"The hardest thing about B2B selling today is that customers don’t need you the way they used to. In recent decades sales reps have become adept at discovering customers’ needs and selling them “solutions”—generally, complex combinations of products and services. This worked because customers didn’t know how to solve their own problems, even though they often had a good understanding of what their problems were. But now, owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves.
In fact, a recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers completed, on average, nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision—researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on—before even having a conversation with a supplier. In this world the celebrated “solution sales rep” can be more of an annoyance than an asset. Customers in an array of industries, from IT to insurance to business process outsourcing, are often way ahead of the salespeople who are “helping” them.
But the news is not all bad. Although traditional reps are at a distinct disadvantage in this environment, a select group of high performers are flourishing. These superior reps have abandoned much of the conventional wisdom taught in sales organizations. They:
- evaluate prospects according to criteria different from those used by other reps, targeting agile organizations in a state of flux rather than ones with a clear understanding of their needs
- seek out a very different set of stakeholders, preferring skeptical change agents over friendly informants
- coach those change agents on how to buy, instead of quizzing them about their company’s purchasing process
Strategy #1: Avoid the Trap of “Established Demand”
…place more emphasis on a customer’s potential to change than on its potential to buy.They’re able to get in early and advance a disruptive solution because they target accounts where demand is emerging, not established—accounts that are primed for change but haven’t yet generated the necessary consensus, let alone settled on a course of action.
One consequence of this orientation is that star performers treat requests for sales presentations very differently than average performers do. Whereas the latter perceive an invitation to present as the best sign of a promising opportunity, the former recognize it for what it is—an invitation to bid for a contract that is probably destined to be awarded to a favored vendor. The star sales rep uses the occasion to reframe the discussion and turn a customer with clearly defined requirements into one with emerging needs. Even when he’s invited in late, he tries to rewind the purchasing decision to a much earlier stage.
Strategy #2: Target Mobilizers, Not Advocates
…seven profiles we identified.It's the end of traditional solution selling. Customers are increasingly circumventing reps; they’re using publicly available information to diagnose their own needs and turning to sophisticated procurement departments and third-party purchasing consultants to help them extract the best possible deals from suppliers. The trend will only accelerate. For sales, this isn’t just another long, hot summer; it’s wholesale climate change.
1. Go-Getters. Motivated by organizational improvement and constantly looking for good ideas, Go-Getters champion action around great insights wherever they find them.
2. Teachers. Passionate about sharing insights, Teachers are sought out by colleagues for their input. They’re especially good at persuading others to take a specific course of action.
3. Skeptics. Wary of large, complicated projects, Skeptics push back on almost everything. Even when championing a new idea, they counsel careful, measured implementation.
4. Guides. Willing to share the organization’s latest gossip, Guides furnish information that’s typically unavailable to outsiders.
5. Friends. Just as nice as the name suggests, Friends are readily accessible and will happily help reps network with other stakeholders in the organization.
6. Climbers. Focused primarily on personal gain, Climbers back projects that will raise their own profiles, and they expect to be rewarded when those projects succeed.
7. Blockers. Perhaps better described as “anti-stakeholders,” Blockers are strongly oriented toward the status quo. They have little interest in speaking with outside vendors.
Our research also reveals that average reps gravitate toward three stakeholder profiles, and star reps gravitate toward three others. Average reps typically connect with Guides, Friends, and Climbers—types that we group together as Talkers. …
The profiles that star reps pursue—Go-Getters, Teachers, and Skeptics—are far better at generating consensus. We refer to them as Mobilizers. A conversation with a Mobilizer isn’t necessarily easy. Because Mobilizers are focused first and foremost on driving productive change for their company, that’s what they want to talk about— their company, not yours. In fact, in many ways Mobilizers are deeply supplier-agnostic.…
…Mobilizers ask a lot of tough questions—Go-Getters because they want to do,Teachers because they want to share, and Skeptics because they want to test. Skeptics are especially likely to pick apart an insight before moving forward. That can be intimidating for most reps, who are apt to mistake the Skeptic’s interrogation for hostility rather than engagement. But star performers live for this kind of conversation.…
…Contrary to conventional wisdom, hard questions are a good sign; they suggest that the contact has the healthy skepticism of a Mobilizer. If the customer accepts the assertion without question, you’ve got a Talker or a Blocker—the difference being that a Talker will at least offer useful information about his organization, whereas a Blocker will not engage in dialogue at all.
Star performers never assume they’ve identified a Mobilizer until that person has proved it with her actions. Stars usually ask stakeholders they believe might be Mobilizers to set up a meeting with key decision makers or to provide information obtainable only by actively investigating an issue or conferring with colleagues.
Strategy #3: Coach Customers on How to Buy
Sales leaders often overlook the fact that as hard as it is for most suppliers to sell complex solutions, it’s even harder for most customers to buy them. This is especially true when Mobilizers take the lead, because they’re “idea people” who tend to be far less familiar than Talkers with the ins and outs of internal purchasing processes.
Having watched similar deals go off the rails in other organizations, suppliers are frequently better positioned than the customer to steer a purchase through the organization. Suppliers can foresee likely objections. They can anticipate cross-silo politicking. And in many cases they can head off problems before they arise. The process is part of the overarching strategy of providing insight rather than extracting it. Whereas most reps rely on a customer to coach them through a sale, stars coach the customer.
… … …
These sales professionals don’t just sell more effectively—they sell differently. This means that boosting the performance of average salespeople isn’t a matter of improving how they currently sell; it involves altogether changing how they sell. To accomplish this, organizations need to fundamentally rethink the training and support provided to their reps.
Many reps will simply ignore the upheaval and stick with solution selling, and their customers will increasingly rebuff them. But adaptive reps, who seek out customers that are primed for change, challenge them with provocative insights, and coach them on how to buy, will become indispensable. They may still be selling solutions—but more broadly, they’re selling insights. And in this new world, that makes the difference between a pitch that goes nowhere and one that secures the customer’s business.