The B2B Value Sale is Actually Three Distinct Sales

Companies trying to execute a B2B solution or value sale must overcome selling problems that start at the prospecting stage and persist to the end.

Symptoms include too few quality additions to the sales pipeline, protracted and lengthening sales cycles, and low win rates.

A significant cause is sellers haven’t realigned messages, sales conversations, and sales process to the way buyers buy.

This situation becomes more pronounced when selling to prospects who aren’t in an active buying process. We call this a “Find vs. Create Opportunity” situation.

When I speak with B2B sales professionals they readily acknowledge there are not enough active buyers to meet quotas. In most organizations sales people tell me 80% of sales prospects have to be “created” as opportunities.

But even with active buyers there are opportunities for B2B sales professionals to up their game. After all, they are often not the first sales person vendors have called.

Sales Success Crisis Point

This scenario afflicts even the most successful companies. In fact, often they are most challenged. What worked successfully for the past 5-10 years, now doesn’t.

These companies might have been first movers with the best product in their industry. They had no or weak direct competitors. There was significant, eager demand for their products.

Selling was a product-focused approach. It required moving quickly and efficiently to capture market share before new competitors arrived. I was working with clients in Texas for a couple of years and observed this first-hand. I was told, in a heavy Texas drawl, “we got us a big front loader, and we’re haulin’ down the highway, scoopin’ up dollars!”

Then, companies like these hit the wall. It can come at $100 million or $600 million. I watched one software company hit the wall at $900 million. It took a few years, an acquisition, and adjustment to their selling model. They broke through to $1.4 billion, and hit the wall again.

Change is indeed the only constant.

Eventually, competition develops. Mature customers become smarter, more experienced and more demanding of sellers.

Ironically, at the same time, newcomer prospects appear in the market. They lack experience and knowledge, and thus, require considerable education. For traditional sellers, both scenarios require new selling competency.

This is often the time product selling companies experience price and margin erosion. Investors, used to high revenue growth rates, and healthy margins, put pressure on executives to continue to meet expectations. Of course, it’s much harder to grow 30% from $100 million than it was from $50 million. Especially with the same selling strategy.

Companies are forced to shift from selling point products, to selling higher price and margin “solutions”. Selling competencies, processes and behaviors are different to succeed in this selling model. For legacy sellers, it requires unlearning as much as learning new hiring practices, sales processes and sales conversations.

Adjust Your B2B Value Sales Process To Three Distinct Sales

It’s been a year since CEB followed up the Challenger Sale book with the more important and useful book, Challenger Customer. Unfortunately, too many sales leaders overlooked the second book, and missed its important insights.

The “A – B” concept provides an effective framework for executing a value selling model.

The first sale is to address the “A.”

The purpose of this stage is to help buyers appreciate the need to change their acceptance of their current state relative to specific business problems. This selling stage could occupy as much as 60% of sales time and effort after the initial engagement. At the conclusion of these conversations, buyers must have quantified the cost and risk of their current state.

As Challenger points out, sellers can’t lead with products or features. They must have the competency and discipline to talk with B2B buying teams about the nature and “impact” of their business problems.

This is very different from traditional selling conversations. “Messages” aren’t about the vendor, their products, or even compelling features. It’s a “why change” message that must be delivered as a conversation. Not a lecture, not a pitch, a true conversation.

This means asking the right questions the right way. Open-ended questions that help buyers come to understand their situation. It involves sharing content and stories that address specific problems, and the “why change” message of this stage.

These questions, conversations and content fail when they feel biased toward “making the case” for the required project or vendor. A “selling mentality” will fail here. It must be a helping mentality. Even a “buying mentality.”

When buyers ask about vendors and their products — and they will — until this first sale “close” is achieved it is premature and detrimental to value selling success to have this conversation. Of course you must make basic introductions and provide appropriate credentials. There are many techniques to respond appropriately without diving into the depths of these topics.

Discussing a particular “solution approach” (the next  “B” conversation) can even be perceived as biased at this point. And it’s a distraction to the main objective.

A successful result of this first “sale” is to confirm consensus the customer “must change”. In today’s B2B buying world, few investments are made for “nice to have”. This can be verified by asking buyers: “what level of investment are you willing to make to resolve this problem and related costs?”

This allows sellers to determine if buyers will likely make any buying decision. It identifies buyer propensity to invest. It does help sellers illuminate reality. It will lower selling cost, time, effort and risk of working premature, or low probability deals.

The second sale CEB refers to as the “B.” 

The second sale is the “Solution Approach” conversation. Focus here is on discussing the options buyers have. This is not about different vendors or products. It involves conversations about optional approaches to solving the identified business problem.

This stage could occupy up to 30% of sales time and conversations.

The purpose of this conversation is to uncover buyer thinking and knowledge about their options and implications. Of course, this means sellers must be proficient discussing the pros and cons of buyer solution options. Again, if buyers feel this is oriented toward making the case for a specific approach or vendor, it will be less effective.

The objective of this stage is to get buyers to reach consensus on a Solution Approach that aligns with a seller’s offer. It must also help buyers identify the key capabilities they require to execute that approach.

This can be a challenging conversation because it may require buyers to change beliefs, behaviors and systems (processes).

Buyers must determine if they own or have access to required capabilities. They must determine how they will acquire them. This is verified by asking buyers (again): “what level of investment are you willing to make to acquire those capabilities?”

After this close it is appropriate to ask buyers if they are ready to hear how you can help. But you won’t have to ask. If you have truly helped buyers to this point they will be ready, even pre-disposed and enthusiastic, to hear how you can help them execute. You will be the trusted advisor. And, you’ll have the pole position in this sale.

The third sale CEB didn’t need to put on their graphic.

This third sale conversation is where traditional sellers start, or try to get to as quickly as possible. Typical seller thinking sounds like, “when they see what we have, or what we can do, they’ll be compelled to initiate a buying process.”

With the “three sales” approach, sellers wait to present their capabilities until buyers have identified the specific capabilities they need. This enables sellers to focus on the important capabilities that differentiate their offer, and that align to the buyer’s value model. It avoids feature dumps that plague too many sales.

This is the value part of the value sale. Sellers explain how they can provide better capabilities at a better value than buyer alternatives.

This approach lowers buyer-seller friction as the seller focuses on demonstrating how they best help buyers achieve their business objectives.

If you’ve been doing the math, this stage only occupy’s about 10 percent of sales time and conversation.

Summary Implications

In this digital era of the empowered buyer, “create opportunities,” and even many “find opportunities,” require a different approach from traditional, product-feature-benefit selling. This is necessary to create or preserve value for desired price/margin points.

Often, B2B buyers don’t accurately assess or understand their problems and core underlying causes. If one doesn’t diagnose accurately, it’s difficult to select the best remedy. Value sellers help with this.

The real impact of problems — direct and opportunity cost, as well as risk — is often not fully developed by prospects.  Value sellers bring outside perspective, experience and hopefully frameworks to help buyers cost their current state.

Prospects may not be aware of, or consider all solution options, especially those outside of the usual candidates. Selecting the best solution approach often benefits from expertise not always within a customer organization.

Here are three questions you might ask your sales leaders and reps:

  1. How do we sell differently to passive, “create opportunity” buyers, than we do to active, “find opportunity” buyers?
  2. What are our “unique, sustainable capabilities” that buyers must have to realize optimum value when they execute the solution approach (the B) related to our offers?
  3. How do we surprise customers with unique, “commercial insights” about their business, that cause them to conclude they must change from their status quo?

If they can’t answer these questions clearly and confidently, I suggest this is a focus priority for immediate improvement.