If the word “commoditization” makes you shudder, you’re not alone. Nowadays, an underlying goal of almost every seller’s strategy is to establish their business as a unique and critical customer resource—rather than a replaceable commodity. And solution-based selling is a great way to do it.


Instead of traditional feature-function-benefit campaigns, solution-based selling focuses on delivering value-added services that solve problems and meet specific customer needs. Yet how do you provide this extra TLC without a bigger budget and more staff? By using e-commerce as the foundation. Besides making it easier to offer the personal attention, multi-channel communication, and optimized buying experience customers want, e-commerce gives you accurate information about their purchasing behavior and preferences—so you can continually hone your content and approach to boost satisfaction and sales.


How can using e-commerce in solution-based selling benefit your business?

E-commerce capabilities equip you to deliver more of what solution-centric selling is all about, which translates to important benefits for you:

  • Makes you less replaceable. Through e-commerce, you become an intrinsic part of your customers’ procurement and payment processes, especially if you integrate. You also gain the resources to add real value—e.g., by helping customers better manage their spend, cut costs, and eliminate errors across the purchase-to-pay cycle—making it harder for another supplier to take your place.
  • Strengthens relationships and retention. Solution-based selling requires conversing with customers to learn their pain points, then offering ways to resolve them. But if your transactions are still paper based, customer interactions are more likely to revolve around fixing errors and logistical issues. The automation and efficiency of e-commerce change this equation, freeing you up to focus on more strategic concerns and deliver targeted, high-level benefits that make your customers’ lives easier.
  • Gives you the flexibility and resources to meet complex customer needs. Today’s informed and educated buyers expect sellers to accommodate a highly complex, rapidly changing buying environment. A solution-based approach with a well-developed e-commerce offering is exactly what the doctor ordered to help you meet this demand. For example, e-commerce automation lets you communicate with customers more frequently and effectively; create a customized, familiar purchasing experience; and offer time- and money-saving options like self-configuration tools even for high-end products, all of which increase your competitive advantage.


These benefits and more account for the growing popularity of solution-based selling with an e-commerce foundation. Yet old habits die hard, and marshaling the right people, processes, and tools to master a new approach can be challenging. The following best practices can help make the transition smooth and seamless.


Selling the Solution: Seven Best Practices

Best Practice #1: Focus on customers’ cares and concerns. Today’s buyers are skilled at gathering information, and typically complete two-thirds to 90 percent of their purchasing journey before connecting with you[i]—which means they’re more interested in how you can solve their problems than being “sold” on your company or products. A detailed grasp of their day-to-day challenges helps you tailor solutions that genuinely meet their needs, so you provide value without overtly selling. “Stop thinking about campaigns and start thinking engagement,” advises Lori Wizdo, principal analyst at Forrester Research, in a recent blog post. “Marketers who continue to build campaigns, and make offers, around products and product features will be perceived as ‘tone deaf’ to the multichannel customer. Customers will engage with marketers who meet their needs—their changing needs—for different information and options during the buying journey.”


MarkMaster: Fixing Pains Drives Big Gains

Frequent customer requests for e-procurement led MarkMaster, a supplier of marking and identification products, to analyze the problems buyers were trying to solve—and revealed that their paper-based buying process cost more than the products themselves. In response, MarkMaster began leveraging e-commerce through the Ariba® Network and never looked back. Online updates now keep buyers well informed about order status, and electronic order configuration eradicates the need for calls about lettering, ink color, or other details. This has enabled MarkMaster to achieve 20 percent year-over-year growth without increasing overhead for customer service and sales. And selling the solution, rather than the products, is key to their success. CEO Kevin Govin describes how, during one customer presentation, “We went through the whole explanation of how our e-commerce process works, and it wasn’t until the end of the meeting that they even asked about our prices and wanted to see the stamps and badges,” says. “That really opened our salespeople’s eyes.” (Check out this video to hear more about MarkMaster’s approach.)


Best Practice #2: Embrace the change as a fundamental business transformation. Moving to solution-based selling focused on e-commerce represents a major shift in the way you do business, so be prepared to champion it as such. Obtain executive buy-in up front to ensure you have the support necessary to succeed, and map out a comprehensive strategy to drive and maintain the desired culture change across the organization.


Fastenal: Solution-Based Service Simplifies Customers’ Lives at Every Turn

Helping customers effectively manage inventory is central to the full-service, solution-based sales approach used byhttp://www.ariba.com/assets/uploads/documents/Case%20Studies/Fastenal.pdfFastenal, a rapidly growing fastener distributor and full-line industrial supplier. The company’s proprietary Fastenal Managed Inventory (FMI) solution eliminates the need for customers to hold large quantities of spare parts on their shelves by providing rapid dock-to-dock delivery, with organization, binning, and barcoding handled onsite and one-hour turns on emergency orders to ensure customers get needed parts fast. Point-of-use vending machines dispense frequently used consumables like latex gloves and polishes right on the shop floor. The result? Not only can customers better manage their spend, they also eliminate time formerly spent comparing pricing on individual items and adding small purchases to the batch sheet. Sales meetings now center on how Fastenal’s solutions and services can best meet customer requirements, elevating the discussion beyond parts and pricing.


Best Practice #3: Train your sales organization on the new approach, then support them in selling it. Companies with the best results in solution-based selling invest carefully in effective training and support to ensure their sales teams can succeed. Though providing the right resources to help staff adopt new roles, skills, and tools can be challenging—and theories abound about the optimal approach—research by Aberdeen[ii] shows that top-performing companies employ best practices like these:

  • Define competencies for each sales role rather than using a monochromatic training methodology across your entire enterprise.
  • Establish a formal process to measure individual, region, and team competencies based on pre-established requirements for sales management and skill development, and ensure that hired or reassigned candidates demonstrate the relevant proficiencies.
  • Use assessment/measurement tools to understand post-training performance and determine how the sales results of participants change after training.

Such strategies drive notable gains in many areas, including 10 to 18 percent higher achievement of team and individual sales quotas compared to non-adopers.[iii] And while training lays the essential groundwork, best-in-class businesses also support sales personnel in explaining solutions—e.g., by sending operational experts to prospect meetings to demonstrate how their PunchOut catalog or e-invoicing application works.


Best Practice #4: Obtain the right credentials. It’s easy to claim expertise in a specific solution area, but your words will carry a lot more weight with buyers if you have the relevant certifications, licenses, or other credentials to back them up. For example, if you’re offering e-commerce through Ariba, becoming Ariba Ready reassures customers that you have the knowledge and skills they seek.


cSubs: Delivering the Goods in a Whole New Way

The evolution of content from print to electronic media in recent years has created dramatic changes for both publishers and consumers. This market shift spurred cSubs, a subscription and resource knowledge management company, to transform its own solutions through e-commerce to help customers better navigate the complexities of managing online content. The company built a series of pre- and post-purchase services on top of its Ariba PunchOut catalog that resolved each pain point customers faced—with centralized, consolidated tools to fix access issues, streamline renewals, eliminate duplicate and unnecessary purchases, clarify rules for distribution and sharing, automate contracts, and much more. (Hear about cSubs’ transformation firsthand by listening to this Ariba LIVE SlideShare session.)


Best Practice #5: Align your solution to market dynamics. Larger market forces often drive shifts for your customers. Tracking trends in your industry and paying close attention to what buyers most often request can help you target solutions to hit the sweet spot between desire and demand. For example, the realization that their customers were increasingly adopting e-procurement platforms was a key driver in MarkMaster’s transformed sales approach, and the changing nature of content distribution and consumption led cSubs to adopt customized e-commerce-based delivery.


Best Practice #6: Emphasize your solution-based e-commerce capabilities as a differentiator during the bidding process. Though the overwhelming majority of buying organizations cite e-commerce use as a high priority, the percentage of sellers able to provide the capabilities they want lags far behind the demand. For example, a recent study of buyers with annual procurement budgets of 100,000+ USD showed that 71 percent would spend more online if it was easier or more convenient to purchase from supplier websites. The same percentage said that when choosing between suppliers who carry the same product at the same cost, they would buy from the one with easier electronic search and purchasing processes, regardless of loyalty to a current supplier.[iv] Findings like these indicate the clear advantage e-savvy sellers have over their Luddite competitors. Be sure to highlight your e-commerce experience and skills whenever you bid on potential new business, even if this isn’t a stated requirement.


Best Practice #7: Measure your results. Whether it’s customer acquisition, business retention, growth and market share, deal closure rates, or other goals pertinent to your company and market, determine the metrics that matter to you and measure performance to be sure your new approach delivers the results you want. This information will also help you target areas for improvement and make it easier to track your progress over time.



[i] “Buyer Behavior Helps B2B Marketers Guide The Buyer’s Journey,” Lori Wizdo, Principal Analyst Serving Sales Enablement Professionals, Forrester Research, October 2012.

[ii] Train, Coach, Reinforce: Best Practices in Maximizing Sales Productivity, Aberdeen Group, October 2012.

[iii] Sales Performance Optimization 2013: Aligning the Right People, Processes, and Tools, Aberdeen Group, February 2013.

[iv] 2013 State of B2B Procurement Study, Acquity Group, May 2013


This article is part of the current issue of Ariba Supply Lines. Ariba Supply Lines is a quarterly newsletter that provides valuable tips, best practices, and the latest thinking to take your online business relationships with your buying customers to the next level.

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