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Five Key Solution Sales Competencies

1 Sep, 2010 By: Teresa Hiatt, Ricoh Americas Corporation

Five Key Solution Sales Competencies

Competencies are used in two ways in a typical business environment.  First, a business will identify the competencies required for a particular job role so that they can recruit and hire people that have evidence of these competencies. By creating a hiring profile with the right skill sets, the odds of hiring and retaining a top performer are greatly increased.

The second place a competency model is used is in the design of training for a specific job family, so that the courses being delivered helps further develop the skill sets that the job actually requires. This saves a lot of money that is typically spent on training that people enjoy, but doesn’t deliver results in the field. For the “solutions sales professional” (including MPS solution sales specialists) there are five key competencies that should be hired against, actively encouraged, and form the focus for any strategic education plans.


 1. Sales Activity- While all sales managers agree that adequate sales activity is important, the biggest room for improvement is the ratio mix of activity.  In the past, sales reps spent most of their time prospecting, “feet on the street” cold calling, and using shortcuts to close deals. Today the solutions sales professionals must adjust their activities to focus more on conducting real needs assessment while building on customer relationships.

Recruiting and training should be focused on finding and developing the skill sets associated with understanding a customer’s business and conducting needs analysis of business environments.

This summary can be used against a sales professional’s actual activity to reveal if they are solutions focused.

See below: Activity and then Percentage of Time Spent
Finding and Qualifying Customers - Traditional 30% / Solutions Provider 20%
Learning Business Goals & Needs Assessment - Traditional 5% / Solutions Provider 30%
Preparing Proposal/Quote - Traditional 20%  / Solutions Provider 20%
Closing the Customer - Traditional 40%  / Solutions Provider 10%
Building Relationships - Traditional 5%  / Solutions Provider 20%

2. Business Acumen- Closely related to sales activity, solutions sales professionals need to be able to understand a business model to perform good needs assessments. A recent white paper from the Perth Leadership Institute argues that the economic downturn demands that the development of business acumen should be the top priority. E. Ted Prince, founder and CEO of the institute said, “When times are good and money is plentiful, the focus is on interpersonal skills because the priority is not on profitability. When times are bad, the focus needs to move to business acumen because company survival is often at stake.”

Every sales force conducting business-to-business (B2B) sales today should be trained in business acumen and have a fundamental knowledge of financial statements and business accounting. Sales people need to understand how their ability to offer new products and services increases gross margins, how the use of company resources impacts margins, and to be able to demonstrate to customers the links between implementing solutions and financial outcomes.  

3.  Technical Knowledge- Historically, sales reps have left technical knowledge of products and services to the role of pre-sales technical support (sales engineers).  The solutions sales professional does not have that luxury.  Solution selling requires an understanding of combining products and services in unique combinations. It is too costly to involve a technical resource for every prospect, so sales professionals in this new model must have a basic understanding of the capabilities of the products and services that might meet a customer’s needs. Obviously, the sales professional will not be the main resource providing technical details, but a savvy customer expects fundamental competency from a sales person.  

A good way to judge sales force readiness in this area is to query how long it has been since a sales professional has attended a real hands-on workshop, lab or onsite instructor-led training on products or services?  If it has been more than one year ago, the sales force is more than likely reverting to box-selling. There is some concern with a move to the more cost-efficient, but less effective, eLearning-only training models. Caution: not all are credible or enriching. Sales staffs can end up with topical knowledge that can break apart when faced with a real-world customer asking for in depth information.

4. Account Management- Sales professionals in the solution provider model have to plan out their strategy with customers. They need a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) process and it needs to be used effectively; meaning sharable between technical resources, management and other sales team members.  

When you find a sales rep hoarding account information in a local-only ACT, Goldmine or even a personal folder, they are not approaching accounts strategically. Solution selling can often require a team of resources, including 3rd party providers. Without the ability to prepare a proper project plan, or assign tasks to the right resource and track the execution of the plan, important details can be lost. A good interview question for a potential sales hire would be to ask, “What CRM tools have you used successfully?”  It will be easy to tell by their answer whether this sales candidate will be able to manage accounts strategically.

5.  Building Customer Relationships- The final factor that truly defines a solutions sales professional revolves around how he/she develops customer relationships. Traditionally, salespeople close a deal and then file the customer away to resume the relationship months or years down the road when the customer will be in the market for equipment again.

Under the solutions provider model, the sales professional follows up during the install, ensures that the value promised is delivered, and continues to review the customer’s environment for incremental improvements. They become a trusted adviser to the customer and build true customer loyalty. As indicated, 20% of a sales professional’s time is spent growing deeper and wider into the customer account.

One easy tell-tale sign for existing sales teams is to review recent sales histories and see how often the salespeople are expanding existing customers into other services and products, not replacing previously sold equipment. If it is rare, this is a great opportunity to conduct Trusted Advisor training with your sales force.

The five competencies listed here are not a comprehensive list of everything a sales professional should be, but it does highlight some of the more neglected issues that need to be addressed in order to be effective solutions providers today.

Teresa Hiatt is the Director of Sales Education at Ricoh Americas Corporation. She is also the current President of the Professional Society of Sales and Marketing Training: www.www.smt.org.

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