Mastering B2B (Business to Business) Sales

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Are they ordering widgets out of a catalog, or can you show them a burning need for change?

Are they ordering widgets out of a catalog, or can you show them a burning need for change? (Credit Jim Larrison)

B2B is where one company tries to a product, service, software, or system to a different company. Equipment vendors, consultants, and software developers will all want to check out this article I found. The End of Solution Sales, in the 2012 July/August issue of Harvard Business Review.

I will try to summarize briefly. The authors basically argue that the old way of making B2B sales is inefficient, and that their research suggests a new style called “insight selling” that the top 10% of salespeople are using.

The “old style” of sales is basically:

  • First find prospect companies to sell to. The best organizations are large/moneyed, have a clear vision or business plan, have identified problems that are related to your company’s area of business, and have a stable procurement process so they are used to purchases and contracts
  • Find contacts in the client company who are accessible, talkative, honest, good listeners and speakers, and stand to benefit personally if your sale succeeds
  • Talk to them about their problems, and fish for places where you can “hook” your services or solutions into their problems
  • Once you’ve got an area you can help solve their problem, win over your contact, and then help them make the sale. Ask questions and try to find out about the client’s procurement practices, then help your contact steer your solution through the process. (By giving them info to answers questions, showing up to meetings, meeting the various people who need to sign off on it, etc.)

This is certainly not bad advice and with the right personalities makes for a decent sales force. The problem is that with the proliferation of easier information (Internet) and globalization, customers are savvier than ever. Instead of having a problem and needing a salesperson to come riding in with a solution, established customers probably have a solution clearly in mind and have researched 3-5 firms that can do it. You end up coming into a “request for proposal” (RFP) situation, where the client basically has a contract already in mind and is asking you to bid against your rivals. Now you’re fighting price wars to win small, pre-defined slices of work.

Instead, the article proposes insight selling, where you:

  • Target companies that have a pressure or willingness to change. Maybe their market is shifting, they finished a merger or acquisition, they’re growing or shrinking fast, they just got a new CEO, etc.
  • The idea is to go in proactively and provocatively, and suggest they change their business model. “You should be using our service to predict maintenance requirements; we can reduce your unplanned maintenance costs by 40%.” “We can meet this RFP for this service, but really we think you can think bigger. If we try this totally different business model (and use us to fill in this gap here…)” Instead of waiting for a client to decide what they need and dictate the terms of service, you blaze in with a game-changing suggestion. This creates a new playing field, one where your company is the perfect fit and the wise counselor, not one of four widget sellers
  • Instead of finding “friendly talkers” on the client side, look for “mobilizers” - people who are good at pushing projects through and getting things done. It’s OK if they challenge you, and in fact, you should be challenging them too. When you make a sales pitch it is actually good if people are asking you hard questions, it shows they are serious.
  • Some star sales reps even throw little challenges at their contacts to make sure they’re talking to the right person: “set up a meeting and invite important person X from a division that’s not yours.” Whether X shows up will determine if your contact is a mobilizer, or just wants to be
  • Realize that as an experienced salesperson, you have experience more completing sales than your contact does. Coach them to get the sale done, don’t passively wait for them to ask you for help

In some ways this advice reminded me of job searching advice. “Replying to job postings with a resume that meets some stated needs is OK. But better is to know someone in the company, talk to them and learn about their problems, and work with them to explain how your skills and experience can be used to fix their real underlying issues. If you do this right, you can steer the company to create a new position tailor-made to your abilities. Smaller companies might even let you write the job description.”

You can check out the article on the HBR website here , or grab it as a free PDF here.

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