Marketing Missteps

I’ve decided to start a series of posts about the little marketing missteps that can really turn customers off.

The first topic is use of the word “solution” to describe your product or service. Merriam Webster defines “solution” as:

1: a: an action or process of solving a problem b: an answer to a problem: explanation; specifically: a set of values of the variables that satisfies an equation]
2: a: an act or the process by which a solid, liquid, or gaseous substance is homogeneously mixed with a liquid or sometimes a gas or solid b: a homogeneous mixture formed by this process; especially : a single-phase liquid system c: the condition of being dissolved
3: a bringing or coming to an end or into a state of discontinuity

Chemistry notwithstanding, the word “solution” has been done to death in marketing. So please stop using it. It no longer carries any weight. Actually, it can have a decidedly negative effect as it confuses customers and annoys them because you are only saying what most of your competitors are already saying.

Developing a marketing message is all about meaningful differentiation. If you’re tempted to say “solutions,” just stop and thing about what that really means in terms of product features and customer benefits.

16 Comments

  1. Absolutely agree – and I plead guilty (but I was only following client orders!)

    “Solution” is a lazy term, brought into use by people to describe equipment and processes they don’t understand. To be fair, however, in B2B marketing/PR it can be a useful shorthand to describe divers equipment and processes.

  2. sharilee says:

    Well described, Michael. “Solutions” is an incredibly lazy term. Btw, if you find any wayward uses of it on the Telesian web site, let me know right away. I am in eradication mode!!

  3. Joe Lewis says:

    Here is a story about the word “solution” from when I was at Foxboro in the late 80’s (yes I am that “experienced” LOL). When Fox was just about ready to introduce their “I/A Series” new automation system they were contemplating using the phrase “the final solution”. It got squashed, thankfully, because of the way the term was used by Nazi Germany in the 40’s. Everytime I hear a company use the word “solution” I think of that. I too am guilty for its use at times.

  4. sharilee says:

    Good story. That’s a decidedly good reason to stop using the word “solution.”

  5. juliann says:

    I like the focus on the word process in the definitions above. It’s never just “one thing” like a product that solves any problem. It’s a combination of factors that work in unison to make better.

    Hear hear…let’s can the solution speak. You know you’re talking corporate speak when you start using the word solution as a noun.

  6. Hear, hear! The word “solution” not only fails to convey any useful information, it actually obscures the intended message. I spend several hours every week turning over rocks looking for engineering service companies to add to Control Engineering’s Automation Integrator Guide (at http://www.IntegratorGuide.com). All too often I encounter the phrase “We provide solutions to your automation problems!” but I can’t tell if that company is offering a product or a service. My interest is strictly in the service sector of the automation industry, so if further investigation reveals that the company is only selling products, then I’ve wasted my time. Moreover, I submit that without an engineer (a system integrator, an in-house engineer, the vendor’s own application engineer, or a consultant of some sort) to install the product, it’s not much of a “solution” by itself.

  7. Barbara Bix says:

    Hi Shari,

    I agree that solution is not very descriptive when it comes to describing a product or a service or the benefits of either. Nevertheless, I find myself using the term frequently in my blog as a substitute for the phrase “products and services” when referring to the spectrum of goodies that companies deliver to their customers/clients. Why? I right for mixed audiences (product companies and professional service providers). The word “solution” shortens the sentences considerably. That said, I’d welcome alternatives to both options 🙂

    I face a similar issue with clients vs. customers, here I use the word buyer or purchaser–to get around saying “clients or customers”.

  8. Barbara Bix says:

    Whoops! Serious typo in my previous post (write vs. right)…That’s more egregious than solution…

  9. I disagree with your premise. I also worked at Foxboro in the 80’s and 90’s with Joe Lewis. He is absolutely telling a true story. Certain managers would use Sales jargon that drove me up a wall. We even played “Office Jargon BINGO” when they said the words we yelled out “BINGO”. Here is an example from Business Week by Steven Baker. It’s amazing. It’s exactly the same words my sales manager said. http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/blogspotting/archives/2005/11/rid_the_world_o.html
    “If you could spare a second, I’d like to tell you about an innovative suite of Java-enabled Web-service solutions.”

    “You don’t say.”

    “It’s customized for the SME sector. Plugs seamlessly right into your ERP backbone. Architecture-agnostic. Backward-compatible. So your legacy doesn’t come up and bite you.”

    “That could hurt.”

    “I’ll say. And what about your front end?”

    “You tell me.”

    “We have an open-source CRM platform. We’ve Web-enabled it, and it’s massively scalable. We’ve got a beta running on mobile clients. Should be ready for 3G, two-point-five G, or 802.11b solutions by the end of Q4’03. Worst case: Q1’04.
    Words mean things and Solutions are what customers are looking for. Michael Stelzner put it best in his blog http://www.whitepapercompany.com/blog/?p=630

  10. I can see where an OEM would want to describe their product as being the “best solution” for a problem…after all, would you buy it if it wasn’t the best soultion? However, as an Automation Systems Integrator, the word “solution” describes exactly what outcome our clients expect. It’s like the Marketing Industry ruined a good word. In due time, a new word will appear that we can all jump on and add to our websites…differentiation through conformity?

  11. Bruce Koppenhoefer says:

    So what’s the alternative? Solution became the word to use instead of products because sales training taught that customers didn’t want products, they wanted answers to problems. The time-worn example is that no one buys an electric drill because they want a drill, they want a hole (probably multiple holes), i.e., a solution to a problem/need. I’m happy to accept the judgement that solution is tired and should be retired, but not until someone gives me an acceptable replacement, other than saying products and services all the time, which makes for terrible headlines. System integrators are particularly hard pressed on this issue because what they offer is neither purely a product nor a service, but a blend of the two (system design plus panel fabrication). What’s the single-word term for that blend?

  12. Chris Rand says:

    As a trade magazine editor for 20 years, having to read dozens of press releases each day, I’ve been banging on about this forever – most recently here. However, I’m not holding out much hope.

  13. sharilee says:

    Bruce, I think that’s the problem…marketing tends to look for single word descriptions to be cute or memorable. But that forces us into boxes that do our products and services a disservice by not really explaining or differentiating them.

    “Solution” is also a problem because it allows us be lazy about understanding what our customers want. I can’t tell you how many companies we talk to that can’t verbalize their customers’ problems. They can talk generally, say about the need to measure data accurately (“Look at our amazing 16-bit data acquisition board”), but that doesn’t convince a prospect you really understand their specific needs.

    We’ve got to move beyond our old “mass marketing” mind set and start talking specifics. If customers want a drilled hole, then why aren’t we talking about a drilled hole…vs “a solution to their wood problems” 🙂

  14. One of the best reasons to not use the word “solution” is that it is too ambiguous for sales and marketing purposes. What are “measurement solutions” or “flow control solutions?” Prospects are far more likely to respond “I’m not interested” than to try to figure out or find out what you are selling.

    If you have something of value to offer, you must describe it precisely and concisely to communicate it effectively.

  15. Rob Leavitt says:

    Great discussion, Sharilee. The “S” words has bedeviled marketers for years, and clearly you’ve struck a nerve with your post. Not surprisingly, though, having launched a “solutions” consulting firm last year with several partners, I’ll have to disagree with your blanket disavowal of the word.

    I agree that the term is wildly overused, and is often a lazy alternative to a more precise description or definition. But there are many cases where it is quite appropriate. I’ve worked in enterprise technology marketing for the last ten years or so. Amid the pervasive hyping of the term, there has also been a serious effort to create a rigorous definition and deep understanding of what it means to actually provide legitimate solutions. Many buyers of business technology products and services do indeed want real “solutions,” and there is a great difference between buying, for example, CRM software and a CRM solution. The latter would include business process design, integration, training, and more to ensure that the buyer can actually get the benefits out of the software.

    When I worked at ITSMA (the Information Technology Services Marketing Association), we had a Solutions Council with senior execs from a few dozen companies (IBM, HP, EMC, SAP, etc.) dedicated to wrestling with the strategy, organization, marketing and sales issues relating to developing and selling solutions, as opposed to just slapping the word on products or services. The group spent months working on a usable definition, and ultimately adopted one that has been used to drive organizational change in many of these companies: “”A solution is a combination of products and/or services with intellectual capital, focused on a particular customer problem and driving measurable business value.”

    Taking this sort of definition seriously and working to become a real solutions provider typically requires substantial cultural and organizational change. Ranjay Gulati from Harvard Business School laid out some of the organizational issues, as well as some useful case studies, in the Harvard Business Review a few years back (see “Silo Busting” How to Execute on the Promise of Customer Focus,” May 2007).

    I could go on and on, but the gist is that while “solutions” has indeed been devalued as a term, there is still real meaning possible — and substantial market advantage — for companies willing to make the commitment to orienting their organizations around solving customer problems as opposed to pushing products and services.

    One footnote: Back in 2002 (!), I wrote a cautionary piece on the use and misuse of the solutions word: “Beyond the ‘S’ Word: Moving from Solutions to Value.” You and your readers might get a kick out of it: http://www.itsma.org/NL/article.asp?ID=311

  16. juliann says:

    Good thoughts Rob, and great effort on defining the word “solution” while at ITSMA. If marketer’s actually applied that meaning in their work, then we wouldn’t have such a wide variety of how the word solution is used. The problem is that it is so prevalent now, that it is the first word of choice vs. the last and it has lost its meaning along the way. I think we all agree that it’s overused. So the bigger question is, how do we move off that dime? Is it wrong to use the word? Maybe sometimes it is. I like your suggestion that the “s” word is viewed as customer value vs. something we use loosely in a press release. As long as it does not introduce more “fluff” into the conversation.

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