In the past, we made products. Now we provide solutions. Many companies have made this transition and are now approaching product development from the perspective of their customers’ practices and needs. Why? In order to offer users a more comprehensive and personalized response. And it works!
“People don’t want a drill. They want a hole in their wall!” This quote from Theodore Levitt, a professor of economics at Harvard, provides an excellent summary of solution marketing. It immediately encourages us to think: OK, a hole in a wall, but what for? To hang what? How? By taking this step to the side, we quickly realize that the product – a drill in this case – is no longer the only marketing entry point. Levitt advises us to focus instead on the customer’s expectations and needs, which are often unconscious. Goodbye (single) products, hello solutions!
Taking a “solutions” approach sometimes requires radically changing our business model or even fundamentally transforming certain business lines.
But what is a solution?
In simple terms, a solution is simply an answer to a clearly identified need or problem. The idea is no longer to sell a product, but to understand customers’ expectations in order to come up with something that responds perfectly to their needs. That solution could include one or more products, a service or a new functionality. Very often a solution is a combination of these items...
“This approach has a dual advantage for companies, as it allows brands to stand out from the competition. It offers new customer experiences by developing products with high added value, based on the desired use,” says Mila Valjentova, Strategy & Market Intelligence Director at Saint-Gobain.
A story of tangled telephone wires and cluttered furniture
In 2015, Swedish giant IKEA examined how its furniture is used in homes. The study revealed that customers place many different items on their furniture, including mobile phones while charging them, resulting in lots of messy wires everywhere. This gave rise to the simple and efficient idea of incorporating a wireless charging system into its range of furniture. How did this ingenious idea come about? Simply by going out and examining how furniture is used in the real world.
In order to create a solution, a company needs to commission its marketing, R&D and sales teams to conduct a methodical survey, question customers, identify what they expect from a product, how they use it, identify negative points, etc. All this behavioral research has a single objective: to painstakingly map practices in order to extract a functional analysis.
At this stage, marketing and R&D teams then brainstorm together to envisage all possibilities – a form of collaboration in “open innovation” mode that stimulates creativity. Large groups also call on external partners to boost innovation. These academics, researchers and startups contribute fresh insights as well as their complementary technical, sociological and forward-looking expertise. “Once the solution has been validated, it will be systematically tested on the market (the famous Proof of Concept – POC), before being transferred to an industrial scale,” adds Gilles Leva, Vice President Marketing and Development at Saint-Gobain.
From a product culture to a solutions approach
To effectively innovate, it is necessary to know customers’ needs. Parrot, a company specializing in drones, applied this method to the letter. While its competition in the B2B drone market focused on in-flight performance, Parrot understood that what most interested its customers was the drone's ability to collect data while flying. The French company therefore invested in sensors and software solutions to build a turnkey, centralized solution that covered overflight authorization requests to delivery of files. Parrot clearly moved from a product culture to a solutions approach – a strategy that really paid off since the company is now the European leader in the professional drone market.
Just like Parrot’s drones, the adhesive trowels and bucket-holders on wheels developed by Saint-Gobain were inspired by a user observation: when tradesmen lay tiles, their trowel scrapes the floor with a piercing, repetitive noise. They also need to carry products that are often heavy. “Initially, we improved the formulation of the glue, making it similar to the texture of shaving foam, in order to make it easier to apply,” explains Gilles Leva. “We then went a step further in our reflection by observing the work environment, acoustic comfort, effort required… They led to the idea of a quieter plastic trowel and a mini-trolley on wheels. With this comprehensive solution, we have moved beyond the simple function of the product to offer real value to tradesmen.”
Sometimes this value proposition involves the creation of a new service, addressing a specific problem. In Romania, a Saint-Gobain subsidiary highlighted a difficulty encountered by window installers, who were forced to remove the old glazing and store it, before disposing of it in landfill – representing a significant waste of time. The team firstly identified the problem and characterized the needs. What type of windows were affected, where were they stored and what was the volume? The team realized very quickly that the glass could be recycled. This therefore inspired the idea of creating a collection and recycling service. Two birds with one stone! Thanks to this solution, which is currently being deployed, the Group should be able to solve the problem of the installer, who will save time. Moreover, glass recycling is fully in line with a sustainable development strategy.
Adapting to different countries
“Starting with practices and needs limits the risk of failure,” says Mila Valjentova. “Thinking from a customer perspective also requires adapting to different markets, as each country has its own characteristics. It would be pointless to attempt to duplicate a solution worldwide, regardless of practices.” This is where data can be a valuable source of information. Bulk data analyses provide a complete picture of each customer, in each country, and allow analysis of their purchasing behavior in order to offer them tailor-made products and services. Is big data a brand’s best friend? It certainly allows better identification of users and their needs and therefore the development of efficient, sustainable and personalized solutions, in line with their expectations.
In summary, a “solutions” approach above all involves thinking from a customer and usage perspective. Real-world surveys ensure that needs are understood, customers are heard and solutions are developed to provide responses to specific expectations. This philosophy is also based on technology and data to come up with future solutions that are increasingly relevant, useful and value-creating.
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