Marshall Atkinson discusses how to use solutions-based selling to boost both your reputation and your profit margin

I’m going to outline a concept called ‘solutions-based selling’. If you do this right, you’ll quickly be known as a source for creative problem solving, and your reputation in the market will skyrocket. Everyone needs someone to go to when they have a problem. But first I need to break down just what problems I’m talking about. After all, you can’t do everything under the sun and impossible tasks may be off the chart immediately. Plus, there are some customers‘ problems that you don’t want anything to do with, ever. Time then to take a step back and look at solutions-based selling and outline how it might work for you.

Solutions selling step one:

Know your customer

To dig into the process let’s start with the idea that you need to completely understand your potential customer. You can do this by defining your best customers, as outlined in the boxout opposite. Use the 80/20 rule to identify specifically your best customers. Then take a look at how these customers do business with you. Order size, frequency, decoration method, the complexity of their orders… everything. Jot down anything that looks like a trend. These are easier to clone for new customers as you have a better understanding of this group. Does this limit potential customers that are dissimilar? No. But if you want to market to a different group, you are going to need to do some research to understand them better.

The 80/20 dive

Your top 20% of your customers are responsible for 80% of the revenue. Yep. So if you are a £1 million a year shop with about a hundred active customers, the spread might look like this:

Best customer = £260,000
First runner-up = £150,000
Third place = £60,000
Batting clean up = £40,000
Cinco = £34,000
Sexy number six = £30,000
Lucky number seven = £28,500
Snowman = £26,000
Racer X = £25,000
Tenspot = £22,500
Matchsticks = £21,500
Printers fold = £20,000
Baker’s dozen = £19,000
Fortnight = £17,500
Learner’s permit = £16,000
Sweeeet! = £14,000
Prom night = £10,000
Vote! = £6,000

In this example, the bottom 80% of the customers account for £200,000 and are customers 19-100 in the ranking. The top 20% of sales are controlled by 18 customers…and they account for £800,000. That’s right. Eighteen customers account for £800,000 worth of £1 million sales.

It’s crucial that you identify your top 20%. That is your truth. This is who spends the best money with you. These are your best customers. If you aren’t a £1 million shop just remove a zero from the numbers on the example list. I’ll bet they might come close to your top 20%. 80/20 won’t line up exactly, but it will be close. So in my example the £260,000 a year customer becomes a £26,000 a year one for a £100,000 a year shop. The relationship is the same. So while it’s tempting to spend a lot of time grinding gears fussing over that six-piece order that some walk-in customer ‘just had to have now‘, they aren’t doing you any favours. Want to make a difference in 2019? Worry more about this top 20% than the bottom 80%. These folks need to be seriously, deliriously happy. In fact, if you are doing this right they are your biggest advocates and referrals. Sales and marketing are much easier when your customers do half the work.

Shoot for the ‘why’

People normally don’t buy with metrics and data in mind. They buy on emotion. Alignment. Shared experiences or language. Some sort of connection. The trust that you want to deliver to your customers is built when they can see a match with what you have already achieved or offer. For example, let’s say you are having a problem with your car. It’s not running right and you need to get it serviced. How are you making that decision? Usually, it is with a set of examples that lead you to believe that the shop you take your car to will fix the car correctly and at a price you are willing to pay. That defines your ‘why‘.

Your potential customers are no different. You simply need to understand their ‘why‘ and offer examples of that solution for them to understand that you are the best match. But – and this is important – you have to make it easy for them to understand. For example, let’s say you have invested in a DTG printer. Many shops have. But, is that piece of equipment running constantly in production with orders? Probably not. Why? Because you are marketing the wrong problem. Nobody is online searching for digital printing, yet I’ll bet plenty of folks are out there looking for ‘same day‘ or ‘next day‘ printing. You just have to understand how to market the solution you are offering the right way. The story you need to be telling is the solution to your potential customers‘ biggest problem.

Solutions selling step two:

Ask good questions

How the decorated apparel industry works is a mystery to most of our customers. They can’t come as prepared as we would like them to Beas they just don’t have the experience and language to describe what they need. One of your main jobs at the beginning of any sales relationship will be to educate your customers and dig into their pain point – the problem they need you to solve.

Start a conversation. By understanding their story you can better build the right solution to their challenge. This is entirely different from the rookie mistake of simply diving headfirst into quoting. Stop selling ink on cotton. That’s not your value. Any goofball can throw out a quote and print on some shirts. Big deal. Your value is rooting out their biggest fear, their ultimate challenge, their looming problem…and divining a solution that will work. Great questions will produce a great solution. You want to know the most relevant specifics. For example, let’s say they are trying to raise money for a school fund or a charity. What is their monetary goal? How many people do they think will be part of their programme? What type of shirts do they normally purchase? Do they have a deadline? Artwork?

Try the following three-step process:

Name the pain Get your potential customer to identify what is their biggest problem or fear. Simply ask them. This immediately sets the stage for you. If there is more than one challenge, get them to prioritise them.

Rate the earthquake You have to make it relative to their business. Scientists rate earthquakes so everyone can comprehend the magnitude of the situation. You need to do the same. Not necessarily with a rating scale, but what you want to find out is how big the problem is, and what would happen to them if it instantly went away. What would change for the better? Would their financial situation improve? Maybe there is a significant time-saving with your potential solution?

Get buy-in If you have identified the challenge and discussed the magnitude of the situation, the next step is obvious: “Would you like me to solve that for you?”

Solutions selling step three:

Outlining your strengths

Problem solvers build trust quickly because they make things easier. So, can you articulate that? To help, here are six brainstorming ideas that you can use to help build a better narrative for your shop:

1. What expertise do you have that others may not possess? This could be creative talent, years in the industry or some special training or certification you’ve received.

2. How are you making your experience easier and frictionless for your customer? What steps have you eliminated in your process for them to make it more convenient to order from you?

3. Do you save them time? Outline what they could be doing with their time instead.

4. What about money? When working with you are they saving money in any way? What could they be doing with all of that cash?

5. Do you make them money? Maybe they are reselling your work. Prove your worth. 

6. Does your customer get any extra status by buying your work? For example, a streetwear brand may promote community or affiliation in their marketing. 

Some problems aren’t for you

At some point someone is going to call or walk into your shop with the worst order ever. This is a job that you have zero business taking. Resist the urge to say yes. It’s totally okay to either say no or reframe what you can do so the customer understands. This skill is just as important as solving problems as it protects your schedule and company from jobs that you won’t make money on. “Hey, I need to get six different shirts printed by Friday. These are all samples for a new apparel line I’m putting together. If you do me this favour, I’ll be sure to use you when I hit it big.”

While the chances of them hitting it big are fairly slim, you can pull two types of ninja moves here. The first is to redirect them to your competitor down the street “who specialises in this work”. Let them lose money on that job. The second is to hand over a prepared rate sheet for how you work, your minimums and what they need to do to get started. Sure, they only want six shirts… but your minimum is 48 per design. Bonus: Accept the order and print them using a DTG printer. Price this to make money. For solutions-based selling to work, you have to want to offer the solution. Some challenges should be avoided like a pothole in the street. Just swerve around it on your way to make more money down the road. 

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.