As a B2B seller, it often seems like today’s customers have all the power. They enjoy independent access to more high-quality information than ever before. They’re able to meet objectives through an increasingly wide range of options, spanning from simple to complex, analog to digital, and in-house to outsourced. In addition, they can look to experts within their company for guidance on improving quality while lowering the cost of any major solutions purchase.
“Tough” is a vast understatement. In this world, customers seek ever more information. They frequently request more options and reconfigure solutions as additional stakeholder input, “evolves their thinking.” They start, then stop, then re-start purchase conversations as internal players and priorities constantly shift. In many ways, as sales reps, it feels like we’re simply along for the ride -- doing everything we can to simply keep the deal on track and prevent the next stall.
Delivering "World-Class Responsiveness"
It’s natural to assume we need to be as responsive and helpful as possible to get that deal across the finish line. In fact, in a recent survey of over 1,000 B2B sales professionals, over two-thirds told us “more information helps customers make better decisions.”
Seventy-nine percent described themselves as “very flexible” to customers’ needs and opinions across a sale. And a full 86% told us “helping customers consider all options is very important.”
After all, if today’s empowered customers are going to engage in this kind of discovery anyway, it’s certainly better to be a part of it than a victim to it. So naturally, both individually and organizationally, we bend over backwards to give customers what they want.
Delivering a world-class “customer experience” through higher levels of customer responsiveness feels like a legitimate way to gain an advantage.
The problem with delivering world-class responsiveness, however, is it’s hard, complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Seeking a solution to that challenge -- achieving world-class levels of customer responsiveness without breaking the bank (or breaking our people) -- we were surprised to find in our research a completely different solution for selling to empowered customers altogether. In fact, what we ultimately came to appreciate was, we were actually solving for the wrong problem, because today’s B2B buyers aren’t nearly so much “empowered” as they are completely overwhelmed.
In fact, if you were to ask any senior executive (we’ve asked nearly 2,000) to reflect on a recent complex solutions purchase in their organization and pick one word to describe their overall experience, the words you’re virtually guaranteed to hear are all negative: Hard, awful, long, frustrating, painful, the ever popular “cluster,” and my personal favorite “Ineverwanttodothatagain.” All one word.
But crucially, if you were to then ask those same executives how much of that pain was the result of the specific supplier selling to them and how much was simply the result of their own company getting in its own way, the vast majority would tell you, the supplier had nothing to do with it. Their own company, their own complexity, was their biggest enemy.
Let’s face it, the single hardest thing about B2B solutions today isn’t selling them, it’s buying them. We now live in a world not just of more information, more options, and more people, but a world of too much information, too many options, and too many people. We’ve reached a tipping point where all of those factors once empowering customers, are now making it virtually impossible for them to reach agreement on what to even do, let alone what to eventually buy.
Selling to Overwhelmed Customers
That difference -- the difference between an empowered customer and an overwhelmed one -- makes all the difference for us as sellers. This is because the appropriate sales strategy for one is the exact opposite of the appropriate sales strategy for the other.
In a world of buying complexity, the sales solution has to be some form of making buying easier. Indeed, in our research, we found that suppliers perceived by customers as easing their purchase difficulty were a full 62% more likely to win a “high-quality sale” (i.e., a bigger deal at a higher margin).
Yet, when we tested a wide range of supplier sales tactics that might increase the likelihood of that kind of buying ease, we found the entire set of behaviors most associated with responsiveness don’t make buying easier, they actually make buying harder. Why? Because providing customers already overwhelmed with too much information and too many options with even more of the same is simply adding fuel to the fire. Responsiveness isn’t solving the difficulty problem, it’s actually making it worse.
Instead, the sellers most likely to win in the world of buying difficulty adopt what we’ve called a “prescriptive” approach -- not only teaching customers what to buy, through Commercial Insight, but how to buy, through very concrete guidance on which information actually matters most. Which specific options will deliver the greatest value (and which ones won’t). And which stakeholders to involve in the buying process, what questions they’re most likely to have, and how best to answer those questions succinctly.
Today’s best sellers, in other words, are world-class buying coaches, proactively guiding customers step-by-step through the minefield of buying in ways that customers themselves would have never anticipated on their own. And that is how you solve the hardest part of B2B selling: By easing the burden of B2B buying.
For more information on how exactly to engage a customer through a prescriptive sales approach, check out part two of this post next month, and read our recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The New Sales Imperative.”