Products vs. Solutions Part 3

By guest blogger Patrick Bunn

In my first post, I shared a story about my experience researching different fitness trackers. I talked about how the chief complaint regarding the two products I researched centered around the lack of sufficient customer service. In my second post, I talked about customer service and how it relates to the business of product manufacturers. I started to show a parallel between the fitness tracker business and our own. I hope to finalize this comparison with this final installment.

What exactly is customer service? I believe customer service comes in many different forms. The first of which is meeting customer needs and addressing customer issues and concerns. At a previous job, a coworker told me that there were no problems, only issues. He said problems sounded like a negative roadblock, but issues are items to be addressed that are completely correctable. The biggest difference between the two is our disposition.


Communication is Key

We can’t exactly meet customer needs if we have no idea what they are. The greatest focus here is communication, which requires getting complete and accurate information. I know for myself I’m not nearly as good at assuming as I think I am. It is the same with our customers. Maybe we heard a bit of what they want, and we create in our own mind what we think they are asking for. Or maybe we begin to tell them what we believe they need, mentally designing what we’ve assumed they desire.

I believe the best way to combat that way of thinking is by seeking clarification. We must ask questions. I believe we almost need to ask questions until the customer is sick of answering them. I’m fairly certain they would appreciate our thoroughness rather than be bothered by our inquisitiveness.

Ask the Right Questions and Make Recommendations

More specifically, we must ask the right questions. When collaborating with a customer, we combine their expertise of their process with our expertise in system integration. Asking the right questions upfront not only helps provide a solid foundation in the initial design phase, it also sets the tone for the level of service we will provide to the customer.

We must also make recommendations. We should not assume we know and understand what the customer’s objective is and how they intend to achieve it. If we think we have a better way than what is proposed, we should say it up front. If we have a way we intend to proceed, we should be transparent enough to reveal our general ideas ahead of time. This lets the customer know we are competent in our product design offerings and willing to discuss the particulars with them. It also provides them the opportunity to let us know if our proposal is missing the mark.

Availability Makes a Difference

Customer Service is also about availability. Simply being available makes a world of difference to the customer. This comes in many forms; customer service hotlines, email availability, chat options, forums, knowledge-bases, etc. However, simply having these options available is not enough—there must be competent, courteous, knowledgeable people available to interact with the customer. The customer doesn’t want to hear that someone will be back with them shortly, or that the person they’ve waited for an hour on the phone to talk to has no idea how to address their issue.

We need to reevaluate our mindset when dealing with our customers. Taking calls, whether sales or support, is not a necessary evil; it generates and sustains our business and potentially grants us the ability to obtain more. We should treat each call as if they are the ones determining our next paycheck.

The Contradiction

With all this in mind, I’m about to make a statement that likely contradicts everything I’ve said thus far; I believe the best form of customer service is the kind that is never needed. What do I mean by that? I mean when you have such a well-oiled crew and a top-notch product with a highly-sought after brand, the number of complaints shrinks to almost nothing, and the need for customers to be supported begins to vanish.

I’m not saying our goal should be to work customer service out of a job, but rather that our objective should be to have a refining process so well established and developed that it produces products with no call backs, warranty issues, or defective parts. When a customer never needs to find your customer service hotline on your website, that’s when you know you’ve got a great product, brand, and company. The less time customers have to spend on troubleshooting and maintenance, the more time they can spend on innovation, process improvement, and other aspects of their business contributing to profitability.

The Objective

I believe our objective should be that our customers never need to find out how to get hold of our customer service department. I believe customer service after the product is shipped and commissioned should be nothing more than an insurance policy. Not that we internally treat it as such, but it should be our goal.

Is that ambitious goal even possible? I’m not certain, but I believe it is what we strive for. Granted, nothing lasts forever; things break and customers will need help. Trying to work Customer Service out of a job would never work because as long as we have products to sell, we will have customers who need support. However, doing what we can in the design and manufacturing stage to help prevent the need for customer service can do nothing but increase our value to our customers.

Solutions and Customer Service

I entitled this “Product vs. Solution”, yet I’ve talked mainly about customer service. I believe what separates a product manufacturer from a solutions provider is customer service. As a systems integrator, we produce products in the form of control panels. But even if our completely engineered control systems were viewed as a product, what makes us a solution provider and not merely a product manufacturer is our dedication to customer service. Many people can produce a product, but it is more advantageous to provide a solution.

From a consumer standpoint, who do you think is more likely to generate the sale; a product or a solution? Do you want a fitness tracker that has all the features but no customer service, or do you want a fitness tracker with all the features you want andgreat customer service? Do you go to a systems integrator to simply buy a control panel, or do you want a turnkey solution including design, schematics, programming, panels, commissioning, and support?  A solution trumps a product every time, and the difference is customer service.

Manufacturing a product focuses on the manufacturer and/or the product. Providing a solution focuses on the customer. When we can take the focus off of the brand, company, or product and focus on the customer, we can provide more than just a product; we can provide a solution. Not just any solution, but one tailored specifically to the customer.


How do we provide a solution? We must listen to the customer. This includes before, during, and after the manufacturing process. We must ask relevant questions to help understand the customer’s needs. We should verify the design before production and implementation. Mix these elements with the insight and expertise we bring to the table, and we can provide something much greater than merely a product; we can provide a complete solution. I believe we should adopt the philosophy that the solution is not provided when the product ships, or is installed, or even after commissioning, but when the customer is satisfied.