There is a widespread debate at present about what business to business (B2B) solution selling might look like in a few years’ time and what the ramifications are for sales professionals operating in this field. The major trend underpinning this thinking is the shift of power away from the product or vendor salesperson to the customer, enabled by the vast amount of high-quality information readily available online or through a range of relevant discussion groups and forums. If this trend continues, the protagonists argue, then the traditional B2B sales role will disappear and be replaced by a more transactional approach. Therefore, mature sales professionals will need to re-invent themselves in order to survive, and those entering the job market now will need to acquire a whole new skill set that is still evolving. It sounds scary and it is. So, what can you do about it if you are currently riding high as a commissioned, target driven sales jock?
To paraphrase the well-known saying, “Keep Calm and Re-focus.” To understand what is really going on you first have to step back a little, see the wood not the trees and assess where you fit into the overall spectrum of selling and buying activities. The one aspect of the discussion that is almost always overlooked is how the customer actually buys. By that we mean, not just the procurement process and machinery, but the internal journey that an idea takes inside the customer’s business to become an actionable purchase of a product or service that is valuable to them. And the key word here is “value”. The way the customer perceives and ultimately realises the value you bring to them determines how they buy and therefore how YOU should engage them. Misalignment in this area will cost you dearly.
It’s fair to say that most B2B sales and salespeople tend to engage with the buyer quite late in the journey of the idea – usually by the time the buyer has a reasonable idea of what their problem is, what sort of solution might fix it and who they might consider as providers of that solution. It is this buying/selling style that is under threat, make no mistake. If the buyer can avoid engaging vendors and their swarms of hungry salespeople by accessing the information they need from other less partisan sources, then the days of sellers who operate that way are truly numbered. But there is another way for sellers to engage that most avoid or simply don’t know about because it requires a lot of things they currently don’t have or use. Such as high-level relationships inside their buyer organisation based on trust, not transactions, such as deep understanding of the buyer’s business model and how the buyer engages his customers and very importantly, an approach to sales that is not forced by the seller’s timeline and agenda but relates to the buyer’s.
This is a very different model to the one used by the vast majority of vendor sales operations today, requiring a skill set that exceeds that of most of the people currently in B2B sales. It is argued that only those who can make that shift, acquire those skills and learn to engage their buyers in a completely different manner will survive. To effect that change requires a number of fundamental alterations in behaviour, not the least of which is the sales process itself.
Virtually all B2B sales processes today, whether “off-the-shelf”, bespoke, or grown in-house, all operate in a very linear way, are all focused primarily on the needs of the selling organisation and almost all produce sales forecasts that are at best optimistic and at worst dangerously misleading. Trying to engage clients with the wrong skill sets supported by a process that doesn’t relate to the way the buyer wants to buy is never going to help you adapt and survive.
This is where Essential Sales Process (ESP) can help you. ESP is built from the ground up around what the customer needs and how the customer behaves in the real world. It has been created by experienced sales professionals by building on several techniques that have been proven in other business activities such as Agile software development, Lean manufacturing and Kanban workflow management. Instead of a clunky linear approach that assumes the customer will move at YOUR pace, ESP uses the power of checklists to help you understand what you actually know as opposed to what you think you know. ESP separates the different aspects of the sale, such as requirements, contract, opportunity etc., into a series of measurable and verifiable stages. Each stage consists of outcomes confirmed on the checklist thus simplifying the management of the sale and the engagement with the customer. By making the multiple aspects of the sale independent of each other, but still related, you can then proceed on multiple fronts at the same time, but at different rates and potentially using different people in your team for each. As everyone is operating to the same set of checks the quality of information produced is consistent across the team, and visible to everyone on it at the same time.
Using the Kanban approach you get an instantaneous view of exactly where each sales opportunity is as it relates to what the client is doing. The rigour of the checklist approach underpins this and avoids the pitfalls of false optimism in the forecast. Another important benefit of the ESP approach is that it extends beyond conventional sales processes to support engagement at the “idea” stage all the way through to implementation and beyond, which encourages long-term thinking and relationships based on genuine business value delivered to the customer.
In a rapidly arriving future world where old-style “one size fits all” thinking and activities driven by high-pressure sales targets, as opposed to customer outcomes based around the value they receive, a flexible yet rigorous approach to sales process will be essential – ESP, the Essential Sales Process.