Or even so-called consultants. When I entered this business thirty-some years ago, clients were more dependent on advice from their A/E service providers. We provided critical support as both consultants and designers. In subsequent years, our consulting role has waned as clients solved more problems in house and turned to us simply to implement the solutions they had in mind. Not surprisingly, this trend has corresponded with the growing complaint in our ranks that design services are becoming increasingly commoditized.
But I wonder, in our industry at least, whether the apparent demise of solution selling has as much to do with us as with our clients. Did prospective clients start rejecting our counsel, or did we stop offering it? The HBR article provides a clue. The key, the authors write, is to get involved with clients before the problem or need has been fully defined. Help the client diagnose the problem and its business implications, identify viable alternatives, and jointly develop the best practical solution.
That's not new advice. It's largely a matter of timing. If you engage the client after the need and solution have been defined—and certainly after the RFP has been released—there is little left to discuss other than the details of fulfillment. That's a sure path to commodity selling. I suspect that the purported death of solution selling has more to do with longer sales cycles and sellers showing up late to the game than clients no longer valuing our advice.
That's not to suggest that clients aren't more sophisticated and sources of information aren't more readily available. It is indeed harder than ever to create special value for clients, especially if you rely only on your technical service offerings. Clients today want more comprehensive solutions that deliver business results. Anything less is likely to be viewed as a commodity purchase.
So how can you retain your role as a valued solution provider during the sales process? A few suggestions:
Understand your client's business. This is a real challenge for many A/E firms that have little market focus. While there are advantages to serving multiple markets in a sluggish economy, it limits the value you can deliver to clients—unless you have highly specialized expertise that is not commonly available. To be a valued solution provider, you need to connect your technical services to achieving business results. That's possible only when you understand your client's business.
Help clients uncover hidden needs and opportunities. The more familiar clients become with the problems you solve and the solutions you offer, the less valuable they are. That's inherent in the product/service life cycle. You enhance the value of your services when you're able to uncover needs or opportunities that the client has overlooked or doesn't really understand. This includes better defining the implications—business, operational, personal—of the technical problems your firm specializes in solving.
Become a trusted advisor. Building trust is critical to moving beyond commodity selling. The first step is putting the client's interests before your own. Focus on helping instead of just selling your services. You obviously need to have insights and expertise that the client lacks. And you need to be able to connect that expertise to business outcomes, as noted above. Finally, you need to be diligent in finding the best answers you can. If clients can find the information and insights they need on their own, why do they need you?
Collaborate across disciplines. Many A/E firms have multiple disciplines under one roof, but struggle to effectively integrate them in developing comprehensive client solutions. It's a problem in project delivery, but even more acute during the sales process (evident in the common difficulties of cross selling). To succeed at solution selling, you need strengthen cross-disciplinary collaboration, even if this involves going outside the firm. Just as you want to engage clients early, it's advantageous to build your team early and demonstrate the benefits of that collaboration to the client.
I'm not ready to accept that solution selling is passé, because if you're not selling solutions as a professional service provider, what are you selling? Perhaps this is where the commoditization trend in our industry starts—during the sales process. Our failure to serve prospective clients through help and advice instead of just selling to them devalues what we do. It also drives clients to seek solutions on their own.
If we can't be better informed, equipped, and helpful in the areas of our own expertise than clients are, then we can hardly complain about being viewed as a commodity, can we?