Understanding the Modern B2B Sales Process
June 6, 2017 | Jessica Mehring
It’s been a dramatic last 10 years for B2B sales teams. What worked a decade ago now makes modern buyers run for the hills.
B2B sales cycles have changed. Salespeople and buyers have a new relationship with one another, and it has directly impacted the sales process.
First, let’s nail down this crucial definition. What is a sales process?
A sales process is a set of predictable, repeatable steps that a salesperson takes with a prospect to move them down the sales funnel to become a customer.
It’s a high-level map of expected interactions – it’s not set-in-stone list of activities, but rather it’s a helpful guide for sales reps to follow with each new prospect.
Sales Processes: A History
I personally know some salespeople who are going to want to kick me for saying this – but I’ve got to say it:
Cold calling doesn’t work like it used to.
Traditionally, sales reps would find or be handed a prospect, then they’d pick up the phone and call that person. Within a few minutes, the rep would know if they had a shot of making the sale or not, and they would make the decision to pursue the prospect or move on.
Historically, a salesperson’s knowledge was his trade secret. Prospective buyers didn’t have access to things like pricing, specs, customer reviews, or competitor information. The salesperson was the expert.
Because of this, the sale actually hinged on the salesperson’s ability to sell. Could they convince the buyer she has a problem? Could they make a strong enough case for why she should buy their solution?
While buyers were limited in the information they had access to, sales reps also had limited information on the prospects they were cold calling.
So the B2B sales process often looked a bit like this:
- Cold calling to initial contact
- Pitch and/or demo
- Transfer to the decisionmaker
- Pitch and/or demo
The Modern B2B Sales Process
Today, however, B2B buyers are taking the lead in the sales process. They do their own research online before considering which solution might be the best fit – even when they’re making an offline purchase. In fact, much of the buying decision has been made before the salesperson ever talks to the business.
HubSpot’s recent research reveals some eye-opening facts about this change.
Google’s research shows that 90% of B2B researchers who are online use search specifically to research business purchases, and they conduct an average of 12 searches before engaging on a brand’s website.
(Source: Think with Google)
According to Forrester Research, 74% of business buyers conduct more than half of their research online before making an offline purchase.
Curious about which web elements are most important to B2B buyers? Here’s how those buyers rank a brand’s website elements in terms of importance:
With that information in-hand, let’s look at a couple of examples of modern sales processes:
Outbound example (sales rep initiates the relationship):
- Prospecting: Sales rep identifies potential customer (smart sales reps also do a lot of customer research in this phase to qualify the customer as much as possible)
- Connecting: Sales rep calls or emails potential customer
- Researching and understanding: Sales rep asks questions of the customer in order to understand their situation and challenges
- Pitching: Sales rep explains to customer how their product/service can solve their problems
- Demonstration: If customer shows interest, sales rep offers demo, free trial or complimentary consultation so customer can take the solution for a test drive
- Close: When/if customer is ready to buy, the salesperson makes the sale
Inbound example (customer initiates the relationship):
- Awareness: Buyer becomes aware he has a problem
- Research and comparison shopping: Buyer conducts research to find out how to solve that problem, and discovers possible solutions (including your own)
- Education: Buyer finds your company website, which includes high-quality, valuable content, and they begin to see you as an authority
- Initial contact: Buyer provides his email address in exchange for some of that valuable content
- Funneling: Buyer receives a series of emails from the company educating him about his problem, presenting possible solutions, and finally making a case for why this company’s solution is the right one for him
- Ready to talk to sales rep: Buyer reaches out to the company for a consultation / free trial / demo / etc.
- Close: With the support of the sales rep, customer makes the purchase
Key Challenges Within the Modern B2B Selling Process
Modern B2B buyers are much more actively involved in the sales process. They are not passive participants – they don’t just trust what the sales rep says, they do their due diligence.
Some of the biggest challenges salespeople face in this new selling environment include:
1. Increased availability of information, which results in prospects entering the sales funnel at much later stages.
“The point of contact with sales comes a lot later, so we have to be well prepared to present our value story to our customers or potential customers much earlier and articulate it in a much simpler manner.” – Renee Richardson, Caterpillar Global Marketing Services Manager, as told to Think with Google
Product details, competitor information, pricing – there is so much information available online today, and prospective customers are spending their time looking through it and using it for planning before even considering talking to a sales rep. In fact, studies show that this increase in research and planning on the buyer’s side has led to the buying cycle getting longer overall.
This doesn’t mean that reps are having fewer interactions, though – it means that often the buyer has been in the sales cycle for quite a while before the interaction occurs. And this, of course, means that the salesperson’s role in that interaction is different than it used to be.
Instead of being a source of information, salespeople are now asked to confirm what the customer has already uncovered about the solution.
Instead of giving a sales pitch, salespeople are now required to be expert authorities available to answer questions and guide the buyer through the purchase process.
2. Sales and marketing are often still separate.
Information is everything in today’s marketplace. Information about customers. Information for customers. When information isn’t shared across sales and marketing, it’s detrimental to your business. Yet sales and marketing teams are often still siloed, with different goals, and sometimes even competing roles.
3. Buyers still want to feel they have personal relationships with salespeople – but technology sometimes complicates things.
Technology has empowered customers and salespeople both, but it hasn’t eliminated the need for personal relationships. Used well, technology makes it easier for customers to connect with sales reps, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, sometimes technology gets in the way of the relationship instead of growing it.
For example, a company uses chatbots instead of providing a phone number for customers to call to talk to a sales rep. (For the record, I think chatbots are great – but it’s still critical to give prospective customers the option to talk to a human being!)
What can a modern salesperson do to stay ahead?
According to a recent report from Forrester, the successful salesperson today has these 6 skills:
- Embraces technology
- Shares new ideas
- Exhibits business accumen
- Communicates effectively
- Seeks collaboration
- Leverages data
What does that mean in practice?
1. Understand your buyer.
Think through the customer buying process and identify the main decision points. Use your experience as a salesperson for this insight, but also schedule time to talk to some of your best customers for firsthand insight.
Now align your sales process to the customer buying process.
2. Earn trust.
“Don’t sell anything. Earn the awareness, respect, & trust of those who buy.” – Rand Fishkin
In a 2015 Demand Gen B2B report, 85% of respondents said they were looking for a vendor with knowledge of their industry, placing a high value on vendors who are familiar with the challenges they face
Bring back the human touch. Before talking with a customer, do your research so you’re not asking questions a simple Google search could have turned up the answers to.
I believe the element of trust is why events are becoming popular again. They bring back the human element, put a face to a name, and help customers connect to a company on a more personal level.
3. Don’t just inform – teach.
This the difference between an inbound sales process that works and one that fails. Where many companies go wrong is they don’t take the time to connect their content with the customer’s real struggle. These B2B sellers are only focused on selling instead of helping.
Millie Blackwell, president of Showcase Workshop, shared this insight with me recently, and I think every single salesperson out there can benefit from it:
“We have to be able to do more than just ‘sell.’ We have to be helpful, informative and extremely relevant.
Yes, our buyers have access to more information than ever before – because we keep giving it to them! – but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to decode.
Our job as modern sales professionals is to distill all that information and make it relevant for our customers’ unique situation. If you can do that, they’ll be very will to see how your product or service fits into the mix!”
4. Leverage technology.
There is a wealth of software, tools, apps, and devices available at the disposal of salespeople today. Leverage that technology for the betterment of your relationship with your customers.
- CRMs like Pipedrive or Salesforce
- Marketing automation tools like Infusionsoft and HubSpot
- Email management tools like Boomerang and Streak
- Sales enablement tools like Showcase and Attach
- Social selling tools like Hootsuite and LinkedIn Sales Navigator
The last bullet point above deserves special attention. Too many salespeople ignore the benefits of social selling, or don’t understand how to use social selling to the fullest advantage.
This infographic illustrating a study by Feedback Systems for SalesforLife sheds light on the possibilities.
74.9% of companies reported growth in their social sales strategy in 2015
5. Align marketing and sales.
This is a HUGE opportunity for businesses – so sales team leaders, listen up. When sales and marketing teams unite, ROI improves, productivity increases, and customers have a better overall experience with the company.
The result of this alignment is a more efficient funnel and more super MQLs for sales. (Here’s a great breakdown of this process.)
Is your sales process outdated?
You’ve seen, now, how much more active customers are in the sales process today. You’ve seen how content (information) can help you make the sale – though it does lengthen the sales cycle. You’ve seen how technology can help you establish, grow, and improve your relationship with your customers.
Now it’s time to look at your own sales process. List out the steps. Is there room for improvement? Are there gaps where customers don’t have the information they need to take the next step toward a purchase?
The modern sales process is customer focused. Improve the sales experience for your customers, and you’ll improve your bottom line.