One of the most striking changes to the big business landscape in the past decade has been in the way companies sell their products to one another.
Most of the tried and trusted sales techniques that suited a certain type of management philosophy – one that advocated an eager, unthinking thirst for high-volume repetitive work – rarely succeed anymore.
This shift is mainly due to the way B2B products are purchased or, more accurately, the way purchase decisions are now made. And in turn this is due to changes in how we all get our work done and the rise in authority and freedom that all managers need to accomplish their goals.
First, employees must now be able to work as easily with colleagues in different functions and parts of the world as the one in the next-door office, and the value that employees create has become far more dependent on the quality of others’ work.
Second, line managers’ need to manage a wider portfolio of products and to serve more knowledgeable and demanding customers means they must claim more authority and freedom in their decision making. And that means that line managers need more say than they once had in what products the firm procures to help them in their jobs. Managers sourcing and buying their own technology (once the sole preserve of IT) is only one prominent example among many.
The Rising Complexity of Business Deals
Keeping with the IT example, consider a rep trying to sell an IT product. In the past they would have had to sell to the CIO and his or her team, but as almost all new IT products involve teams from all over a business, the rep must now also pitch to the chief marketing officer, chief operations officer, head of HR, and so on. Plus the fact that so many people will be using the product probably requires a chat with the CFO, the head of procurement, and the legal team.
Each of these stakeholders differs in their priorities, goals, perspectives and even has different levels of knowledge about whatever it is the rep is selling. CEB research shows that 5.4 people are now involved in the average B2B buying process.
The rise in the number of people involved means that each individual is far more risk averse to making a bad purchase decision than they once would have been, and so far less keen to speak out in favor of one product over another. This, and the need to find consensus among such a disparate group, means that sales cycles have extended and groups tend to default to choosing the lowest-priced option that offers something as close to the status quo as possible, rather than thinking what problems they want to solve now and in the future and buying the best product to do so.
In response, heads of sales and their teams should focus on two approaches. First, they should understand how to engender consensus among a buying group. Second, they should work with Marketing to motivate certain buyers in the group to become “mobilizers,” and encourage consensus among their colleagues.
Two Responses for the Sales Function
Create customer consensus by removing dysfunction: The traditional sales approach to building consensus is to contact each individual stakeholder and then to position the product to meet that individual’s needs. But in such a disparate group all this will do – ironically – is to drive stakeholders away from consensus and make a sale less likely.
Sales teams should move from seeking a collection of yeses to seeking a collective yes, and to do this they must make the decision-making process less dysfunctional by creating a shared vision among the group. This comes from creating “collective learning” behavior, characterized by an open, healthy debate that help the group agree on an idea. This page has more on the tactics reps can use to foster collective learning.
Motivate buyers by providing identity value: The other, more powerful tactic to create consensus is to find and encourage a “mobilizer” in the buying group. This is a customer who understands how the product benefits them personally and can persuade the rest of the group to come to a decision.
To do this, sales and marketing teams must understand the three types of value provided by B2B products:
Company value (“my company”): The value provided to the organization justifies the purchase decision.
Performance value (“my work”): The improvement in work experience justifies the purchase decision.
Identity value (“myself”): The improvement in self-esteem for an individual (e.g., career advancement, more pride in their work, feeling like they belong to an important community).
The use of identity value remains largely untapped, even though B2B buying can be an important emotional decision: buyers take on a lot of personal risk and need a clear personal reward.
Sales and marketing teams that successfully tap into identity value use tactics to understand customers’ identity needs, communicate them effectively prior to purchase, and then ensure the customer experience meets those needs (including through the offer of add-on services).