For nearly a decade, we’ve seen high technology companies struggle to make the transition from primarily selling products to creating and selling solutions-based offerings. As companies have adopted a more customer-centric business model, the role of solutions marketing is rapidly gaining momentum as a critical position within the marketing department of many B2B companies.
We first tracked the emergence of solutions marketing as a critical marketing function in the high-technology sector. The drivers that made solutions so important to technology companies, however, have spread in recent years to a wide range of industries, including health care, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and many others.
A First-Ever Survey of Solutions Marketers
In collaboration with ITSMA, a leading marketing association for the technology sector, and with additional support from three universities and industry associations, we recently conducted a web-based survey of professionals with direct solutions marketing experience. We gathered responses from 133 qualified solutions marketers who represented more than 125 companies in over a dozen different industry sectors. These companies were in the B2B market, and 75 percent of them reported revenues exceeding $1 billion.
Our First Insight From the Survey: The Importance of Solutions
Understanding solutions marketing is important simply because solutions offerings are getting a bigger and bigger share of companies’ portfolios. Eighty-five percent of the respondents said that solutions were extremely or very important to the future of their companies.
How is sentiment of importance reflected in their business operations? More than two-thirds of the respondents stated that over 40 percent of their total revenues came from solutions sales. With a growing revenue base generated by solutions, companies are staffing up in response. Well over two-thirds of the respondents indicated that their companies have increased the size of their solutions marketing staff over the past two years, with some of the increase coming from “net-new” hires while others used existing staff in these new roles.
The CMO Dilemma: Who Should You Hire to Manage Your Solutions Marketing Activities?
The problem that we’ve seen at the CMO level is how to staff these new solutions marketing positions. Our research has shown that there are 17 marketing competencies that are either significantly different or completely new between the roles of product and solutions marketing. Given these differences, staffing has become a real challenge. Some of the questions that our CMO clients have had to answer in identifying the right professionals to put in these roles include:
- What are the key skills and capabilities they need to have?
- What prior experience should they bring to the job?
- Who should they report to?
- Should they be compensated at the same level as product or services marketers?
Solutions and Solutions Marketing: Understanding the Context
In order to appreciate the recent surge in interest around solutions marketing, it’s important to understand how we define the word “solution” in the context of B2B activities: “a combination of products and/or services with intellectual capital, focused on a particular customer problem, and driving measurable business value for customers.”
The Profile of a Solutions Marketer
The primary objective of this survey was to understand the type of person who was able to successfully market solutions, as well as his or her key challenges. The survey unearthed three characteristics that make solutions marketers stand out from most other marketers:
• Number of years spent as marketers—On average, solutions marketers noted at least 16 years of marketing experience. This indicated that companies were giving solutions marketing responsibility to their more senior, more proven marketing professionals.
• Type of marketing experience—Nearly two-thirds of solutions marketers working for product-based companies reported that they had experience in marketing both products and services. This confirms the need to understand both types of marketing approaches in order to effectively market solutions. Surprisingly, 50 percent of the marketers from the non-product based companies—professional services companies and systems integrators—also indicated that they had experience in both areas.
• Reporting relationships—The overwhelming majority of solutions marketers who took our survey appeared to have direct-line reporting responsibilities up to VPs, SVPs, and C-level executives.
The solutions marketers also responded that they have hard jobs; nearly two-thirds of survey respondents viewed solutions marketing as more challenging than product marketing.
Solutions Marketing Challenges
Since most solutions marketers felt their jobs were harder than product or service marketers, we followed up to find out what made it so challenging.
The survey participants felt their biggest challenges were people related rather than process- or technology-based. They spent a considerable amount of time on internal communications, getting the sales and delivery teams to understand how they need to operate differently, and getting the business units and channel partners to collaborate more. Given that these challenges were chosen as the most difficult and important, it wasn’t surprising that 67 percent of the respondents felt that having strong interpersonal skills was the most important competency for a solutions marketer.
Understanding the Role of a Solutions Marketer
Despite the importance of solutions to the future of the organizations represented in the survey and the significant increase in the numbers of solutions marketers within these companies, the role of a solutions marketer was still not well understood. More than 50 percent felt that only their peers in the marketing department understood and appreciated their role and what they contributed to their company’s success.
While we didn’t have an opportunity to dig very deeply into this issue, one potential factor might be that the role of solutions marketing was, on average, only first introduced to the companies six years ago. This is a relatively new marketing function, and it appears that in many companies there is still a strong need to articulate the role, responsibilities, and core activities of these professionals.
The Keys to Successful Solutions Marketing
Based on our survey, it appears that solutions marketing is a critical but very difficult function within marketing. To be able to successfully create, market, and sell solutions, solutions marketers in the future will be required to:
- Build up both product and service marketing experience before taking on solutions
- Be an evangelist; market internally to help others both inside and outside of marketing understand the role of a solutions marketer
- Learn specialized skills and training in order to take on the unique tasks and responsibilities associated with solutions marketing
Steve Hurley is the Managing Director at Solutions Insights, Inc. Hurley, a leading expert on solutions and solutions marketing, has worked over the past 10–15 years developing and implementing innovative methodologies and tools that have enabled companies to transform their business models to be more solutions-focused. In 2009, he established Solutions Insights, Inc. a consulting and training company that works with companies in a diverse set of industries on solutions sales and marketing issues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.