Here’s a simplified view of how this process works. Many customers are looking for solutions that don’t require customization in order to effectively address their business needs. Some customers are capable of using their own (or outsourced) resources to augment an existing solution and customize it to their particular workflow or challenge. Others simply don’t have the budget to do this and they are seeking solutions that closely fulfill their requirements.
In a government procurement process, this is known as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS). The concept is directly applicable to the commercial industry as well. Here the key is to design a solution that meets the critical needs for the bulk of the potential customers in the total addressable market (TAM).
Starting at the product or solution conceptual stage, Product Management uses a broad range of inputs and collaboration to generate a product plan. The product plan needs to ensure that the solution fulfills the needs identified in the market within the scope of development budget and a host of other constraints. Along the path to success, a further collaboration of Sales Engineering, Marketing, Sales and Product Management devises the details of the sales strategy. This sales strategy, for complex solution sales, needs to focus on Consultative Selling.
In defining the Consultative Selling strategy, it’s important to focus on the customer’s actual business problem. Naturally customers understand their business needs and problems, but frequently the root causes of the business problem may not be apparent to the customer. The Consultative Selling process aims to uncover the real sources of the customer’s business needs.
There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Henry Ford that says, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” The provenance may not be historically accurate, but it’s an apt illustration of the concept of Consultative Selling—and that’s where the value of Systems Engineering really shines in a commercial organization selling COTS solutions.
Now the need for Systems Engineering becomes apparent. The Systems Engineer, (often known as the Sales Engineer), needs to find creative ways of identifying customers’ core business problems. The Systems Engineer then identifies which of the customer’s core business problems are specifically addressed by the value proposition of the solution offering. Further analysis by the Systems Engineer will uncover the gaps between the customer’s needs and the solution’s specification. The difference between what the solution does and what the market needs is known as Product gap. When evaluating this on a case-by-case basis for a particular customer, I refer to this simply as a gap analysis.
The Systems Engineer must apply Consultative Selling to uncover the customer’s needs, perform a gap analysis to identify any short-comings with the solution offering, and finally apply creativity to minimize or eliminate the gap. It’s harder than it sounds and requires an astute and insightful approach. Frequently, it requires addition of third-party products to make the solution comprehensive and ensure that it addresses the salient business needs uncovered by the Consultative Selling process.
Experienced Systems Engineering methodology is key to the managing this process for the success of commercial organizations. Ensure that your Sales Engineering team is well-versed on the Consultative Selling methods and employs sound Systems Engineering practices—this will help to ensure success.
-Bastian (Bart) Stassen
25 Oct. 2014