If there’s one piece of advice that I would offer to any B2B organisation wanting to improve their sales performance it would be to “sell the way that your customers want to buy”.
OK, so I’m happy to be the first to admit that this appears to be a blindingly obvious piece of advice. But I still come across many sales organisations who continue to manage their sales pipelines according to the sales activity they have undertaken, rather than the buying activity they have observed.
Advancing the Buying Process
I’ve undertaken a series of recent exercises with clients - all involved in complex, high-value B2B sales - to help them better understand how they can focus their sales activities on those things that are most likely to advance their prospect’s buying journey.
The exercise typically starts with trying to better understand and anticipate the key phases their prospects are likely to go through during their decision making process. Fortunately, in the majority of complex, high-value environments which require direct sales involvement, there seems to be a remarkably consistent journey.
This is not to say that the journey is perfectly linear. Prospects can drop out from the buying process at any phase - or they can choose to simply stay put the process on hold, or revisit a previous stage in their consideration. But most seem to evolve through the following phases...
The Buyers Journey
First, the prospect is unconcerned. Then something happens (a “trigger event”) to disturb the status quo. This causes them to start investigating the situation - and to determine if it is worth solving. They do this by establishing an outline business case. They then research their options and define their needs. Before moving forwards, they start to formalise their requirements.
They then start to explore the available options (including “do nothing’) in more detail, and establish a shortlist of the most promising options. Following a more detailed evaluation of the shortlisted options, a preferred option (which may be “do nothing”) emerges, before the final negotiations over terms and conditions are concluded. One final terms are agreed, the proposal is typically submitted to an investment review process.
It is still by no means certain that the project will go ahead - it will often be competing with other investment proposals or the temptation to keep the cash in the bank. Only once the project has passed this final hurdle will the order be confirmed. But the buying process isn’t over until the solution is implemented and the sought-after benefits have been achieved.
Aligning With the Sales Process
The italicised comments above represent key advances in the buying process, and each one is associated with observable evidence of the prospects decision to move forward to the next stage. Identifying these key advances is critical to accurately measuring the sales pipeline.
Each of these buying stages aligns with a key sales stage and a series of key sales actions. Here’s a simple schematic:
The key to aligning the buying and selling processes lies in anticipating the key buyer actions and the associated key sales actions at each step along the way.
Key buyer actions tend to be associated with establishing the answers to three key questions: (1) is this problem worth solving? (2) are there practical ways of solving this problem? and (3) what’s the best way of solving this problem?
Key sales actions tend also to be associated with establishing the answers to three key - albeit different - questions: (1) will they buy anything? (2) can we win? and (3) is the deal worth winning?
Finding the Answers
Confirming the typical stages, and mapping the most common key buyer and sales actions to each respective stage is fundamental to aligning the B2B buying and selling processes. Here’s what seems to work - it’s pragmatic, and relatively inexpensive to complete:
- Using the above framework, brainstorm recent sales wins and losses with the sales organisation. Taking the buyer’s perspective, what key stages did the prospect seem to go through? What evidence could you observe of the stage the prospect had reached? What appear to be the prospect’s typical priorities at each stage of the process? Which sales actions seem to be most effective in advancing the buying process? What questions seem most valuable in qualifying the potential of the opportunity?
- You’ll come up with a number of hypotheses. Populate a buying-selling process alignment map (click here to download an example). Test them against other recent deals. Then take a sample of recent past prospects and validate the model by exploring their own decision-making process. Telephone-based voice of the customer interviews seem to work best. What sales actions were most valuable to them? What might you have done better? Question structure has an important bearing on results, and you’ll need to take into account the fact that their recollection may sometimes be faulty - but the information is still highly valuable.
- Embed the model into your sales pipeline management process. Pay particular attention to obtaining evidence for key advances in the buying process. Review each sales tool to determine how it contributes to advancing the prospect’s buying process. Look for gaps in your toolset where a new initiative could contribute.
Continue to review and refine the process. But if you hold to the task, I can guarantee that you will boost your sales performance - potentially significantly - and eliminate much wasted effort.