IoT or Internet of Things solutions, built on a cloud-based infrastructure, create opportunities for new business models and value delivery methods. While many IoT solutions are usually sold as a “product”, many vendors are now beginning to offer IoT “as-a-service”.
Take the example of a sensor-based system that detects machine wear and proactively alerts the operator of the need for maintenance before critical parts wear out. This solution could be sold as a hardware and software product. It could also be sold “as a service” with subscription fees charged on a monthly or periodic basis over a period of time. The vendor may also offer the hardware and software as a product sale, but some features, such as monitoring or other key functionality enabled in the software, on a subscription basis.
Why IoT “as-a-service”?
Offering the IoT solution “as-a-service” provides several benefits, include predictable and recurring revenue stream and customer lock-in for a certain time period. Vendors can focus sales resources on closing new accounts instead of trying to re-sell to current their customer base every two or three years.
Buying a solution “as-a-service” has several benefits. Buyers focus their resources on using the solution, not on its installation, maintenance and operation. They use their budgets more efficiently by tapping into their “opex” (operating expense) budget instead of the more constrained “capex” (capital expenditure) budgets. Their return on investment (ROI) is better aligned with the value delivered.
Selling a recurring revenue solution is not the same as selling a product
A common mistake many vendors make is to sell a subscription based solution in the same way as they would sell a “one time” sale product. A product is tangible. It can be held, seen and touched by a customer. It may sit on a factory floor, or it may reside on a server in the company’s data center. When that same product is sold on a subscription basis – the customer is really buying a service, such as a predictive maintenance service, rather than hardware/software. This service is not as tangible even if the value delivered is tangible. This is because the service is performed out of sight of the customer – it may be performed by the software algorithm, or it may be performed in the cloud. The buyer may see the hardware sitting on the factory floor, but they don’t see it “performing” its service.
Ironically, when the service is doing what it is supposed to be doing, the customer won’t know. They may even begin to question whether the service is really delivering the value it promised. For example, if a predictive maintenance IoT solution is working, the machines will never break down, uptime is high and production levels are consistent. The customer may begin to wonder why they need your service if the machines never break down.
Monetizing a subscription based IoT solution is challenging, especially if the vendor primarily sells products or their customers are used to buying products. While there are many best practices to consider, I will highlight some of the major ones from a go-to-market perspective.
Key Best Practices
Understand what you are really selling: an outcome
Unlike products that customers can see, touch and experience, a service is less visible to the customer. They may not see your product hardware. They may not see you performing your “service”. So what is your customer really buying? An outcome that results from solving their problem. While you can talk about the benefits of your solution, and maybe even quantify the benefits through financial analyses, those are simply justifications for the real customer need. Your sales and marketing efforts must focus on discovering this true need, and building your proposals to address that need.
For a predictive maintenance service, the customer is buying a certain machine uptime rate. They don’t care what you do behind the scenes to get that uptime rate. In contrast, when you sell the same solution as a product, the customer is buying only hardware and software. They may focus on features and functions, technical support, maintenance, and licensing.
Build consultative selling skills
Selling IoT-as-a-service requires consultative selling skills. You are looking for problems to solve, and then backing into a solution that can solve those problems. IoT solutions have value to multiple internal teams within a company, but each team may have a different problem that they need to solve. A consultative approach starts with defining the customers’ problem areas and working collaboratively to understand their real needs and priorities. From there, you craft a solution that meets the needs of the various stakeholders and internal teams. When building business development and sales teams, look for people that can work collaboratively. Invest in building and growing their consultative selling skills.
Justify the “fit” for an “as-a-service” offering
Not every IoT solution can or should be sold on a subscription or “as a service” basis. Sometimes the solution doesn’t offer justifiable value to the customer when packaged in the form of a subscription. One common mistake that vendors make is to sell the IoT solution as a subscription when it is more appropriate to sell it as a product.
Another common mistake is to convert a product into an IoT as-a-service offer as an alternative to a lease in order to increase “affordability” of an expensive solution. In doing so, the vendor is taking an unnecessary financial risk if the customer stops paying. Leases contain “hell or high water” clauses that legally obligate a customer to pay. A subscription contract does not. Leases also contain other language to protect the vendor’s business that subscription contracts don’t have. Finally, leases have specific tax advantages for customers that subscription offers don’t have.
When planning products or features and deciding what should be offered on a subscription basis, consider the following questions –
- What is the outcome that is being provided when the solution is sold as a subscription service? Is there value being provided that a customer feels justified in paying the recurring fee?
- Will you be updating the product or features over time to increase functionality and performance? Things like enhancing stability or improving security don’t count since the customer is expecting you to have a functional solution.
- Does this feature or product require that you incur some significant cost to maintain? Is the feature that is being maintained critical to the customers’ operations that it justifies charging a recurring fee?
An Integrated Selling Approach: Products and Services Together
Some IoT solutions consist of a product and an optional subscription service. Many vendors approach the sale as two parts — sell the products first, and then sell the subscription services after the fact. The need to “re-sell” the customer a second time for subscription services yield a low success rate and a longer sales cycle. A best practice is to offer both the products and the services together as one integrated solution upfront. By treating this as an overall solution, and bringing up the subscription services early in the sales cycle, your rate of success increases significantly.
Align Your Sales Compensation Structure
Product sales compensation structures are based on “one-time” transactional revenue collected whenever a product is sold. This model does not work with a subscription based model because the revenues are collected over a period of time. Recurring revenue compensation structures based solely on the revenue collected per period will demotivate the salesperson from selling the service, and instead have them focusing on selling products alone (where they can get the “instant gratification” compensation all at once).
Best practice compensation structures for recurring revenue offers should include a one-time upfront commission (based on a percentage of the Total Committed Service Contract Value — i.e., total value of the service contract, including penalties and other guaranteed fees, over the committed period), and a monthly/ quarterly commission (based on a portion of the recurring revenue collected over the measured period).
Demonstrate Your Value Continuously After the Sale
The selling process does not stop once the customer signs the service contract. While the services you render may sometimes be in the background and be transparent to the customer, you must be proactive and keep the customer informed continuously. Whether it be monthly reports, incident alerts and resolutions, status emails, or phone calls, regular proactive communication is critical to the value that you provide to your customer. When you have made updates to the software behind the scenes with new features, inform them of that, and provide any of the training necessary.
When it comes time to renew their contracts, your customers will be aware — through your updates and communications — that you have provided a valuable service. Remind them of your value on a consistent basis.
Own the customer relationship throughout the contract lifetime
Unlike a product sale where you engage the customer once, your customer will engage with you many times over the contracted subscription period. How you engage with them will drive the customer relationship and whether you can retain them after the initial subscription term. The user experience is manifested in several ways – how they interact with your solution, and how they interact with your solution support teams. When you plan your product, don’t just plan the product or the service, but think through the various customer touch points with your organization. Provide a unified experience between the product, the service you provide, and the engagement process.
Integrate your support team into the account management strategy. Your customer support team will have more interactions with the customer than your sales team. Through their many interactions, they will have deeper insights on the customers’ evolving needs, as well as understanding any issues they may have with your solution. Their interactions will play a large role in customer retention and upsell of future services.
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