It’s getting hard to find an industry or company that doesn’t profess to practice some type of “solution selling”, especially in business to business transactions. “Partnering” with customers, as it’s frequently called, has arguably become less of a trend than a given in the marketplace. Granted, some companies are more committed than others. Some approaches are real and substantial while many are aimed more at changing customer perceptions than realities. Still, it says something about customer expectations that companies at least feel pressured to address those perceptions.

Here’s an interesting question: If your company is really responding to customer needs and not merely pushing product, what has changed upstream from your sales force to enable that to happen? If you’re not making substantive changes in your products or services, can you honestly say that you’re responding to your customers?

By definition “solution selling” implies some level of change and improvisation. That should mean something more than simply selecting among preexisting options to meet individual customer needs. Offering options is nothing new. Henry Ford is famously quoted as having said that his customers could have any color automobile they wanted—as long as it was black, and that’s about the last time such practices were in vogue. Approaching customers without a variety of options is unthinkable (and probably suicidal) in most markets.

Presumably “solution selling” means more than that. It means providing true and unique solutions. That requires much more than rethinking sales techniques. It requires changing your capacity to provide products and services. It means modifying and enhancing those offerings in response to customer needs. To do that, you have to first identify customer needs and communicate that internally. Salespeople need to be actively seeking input from customers. The organization needs to be open to what the sales force learns and be willing to adjust accordingly. What are called for are carefully maintained mechanisms of feedback, connecting your customers with much more than the sales department.

The proverbial sales manager who responds to suggestions from front line salespeople with a gruff, “Let me know when you want to transfer to operations (or purchasing…or distribution…),” is an anachronism that can still be found in too many companies. (So are those who know better than to say it, but would still like to.) Likewise with the warehouse foreman or R&D head who says (or thinks), “You do your job and I’ll worry about mine.” Do you have a clear strategy to break down those artificial barriers and strengthen crucial interconnections?

It’s tempting to just say that of course you want to hear about customer concerns and assume that it will happen but that’s frequently not the case. Many salespeople have long been conditioned not to pass along such information, lest they look like they’re making excuses. The all too prevalent mindset is that it’s a salesperson’s job to overcome objections, not pass them along. Yet the answers might be enlightening if sales managers persistently ask questions like, “What are customers asking for that we’re not able to give them?” or “What could we be doing that would promote easier or larger sales?” No intelligent employee is going to come back time after time and say, “Oh everything’s just perfect. I can’t think of anything we could improve.”

Such questions go unasked because too many sales managers think they’re going to hear excuses. Or, they think they’ve already heard all the answers. Or, they’re afraid they might get new answers and they have no idea what to do with them (lest they look like they’re making excuses).

It’s important to remember that sales is just one of a number of ways to detect the voice and heart of the customer. Still, it’s an important one. That voice needs to be heard throughout the organization. True solutions are rarely as simple as just adding product features; what a customer needs may be a different means of delivery or different terms or more expertise. Such changes typically require some sorting out among multiple business units—especially if you’re going to discover solutions that are profitable. It requires a certain mental and operational flexibility on the part of everyone. It demands innovative thinking and innovative leadership, indeed a culture in which innovation is embedded.

Solution selling, when it’s done well, is really just one manifestation of a solution driven organization, and isn’t that the essence of innovation?