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B2B Sales: Definition, Challenges and Strategies

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The nature of B2B sales has been changing over the years. This change process has accelerated in recent times with the enlarged role that social media is playing.

In this post, we will look at the challenges a B2B sales organization faces today and the strategies to overcome them.

But first, let’s understand what we mean by B2B sales.

What is B2B Sales?

B2B sales is the process by which one business sells to another business. B2B stands for business-to-business.

This process however, differs depending on the nature and value of the product or service being sold, and the size of the organization buying it.

B2B sales decision maker

High value products and transactions

If the product or a transaction is a high value one, the sales process is usually complex. It involves:

  • Professional buyers
  • Multiple teams, each one of them approaching the buying process from the point of view of their function
  • A well defined buying process that frequently involves a pilot for technical or functional evaluation followed by commercial negotiations and contracting

All the above steps result in a longer time to purchase i.e. a long sales cycle for the seller.

Low value products or transactions

The process of selling low value products and services is usually a transactional one, where price, support (if required) becomes critical decision criteria for the buyer, especially if the buying organization is small. This small buyer could either be an SMB or a smaller department of large organization. An example of these types of products is office stationery supplies.

However, if the same low value products are being bought centrally by a large company, and the deal value becomes large, the sales process becomes elaborate and complex.

Here are the top 5 challenges faced by B2B sales organizations and sales people:

1. Identifying the right decision maker:

B2B sales reaching the right decision maker

This is one of the most important reasons why most B2B sales don’t happen. In fact research has revealed that most sales leaders have cited the inability to reach the right decision maker as the number one reason for sales not closing.

You tend to speak to a lot of different people but if you can’t reach the right decision maker at the right time and make your case to that person, it is quite unlikely that you will make the sale.

Strategies to find out the right decision maker

  • If you already have a contact in a client organization, the first and foremost strategy to find out is to just ask. Whoever your contact point in the organization is, you should ask them about these fundamental requirements:
    • The buying process
    • What are the steps?
    • Who all are involved?
    • Who is the consumer of the product or service?
    • Which department or function has the budget for the purchase?

Asking a whole lot of questions around the buying process usually reveals who the real decision maker is.

  • Sometimes you will come across a person who tells you that ‘A committee will decide.’ Or ‘We need to discuss with other stakeholders’ or keeps indicating that there is some higher authority that this person needs to refer to although the person has considerable seniority in the buying organization. In all likelihood, you are talking to the right decision maker.
  • On the other hand, you will come across a person who clearly tells you that ‘I am the one who will decide’. More often than not, this person is not the decision maker, especially in large organizations.When you encounter the situation mentioned above, make sure you try different approaches and enlist help from multiple people to identify who the real decision maker is. This person will also usually block any attempt you make to reach out to the right person.
  • If I am struggling to find the right decision maker, I frequently rely on my network of friends, colleagues, acquaintances who are selling to the same client or industry. Very recently, I was trying to sell to a large insurance company but I wasn’t able to figure out who the right decision maker was. I reached out to a friend who headed sales in India for a large global software company. He had a team member who was managing this account. This person’s client was in a different but related function. I got some very valuable insights from the client on the decision making process and the key players.
  • A very effective approach you can use to identify decision makers is through LinkedIn. The best practice is to use LinkedIn along with a Google search. News articles or any content available on the net about this company or person can gives a lot of valuable information about who the potential decision maker could be.

If you are a manager, make sure that when you review deals with your team members, you go through the decision makers for each and every deal.

  • I have often seen that sales reps do not spend enough time and effort to identify the key decision maker. And even if they do, they struggle to reach out to them. This is an important area where you could help them.

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2. Getting time from key decision makers:

B2B sales long sales cycle

Even after you have identified the right decision makers, the next challenge is to get time from them. Decision makers are usually very busy but getting in front of them is extremely critical if you have to sell. Here are some of the strategies that can help:

  • When I used to work for a large consulting firm, I would often enlist the help of my senior partners in the firm to reach out to the right decision makers. Many a time, senior people in your company may know senior stakeholders in client organizations in other contexts. Use these relationships to reach out to them.
  • If you are an entrepreneur, then use the connections of your investors or advisors or friends to reach out.

More often than not, you will find yourself in a situation where you have to reach out to a decision maker cold, without the benefit of a prior relationship of a senior colleague or friend or investor. So what do you do in this case?

  • First and foremost, do some background research before reaching out. Read about the company and its performance, what kind of challenges they are facing, key industry trends etc. You will find all this through Google.
  • If it is a public company, you should read their financial statements as well. You should also do a LinkedIn research. You will find out what the person has shared, who are common connections, which groups is the person part of and so on. A LinkedIn Sales Navigator account really helps in this.
  • This sounds like a lot of work but here is why you should absolutely do it:
    • Researching a company gives you lot of insight about the company, which you can use to create the right context or hook in your communication to grab the attention of the decision maker.
    • If you get an appointment with a decision maker and you use the time to answer basic questions about the business, you have taken away time to get to those critical questions that will help you win the business.
    • The decision maker of today expects you to know the basics of the business before you meet them. If you ask ‘discovery’ questions with a decision maker, you are most likely not going to win the deal.
  • The next step is to write the email or make the cold call. There are four rules I follow when crafting a piece of cold communication:

Create the right hook.

This should come out of your research, prior conversations and all that you have gathered so far. You should have this hook right upfront.

Sometimes, the research that you do may not yield anything unique and attention grabbing. In those cases, I try and create some context using the information available in LinkedIn especially posts that the person has shared. Here is an example of how I leveraged it.

Very Good sales cold emailA highly contextual cold email that almost guarantees a response

Sometimes, even that is not possible. My next best bet at creating a hook is by giving a reference. I look at common connections on LinkedIn and then give the reference of someone. I have found that giving a reference of someone who has worked together or been to school together gets the maximum response.

good cold sales email using a referenceA cold email with a reference – quite effective as well

State your value proposition

I am of the view that right after the hook, one should state the value proposition. This communication of value should be very clear, concise and be from the point of view of the decision maker. I have seen tons of mails from people who sell to me, where they go into feature listing without telling me what value I will get from it.

State your ask

After you have communicated your value, the next will be clearly state your ask – what do you want from them? Is it a meeting or permission to send them sales collateral or direct them to the right contact? The point is to be absolutely clear in what you want.

Never sell in the first email

This is a cardinal rule I follow with senior decision makers. You should always ask for permission first, permission to send them a sales presentation. In a world where senior decision makers are bombarded with pushy and salesy emails, it is a very polite thing to do and makes you stand out. The response rate that I have achieved is around 30%, which is very high for cold emails. Of course, this response rate will vary depending on your industry, product, and how well you have executed your outreach strategy.

Bad Cold sales emailThis is what you should not do

3. Long sales cycles in B2B sales

Relevant B2B sales content

B2B sales cycles tend to be very long. B2B sales cycles are long because of multiple stakeholders, a multi-step decision making process, a long vendor empanelment process and so on. Demand Gen’s B2B Buyers Report of 2017 found that 58% of respondents were of the opinion that the sales cycles had actually become longer than the previous year.

The most difficult part of these lengthy sales cycles was that they are highly unpredictable. Even after spending many months with multiple stakeholders in the end buyers would decline.

The question is how does one shorten the sales cycles.

Strategies to shorten the long B2B sales cycle

Here’s my take on how to reduce the lengthy sales cycles. Keep in mind that B2B sales cycles will be long. These strategies are to shorten the sales cycles where the length of it is not commensurate to the deal value e.g. it is okay for Airbus to take 2-3 years to close a $5 billion order from an airline but if it takes 6 months to close a $20,000 deal, then there is something wrong.

Experience how 19thMile can transform your sales outcomes.

Focus on product-market fit:

In my view product market fit is one of the biggest reasons for short sales cycles. I know of an emerging enterprise software company in India whose deal sizes runs into at least a million dollars but they are able to close deals consistently within 3-4 months. This is an example of an extremely good product market fit that makes it compelling for a buyer to buy quickly. On the other extreme are products that have zero product-market fit. It is easy to identify it because such products usually don’t sell.

The difficult zone is when a company has a product that in some way meets some of the needs of the customer but it isn’t completely there. Or maybe, the product solves a problem that the customer has, but it is not the number one problem that the customer is trying to solve, in that area.

These are very tricky ones to identify and solve. However, if you lack product-market fit, you will see its impact on the length of the sales cycle and conversion rates.

Finding the right product-market fit is the responsibility of the leadership or the product management function of the company. Sales can play a big role by providing feedback into the process.

Identifying the ideal buyer personas

This is related to the product-market fit. Identifying the ideal buyer persona means identifying the key characteristics of a customer, both demographic and psychographic traits, that represents the perfect fit for your company. Even if you have achieved product-market fit, your sales cycles will not shorten to the extent it can if you are not selling to the ideal buyer persona.

One of the leading education companies in India had a product for the K-12 market, which they were selling to schools. Initially, the sales team was going after the big brand name schools. These schools had large volumes and were very enticing to go after. They found that closing a deal with them to unusually long. The sales team would also go after small schools, which closed quickly but the deal sizes were so small that it did not materially impact their growth. They finally identified that private mid-tier schools that are owner driven (as opposed to being school principal driven) and who has high aspirations are their ideal target. This education company has since then seen tremendous growth.

Qualify, qualify, qualify

Even if you have found the product-market fit and identified the ideal buyer persona, sales cycles will not shorten if you do not spend time upfront qualifying your opportunities.Very often sales reps go through the process of selling without qualifying an opportunity. This happens when a sales rep in the eagerness or pressure to show progress in the pipeline, goes ahead without pausing to ask the right questions upfront and then, if the answers point to a non-ideal buyer, having the courage to drop the deal. This situation is a big waste of effort with very poor results.

Asking qualifying questions upfront helps identify the fit with the customer. The idea is to identify if the buyer profile and the problems they are trying to solve plays to the sweet spot of our offering. Spending time qualifying also helps uncover hidden buyer needs, which can then be used to tailor the solution to meet them.

As a sales leader or manager, you should spend quite a lot of effort in coaching your team on how to qualify an opportunity. You could use a framework such as BANT and equip your team with the questions that they have to ask and the kind of things they need to probe to be able to qualify. When you review deals with them, you should focus on how well are the deals qualified.

Identify and talk to the right decision maker:

Identifying the right decision maker and talking to them can significantly reduce the sales cycle. I have talked about this earlier in this post. It is one of the most critical aspects in B2B sales. Talking to the wrong person simply doesn’t make any sense and it will increase your sales cycle tremendously because after you have identified the right person you will have to go through the process all over again. Worst case, (and it is often the case) you will not be able to sell.

4. Making relevant content available to the seller

B2B sales growth

Content plays a very important role in B2B sales. It helps in establishing the company as a thought leader, an expert and a trusted advisor. It plays a key role in keeping clients engaged through a long and complex buyer journey.

If your product is complex, highly technical or if you have a large number of offerings, your sales rep will require a lot of content support to sell effectively.

They key is to make sure that you make content available to the seller at the right time. This seems to be the aspect that most organizations have faltered. An Aberdeen Group research has found that on an average a B2B sales rep spends 43 hours per month searching for information. A Kapost research has shown that 65% of sales reps say that they can’t find the content to send to prospects. This is the most common complaint of sales.

Searchability of content is one issue. However, another issue is timely creation and updation of content. A Forrester research has shown that 95% of B2B sales reps do not use sales content, as it is irrelevant, outdated and difficult to customize.

Content has a tremendous bearing on sales productivity – in fact, an Aberdeen Group research has shown that 84% of sales reps achieve quota in companies with best-in-class sales enablement strategies.

Strategies to make relevant content available to the seller

The first and foremost thing you need to do is to create your basic product content. Content such as product decks, specifications, case studies, ROI calculation etc. After you have done this, here are some of the steps you could take to ensure that your sales team has the right content at the right time:

Analyze content requests:

You should monitor and analyze content requests that come up from sales reps and identify patterns. Based on these requests, you can create more content if required. Quite often, the content being asked is already available in some asset, in which case you may have to just change the format or surface the information in a different way. Another way to look at the content requirements is to analyze the requests in the context of the sales process. Are there more requests in a certain stage? Are there more lead drop-offs due to content? What are clients asking for at different stages? Are there certain types of content that work in particular market segments?

Content delivery strategy

Creating content is the first part but an equally important part is to deliver it to the sales reps. There could be several strategies one could use. Some of the most effective ones are listed below:

Repositories:

Document repositories can be created for sales teams using technologies like Microsoft Sharepoint and WordPress. These are relatively simple to build and they provide functionalities like search and personalization, which allows one to show content, based on profiles or other filtering criteria. Most sales enablement products also offer repositories.

Workflow embedded delivery:

You could also deliver content embedded in the sales workflow e.g. many sales enablement solutions are integrated with Salesforce.com and deliver content based on the sales stage the opportunity is in.

Contextual and predictive delivery:

There are sales enablement solutions that can deliver content based on a context and a prediction of what will be most useful in that context. 19thMile is one such solution. It allows you to deliver content for say, a meeting or an opportunity, based on all the contextual information available. Let’s say, a sales rep sets up a meeting, on Google calendar. 19thMile, through its Google calendar integration, picks up the email from the meeting and based on this email, it picks up all the relevant information about the client, and the opportunity being pursued and surfaces the most relevant content to the sales rep through a notification.

Experience how 19thMile can transform your sales outcomes.

Chatbots:

This is a solution that is being increasingly deployed in sales teams. It may make sense to use a chatbot if there is a large number of queries that come to you regularly. Of course, one also implement an FAQ page but chatbots make it easier for sales reps to find information and are more interactive.

5. Sales and marketing alignment

B2B Sales Hiring

Marketing and sales are rarely on the same page. This is true for almost every organization. The degree varies. At the root of this disconnect is the definition of what constitutes a high quality lead. The consequences of misalignment between these two important teams can be disastrous for growth. Marketing can continue to fill the hopper with leads, which the sales team will chase down with very low conversion rates.

Here are some pointers for you to look at to bridge this divide:

Agreement on definition:

The first step is to have a common definition of a good quality lead. This can differ by customer segment. What has to be agreed upon by both teams is for a given customer segment, at what stage of the buyer journey should marketing hand over the lead to sales.

Agreement on indicators:

The next step is to agree on the indicators that a buyer has reached the right stage of the journey for marketing to hand over to sales. E.g. For a tech company, it could be a white paper download or a free trial request. For an insurance company, it could be when a person fills a form asking for price

Agreement on selling approach:

Once a lead has been handed over, it is very important to understand what’s the best way for the sales team to convert the lead to a paying customer. If a lead is at the stage of reviewing options, the selling approach could be to directly talk of benefits, pricing, implementation and comparisons. If the lead is a little further up, then a more consultative approach and selling on the concept or product could be appropriate.

KPIs to track alignment:

KPIs to track alignment: Given that this alignment is very critical for sales acceleration, it should be tracked closely. The following KPIs can indicate alignment:

  • Leads to customer conversion ratio
  • Average sales cycle time
  • Marketing qualified leads (MQLs) to Opportunity ratio
  • Conversion ratio by lead source

Conclusion

B2B sales, especially of the complex kind, are a challenging endeavor. I have highlighted only the top 5 challenges according to our experience. There will be other ones based on your industry. What are the other challenges you encounter in your industry? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.

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