5 ways to become a successful B2B seller in 2021

According to the Office of National Statistics, the revenue of ICT companies dropped by a little over 30% in October 2020, representing the segment of UK business least affected by Covid-19. On average, 45% of businesses admitted that their revenues had declined, with just over 71% of accommodation and food businesses indicating that both revenue and profits had decreased.

There’s little doubt that this affected spending power for companies across the country; faced with declining revenues and the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, many buyers were either unable or unwilling to commit funds to new projects. As the pandemic evolved, so too did the nature of the uncertainty – how serious would Covid-19 be, how many lockdowns would there be, and today, how quickly will the vaccines begin to make a difference?

However, with the start of the new year, many organisations have committed to their budgets, which is good news for sellers. Unfortunately, one thing is for sure: with reduced revenues and increased volatility and risk, companies are scrutinising their spending more intensely than ever before, making sure that whatever they do buy is both fit for purpose and the best possible value. This scrutiny means more hurdles, hoops and competition for sellers everywhere.

Buying by committee

Historically, complex deals above a certain size have always been examined by a committee to make sure that the product or service in question is fit for purpose. According to Showpad research in 2019, almost a quarter (24%) of deals across all B2B sectors involved more than five people, although the Harvard Business Review (also covered on this blog) puts the average figure at 6.8 people. With the dawn of the pandemic, it’s not unrealistic to think that this figure may not only have increased, but that the thresholds for scrutiny may also have dropped. In other words, much smaller deals are now being reviewed as carefully as the larger ones.

Before we look at how to tackle this – and it can be tackled – it’s also worth understanding how else buyers’ habits have evolved throughout the pandemic. Many organisations – even in buoyant sectors like cybersecurity – have made cuts and are trying to do more with less. This doesn’t just mean that staff have been furloughed or made redundant; it means that the remaining staff are expected to accomplish a similar level of productivity without their absent colleagues, often on reduced salaries.

Ultimately this means that the people you’re selling to have more on their plate, a lot less time, a lot less patience and often, many non-work commitments that slide into working time. If you’re the primary buyer on a project which will be scrutinised by a large committee, you’re looking at a difficult, complex and mentally draining piece of work.

Understanding this as a seller is crucial; being prepared for these challenges from the get-go is also taking the first step towards solving them.

5 skills to master

1. The first skill to master is to win before you begin. According to management consultancy firm McKinsey, B2B companies now overwhelmingly report that digital interactions are two to three times more important to their customers than other sales interactions. This means the content that your prospects are consuming before making direct contact is just as important as the interactions you have once the sales process begins. Consequently, it’s worth making sure that marketing campaigns are well synced up with current sales focuses, and your company isn’t fulfilling the scenario where you’ve got a smart, refreshed strategy and messaging deck, but the marketing team is still using content and templates from 2014.

2. Secondly, set your expectations. You might have great relationships with your customers and prospects and might be a consistent over-achiever, but if you anticipate challenges, you’ll deal with them much better. Given the industry data that we’ve seen, it’s likely that at some point in 2021, a deal will be slow, you will deal with a large committee, and you will have to work much harder for something that is less lucrative than a piece of work you sold in 2019.

3. Thirdly, if you haven’t already completed this exercise recently, understand what your ICP (ideal customer profile) is and where your solutions can be the most impactful. Clearly, it’s also important to understand where – within these groups – your organisation will make the most profit. You also might have written a number of sectors off as suffering and unable to commit spending in 2021, but you should revisit this list from time to time.

4. The next point concerns dealing with the buying committee itself: when you come to work with them, don’t waste time. The art to selling in 2021 will be blending simplified, impactful selling with demonstrating detail where appropriate. After all, to paraphrase Alyssa Merwin, LinkedIn’s VP of sales, promising ‘value’ will not cut it this year – you need to show hard ROI. You need to show where you can reduce costs and demonstrate concrete benefits and value in terms of pounds and pence, not theoretical savings.

Thankfully, this is another area where salespeople can collaborate with marketing. Producing ROI calculators for key market sectors will become far more valuable in 2021 than it ever has been in the past, especially when it can show how the benefits and ROI will be realised.

5. Finally, and perhaps more concretely: map the committee and plan your attack accordingly. Use LinkedIn and company websites to find out more information about the people that you’re dealing with. Don’t be afraid to use mutual contacts to understand more about how your buyers tick, what they like and don’t like. If you’re mapping stakeholders, it’s also important to note who is going to be ‘championing’ the buy and who has the power to veto the buy. In general, staff with veto power will be higher up the chain and you’ll see one-way information flows in the process – they might not be as collaborative and attend all meetings, but they’ll always be receiving information from others.

You should also be aware that just as your buyer uses a committee, you should do the same and draw on other assets in your company. Sellers need to be far more collaborative, exploratory and patient throughout sales interactions today, and in complex sales environments, shouldn’t expect to work by themselves.

Empathy goes hand-in-hand with this; alongside the power dynamics and specialisms of the committee, you should keep track of their other priorities, especially with your primary contact. When you’re dealing with a buying committee, building a good rapport and working collaboratively with the buyer is key, but you’ll need to remember to give them space from time to time. This might mean softening your requests, or simply believing a prospect when they say, ‘not right now’ and giving them slightly more time before following up than you would normally.It can make the difference between building a relationship and annoying someone. 

2021: A year of two halves

The optimists in the room would say that the latter part of 2021 will be quite different to the first half, but the reality is that the Covid-19 era will have set a remote working and financial due diligence precedent that will be hard to dislodge for some time. Most of us will be overjoyed to see our colleagues, friends and families again in less restrictive times, but most companies will continue to be financially prudent for most, if not all of the year.

This puts a very significant burden of responsibility on sellers to understand and adapt to a new market environment, but with empathy, planning and organisational self-examination, smart sellers can put themselves in the best possible position to succeed this year.

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