The IT industry goes through cycles when everyone wants to be a "solutions" vendor and comes up with bundles of stuff to sell and call a "solution". Bundles - particularly if they come with discounts - can be attractive, but mixing them up with the idea of a solution can leave customers buying the wrong thing and, worse, even further from fixing their real problems.

Let's take a moment to talk about solutions and how you might rank the solutions vendors that pitch you.

Real IT solutions solve problems

Certain employees gain the reputation of being a problem solver. This is the human equivalent of a solutions vendor. These employees are hired to fix complex problems. (For a major chunk of my life, that's what I did.) Problem solvers tend to be generalists, not specialists; if they were specialists, then they're better known by their specialty.

What differentiates problem solvers is their ability to, well, start with the problem and then craft a solution, based on their broad experience, to actually fix it. You bring in a specialist, however, when you know what needs to be done but you need a specific skill set to do it. A problem solver might call in a specialist to fix a problem he has defined, while a specialist would call in a problem solver if she can't seem to get her arms around the problem.

You need a solutions vendor when you can define the problem but aren't sure about the fix. Dell showcased this approach a few months ago.

A customer was experiencing server performance issues. Had Dell approached this as a server specialist - and a typical hardware vendor - the company would have thrown new servers at the problem. Instead, Dell approached this problem as a solutions vendor. Analysis showed that the servers were fine, just improperly managed, so Dell provided software that made the problem go away. Adding new servers would have cost more money - and left the customer with servers that were even less effective.

(Now, had the customer discovered prior to calling Dell that it needed new servers and not management software, it could choose from best-of-breed product specialists to supply the necessary solution.)

When product vendors masquerade as solutions vendors

There's an old saying: If a company make hammers, every problem looks like a nail. This is the problem with a "product" vendor masquerading as a "solutions" vendor.

In the example above, a product vendor would lead with its products (servers) and take little time to understand the actual problem the customer had (server management). Such vendors lack the toolsets and experience to fix these problems. They're too focused on what they sell to see the broader picture. They have no need to analyse your problem - they already have a fixed answer for everything.

Unfortunately, that fixed answer is generally suboptimal and forces companies to buy a set of products that don't fix the problem and could actually make the problem more complex.

How to identify a 'solutions' team, even at a 'product' vendor

You will find "solutions" teams at product vendors and "product" teams in companies known for solutions. How do you tell the difference? Look at two things: Their approach to solving a problem and the breadth of their tool set.

A solutions team focuses the majority of its effort trying to understand the problem and has a broad portfolio of tools from both its company and its partners to deal with the greatest variety of problems. A product vendor, on the other hand, leads with its products, lacks broad partnerships and tends to be tied to a particular division of a firm.

Bringing in a solutions team when you already know you need to replace a broken piece of equipment will slow down the fix and add cost. Bringing in a product vendor when you don't understand the fix will generally result in wasted money and no solution. Just as picking a hammer up to fix your plumbing would be a bad idea, so, too, is choosing a product or a solutions team to fix the wrong kind of problem.

There are a number of product teams out there, and there are many product teams pretending to sell solutions. Finding a true solutions team is far more difficult - but these problem solvers are generally worth their weight in gold.