There’s no doubt that B2B buying behaviours have changed dramatically over the past few years. If you’re selling a complex, high-value solution, then you’ll almost certainly having to deal with better-educated buyers who expect more from their interactions with sales people - and are often disappointed.
And it’s not just the fact that you’ve got to satisfy the demanding expectations of increasingly well-informed buyers - the number of stakeholders that have a significant say in B2B buying decisions has grown steadily. According to research by the CEB, an average of 5-6 stakeholders are actively involved in every decision process - and in complex, high-value deals, the number is often significantly higher.
Unfortunately, many sales organisations have failed to re-design their traditional sales attitudes and processes to reflect the new buying reality. Their attempts to drive out-dated sales thinking even harder in the hope of turning things around are simply depressing win rates even further.
The myth of the single decision maker
It’s increasingly hard to sell to a single powerful decision-maker. Even if you can identify them and get to them they typically require that their team is fully bought-in to any decision. And in large part because of this need for consensus, decision-making has become increasingly cautious and risk-averse.
To compound the problem, if left to their own devices buyers are inclined to engage with sales people later than ever in their buying decision process - after many of the fundamental assumptions and decisions have been made. And when they do finally engage with sales people, the least they expect is a genuinely value-creating conversation and not a sales pitch.
Your strongest competitor is the status quo
So it’s perhaps no wonder that according to a number of recent studies, the most common outcome for even apparently well-qualified B2B sales cycles is now not a win or a loss, but the prospect deciding to “do nothing” - and that your most powerful competitor is not another vendor, but the status quo.
And it’s therefore no surprise that traditional sales attitudes are becoming increasingly ineffective, year after year, or that the consequences are seen in longer sales cycles, harder price negotiations, smaller deal sizes and lower win rates. Simply put, many historically successful sales approaches have had their day, and fresh thinking is urgently required.
That’s why many of today’s most effective sales forces have reacted by shifting their perspective away from driving a set of prescribed sales actions and towards finding ways of first understanding and then facilitating their prospect’s decision making process.
Sell the problem before you sell your solution
This has a number of profound implications, not least of which the recognition that you’ve got to sell the need to solve your prospect’s problem before you stand a chance of selling your solution. It requires that you lead towards your solution, rather than with it. And it requires that you first help the prospect identify the costs and consequences of inaction before you pile in with a Return on Investment projection.
Let’s face it, some historically effective sales people are inevitably going to struggle with this transformation, and many are not going to make it. You might well be employing some of these traditional sales types even today - and it’s almost certain that you will have employed them in the past. But without help, many are not going to make it in the new world of B2B buying.
A new breed of sales person
The ability to build relationships with buyers simply isn’t enough nowadays: we need our sales people to be alert, genuinely curious, and able to empathise with the customer but also - and this is an increasingly critical skill - with the ability to constructively challenge the prospect’s current thinking and open their eyes to new possibilities.
And they need to be capable of identifying the true mobilisers within the prospect organisation - the people with a strong reputation for leading successful change programmes - and co-opt them in the challenging task of aligning all the disparate stakeholders around the goal of selecting and supporting the vendor’s solution.
This new generation of sales people needs to work within a sales process that is closely aligned with the prospect’s buying process. Because of the need to adapt and react, these processes must be look more like skeletons that flexibly shape and support the necessary sales behaviours rather than rigid cages that constrain the sales person’s ability to innovate.
Facilitating the prospect’s buying journey
In short, vendors are having to (re)design their sales processes around their prospect’s typical buying decision journey. From a buyer-centred perspective, this journey might look something like:
- Satisfied with the status quo
- Curiosity aroused
- Establishing case for change
- Identifying potential solutions
- Selecting best option(s)
- Negotiating and validating
- Approving and confirming
Whilst one enlightened individual within the prospect might initiate the exercise, as the process unfolds they will need to progressively build a “coalition of the willing” amongst their peers who both buy-in to the critical need for change and progressively align around a single preferred solution.
You don’t just need a coach - you need a mobiliser
Rather than the traditional sales approach of identifying the ultimate decision maker and trying to sell to them directly, or clinging on to a friendly coach that may have little ultimate influence, the modern B2B buying environment requires that sales people identify and engage with a powerful mobiliser within the prospect organisation and work with them to progressively build a consensus for change.
It depends on sales people (and the marketing team that supports them) breaking through the prospect’s reluctance to engage early by presenting genuinely interesting and thought-provoking concepts that arouse the prospect’s curiosity and make them want to learn more. Provocative content pieces are part of the solution, but they need to lead - as early as possible in the buying journey - to a series of increasingly substantive conversations.
Influencing the prospect’s thinking early
That’s why the ability to have constructive conversations as early as possible in the prospect’s decision making journey - often before the prospect has fully recognised the problem or its impact for themselves - is such an important element of a modern B2B sales process.
It’s during these early conversations that the seeds of success are sown. And these early stage conversations should never be about the vendor or their solutions - they need to be about the prospect, and their challenges and consequences - whether the prospect has recognised them yet or not.
Is your sales team fit for the challenge of 2016?
With all of these changes underway, it’s probably worth re-assessing your current sales process - is it really as effective as it could be in facilitating the prospect’s buying decision process? And with 2016 less than 4 months away, what are you going to have to change to face the New Sales Year with confidence rather than trepidation?