“Solution providers” beware

A lot of leaders are talking about updating their brands, repositioning themselves or re-engaging as marketers as they come out of the recession.  Some of these conversations sound a lot like those we had frequently in the early and mid-90s: companies talking about moving further up the value scale by positioning themselves as what used to be called “solutions providers.”  In other words, they want to be differentiated by expertise rather than just products.

A lot of CEOs trying to make that transformation during the earlier period became frustrated that their people wouldn’t “stop selling boxes.”  The change can be a great strategy for the right companies but there are a couple of things that many learned the hard way.  First, consultative selling requires different skills, tools and incentives – either your box-sellers need different training or you need different people.  The act of buying consulting involves different calculus than buying products – the selling has to adjust.  Secondly, so does the marketing.  It’s not that the four P’s don’t apply, but it’s helpful to consider a fifth one: perspective.  Marketing intellectual capability is about demonstrating what you know and how you think. 

IBM was a computer manufacturer that underwent a massive transformation and is now all about Building a Smarter Planet.  Check out its website, which is heavy on thinking and learning, or its barely branded blog (look for IBM hidden at the bottom). Dell is still selling hardware; its website is focused on products and shopping.  To see the an extreme example of thought leadership, try the consulting pioneers McKinsey, whose site is a monster of knowledge management.  (Interesting that ex-McKinseyite Louis Gerstner led IBM’s shift.)

Being able to solve customer problems can be a great differentiator, and every company wants to spotlight differences as they look to reposition themselves.  They just have to remember that, to really make that shift, they have to act differently, too.

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