeat itself in the same way. While there were significant regional differences in the impact of the 2008 crisis, markets and supply chains are even more fragmented today. Then there’s the digital difference. The large-scale adoption of new technologies, such as IoT, advanced analytics, and machine learning, is redefining the size of the opportunities available to companies, and the speed at which they can be captured.

Digitization can be a double-edged sword, however, helping outsiders slice through barriers to entry even as incumbents’ slash performance constraints. The steady annual productivity improvements that have become the norm in many manufacturing plants may not be enough to keep a company ahead in a world where digital tools are delivering improvements ten times faster. Put simply, yesterday’s bold moves may be too timid in the face of tomorrow’s challenges.

Building resilient value chain

Companies can’t avoid volatility and uncertainty, but they can, and should, take specific actions to build greater resilience into their value chains. We define resilience in this context as an organization’s ability to keep generating economic profit through cyclical and structural changes in supply and demand.

In practice, resilience has a productivity component and a flexibility component. High, and continually rising, productivity helps a company protect its margins, allowing it to ride out smaller changes and giving it the financial firepower to respond to larger ones. The flexibility of a value chain, meanwhile, is determined by its ability to continue generating profit under different supply and demand conditions. Can a company bring its costs down as demand falls? Can it ramp up output to take advantage of market peaks? Can it adjust its procurement activities to benefit from fluctuations in input costs?

The need for new metrics

Even companies that recognize the power of superior productivity and operational flexibility can lack effective tools to measure and evaluate them. Today, few organizations can claim to understand how flexible their value chains are compared to those of competitors, for example. Nor do they know where they should make changes in order to gain the flexibility they want.

We believe that the development of effective ways to measure, develop, and manage value-chain flexibility will be critical for companies over the coming months and years. It will also be challenging. Value-chain flexibility is multidimensional and context-specific. Measuring it will require detailed, granular analysis. In logistics, for example, flexibility might be affected by the fraction of material purchased from local suppliers, as well as by the nature of contractual arrangements with logistics-service providers. In R&D, key factors might include the percentage of engineering hours that are outsourced, as well as the size and duration of major ongoing projects.

Companies grappling with this complexity need a better understanding of where to target their efforts to become more resilient. Some automotive players, for example, have committed significant resources to their future electric and autonomous vehicle programs, potentially limiting their ability to cut costs in the event of a major fall in demand for today’s models. Over time, the index provides organizations with a way of tracking their progress and benchmarking themselves even as standards for leadership in flexibility and productivity continue to evolve.

The leaders of most organizations already understand the critical role that operations play in overall business performance. It is believed that the next frontier for many companies will be the development of operating models that embrace resilience: able to withstand shocks and capture emerging opportunities faster and more effectively than those of their competitors. Where should your organization focus its efforts? Providing answers to the three questions below may offer a guide.

  1. Which opportunities have been difficult to pursue due to a lack of resources or responsiveness in your organization?
  2. What are the most inflexible points in your current operations, and what are the underlying reasons for the rigidity?
  3. Where could the use of digital and analytics solutions achieve meaningful changes to the performance indicators that matter most to your organization?
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