20 November 2013

How to sell an innovative solution to conservative firms

I have many times come across a statement that company's customers are conservative and, therefore, selling them a new, innovative solution is difficult and slow. These customers include machinery industry, construction, services companies - and so on. This is partly true. But only partly - often company´s own legacy, ossified ideas and practises, is a major obstacle to commercialise new products and business models.

Industry after industry has seen its traditional business truths radically changing, driven and enabled by globalisation, digitalisation and other change forces. Also in disrupted industries, companies have complained about conservatism of practises and customers. And even though an industry sector would not be experiencing outright disruption, greater efficiency measures as well as marginal refinement of products and business models are not sufficient to ensure future success.

Current well-established way of working, with existing products, business models and customer approach need to be questioned when new solutions are brought onto the market. This post presents food for thought to consider ways, how to reduce obstacles to commercialise new, innovative solutions.

Sales process renewal

When a company develops a solution that will bring business benefits to customers in new ways or whose business model is different from usual, old recipes to conduct sales are no longer successful. A new solution can bring to customers a whole new range of benefits, which often in turn means that both buying process and its main influencers are changing. Thus it is up to the company, developing an innovative solution, to rethink its sales process.

Adoption of new solutions requires strategic considerations in client companies, which in turn takes decision-making higher than usual, often the senior management level. A vendor company must be able to influence these higher-level influencers much more deeply and using the language that they prefer. This calls for linking the benefits of a new solution to customers´ key business objectives. Supplier company´s top management commitment to and participation in sales work is also of utmost importance.

There are often parties in client companies that in the past have received less attention, but to whom the benefits of a new solution are important. For example, persons responsible for environmental affairs will surely appreciate solutions that help to reduce the environmental footprint of a client company or the one caused by its products. On the other hand, customers' financial officers may find business models that are based on costs proportional to income, instead of investments, very lucrative. In addition, e.g. business management and development, as well as sales and marketing management are more traditional, potential allies. It is essential to have at least one senior protagonist in a customer company, who can help to navigate client´s decision-making depths and shallows.

Just as important as finding allies, is to identify and neutralise potential opponents of a new solution. The key here is to understand the mechanisms how a solution changes a client company and thus identify the influencers, who may react negatively to change. Cooperation with protagonists makes this much easier.

Sales and marketing tools renewal

Finding right buyer contacts in customer companies is not enough. It is also worthy of developing suitable sales and marketing tools for innovative solutions. They are needed to handle reactions and emotions that relate to encountering new things, such as uncertainty, scepticism, ignorance, suspicion and fear. And because the issue is not simply communicating facts, it takes longer than usual to win customers. Here are some impetus to renew company toolbox.

Typically, more than half of the customers' buying process is over, before they are ready to meet with representatives of supplier candidates face to face. And in the case of new solutions, customer engagement needs to be started even before customers consciously initiate their buying process.

At the centre of this are digital sales and marketing tools, in particular inbound marketing. If at all possible, the target is to achieve thought leadership in areas that relate to a new solution and that are important to customers. This is done by presenting in-depth and well-justified information. The aim is not yet to sell a new solution, but to show company's in-depth understanding of the customers´ business environment challenges. Thus it will be possible for the customer base to adopt innovative features of the solution. Marketing and sales need to seamlessly and overlapping work together; when a customer demonstrates willingness to consider a new solution, it is time that inside sales and traditional field sales grab the baton.

Benefits justified by numbers are important to overcome customer doubts. Various modelling and simulation tools can be provided either free of charge or with a reasonable cost, acceptable to customers. Tools can be provided either via a web based service or as a standalone application. Web based tools are easier to link to other digital marketing activities. As with all aspects of digital content and tools, you should consider all of the key customer influential parties: for example, needs of financial officers and environmental people are very different.

A new, innovative solution is rarely accepted before experimental use, a pilot. Other clients´ pilots may of course be good reference cases, and in the best case they can also be utilised as part of content marketing activities.

Influencing through customers' customers

Customers' willingness to adopt a new, innovative solution can also be affected through their own clients. The basic idea then is that customers´ customers will appreciate and want the benefits that a new solution would make possible. In the best case, this may even mean that they specifically want a solution of the supplier company as a part of the overall solution they purchase. For example, a machine or device vendor may be able to convince its system supplier customer's customers that its new solution, utilising sensor and Big Data technologies, should be a part of the total supply. Consumer customers, on the other hand, appreciate for example Shimano bike parts, and Intel microprocessors, thus creating a strong pressure on bicycle and computer vendors to use these components.

Utilising customers´ customers requires two things:
  • A company is able to understand the business of its customers´ customers and to determine the benefits that the company solution provides them
  • A company must be able to communicate these benefits to customers´ customers
Digital tools, and in particular, inbound marketing, are an excellent and inexpensive way to reach end customers. The same type of tools can be utilised as in the case of actual customers; the content of course, needs to be adapted for a different target audience.

Partners in strengthening the messages

Partners typically complement a company 's offering and business model. In addition, they often have a significant role in overcoming customers' uncertainty and other obstacles to adopt a new solution. In order to successfully utilise partners, a business model must provide also them with enough stimuli to work actively together with the supplier company.

A good example of a complementary offering are services provided by partners: by agreeing on cooperation with an installation and commissioning company that is trusted by client companies, a machinery or equipment company can lower purchase threshold. Another option for this kind of company is to have a new solution as a part of a larger system offering, provided by a company well-known among customers. A third example, again, makes it easier for customers to accept a new solution by including elements of a component supplier, highly appreciated by customers.

Finally, a few words about second sources. Purchasing processes of many companies require second sources for key components or sub-assemblies. This is challenging for companies that use innovation as a means to differentiate themselves from other market solutions, aiming hereby to gain competitive advantage. However, customers need to be convinced that their business will not be greatly disturbed, even though a supplying company would face severe problems. Different types of contractual terms, such as escrow paragraphs, can give restricted security. Licensing a new product to other manufacturers or system suppliers is an example of other ways to solve the problem.

Utilising influencers

Especially in the early stages of the buying process, customer companies are looking for information from sources on which they rely. These sources are herein referred as influencers or advocates. The influencers may be individuals, consulting firms specialising in the industry, research firms, trade publications, etc. Their assessments, reports and opinions often have a major impact on which supplier companies and solutions customers are taking a closer scrutiny.

The most important thing when convincing advocates is to provide them with tools to increase their social capital: helping them to make their reputation better and increase their visibility. When information related to company's innovative solution is accompanied by new insights and views, it will have good chances to be accepted and further shared by influencers: resulting in increased customer awareness and appreciation.

Besides traditional mechanisms, such as face to face consultation, advocates can be efficiently and cost-effectively reached through the Internet and social media. In particular, inbound marketing tools make it possible to target right parties with right messages at the right time. Inbound marketing activities, as well as other activities to engage with influencers, must begin early enough. In practise, this means parallel execution with solution development.

If clients´ customers or partners are important for the commercialisation of a solution, similar type of measures as described above can be conducted to reach them.

Utilisation of pioneers and revolutionaries

Existing customers are known to be the most receptive ones for new solutions, due to close relationships between the two companies and their proven appreciation of the supplying company's solutions. But some customers are more innovative and faster than others. These customers should be identified, and sales and marketing efforts should be focused to them. Pioneer company references are then worth gold when tackling slower and more conservative customers.

If current customers do not find the courage to use a new solution, it is worth to look for industry customers, who are willing to rebel against prevailing ideas. These may have aggressive growth targets, desire to differentiate their offering and business model or they may strive to innovate using their broader ecosystem. As always, a company should not just wait to be contacted. It should identify interesting players and approach them with messages that fit with rebellions´ business objectives.

Revolutionaries that are industry outsiders are ultimately most open to new ideas. In the best case, a supplier company with an innovative solution is thus pulled to huge success - if things turn out to go badly, an outsider is excluded and forgotten.


This post is meant for companies that are developing - or planning to develop - new, innovative products and that are facing significant challenges to commercialise their solutions due to customer conservatism and inertia. The key conclusions are:
  • Potential customer and industry conservatism is just an excuse for innovation laziness and poor results; a company should also be able to renew itself; besides new solutions, this means new approaches, methodologies and tools for commercialisation.
  • To commercialise a new solution, a company needs to be active on the market early enough; the ultimate goal is to reach thought leadership in the discussions related to the new solution topic; digital media tools make this possible in a cost-effective manner.
  • Development of a new solution and its commercialisation should be overlapping activities; market and customer commitment to a new solution is best achieved by listening to customer needs, by giving them the building blocks to first understand the value of a solution and by supporting them when they use this value in their business development.


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