A HBR-article, by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman
The hardest thing about B2B selling today is that customers don’t need you the way they used to. In recent decades sales reps have become adept at discovering customers’ needs and selling them “solutions”—generally, complex combinations of products and services. This worked because customers didn’t know how to solve their own problems, even though they often had a good understanding of what their problems were. But now, owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves.
In fact, a recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers completed, on average, nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision—researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on—before even having a conversation with a supplier. In this world the celebrated “solution sales rep” can be more of an annoyance than an asset. Customers in an array of industries, from IT to insurance to business process outsourcing, are often way ahead of the salespeople who are “helping” them.
But the news is not all bad. Although traditional reps are at a distinct disadvantage in this environment, a select group of high performers are flourishing. These superior reps have abandoned much of the conventional wisdom taught in sales organizations. They:
- evaluate prospects according to criteria different from those used by other reps, targeting agile organizations in a state of flux rather than ones with a clear understanding of their needs
- seek out a very different set of stakeholders, preferring skeptical change agents over friendly informants
- coach those change agents on how to buy, instead of quizzing them about their company’s purchasing process
These sales professionals don’t just sell more effectively—they sell differently. This means that boosting the performance of average salespeople isn’t a matter of improving how they currently sell; it involves altogether changing how they sell. To accomplish this, organizations need to fundamentally rethink the training and support provided to their reps.
Coming Up Short
Under the conventional solution-selling method that has prevailed since the 1980s, salespeople are trained to align a solution with an acknowledged customer need and demonstrate why it is better than the competition’s. This translates into a very practical approach: A rep begins by identifying customers who recognize a problem that the supplier can solve, and gives priority to those who are ready to act. Then, by asking questions, she surfaces a “hook” that enables her to attach her company’s solution to that problem. Part and parcel of this approach is her ability to find and nurture somebody within the customer organization—an advocate, or coach—who can help her navigate the company and drive the deal to completion.
But customers have radically departed from the old ways of buying, and sales leaders are increasingly finding that their staffs are relegated to price-driven bake-offs. One CSO at a high-tech organization told us, “Our customers are coming to the table armed to the teeth with a deep understanding of their problem and a well-scoped RFP for a solution. It’s turning many of our sales conversations into fulfillment conversations.” Reps must learn to engage customers much earlier, well before customers fully understand their own needs. In many ways, this is a strategy as old as sales itself: To win a deal, you’ve got to get ahead of the RFP. But our research shows that although that’s more important than ever, it’s no longer sufficient.
To find out what high-performing sales professionals (defined as those in the top 20% in terms of quota attainment) do differently from other reps, Corporate Executive Board conducted three studies. In the first, we surveyed more than 6,000 reps from 83 companies, spanning every major industry, about how they prioritize opportunities, target and engage stakeholders, and execute the sales process. In the second, we examined complex purchasing scenarios in nearly 600 companies in a variety of industries to understand the various structures and influences of formal and informal buying teams. In the third, we studied more than 700 individual customer stakeholders involved in complex B2B purchases to determine the impact specific kinds of stakeholders can have on organizational buying decisions.
Our key finding: The top-performing reps have abandoned the traditional playbook and devised a novel, even radical, sales approach built on the three strategies outlined above. Let’s take a close look at each.
The best salespeople are replacing traditional “solution selling” with “insight selling”—a strategy that demands a radically different approach across several areas of the purchasing process.