The B2B sales world is obsessed with closing deals. Just think about how many times you've heard the Glengarry Glen Ross line "Coffee is for closers" or watched your colleagues throw dollar bills at someone who closed a deal or read a job description that talks about being a good closer.

To be sure, there's a reason why we fixate on the end of the sales process. Closing deals is how a company makes money, and it's the basis for a sales rep's compensation. That said, we can't overlook the importance of opening in today's sales environment. In fact, starting a conversation is one of the hardest parts of the sales process today. Don't believe me? Take a look at the research.

Buyers: "Leave Me Alone!"

Your future customers are actively avoiding your sales organization. Here's what Forrester's research says:

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In 2015, 53% of respondents found that gathering information on their own was superior to interacting with sales reps. Over the course of a year, that number grew by 11 percentage points! In 2016, 64% of respondents preferred self-education to interacting with sales reps.

In other words, it's getting harder and harder to engage your buyers. In part, that's because buyers have access to more information than ever before. But it's also because sales professionals aren't giving buyers what they need, when they need it.

Many buyers aren't ready to buy, but many reps are ready to close. So, instead of helping buyers explore the different ways they can solve their business problems, the reps pitch their products and try to pressure buyers into signing a contract.

That's the wrong approach. To be effective in a marketplace where buyers actively avoid sellers, sellers need to ask different questions. Rather than ask, "How can I close this customer?" they need to ask, "How can I open a conversation with this person? What can I do to spark engagement with buyers?"

Which brings us to more research…

Sellers: "How Do I Open a Dialogue with Buyers?"

Take a look at this chart:

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The average buying committee has 6.8 stakeholders. When so many people are involved, it's hard to build consensus among the key stakeholders, especially when it comes to defining a problem and deciding how to solve that problem. In fact, choosing a vendor is the easiest part of the purchasing process.

And therein lies the rub. Eager to close, some sales reps assume that all buyers are ready to choose a vendor. If they just see my product, they will buy it, such salespeople think to themselves. In so doing, they skip over entire stages of the buying process (e.g. determining how to solve a business problem).

Other reps shy away from engaging buyers in the early stages of the purchasing process, when potential customers are putting words to their problems and exploring ways to solve their problems. But that's when sales reps should start opening the conversation. That's when buyers need the most help. That's when sales reps can start to build a relationship and add the most value.

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Bottom line: Your opening must match the buyer's current stage, and if you wait until the "vendor selection" phase, you're waiting too long. Putting it another way, the authors of the Challenger Customer write:

As much as leaders tell us they want their reps to "get in earlier," this data tells us pretty emphatically that if they do indeed manage to get in earlier, they need to take that opportunity to help customers overcome the challenge they're facing earlier. And that challenge has little to do with choosing a supplier and everything to do with deciding which problems are worth solving in the first place and which solutions are worth pursuing to solve them – irrespective of supplier.

Sales Leaders: "What Does This Look Like?"

So, what does this look like in real life? For the sake of example, let's say that you sell marketing automation software, and you've encountered a marketing department that wants to prove the ROI of their marketing efforts. In other words, they are in the "problem definition" stage, and they are moving to the solution identification stage.

How do you open a conversation with the marketing team? Hint: You don't open the conversation by telling them about your software and how it's different from all the other marketing automation providers. When you do that, you get buyers who actively ignore you. Remember this graph?

Yup, that's what happens when you try to move too fast. In our hypothetical example, our buyers are looking into the different ways they can show the effectiveness of their marketing efforts. That may involve UTM tags in Google Analytics or their company's CRM or marketing automation.

There are many paths to a solution, but as a sales rep for a marketing automation company, your job is to help point them in the direction of marketing automation (not necessarily your solution), which requires teaching buyers about marketing automation and explaining how marketing automation can solve a buyer's problem.

Sure, you might sprinkle in a few details that only your solution can offer, but you don't frame it in a pitchy way. For example, you wouldn't say, "With marketing automation, you can do multi-touch revenue attribution, and only my marketing automation platform offers that capability." They aren't ready to evaluate platforms, but you can plant the seed that multi-touch revenue attribution is something they really need if they want to prove the ROI of their marketing programs.

Bottom Line: Your Opening Must Match the Buyer's Purchase Stage

There are many ways to plant those seeds. You can do it through email, on the phone, by sharing content on social, etc. But you have to make sure that your conversations coincide with a buyer's readiness. Otherwise, you'll end up with confusion and annoyed buyers, and 2017 will look something like this:

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If you'd like to understand how content fits into this process, check out this post: Why B2B Sales Teams Need to Change Their Content Strategies

Posted by Mark Bajus

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