Selling Into The “Hidden Opportunity Market”

We used to say, “sell ahead of the RFP.” Then, for more than a decade we’ve been telling clients, “sell ahead of your competitive herd.” Now we’re telling them, “sell into the ‘hidden opportunity market’.”

As a result of recent client work, I’ve re-examined CEB’s Challenger Customer for clues on how to improve B2B sales practices, especially for sales content.

I’ve re-read Challenger Customer in detail at least 5 times. Each time I get a deeper appreciation for the insights their research provides. And how elusive these insights and their implications can be for sales professionals.

“Customers are typically 37 percent of the way through a purchase decision when group conflict peaks – and in some cases this stalls or, worse, kills the deal all together. On top of that, those customers don’t meaningfully engage suppliers’ sales reps until they are, on average, 57 percent of the way through the journey.

The resulting gap between the two raises a very practical and pretty troubling question: how many times have suppliers lost a deal that they never even knew was in play to begin with as the customer couldn’t make it past the 37% mark on their own? Or more simply: have many times have sellers lost before they could ever attempt a win?” (CEB Challenger Customer)

We’re all tired of hearing the 57% number. The point where prospects are willing to speak with sales reps. But here’s the thing. Too many sales reps actually believe it(virtually all marketing people do).

You hear this in sales rep complaints about lead quality. “They’re not ready to speak with me.”

You see this in weak prospecting practices and anemic results.

Even new, often younger business development reps (BDRs) are told to “go find prospects.” What else would they be looking for than prospects that are at the 55-57% point.

And it might be worse if your sales reps actually believe they’re the only one getting the call! Nope, they’re just part of the selling herd. Your competitive herd.

We believe this is a major reason for low win rates, lengthening sales cycles, and too much discounting.

Now the good and I think very motivating news.

If you can learn how to sell “upstream” in the buyer’s decision process, especially before the 37% point, you can realize a significant competitive advantage.

It’s probably not possible to quantify, but CEB, and just sales intuition, suggests many more deals never really get underway, than those that do make it to the 57% point.

We refer to “leads” at the 57% point as “find opportunities.” These are active buyers. Ahead of that stage, especially about the 37% point, we call those “create opportunities.” We’ve written about this in Find vs. Create Sales Opportunities.

How Do You Sell Into The Hidden Opportunity Market?

To start you need an early indication system. A system that alerts your sales team to companies that either know they have the problem you address (triggers), or are investigating due to symptoms.

The emergence of predictive intent capabilities can help here. But getting those algorithms tuned to look for the right indicators is key. Since most sales organizations are looking for buyers who are in an active purchase mode, the natural tendency will be to tune PI engines for this.

“Lead” definitions must change. If you’re truly looking to sell ahead of the herd, marketing and sales must define a new lead category. Marketing must decide how to identify this type. Problem symptoms and triggers become more important than active buying signals. They will need to tune their content, lists and campaigns to this objective.

“One of the biggest implications for demand generation is for marketers to shift lead-scoring criteria away from sensing purchase readiness, and toward sensing mental model disruption.” (CEB Challenger Customer, italics in original)

For this reason sales prospecting must change as well. This is a different objective, and a different conversation.

A different customer engagement approach is required to engage this new, early stage lead. Challenger Customer introduces the important idea of first, finding Mobilizers. This kind of sale is Mobilizer led, more than sales person led.

Sales professionals must be ready and able to help Mobilizers and other stakeholders understand the true nature and cost of their current state, status quo, business problems.

Bringing (commercial) insights about the buyer’s business is important here. Buying groups and organizations really need “permission to change,” that avoids the need for anyone to be “wrong” about the way things are currently operated.

This can be accomplished by showing: what’s changed, missing or new.

In particular, sellers must be able to help buyers quickly determine the impact — cost and risk — of their business problems. This is necessary to build consensus around the priority of the problem, and urgency to resolve.

Sales people must become proficient leading conversations about buyer options. This means understanding as an “expert” the pros and cons of each option. This must be experienced by buyers as objective, rather than a set up for the vendor’s solution.

The right content is essential to support all of these marketing and selling activities:

  1. You must build your content to both engage and enable Mobilizers.
  2. Content must be based on your (unique) commercial insight.
  3. Content must help build consensus across the diverse buying team, once Mobilizers are engaged.
  4. Design content that Mobilizers can use to deliver your insight messages. (If your sellers need extensive training and practice sessions to delivery your “whiteboard” discussions, this won’t replicate with Mobilizers.)

“There are three mental steps that Mobilizers (or any customer stakeholder, for that matter) go through to have the A state challenged, creating the drive for them to rally other stakeholders and mobilize change toward a B state.

The first step is to spark exploration of the frame-breaking idea at the heart of your Commercial Insight. You need your content here to hook the Mobilizer into revisiting her mental-model in the first place.” (CEB Challenger Customer)

We always ask, “in who’s voice should your message be delivered?” (It’s usually not the voice of the rep.) To help drive the desire to change, your customers can provide a powerful voice.

Unfortunately, most existing customer testimonials don’t help here.

“Most marketers are used to creating customer testimonial videos focused on the B. Over 90 percent of the testimonial videos we review from marketers focus on the B. To create content paths that break mental models and drive urgency instead, they’ll have to start creating testimonials about the A.”

Essentially, a waste of time, money and opportunity.

Most people don’t think of sales conversations as content. Big mistake. Just as content must be designed and tested for optimum effectiveness (eg email A/B testing), so too sales conversations.(See Sales Conversations — by Design)

Sales training implications are important. This starts with the right mindset and training to execute the prospecting and lead follow up approach explained above. How do sales people find Mobilizers? Helping Mobilizers to lead the process will require change for most of your reps (what Challenger calls “core performing reps.”)

Having good insights is one thing. Knowing how to use them is different. As is the ability to lead buyers on the discussion of the pros and cons of their options. This is an example of a sales conversation to design.

For most sales reps, they’ve never effectively used content to sell. Using content to educate and build buyer consensus raises this requirement to a much higher level. Training for this competency will produce better results.

 Take A Veridical Approach To Your Selling Situation

OK, veridical is not a common word. But I’ve found the importance of its meaning, and the fact it IS uncommon, helps to keep this critical idea top of mind.

Veridical: vuhrid-i-kuh l  — adjective

  1. Truthful; veracious
  2. Corresponding to facts; not illusory: real, actual, genuine

I think of it as “seeing things the way they really are, not the way you want them to be.” The opposite of “happy ears.”

Given the significant changes triggered by the digital era and well-informed customers, you have to ask yourself and your sales team: “How have we really changed the way we sell?”

I’m not talking about technology enhancements. I’m talking about this list:

  • Mindset
  • Approach — to sales, marketing, content
  • Resources + Competencies
  • Sales Process
  • Conversations and Messages
  • Content
  • Outcomes and Measures
  • Collaboration and Support – Marketing, SMEs, Executives

These blog resources explain each category in more detail. They will also help you sell into the hidden opportunity market.

Challenger Customer Implications for B2B Sales Professionals

The most underserved content requirements  

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