Solutions Marketing: The Skills Gap Between Product and Solutions Managers

Developing new products is a well-defined, broadly practiced business activity.   Over the past decade, structured processes have provided the guidance that product managers have needed to create new products with increased efficiency and unparalleled levels of quality. The Stage Gate methodology led that way, and has been subsequently followed by the PACE approach and then the “process du jour” – Agile Product Development.

While these processes have been hugely beneficial to developing new products…..what about solutions?  Can highly experienced and skilled product managers apply what they know about creating new products to developing robust solutions?
Let’s step back and remind ourselves what we mean by the term “solutions”.  We subscribe to the definition that was crafted by ITSMA:

A solution is a combination of products, services, and intellectual capital, focused on a particular customer problem which drives measurable business value.

Since solutions marketers are usually either responsible for or at least have a major role in the solutions development process, they have a stake in how solutions are created.  While product development professionals know how to hit the bull’s eye with their product initiatives, the expected output of the solutions development process is clearly different.  The complete focus of a traditional product developer is, of course, the product.  A solutions developer, however, must deal with possibly several products and services – all integrated in a way that creates an entirely different experience and value for the customer.  Unfortunately, it also can be a nightmare experience for a product manager.

In interviews with a wide range of solutions-oriented companies, we discovered that moving from product to solutions development is not a “natural act” for many product managers and marketers.   At best, they are asked to work outside of their comfort zone.  At worst, they are expected to apply methods and skills that they simply don’t have.  In either case, the results could be disastrous.

Eight Competency Differences Between Product and Solutions Development

In the chart below, we lay out the 8 competencies that product developers need to have in order to be successful in creating complex solutions offerings.  We’ve laid these differences out in 3 distinct groupings: pre-solutions creation, the solutions creation process itself, and post-solutions creation.

Solutions Development Competency Requirements

Getting From Here to There

Given that every company that we talked with was experiencing a significant problem in finding qualified solutions managers, one would think that there would be a slew of remedial actions and programs underway to correct the problem.  We were more than surprised, then, to discover that only 1-2 of the interviewees stated that they had formal training and certification programs in place to help them fill this competency gap.

Our conclusions?  We have two that we think are worth passing on:

1.If you are actively developing complex solutions today, evaluate the skills and competencies of the people you’ve assigned to do it, especially if they have been building your new products in the past.  You may be surprised to find out that they aren’t really up to the task.

2.If you already realize that you have a problem, then don’t expect that it will resolve itself over time.  Deal with it the same way you would if you discovered that no one on your marketing staff knew how to create effective value propositions – train, test, and re-enforce!

Comments (4)

Gregory Root

Steve: Thank you for another thought provoking article. Unfortunately your Eight Competencies chart was missing content from the right side so it is difficult to see you entire thought process. In your article you state “Since solutions marketers are usually either responsible for or at least have a major role in the solutions development process, they have a stake in how solutions are created.” Just to be clear here, the solutions marketers have a stake in how the products and services that make up the solution are created. In my mind, if solutions marketers are only involved in how the solution is developed, it is too late. The ship has left port without them. Here’s a simplistic example. A few years back, the manufacturers of rugged mobility devices began incorporating accelerometers in their devices. From a product marketing standpoint, these accelerometers were cool because they automatically changed the orientation of the display based on how the user was holding it. It took a little while for the services people to realize that this same technology could be used to help them understand why a device came back for repair – was it dropped for an extreme height, thrown against a wall, or kicked across the floor? Suddenly the service teams were able to provide additional value by reporting back to the companies why their devices were breaking and to suggest remedial training to specific employees to keep them more productive. It was a product attribute that created new service value and small solution was born. The weak link in the usage of any solution is still the person using it. We have all kinds of great technologies that monitor and manage networks, smart phones, and laptops. Automatic updates to applications is now the norm, and hardware and software has gotten amazingly powerful in the past decade. What only a few companies are doing is monitoring how a person is actually using these tools, the errors that they continually make, the number of times they enter data before they get it right. It has been estimated that people only use about 20% of the capability resident in any technology – ITSMA identified this almost 20 years ago as the “Technology Assimilation Gap” and I’m not sure solutions marketers are going to get the respect they deserve or the resources they need until the solutions start addressing this part of the equation. So this may be the next frontier as well as the missing link in true solution development and marketing. Getting there, however, will require solutions marketing people to become more involved and influential in the product development processes so that these sorts of capabilities are built in and easily reported on as part of the service. They are going to have to earn the trust and respect of the product and service development teams by really understanding the technology, how real people are using it, and how the history of innovation inside and outside of their industry changed things. This is a very long-winded way of agreeing with everything you said about a skills gap. It might be worthwhile for the leadership to stop emphasizing skill and start focusing on attitude – attitude expressed in a desire to learn, an insatiable curiosity, and the ability to work with and influence others.

Steve Hurley

Great comments, Greg. You're spot on in talking about the need for Solutions Marketers to have an impact in shrinking the Technology Assimilation Gap. As you mentioned, that gap existed 20 years ago and it's still with us today. Almost by definition, the role of a Solutions Marketer is to identify, analyze and reduce this gap. The other point that you brought up that I thought is well worth noting is that there is not only a competency gap between product and solutions marketers, but also a behavioral and attitudinal gap. While it's relatively easy to train staff on the mechanics of how, when and where to market a solution, it's much harder to change the intangibles -- their biases, impact of past experience, etc. I agree that unless this is addressed, product marketers will have trouble succeeding in a solutions world.

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Denise Chiong

This was a very insightful and helpful article especially for a product marketer like me who is eager to explore options in solutions marketing. It is true that going into solutions marketing entails more attention to detail. This does not only pertain to having a deeper customer insight, but rather, knowing your solutions offering in a much greater level. Coming from a product marketing background, I can imagine how difficult it can be to shift into solutions marketing. First of all, creating a value proposition is challenging for a solutions company because, unlike in product marketing, crafting a value proposition for a solutions company is not only about describing the product, it's about delivering the total customer experience in a simple yet credible manner. I agree with the article that the key to success lies in proper training and collaboration. As a solutions marketer, you have to be aware that adapting new marketing strategies takes time and practice. Furthermore, as a solutions marketer, you also have to be willing to collaborate not only in the organizational level but with external partners as well. Reading this article has equipped me with a greater knowledge of how I can improve on my skills as a marketer so that I can explore opportunities that I may have in the field of solutions marketing. This has given me the re-assurance that although the shift to solutions is not an easy one ,it is definitely possible and attainable through proper training and patience.