I’ve come to believe that it’s essential to separate B2B sales opportunities into two categories: in the first group (let’s call them inevitable purchases) the customer is invariably going to buy something within a fairly tightly defined timeframe. The critical questions are what, when and who from - but something is bound to happen.
The second group (let’s call them discretionary purchases) are far harder to predict and manage. It’s by no means inevitable that the customer will do anything. They could - and often do - end up sticking with the status quo. When sales people fail to distinguish the difference, they tend to plough ahead and try to sell their solution without recognising that the customer isn’t yet convinced they have a problem or that they need to solve it.
This can result in some disastrous misreading of the prospect’s true situation and intentions - and looking from the outside-in, I believe that this ought to be a critical development priority for a significant number of sales organisations…
The characteristics of inevitable purchases
As we’ve identified, where inevitable purchases are involved, the customer is bound to do something. Examples might include securing supplies of raw material for a factory to satisfy already booked orders, or acquiring a solution that enables the organisation to comply with with new mandatory legislation.
Whether overblown or not, the Y2K issue probably represented the single most valuable driver ever in enterprise software, and drove a massive wave of solution investments in the late 1990s. Organisations believed that if they failed to act, their critical business processes could fail on a predefined date.
It’s hard to think of a more compelling event. Many customers were persuaded that the risks of failure were so high that sticking with the status quo (or waiting until midnight chimed and seeing what happened) was not an acceptable option. You might argue that the perceived risks were overplayed, but the decision to buy (or build) a fix was nigh on inevitable.
Many sales methodologies encourage sales people to look for a compelling event, and that’s not a bad idea of itself. But the problem is that very few events turn out to be anything like as compelling as Y2K, and sales people fool themselves into identifying or even inventing “compelling events” that turn out to be nothing of the sort.
And of course, the acid test is whether the so-called “compelling event” actually causes the prospect to make an irrevocable commitment to do something by or before the predicated date. All too often, the equivalent of a midnight chime goes off, and lo-and-behold the customer’s Y2K carriage fails to change back into a 1990’s pumpkin. The urgency turned out artificial, not real. But still most people acted.
That, naturally, does nothing for management’s faith in the sales person’s ability to forecast (or the sales person’s confidence). The sad but inevitable fact is that they - and the customer’s situation - were simply not compelling enough to close.
Making discretionary purchases more compelling
Once you recognise that in complex B2B sales environments there are actually very few genuinely natural compelling events, you realise that a fundamental requirement of modern B2B selling is to recognise whether the customer’s situation is such that they could be helped to believe that there is a compelling reason to act.
This, I suggest, ought to be one of every B2B complex sales person’s top priorities. If the customer does not believe that there is a compelling reason to act, there is a huge risk that their purchase process will be delayed, overtaken by more pressing priorities or abandoned altogether.
A compelling reason to act does not require a specific compelling event, but time is usually a key element of the equation. Failure to respond to a compelling reason to act needs to be seen by the customer as having increasingly costly and risky consequences the longer a decision is postponed.
So the first responsibility of a sales person when qualifying a discretionary purchase opportunity - even before product fit is confirmed - must be to ensure that a compelling reason to act exists or can be created. This is best achieved by focusing on the impact of the prospect’s current situation, and getting the prospect to acknowledge the costs and risks of sticking with the status quo.
Weak sales people are often unable to resist the itch to pitch at this stage, but top performing sales people recognise that they need to ensure that the prospect has bought-in to the need to act before they turn their energies to selling their solution. If no compelling reason to act exists, they know that it’s usually better to qualify the opportunity out or put it into a nurturing queue than waste energy running with a deal that is likely to go nowhere.
The need to establish compelling differentiation
Uncovering or developing a compelling reason to act won’t automatically result in winning a sale - although there is a bunch of compelling evidence from the likes of Forrester and the CEB showing that sales people who shape the prospect’s buying vision are far more likely to win a complex sale than those that simply focus on their solution capabilities.
Having a compelling reason to act is clearly important - but to maximise their chances of winning the deal, sales people then need to get the prospect to believe that their solution offering is compellingly differentiated from all the other options available to them.
If you cannot establish compelling differentiation, the prospect is likely to buy either the cheapest satisfactory option, or (more likely) from the company that seems to be the least risky/safest choice. If you happen to hold either of those positions, good luck - you might be in with a reasonable chance of winning the order.
But if - like many of the clients I work with - you are an emerging, expansion-phase company that finds itself competing with very well established brands, you’re unlikely to find it easy to be positioned as the least risky/safest option.
You’re probably not well-advised to try and compete on product superiority either - at least not on a detailed level. Your most effective strategy will almost always be to position yourself as having a distinctively different approach that brings compelling advantages to the prospect that no other option can credibly claim.
You need to make the prospect believe that they are going to be able to achieve benefits that they would be unable to achieve if they followed any other path. In short, your approach needs to be compellingly differentiated in the mind of the prospect. They need to understand and buy in to “what sets you apart”.
And - by the way - I think you can guarantee that having marginally better product performance is not going to achieve that. What you offer needs to be seen as transformational, not just incrementally better.
Compelling reason to act + compelling differentiation
Having a genuinely compelling reason to act and a solution that offers compelling differentiation can be a very powerful combination. But it doesn’t have to be restricted to a few innovative technologies.
If you look hard enough, and understand the prospect’s situation well enough, you will either uncover or create a compelling reason to act - or be forced to conclude that the customer will probably stick with the status quo and at that point you could and should make an intelligent and informed decision to qualify out early.
And if you think hard enough about the compelling issues that are facing your customers and how your solution solves them, I think you’ll be surprised about the scope you have to differentiate on the basis of your approach - or how well it will resonate with your prospects
It’s a winning combination, but it's not a miracle cure. But I'd be very surprised if adopting this approach didn’t have a powerful effect on your sales success. If you’d like to explore the idea of putting these principles into practice in your own organisation, please drop me a line.