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B2B Sales

Category: B2B Marketing

B2B Sales

b2b-salesThe hardest thing about B2B sales today, which also applies to B2C,  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 sell them the “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 1400 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.  (Source or statistics and source Kellogg School of Business)

But the news in 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

These B2B 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 sales reps.

Conventional B2B Solution-Selling

Under the conventional solution-selling method that has prevailed since the 1980’s, salespeople are trained to align a solution with an acknowledged customer need and demonstrate why it is better that the competition’s.  This translates into a very practical approach:  A rep begins by identifying customers who recognize a problem that the supplier can solve, and give priority to those who are ready to act.  Then, by asking questions, it surfaces a “hook” that enables the rep to attach his/hers company’s solution to that problem.  Part and parcel of this approach is the ability to find and nurture somebody within the customer organization-an advocate, or coach who can help navigate the company and drive the deal to completion.

But customers have radically departed from the old ways of buying, and sales leaders are increasingly finding that their staffs are relegated to price-driven bake-offs.  One CSO at a high-tech organization told me “Our customers are coming to the table armed to the teeth with a deep understanding of their problem and an all scoped RFP for a solution.  It’s turning many of our sales conversations into fulfillment conversations.”  Reps must learn to engage customers much earlier, well before customers must fully understand their own needs.  In many ways, this is a strategy as old as sales itself:  To win a deal, you have got to get ahead of the RFP (Request For Proposal).  But my research and Harvard School of Business shows that although that’s more important than ever, it’s no longer sufficient.

To find out what high performing B2B sales professionals (defined as those in the top 20% in terms of quota attainment) “Harvard Business Journal do differently from other reps, Harvard Business Journal conducted three studies.  In the first, they surveyed more than 6,000 reps from 83 companies spanning every major industry, about how they prioritize opportunities, target and engage stakeholders, and execute the sales process.  In the second study, they examined complex purchasing scenarios in nearly 600 companies in a variety of industries to understand the various structure and influence of formal and informal buying teams.  The third study they researched more than 700 individual customers stakeholders involved in complex B2B purchases to determine the impact specific kinds of stakeholders can have on organizational buying decisions.

Their key finding.  The top performing reps have abandoned the traditional playbook and devised a novel, even radical, sales approach built on three strategies outlined below.

conventional-solution-sellingAvoid the Trap of “Established Demand”

Strategy #1

Most organizations tell their salespeople to give priority to customers whose senior management meets these criteria:

A clear vision of its goals

A  well established processes for making purchasing decisions.  

These criteria are easily observable, for the most part, and both reps and their leaders habitually rely on them to predict the likelihood and progress of potential deals.  Indeed, many companies capture them in a scorecard designed to help reps and managers optimize how they spend their time, allocate specialist support, stage proposals, and improve forecasts.

However, I have found that star performers place little such value on such traditional predictors.  Instead they emphasize two nontraditional criteria.  First, they put a premium on customer agility: Can a customer act quickly and decisively when presented with a compelling case, or are they hamstrung by structures and relationships that stifle change?  Second, they pursue customers that have an emerging need or are in a state of organizational flux, whether because of external pressures, such as regulatory reform, or because of internal pressures, such as a recent acquisition, a leadership turnover, or widespread dissatisfaction with current practices.  Since they’re already reexamining the status quo, these customers are looking for insights and are naturally more receptive to the disruptive ideas that star performers bring to the table.  

Stars, in other words, 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 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 they are invited in late, the top performer tries to rewind the purchasing decision to a much earlier stage.

I was once asked by a client to give an RFP presentation. I quickly commandeered the meeting to my own ends.  I said in the presentation, “Here is our full response to your RFP-everything you were looking for.  However, because we have only 60 minutes together, I’m going to let you read that on your own.  I’d like to use our time today to walk you through the three things we believe should have been in the RFP but weren’t, and to explain why they matter so much.”  At the end of the meeting the customer sent home the two remaining vendors who were still waiting for their turn, canceled the RFP process, and started all over.  My work was finished.  I had made it clear to the executives that they were asking the wrong questions, reshaping the deal to align with my client’s core capabilities and they ultimately landed the contract.  Just like other key performers, I knew that the way in was not to try to meet the customer’s existing needs but to redefine them.  Instead of taking a conventional solution selling approach, I used an “insight selling” strategy, revealing to the customer needs it didn’t know it had.

research-sales-practiceResearch in Sales Practice

Drawing on data that included interviews with nearly 100 high performers worldwide (provide by the Harvard Business Review), I developed a new scorecard that managers can use to coach their reps and help them adopt the criteria and approaches that star performers focus on.

“Prioritizing Your Opportunities”.  One industrial automation company I have worked with has effectively employed it, with a few tweaks to account for industry idiosyncrasies.  When its managers sits down with reps to prioritize activity and assess opportunities, the scorecard gives them a concrete way to redirect average performers toward opportunities they might otherwise overlook or under pursue and to steer the conversation naturally toward seeking out emerging demand.  

(A word of caution: Formal scorecards can give rise to bureaucratic, over engineered processes for evaluating prospects.  Sales leaders should use them as conversation starters and coaching guides, not inviolable checklists.)

Target Mobilizers, Not Advocates

Strategy #2

As we noted earlier, in conventional B2B sales training reps are taught to find an advocate, or coach, will the customer organization to help them get the deal done.  They’re given a laundry list of attributes to look for.  The description below, compiled from dozens of company training materials, suggests that the ideal advocate:

Is accessible and will to meet when asked

Provides valuable information that’s typically unavailable to outside suppliers

Is predisposed to support the supplier’s solution

Is good at influencing others

Speaks the truth

Is considered credible by colleagues

Conveys new ideas to colleagues in savvy persuasive ways

Delivers on commitments

Stands to personally gain from the sale

Will help reps network and connect with other stakeholders

I have heard the same list, or a variation on it, from sales leaders and trainers all over the world.  It turns out, though, that this idealized advocate doesn’t actually exist.  Each attribute can probably be found somewhere in a customer organization, but research shows that traits rarely all come together in one person.  So reps find themselves settling for someone who has some of the traits.  When choosing an advocate, I have found, most reps walk right past the very people who could help them get the deal done-the people start performers have learned to recognize and rely on.

In the “Harvard Journal Revenue’s” survey, they asked customer stakeholders to assess themselves according to 135 attributes and perspectives.  The analysis revealed seven distinct stakeholder profiles and measured the relative ability of individuals of each type to build consensus and drive action around a large corporate purchase or initiative.  The profiles aren’t mutually exclusive; most people have attributes of more than one.   Still, the data clearly showed that virtually every stakeholder has a primary posture when it comes to working with suppliers and spearheading organizational change.

Here are the seven profiles identified.


Motivated by organizational improvement and constantly looking for good ideas, Go-Getters champion action around great insights wherever they find them.


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.


Wary of large, complicated projects, Skeptics push back on almost everything.  Even when championing a new idea, they counsel careful, measured implementations.


Willing to share the organization’s latest gossip, Guides furnish information that’s typically unavailable to outsiders.


Just as nice as the name suggests, Friends are readily accessible and will happily help reps network with other stakeholders in the organization.


Focused primarily on personal gain, climbers back projects that will raise their own profiles, and they expect to be rewarded when those projects succeed.


Perhaps better described as “anti-stakeholders”, Blockers are strongly oriented toward the status quo.  They have little interest in speaking with outside vendors.

This 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 I group together as Talkers.  These people are personable and accessible and they share company information freely, all of which makes them very appealing.  But if your goal is to close a deal, not just have a chat; Talkers won’t get you very far:  They’re often poor at building the consensus necessary for complex purchasing decisions.  Ironically, traditional sales training pushes reps into the arms of Talkers-thus reinforcing very underperformance companies seeking to improve.

The profiles that star reps pursue-Go-Getters, Teachers, and Skeptics-are far better at generating consensus.  I refer to them as Mobilizers.  A conversation with a Mobilizer isn’t necessarily easy.  Because Mobilizers are focused first and foremost on driving productivity and 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.  They are less likely to get behind a particular supplier than behind a particular insight.  Reps who rely on traditional features and benefits sales approach will probably fail to engage mobilizers.

Endless questions and needs diagnosis are of no value to the Mobilizer.  They don’t want to be asked what keeps them awake at night; they’re looking for outside experts to share insights about what their company should do, and they’re engaged by big, disruptive ideas.  Yet upon hearing those ideas, 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 reps performers live for this kind of conversation. I spoke with someone who said, “If the customer isn’t skeptical and doesn’t push me, then either I’ve done something wrong or they just are not interested.

Coach Customers on How to Buy

Strategy #3

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 less familiar than Talkers with the ins and outs of internal purchasing processes.coach-customers-how-buy

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 overreaching strategy of providing insight rather that extracting it.  Whereas most reps rely on a customer to coach them through a sale, stars coach a customer.  

In light of this fact, it’s instructive to reflect on how much time and effort sales organizations invest in equipping their reps to “discover” the customer’s purchasing process.  Most carefully train them to ask a host of questions that the customer will have accurate answers.  That’s a poor strategy.

Sales leaders find this notion deeply upsetting.  How can a rep guide a customer through the purchasing process when he probably doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of the customer’s organization?  Isn’t each customer’s buying process unique? In a word, no.

One star rep I know explained, “I don’t waste a lot of time asking my customers about who has to be involved in the vetting process, whose buy-in we need to obtain, or who holds the purse strings.  

The customers won’t know-they’re new to this kind of purchase, in the majority of my deals, I know more about how the purchase will unfold than the customers do.  I let them champion the vision internally, but it’s my job to help them get the deal done.”

Statistical Data from the Harvard Business Journal and Kellogg School of Business






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