Solutions Marketing: 4 Keys to Effective Collaboration and Communication

commm.fwTrying to get any group of corporate managers and executives to productively collaborate can be challenging. Since all of them are accustomed to running their own show within their BU, geography or Division and getting their way, it can seem like a nearly impossible task. As a solutions marketer, it’s not only your job to get senior level business leaders to play nicely with one another, but also to agree on the best way to collaborate with their products and services to form an ideal solution.

Let’s look at one example – VCE. An acronym for Virtual Computing Environment, it’s a joint venture company formed by EMC, Cisco, VMW  and Intel to develop, market and sell a specific cloud-based solution.   They all have very different cultures, operating styles, and go-to-market strategies.  And they all have their own channel partners and resellers, which in total number in the hundreds.  To be successful, they all need to not only be on the same page, but also work together effectively and enthusiastically.

The Need for Strong Collaboration and Communication Skills

Here’s the typical situation -- you are, or were, responsible for product or services marketing.  Now you’ve been asked to develop and market a solution that integrates multiple services and products, requiring time and assets from different groups across the company. To effectively convince senior-level business leaders to drop their egos and collaborate with you, you’re going to need to break out the four essential C’s of high-level communications.

  1. Connection
  2. Curiosity
  3. Context
  4. Clarity

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1. Connection:

Effective collaboration is founded in trust, and it’s your job to give everyone at the table a good reason to trust both you and one another. The most effective way to build trust is through human connection: we are more likely to trust people we know personally.

It is not just a nice idea to build relationships; more importantly, it helps you get your job done with less strife and more ease. The more trust we have, the more we have an open exchange of ideas about potential solutions as well as for how we can work together and find common interests. As Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy asserted in her research, “ideas flow through the medium of trust”.  As the trust becomes stronger, you’ll find your stakeholders are quicker to assume any setbacks are the result of honest error, not malicious intent.

Here are some suggestions for increasing connections between solutions stakeholders:

  • Set up one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders. It is much easier to have a more personal conversation with one or two people than it is in a larger group meeting.
  • Take note of the other person’s communication preferences and follow suit when working one-on-one. Do they want to jump into the agenda or do they seem more inclined to talk about social topics at first?
  • Ask questions to find common goals, interests or experience. What past projects have they worked on? Who do you know in common?
  • Find simple ways to show your constituents what they have in common. Once you know your stakeholders better, connect the dots for them so they can start building trust between one another.

2. Curiosity:

Effective collaboration comes from each party understanding the others’ points of view. The deeper the understanding, the more likely they are to acquiesce to one another’s needs. To build that understanding, pique your curiosity about your collaborators. Ask open-ended questions about their work, get their opinion about a general area of expertise, and encourage them to talk about their overall goals and ideas.

Curiosity is also an excellent stopgap for a collaboration killer: assumption. When you think you know what the other person wants and why he wants it, you’re likely to jump ahead and offer a solution based on those assumptions. If you’re wrong, your collaborator isn’t just going to turn down your offer; he’s going to be offended that you made the assumption in the first place. Being curious enough to ask why he wants what he wants is an excellent way to both build trust and avoid misunderstandings.

I have 3 suggestions for helping you better understand all the stakeholders:

  • Ask questions to understand what matters most to the other stakeholders involved. This simple approach prevents you from assuming that you know what the key issues are.
  • Notice what upsets people or what they get particularly excited about. This will be an indicator of what matters most to them.
  • Ask open-ended questions.  Questions that include what, how, when allows the other person to give a true opinion in their own words, which is better than stating your assumption and asking a close-ended question for confirmation (“You are aligned, right?”).

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3. Context:

Not surprisingly, starting off a meeting with what you want is the quickest way to shut down collaboration. Frankly, no one at the table cares what you want; everyone there is invested in what he or she wants.  You want to give your collaborators a vision of what you can all achieve together.

Once everyone is excited about the larger vision, you can drill down into the specific steps or requests necessary to make that vision a reality. When your collaborators understand how their efforts contribute to the bigger picture, it’s easier for them to understand their role and how to contribute.

Here are 3 suggestions for ensuring your solutions constituents understand the context of their involvement in the solution:

  • Start your meetings by briefly restating the larger purpose for the solution. It helps if these “big dogs” know what they’re hunting for.
  • When new people join a project, ensure they understand how they fit into the big picture.   Don’t let them flounder and try to figure it out by themselves – they’ll inevitably get the wrong information.
  • Create visuals that help people see how the different pieces fit together and produce the whole solution.  Images are a much more powerful communications tool than words in getting everyone on the same page.

4. Clarity:

You’ve set the context, cultivated curiosity, and built solid connections between you and your collaborators. Everyone in this project respects one another, understands where the others are coming from, and believes in the bigger vision.   The next and final step is to make sure your requests are crystal clear, especially when you start asking people to take action. As a solutions marketer, being crisp and clear in your requests is critical when collaborating with multiple people from different business units, geographic units and external partner companies.

Here are my suggestions to ensure that there is clarity among your solutions stakeholders regarding the situation and the actions required:

  • Be clear about the three W’s: who, what and by when actions will be taken.   Any good cub reporter knows that these are the best questions to quickly get to the information that everyone wants to know.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of other stakeholders and think about how they may hear your request.
  • Check for alignment by hearing from each of the key stakeholders about what they see as the challenges, requirements or requests they have.  This is much more than summarizing for them and running the risk of misunderstanding.

The collaboration challenges that you face as a solutions marketer are significant.  By focusing on the four C’s (Connection, Curiosity, Context and Clarity), you’ll increase the efficiency and productivity of everyone who is important in developing and implementing your solutions agenda.

About the Author:  Heather Andersen works with leaders to leverage powerful communication, emotional intelligence and influence so they can create a visible impact in their organizations. As an Executive Coach she works with senior leaders in multinational companies and in the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Programs. She can be reached at

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