In short:

  • Gone (mostly) are the days where bureaucracies dictate departmental B2B purchasing decisions from on high.
  • Today, a Millennial operations person with social media and research skills might be a “hidden” decision-maker for everything from martech to new fleet vehicles.
  • No matter how hard you try, you may never know all the stakeholders who can derail a sale. But there’s a way around that.

You’re not a sales rep, right?

Well, yes and no.

It’s no secret that today’s business customer looks very different from 10 years ago ... five years ago ... heck, even since last year. Priorities have changed for society, and your sales team is, hopefully, changing its selling tactics to more effectively vie for a share of the customer’s wallet.

Here’s the rub though: In a study, Forrester found that 60% of buyers would rather not have sales reps as their primary information sources. So what now? Who do customers want to communicate with?

That’s a complicated question that’s tied to the way purchasing decisions are now made.

If you worked in Big Corporate last decade, you probably remember when (often uninformed) “higher-ups” figured signing the checks gave them carte blanche to make unilateral decisions for the entire organization based on what systems they worked with 10 years ago or whose sales rep took them golfing on Saturday.

The customer journey has changed. In almost all the companies I work with in my consultative role, there’s a, dare I say, democratic process for choosing products and services. That doesn’t mean the golf-buddy factor is gone. It does mean that your sales approach needs to work from executive level down to front-line employees and sideways to peripheral stakeholders. In other words, not only must you win over the generals and CIOs, you’ll now see HR executives, finance leads, business intelligence directors, marketing managers and front-line employees in your pitches/demos/consultations, all staring back at you and all with their own agendas.

Because of this, the concept of “selling” as we know and love it has undergone an evolution, reshaping how customers engage and are retained. The journey is no longer circular and finite, but linear, inclusive and progressive; a story that continuously changes and has no finale.

Unless you have some truly superstar sales people, you can’t expect them to tackle this phalanx alone. That means that everyone in your organization is now part of the “sales team” and responsible for a piece of the journey, so suit up!

The good news is that you already have most of the tools to be successful. The troubling news: This may be a cultural shift for your organization, and not an easy one, especially now. Finance, marketing, operations — they all have their hands full. Requests to help out sales may be met with resistance.

Here’s how to frame the discussion.

Cold Discomfort

Think about how many emails and LinkedIn messages you ignore from people asking for “15 minutes of your time.” Cold calling, cold emailing, cold messaging is exactly that: cold. I average at least two or three outreaches a day from companies of every walk trying to get me to bite. The fact is, I know what’s best for my employees and my customers, so I will find what I need to be successful on my own, thanks. It’s an “I’ll call you” situation.

I’m not alone here, though I am typical for my generation (Millennial) — about 68% of B2B customers in that Forrester study prefer to research independently online.

The key word is “independently.” So instead of investing in some version of the cold call, wasting resources that could be used on improving your deliverables, meet them where they are. Make your own rom-com with your customer by designing the perfect “meet-cute” scene to spark the relationship. In Dirty Dancing, for example, the main characters meet at a party — Baby wasn’t looking for Johnny, they just were in the right place at the right time.

Technology advancements, social media, creative advertising and group-sourced reviews mean customers are completing most buying journeys on their own. They’re already at the party. That means you need to position your company with Patrick Swayze-esque timing and charisma.

Simply put, most future customers — 71% of them, in fact — are going to find you by doing a Google query. That’s why it’s important to really focus on SEO and social media presence. It’s the “gut feeling” your customer gets that’s going to tell them to either start, or end, the buying journey with you.

Tip: Consider who will do a Google search for your products and address diverse personas. Remember, C-levels likely get involved only later in the process. The partygoers at your doorstep bring a mix of backgrounds, seniority, ages and agendas. Does your content mix capture many POVs? Does that PDF work seamlessly on mobile? How is your company’s standing on social, environmental and governance issues? These questions, now more than ever, are significant. Consider investing in your digital presence instead of cold calling — you’ll see ROI faster than you expect.

Read the Room

When you go to a high-end party, you expect the music, food and beverages to align with the ambiance of the event. It takes a village to put on an $80,000 wedding reception.

I work mostly on B2B deals that may run into “multiple wedding receptions” territory, but more important, involve products and services that materially affect the success of the purchasing company. Potential customers with a lot on the line respond to a curated, concierge experience.

Look, it’s a rare business right now that doesn’t have some level of angst about the future. So how will you put their internal experts at ease at all stages of the buying process? By pairing their experts with your experts to create an open idea-share environment.

Yes, this is going to tax your entire organization. But a little practice and process will make it go a lot smoother. It really is going to take a village, and you’ll just have to embrace that if you’re going to appeal to today’s customer. Throwing a single sales rep at a big deal, with maybe a couple of hours from an engineer or SME, will keep the process cyclical — and remember, we are evolving to linear, progressive buying journeys.

The Harvard Business Review reports that the average number of people involved in a B2B purchase has climbed from 5.4 in 2015, to 6.8 in 2017. Based on my experience, it’s higher now. Adding one more person to the party every couple of years may seem negligible in the grand scheme, but that one person could torpedo your relationship.

A lot of irritation comes from not knowing who is involved on the customer’s end until it’s too late to get the right complementary resource teed up. While you can try asking who’s on the “decision team,” this information isn’t always willingly given. I’ve seen many deals where sellers think they have good, strong relationships and P.O.s are imminent. Then one day it all falls through. When this happens, it’s probably because of a rogue, nameless member of the decision team you weren’t aware of. Who that’s likely to be depends on your business.

This is why the content you put out there must be appealing to all stakeholders, including the lurker in the corner.

Tip: Treat everyone like they hold the keys to a final decision. I’ve been told I look young (let’s hope it stays that way). I’ve walked into meetings where the other party, usually a seasoned SVP of some sort, was trying to sell to my company but didn’t bother with an introduction or make any attempt to include me in the discussion.

In fact, I usually get the “what-is-this-kid-doing-here” look.

They only make that mistake once, and generally become painfully aware of the error when I begin to pick apart their presentations. It’s that type of dumb, and easily avoidable, move that can put your company at the bottom of the list. How is someone who doesn’t acknowledge me going to help with my initiatives? We clearly weren’t aligned, no matter how aligned we actually were product-wise.

So how do you spot that wallflower who is actually in a position to derail all your efforts? Be vigilant of people CC’d on email threads, distribute collateral in a gated environment to track who is looking at it, meet in-person (if able) to connect with as many people as you can, regardless of title. Check your bias — I know brilliant female engineers who’ve been asked if they’re there to take notes. Assume everyone you come in contact with is involved in the buying journey.

Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom

As a CFO, you may have reservations about your entire squad engaging with a new prospect, and the sales manager might well be right there with you. But you have to abandon preconceived notions of what a “sale” or “relationship” looks like and have faith in your team’s ability to connect.

Trust and evangelize that you have hired skilled people to do a good job for your company, because that is what actually matters to the customer. They aren’t — especially in today’s social climate — concerned with your ability to “wine and dine” them. Your customer is concerned with your village’s ability to step up and solve their problems of today as well as their problems of tomorrow.

Your people are already doing this for your business. It’s why you hired them. Now steer their skills to help your customer.

Think of your organization as a team of specialists. To sell effectively, they must listen, weigh pros and cons and use their experience and knowledge to identify the prospect’s problem and suggest a strategy to solve it while identifying potential “gotchas.”

It’s not a fast process by any means. But it is an effective and durable approach to sales.

Tip: Don’t confuse prescriptive with proactive — they are correlated but different. Being prescriptive means you are always proactive, but being proactive doesn’t always mean you are being prescriptive. Sales teams are trained to be as responsive as humanly possible, to follow the customer’s lead and provide whatever is requested, even if they know it’s irrelevant. They create a “data dump” to ensure that customers have all the specs, case studies and testimonials they might need to guide their decision-making. They lay out a buffet of options, continually adjusting the menu as customer demands evolve.

At best, this is a self-serving way of “selling.” At worst it will have the opposite outcome in a prescriptive environment. The amount of time and resources spent on “yes” moments can end up losing your company money and frustrating the customer.

No one has time for data dumps. Responsiveness can’t come at the degradation of accuracy. Provide precise, timely responses to build an environment of trust and idea-sharing. Doing so will create the give-and-take you want in a customer partnership. Use phrases like “one of the things we’ve learned from working with customers like you is...” or “when you do a, b and c, there will be questions like...” or “here’s one way to approach this problem...”

Prescriptive methods inspire confidence. They show you understand the customer’s business, that you have given the proposed solution thought and that you’ve taken the time to curate, not overwhelm them. You’re preparing your customer for the journey and adding value while maximizing the ROI of your team — and the beauty is that this typically happens organically if you pair properly. What I mean by that is, dance partners anticipate each other’s movements. Baby didn’t take that leap cold. Treat your customer’s people as partners, and they will see you as such.

Not surprisingly, customers perceive prescriptive individuals as genuine and being one step ahead, anticipating and eliminating obstacles.

None of this is going to be easy. Treat your cultural change as a buying journey, but the currency exchanged is culture. Get all stakeholders involved, and get them excited for the future of your business and your customers. Bring everybody along. If you do, you’ll have the time of your life.

Bryan Reynolds is director, sales operations for TBI. In that role, Bryan oversees an organization of 75+ individuals who provide TBI’s partner community with unparalleled back-office support ranging from quoting and solution design to implementation advocacy and project management. He plays a pivotal role in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the company’s sales initiatives and overall operations by identifying ways to improve, optimize and simplify practices with an emphasis on culture. The drivers of his organization are rooted in disrupting the boundaries of empowerment and cultivating an environment of superior human (customer/partner/employee) experience.

Mark Bianco

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