Solutions Marketing : Should your Go-To-Market Strategy Include Social Media?

Studies continue to show that solutions marketers are looking to use social media tools as part of their go-to-market strategies. However, in a B2B world, where the offers are complex and expensive, has social media proven to be successful? Has it become core to how companies go to market? As part of our Solutions Marketing course at the Hult International Business School (HIBS), we interviewed nearly a dozen senior level Solutions Marketers about this issue.   The companies that we were able to talk with spanned a variety of industries, including  chemicals, telecommunications, health care, and IT.   Most of the companies were well known global corporations, including EMC, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Philips Healthcare, and several others that have strong brands.

Our Findings – The Focus is Still on Sales Skills and Processes

While social media has yet to show strong success in selling B2B solutions – we’ll get to this in a bit – nearly everyone we talk with said that their main go-to-market challenges revolved around the sales process.   The sales issues tended to fall into two buckets:

Some companies put this critical sales process in the hands of their third party distributors, while other organizations kept it in house with their own sales force.  All of the companies that used a direct sales model understood how to manage a “push” sales process -- having monthly sales meetings, weekly calls to talk about the pipeline, and other direct sales techniques.  A few of the interviewees said they had adopted a more customer-by-customer relationship development approach by investing in thought leadership to increase their visibility with these critical accounts. As one of the interviewees explained, “We’ve developed stronger relationships through thought leadership marketing and learned a lot about our key customers.  We now have a very good understanding of what their CEOs are trying to do, and we know their challenges; we have a fair idea of what is on their mind.   In the long term, this will enable us to grow exponentially into that account”.  Deciding whether to go with the direct or indirect model, and then determining the extent by which marketing should support the channel with thought leadership activities, seems to be the most burning issue the solutions marketing executives we talked to are facing today.
The solutions marketers confided that they were still struggling with helping the sales force to both understand the complex offerings and then be able to persuasively communicate the components and benefits to the customers.   “It is still a challenge in getting sales to sell solutions” a US-based solutions marketer said. “Solution selling is still an evolutionary process for us”.   He added that his biggest internal challenge was to align all the stakeholders involved in the deal itself, and to balance and figure out a compensation plan that would be fair and attractive for everybody involved. In several of the bigger companies that we looked at, one of the most important changes they made was transforming the sales force from having only a generalist point of view to a more specialist approach. In one company, for example, we were told that “everybody has to have a deep knowledge of at least one solution area. This was a complete change in approach and organization of our sales team, and helped us capture data better and gain a deeper understanding of our customer needs. It ultimately enabled us to develop more market-relevant solutions”.

The last issue that we were able to pull out from our discussions on getting the sales force to be more effective at selling solutions was the role of “overlay sales specialists”. These were industry subject matter experts who worked with regional product sales teams to present a broader, deeper solutions offering to the customers beyond just the products. As one of the senior marketers explained, “While we can’t expect the typical product sales person to have subject matter expertise across all of our solutions, the overlay sales specialists do have the expertise and they shadow and support the product sales”. Since adopting this model, he went on to say, the sales of real solutions has taken off.

The Impact of Social Media in Taking Solutions to Market -- Minimal

It appears that B2B solutions marketers are behind in applying social media tools and approaches.   A common theme among the respondents was that social media was way down the list of their priorities when taking solutions to market.  “Social media isn’t part of the communications channels that our customers use to get information”, one person observed.  For instance, one of the larger companies involved in the study used social media in getting visibility for a new solution but “it was not effective -- it just did not work”.  While the results of marketing social media had been spotty at best for our interviewees, most of the marketers we talked with hadn’t given up on it.  One senior executive said that “social media is becoming a science, but the road ahead is still long”. He was planning to gradually increase the use of these tools as information came online about its effectiveness and how to apply it.

Our Takeaways

Our biggest takeaway from the interviews with the solutions marketing executives was that taking solutions to market is a complex process that poses significant challenges for most organizations.  There is no single playbook that describes how to market and sell solutions, but getting a handle on how to do it effectively is a must for any organization that wants to adapt to market changes.  Social media, which is easily the most important new trend in marketing over the past 5-10 years, is only a part of what solution marketers need to consider when developing their go-to-market strategy.

Authors:
Clara Arroyave, HIBS, MBA 2013
Tracy Mehu – Hammonds, HIBS, MBA 2013

Graphic credit:
http://blog.processindustryforum.com
http://blog.forrester.com  

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go to market plans

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