Solutions Marketing: 6 Keys to Creating a Playbook that Solutions Salespeople Will Use

Sales Playbooks have been around a long time, but there seems to be a new resurgence of interest in using Playbooks to support solutions sales.

In our work with companies who have invested in solutions-based Playbooks, we believe paying attention to the following elements will significantly increase your chances of getting your sales force to adopt and use the Playbook, resulting in shorter sales cycles and new revenue opportunities:

1. Make it all about the customer

We’re not sure why it’s still necessary to remind solutions marketers that everything they do should be customer-focused, but too often solutions materials only partly reflect the customer’s point of view.  The main purpose of a solutions Playbook is to facilitate an effective dialogue between sales and the customer.  Everything in the Playbook should focus on the customer’s business problems rather than features and functionality. In the best case, a product name never even appears.

2. Involve sales in every step

It’s a sales playbook, right?  Wouldn’t you assume that means you need to involve sales?  You’d think so, but in the rush to meet launch deadlines (or, in some cases, a long-held opinion that sales doesn’t have much to contribute), some marketers continue to develop playbooks with little or no sales involvement.

Good sales people already know how to do solutions selling.  The Playbook is for the 30% of the sales force who, with some help, can learn to do what the top 10% does instinctively.  To ensure that the information and guidance from sales will be most valuable, make sure you solicit three points of view – sales management, the top sellers and the average sellers.

This applies not only for the content but also the design of the Playbook.  Don’t let designers decide how the content should be organized.  This is a work tool, so real sales people - preferably from the target audience - should help you create something that is accessible and intuitive.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t use good design, just that usability should be the overarching objective.

3. Don’t try to include everything

The purpose of a sales Playbook is not to provide every piece of information sales reps need to advance a sale or to replace good sales coaching.  Rather - at best - a good playbook is intended to

  1. shorten the time it takes for sales people to understand the company’s solutions offerings,
  2. help them target the right buyer,
  3. help them prepare for and hold an effective initial conversation, and
  4. give them easy access to other tools and resources they might use during the entire sales cycle.

We recently worked with a large technology-based company to create an innovative “layered” approach to a 7-page interactive Playbook.  The first page is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of the Play, containing a very brief description of the customer’s problem, the company’s solution, key differentiators and high-potential targets.  This page also contains links to supporting tools such as the customer-facing presentation.  If the sales reps don’t go any further than this page (and it takes less than 30 seconds to read), they can get all the information they need to understand and start the discussion with a prospect about the solution offering.

Remember - it’s vital to start with a very clear idea of  the essential elements of a Playbook, then work with sales to organize those elements in the way they’re most likely to be used.

4. Make sure the sales environment is supportive

Playbooks don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re part of a sales ecosystem that either supports or doesn’t support the solution sale.  Even the best designed and written Playbook will fail if you just distribute it to the sales force and hope for the best.  Instead, you must clearly understand the sales process and the context in which the Playbooks will be used.  Then you must do everything you can to ensure that other factors support, not thwart, the objectives of the Playbook.  These factors include:

  1. Steps in the sales process and how the playbook supports each step
  2. Sales management agreement to use the playbook in account planning and coaching
  3. Compensation and rewards that align with the play objectives
  4. Availability of Subject Matter Experts who can provide technical or industry-specific support
  5. Appropriate technology is available to support the access, use and updating (e.g., internal portals, iPads, etc.)

5. Train, train, train

Producing a high quality, well designed Playbook is only half the battle.  You must also spend a lot of time and resources on training and measurement to make sure the company gains the return they should expect from investment in a Playbook. As part of the adoption process, we suggest you create a training situation where sales reps are required to work with the Playbook in a real-world simulation.  And don’t forget to train the sales managers.  Behavioral change requires repetition and reinforcement, so you must continue to communicate and demonstrate how using the Playbook can help sales reps accelerate the sales cycle.

6. Measure and refine

Metrics should have been set initially based on your objectives for the Playbooks, but then you have to measure them.  At a minimum, you should be measuring Playbook usage, pipeline and revenue.  A tagging field in the sales management system is helpful, but shouldn’t be a substitute for on-the-ground monitoring and proactive solicitation of feedback.

Your Takeaways:

Sales support documents and Playbooks have been around since….well, almost since companies have had sales departments!   What we’ve seen, however, is that marketers have felt compelled to match the complexity of the solutions they’re offering today with equally complex – and ultimately confusing – sales Playbooks.  In fact, I’d urge you to think in reverse.  Help them deal with the complexity of the solutions offerings with a Playbook that

  1. has clear and simple messages,
  2. is straight-forward and easy to navigate, and
  3. reflects how salespeople think and behave.

It actually takes a lot of work to do this instead of producing an everything-but-the-kitchen sink version, but your sales force will thank you!

We’d love to hear about your experiences in creating Playbooks.  What’s worked?  Where have you had problems? What are your thoughts on  the key elements listed above?

Comments (9)

Patricia Bezerra

During the last couple of years, articles, lectures and panels have emphasized the importance of integrating marketing and sales people and being customer-focused. Why are we (marketers) still not listening to sales and customers to prepare communications materials? I worked in the pharmaceutical industry where propagandists (customer-facing professionals) receive print and electronic communications materials to use them during doctor visits. The materials were prepared and sent by the marketing team. Guess what? Propagandists did not use the materials. The Regional Sales manager got tired of fighting with the National Sales manager about the materials’ content which was not relevant to doctors and did not help propagandists to do their job. As a result, the Regional Sales manager told his team that they did not need to use the materials every day, but they should when the National Sales manager show up during the visits. In this way, the Regional Sale manager avoided fighting with the National Sales manager, who avoided fighting with the marketing team, but did not solve the problem. The company was spending a lot of money on materials that were not being used and missing the opportunity to please the customer by finding solutions that could be efficient to propagandists and relevant to customers. Is it an organizational structure, culture, ego, management or process issue? How can we solve the cause of the problem?

Daniil Brodovich

All these 6 points are very clear and totally make sense. The involvement of sales team in the creation of a Playbook is crucial for the success. This approach gives not only better insight and support for the Playbook, but also making sales feel involved in the creation and drawing some sales people to promote it with in sales department. The problem why sales are not always involved in the process is often about the time. It takes longer to negotiate and develop materials if you'll have to collaborate with sales. More over, you'll have to make an effort to persuade sale to work on it and overcome an attitude that they are not a part of what marketing is doing. In order to help marketing and sales to collaborate more and sales use the playbook, sales have to understand the real value of it and how it beneficial for them. Perversion with charts and training might not be enough to help them in that, and some other elements need to be added in order to involve sales. One of the great ways which might be used is to involve your most trusted clients into this process. The article "Solutions Marketing Success Story: Leveraging Your Clients to Learn how to Develop and Sell Solutions" explains how this client involvement positively contributes to this understanding. We have to understand, that if sales do not follow marketing recommendations it is likely that the core problem is not in sales, but in marketing. It is likely that on the stage of development or delivery of the Playbook or anything else the mistake of misunderstanding appears. If this mistake happens often, than the changes in marketing department it self are needed to be done... There could be a problem not only in the communication, but also in the content or focus, and there is a need of understanding of new realities which sales people are facing today. There are two great articles related to this shift on the forum "Is sales enablement dead?" and "Solutions Marketing: The four P's are OVER".

Roland Devenyi

Very interesting post. I know people in the dental equipment supply industry. Sales representatives visit the dentist offices on a regular basis to supply them with the materials the dentists need. Those are low scale things such as toothpastes, tools, and other equipment that has a relatively high turnover compared to the larger investments. The company I am talking about is the second largest in its country (in Europe) and they have cut down considerably on their sales force, as they have realized that those repetitive purchases (even though they always have a unique element to them), do not always require the time of a sales rep travelling and making the deal. The financial crisis obviously has been another reason. Recently, the remaining sales reps were given iPads, to better demonstrate to their clients the offerings of more complex and capital intensive equipment. So far it has been successful, but their "playbook" according to my knowledge is not as customer (and therefore solutions) oriented, but the whole process is about meeting deadlines. I will translate this post and forward it to them, as I believe it will be greatly appreciated! Thanks

Graham Kretchman

One of the basic techniques we used when I was in banking software sales in Thailand was to focus not on the product; after all, the language barrier meant complex forward facing push sales were both difficult to communicate to reps and not well received in the culture by the client. As a response we put together a similar play book for Thai associates- offering the solution in both verbal communication, dual language, and supported by easy stepped graphics. The reps really got it thought it was low budget. Key takeaway for me was that these are fairly easy to construct and produced good result especially in mixed language situation.

Gregory Dowling

Often I see a strong discrepancy between external customers and colleagues. I fully agree with the two first keys of this blog that start with the two most important stakeholders: external customers and sales colleagues. Early in my career I was inspired by my mentor who told me that your colleagues are often your most important customers. In this case the your sales colleagues are the ones who make or break the play book. Therefore, I fully agree with involving them in every step. One mechanism to improve the understanding between solutions marketeers and sales people would be to change roles. Let a marketeer do at least one sales project. Suddenly he will feel the importance of being included by marketeers.

Caryll Mullings-McDonald

Being in sales for nearly 10 years the concept of the playbook is near and dear to me because IT WORKS!! The 6 keys steps are spot on. The hard part however is not creating a good play book, that the sales team likes and buys into, its about getting them to use it. I can be harsh because I am within the ranks, but by and large even the best of sales persons can be lazy, they will go after the low hanging fruit and if they are selling well, they will adopt a "if it aint broke why fix it" mentality. This may not be done on purpose, but under the pressure of a sales meeting, potential commissions and stressful targets it is easy to slip back into your comfort zone. No one wants to risk a trial situation with their pocket. So what then? What I have found works is not just train, train, train - but practice practice practice. All sales people will kill me for saying this but the CONSTANT use of roles play is one of the most powerful ways to force sales people to use the playbook. It allows managers to have their sales people practice and also check and test if they are actually doing it in the field. If you are not using the playbook, then when you try to pitch with it you will not be as smooth nor as skillful and you get shown up very quickly in a role-playing environment. Only when the verbiage, the thought process and the steps come naturally will the sales people use it and that will only come with practice, which will only come (sorry to say) with enforced role-play by the sales manager.

Manuel J. Oliveira

Great points and great comments. Building upon what Daniil said, there is 2 types of key collaborations here. The first is of course between sales and marketing, and the second will be with the client. To address this, I think one should first understand the relationship among these three players, and more important, what is the "chain of service" among them. What I mean by "chain of service" is basically understand who serves who, or who is the customer of whom. It is quite clear that the company, through its interface, the Sales people, serves the customer. For that, understanding and involving the client is a crucial fact. The first point of this post explains it well. However, the same way Sales serve the client, marketing should know their "customer" is the sales people, and try to address their needs. This would not only facilitate the work of Sales, but also internally reinforce the culture of "make it all about the customer". Therefore, when involving Sales in the different steps of building a Playbook, marketing should perceive sales as the consumer of that playbook, and not just as a simple division of the company.

Brian Hegstad

I think that this article is well developed and highly relevant to today's selling environment. I have worked in sales and this kind of tool is critical to have in order to create continuity and consistency within the sales force. I love that the author took the time to accurately identify the critical success factors, especially the part about not trying to include everything. The playbook is something that the sales force should know front to back, without even looking at their copy. In keeping it simple they are able to give a consistent message to all of their customers. I have always been a fan of the KISS theory, "Keep It Simple Stupid." If you try to over-complicate the message, your customer might get lost in the jargon and miss the big picture.

Christoph Liesche

Thanks for such a nice guideline to create and implement a Sales playbook. However, and I agree with Caryll that the playbook also needs to be used. Otherwise, any well thought-out playbook is worth nothing when not being used and applied. The success of selling solutions finally stems from the sales force's capability to have AND use the tools the right way. However, every sales person has their own way of dealing and negotiating with customers and sometimes even playbooks don't prepare for all cases possible. Accordingly, I believe a very generic playbook can help to prepare sales reps for the very generic problems and sales techniques that arise. In addition to that, every sales person should be required to force an individual learning process by adding insights and personal best-practice ideas into the playbook. By doing this, more sales challenges can be identified and the playbook can be improved over time.