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Why B2B sales is no longer a linear process

The traditional, linear process of B2B sales is obsolete, with growth now dependent on digital tactics, argues Dan Blacharski

B2B sales, particularly in the manufacturing arena, has traditionally been approached as a very linear process, based on a careful map of the buyer pathway, starting with step one, which is usually an introduction to the company and its product line, followed by a pitch on why those products would be useful to the potential buyer and what the benefits would be. The linear sales process begins with an assumption that the prospect knows very little about you.

The linear process is obsolete. Digital sales processes have moved out of the consumer realm and into B2B. Buyers are more educated, and the sales process begins not with an introduction, but with an assessment of how much the prospect already knows about you. Usually, it will be a lot. Educated customers, empowered by the internet and the ready availability of information about your offerings – as well as those of your competitors – have effectively killed the linear sales process, and replaced it with something much more effective.

"That linear process isn't happening anymore, because buyers are much more sophisticated and informed," says Corey Torrence, MD at Blue Ridge Partners. "They have more data. You might be talking to somebody for the first time, but they're already at step six in the buying process. If you're starting out with the 'who we are,' it's going to be a short phone call."

B2B learning from consumer sales process

More important is for sales staff to approach sales as a 'quarterbacking' process, which begins with understanding where the prospect is in the buying process. If the prospect is ready to buy, there's no point in going through many of those early linear steps. "It really comes down to looking at how to reduce the cost of acquisition, shorten the sales cycle, increase conversion rates and reduce the cost of conversion," says Corey. "And I think there are a lot of techniques that were learned from the consumer side."

That's because the real people behind the corporate purchasing department have gotten used to consumer-focused tactics in their personal lives, and they want that in the workplace, too. "They don't just want them, they expect them," adds Corey. "The bar is being raised. They've done most of their shopping before they have connected with a live person. We've done interviews with customers who said, 'I have no need for a sales rep to come see me more than once a quarter, and that's just so they can take me out to lunch. Everything else, we can conduct via the digital medium'."

Getting customer segmentation right the first time

When a sales organization is still small, a direct sales force that covers all bases for every prospect/customer may make sense. "But they get to a point where they cannot scale," argues Corey, who notes that as an organization grows, there may be a "long tail" of customers who are being serviced by live sales staff, where those customers might be just as happy with a self-service option. He gives an example of one of his clients, which had sales staff going out into the field to sell replacement parts to existing clients. "You don't need to go sell somebody a replacement part," said Torrence. "The client knows exactly what they want, and they need an easy way to do business with you. If I don't have to put people on that, I can give you a more competitive price."

That approach represents the leading edge of the digital transformation in B2B sales, the heart of which is knowing where the prospect is in terms of the sales process. In most cases, the prospect is entering into the very first conversation with a great deal of product knowledge – possibly, even more, knowledge than the sales rep.

Training sales staff, especially legacy sales staff who are accustomed to the 'old way' of doing things, is essential. That training, says Corey, is key to the transition. "Some of them will catch on (the 'believers'), and they know they're going to make a lot of money if they make that transition. Others will resist change and stick to selling legacy products the old way. At the end of the day, what salespeople care about is how they achieve their quota and make more money."

Each stage of the purchase journey now has both online and offline touchpoints, which affect how prospects learn about and evaluate product offerings. Often, even in the enterprise purchasing department, buyers will evaluate products based on social media input, peer reviews, and online content such as whitepapers and case studies. Sellers must integrate those digital touchpoints into the sales process, effectively 'seeding' the landscape so the buyer – regardless of where they may be in the sales journey – will have ready access to information they need to make a decision. Sales reps can no longer assume the buyer needs to be educated or wants to be courted.

There is a definite real-time shift in the sales journey, which runs counter to the traditional wisdom of linear process. Immediate response to social conversations is a new tactic that legacy sales agents need to learn. Going forward, enterprise sales staff will need a very different skill set to succeed in the digital marketplace. Embracing that transition head-on and mastering the new sales role and tool-sets will be the only way to survive.

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