By Dave Stein and Steve Andersen
The “Great Recession” that began in 2008 irrevocably changed the way that companies buy from and sell to one another. Almost a decade later, many corporate sales organizations are still grappling with the impact of the new paradigm, which includes empowered procurement departments, accelerated business cycle times, and customers who have easy access to an unprecedented wealth of information online. B2B salespeople, conditioned for decades to focus their time and energy only on the sales process and the active opportunity, can find themselves losing to competitors whose main advantage comes down to being the low-cost provider. Unfortunately, when buying decisions are based solely on price, and not on value creation and co-creation, both buyer and seller lose.
If your job involves making or influencing purchasing decisions, consider this: what percentage of your time do you spend actively engaged in buying from any one provider, even one that you consider important or necessary to your business? Again and again we’ve asked executives this question and they respond consistently that they spend 40 hours or fewer per year engaged in buying. That’s 2 percent or less of a work year that is generally understood to be approximately 2,000 hours, and in many instances, considerably more.
So, if your supplier only shows up when there’s an active deal on the table and an opportunity to sell you something, how much value can you really expect them to offer? Sure, they can review and respond to a list of requirements you and your team have developed, but if they don’t understand your world—the external drivers putting pressure on you to take action, the business objectives that you will put into place to respond to those drivers, and the internal challenges that could prevent you from reaching your objectives—it’s unlikely that they will be able to develop and offer solutions that will help you reach your goals, or meet and exceed your own customers’ expectations.
Mutually successful, long-term business relationships are forged when your supplier truly understands what’s at stake for you as you make your decision, when their team is able to align with your objectives, when their offerings fit your needs, when you truly understand the unique value they can provide to you and your organization, and when they deliver on their promises. The best time to make this happen is not when there’s a deal on the table, because that’s when you’re under the most pressure to produce and all of the potential suppliers are clamoring to be heard—how can you expect any one of them to stand out? How will you be able to discern who can create real value for your organization
Buyers and sellers who neglect the time periods before there’s an active deal on the table and after a sale has closed are making a critical error, which has real potential to negatively impact the value they can create and co-create together when there’s a real or urgent need to take action.
Before the Sale: Engage
The most effective salespeople become “students of their customers” before there’s an opportunity. They do research to extend and expand what they may already know about your business and the forces affecting your world. They use what they’ve learned to initiate a dialogue, to find out what you care most about, and to identify your areas of interest; they give you a reason to engage with them. Rather than having that predictable conversation about how their offerings meet the requirements you’ve laid out, they focus on how you define success both professionally and personally. Few salespeople will take this step, but the ones who do so will be able to talk to you with a level of understanding that their competitors cannot match; they earn your trust because they’ve done their homework, even when there’s no opportunity to sell anything.
During the Sale: Win
When your organization decides to take action, your provider will take steps to understand your needs at a deeper level through discovery. Through value-focused questions, they will look for “actionable awareness,” or information and insights that they can use to take appropriate action on your behalf. They will recognize what’s important to you and what isn’t, and they will use this awareness to align to your needs and your wants. During the sale, all of your suppliers will be competing for mindshare and attempting to differentiate their value. Clearly, the provider who already understands the complexities of your world and where you need to go, will be able to respond by developing solutions that meet your needs.
After the Sale: Grow
After the contract is signed and your organization has had an opportunity to realize the value that your provider promised, your salesperson has a unique opportunity to measure and validate the impact of what they’ve delivered. They can apply the “lessons learned,” adapt to accommodate your changing needs, and begin to look toward your future success. A supplier who has proven their value to you in the past will be likely to provide greater value in the future, and may even become important, necessary, or essential to your business.
No one wants to feel that they’re being coerced, controlled, or manipulated into making important buying decisions. Salespeople who go beyond the sales process to truly understand their customer before, during, and after the sale can build lasting relationships that serve as true collaboration between partners who create and co-create real value together. And everyone wins.
Dave Stein and Steve Andersen are the co-authors of Beyond the Sales Process: 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World. The book’s website is BeyondTheSalesProcess.com. Single copies can be bought directly from Amazon.com. For bulk sales visit 800CEORead.com