The past two months have been challenging for many business-to-business (B2B) companies’ sales. B2B buyers have primarily taken a wait-and-see approach to signing contracts, starting new projects and budgeting for the long term. The next few months likely won’t be easier, necessitating doubling down on targeted, problem-solving sales instead of transactional “spraying and praying” pitches.
“Selling has always been about helping,” says Lori Richardson, CEO of Boston-based Score More Sales and one of Forbes’ “Top 30 Social Sales Influencers.” “If you’re an order taker, you’re going to have a hard time. We need value sellers now.”
Value selling means providing relevant solutions that solve clients’ problems. The effort starts with helping them rather than pitching and selling (helping yourself). It’s always a best practice to focus on prospects’ problems and pain points, and it’s more important than ever in a downturn.
“The basics never go out of style,” says John Brooke, director, national accounts, at ThreatSwitch, a cloud-based security software company in Charlotte, North Carolina. “If you’re in the business of solving problems, regardless of what the economy looks like, you’re going to be in a better place.”
Should You Be Selling Now?
The answer is yes. B2Bs can’t afford to stop selling before, during or after a crisis. If they do, they risk losing out to their competitors in a recovery.
“If you lose your brand space, you lose your position in the market, and then you lose those customers permanently,” says George Haley, a marketing professor at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.
“It’s time to engage now more than ever,” adds John Riggs, a marketing professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. “If you pull back, you’re creating the opportunity for other companies that are skilled at what you do and have a solid message and value proposition to really clock in.”
Playing the Long Game in B2B Sales
For the past several years, B2B has seen long, complex sales cycles involving many stakeholders and high-value work. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic havoc are likely extending the decision-making processes of B2Bs even further. In other words, the sense of urgency that B2Bs had pre-pandemic may have cooled.
“There’s a ton of fear out there,” Riggs says. “They’re not just thinking about their industries and their businesses; they’re also thinking about the virus.”
Tone-deaf salespeople who contact prospects and pitch away without acknowledging each company’s situation and circumstances will fail.
“Be prepared to spend more time on calls, acknowledging that people are stressed and wondering what’s going to happen,” Brooke says. “Humanize yourself first and then prospects will be more receptive to the message.”
Another tried-and-true best practice – relationship-building – is more important than ever right now. B2Bs that provide products during the downturn but don’t maintain client relationships risk losing business when companies evaluate their supply chain strategies and decisions, Haley says.
“Stay in touch with people, even if they’re not buying today,” Richardson says. “They will buy in the future. We know this is a temporary situation – but we don’t know for how long.”
Turning Crisis Into Opportunity
In B2B (and B2C) sales, fostering and maintaining relationships is a good start, but relevancy drives results. Companies that sell products and services that aren’t considered essential could face hurdles.
“You may not be relevant right now because what they perceive you bring to the table isn’t very important,” Riggs says.
Organizations that sell solutions to immediate or emerging problems are positioned to survive and thrive in any downturn, Brooke says. For example, his company, ThreatSwitch, is doing well – especially now – because it sells a security-based solution that “doesn’t take a holiday or shut down because people aren’t going to the office.”
Agile B2Bs can also pivot and find ways to add value. Before the pandemic, Score More Sales consulted companies that were hiring salespeople. Most companies aren’t hiring salespeople rapidly right now, however, while others are laying people off and implementing hiring freezes. In response, Richardson pivoted to provide consulting for existing sales teams.
“If your product or service won’t be consumed now, think about how you can innovate and add value to the equation,” Riggs says. “‘What can I do? Can I do it?’ Even if it’s something totally out of scope, if it adds value to them or preserves the partnership, you’ll be top of mind and be able to re-engage when things improve.”
Remote Selling Becomes the Norm
As many people are still dealing with stay-at-home orders, quarantines and social distancing, B2B sales teams have been forced to embrace digital strategies. B2B companies said they see digital interactions as two to three times more important to their clients than traditional sales interactions in a recent McKinsey & Co. study.
The study showed nearly 90% of B2B sales have moved to a videoconferencing, phone and web sales model. More than 50% of the respondents said they believe this approach is equally or more effective than pre-pandemic sales models.
Brooke, who’s been a B2B sales executive for more than 20 years, saw a transition to virtual sales starting years ago. He believes COVID-19 and the related fallout is accelerating the trend.
“I’ve sold a lot of deals where the first time I laid eyes on the customer was at the kickoff meeting,” he says. “I’ve probably shaken the last hand that I’ll shake for a while.”
In April, Riggs’ students had firsthand exposure to the importance of virtual selling during a four-day competition that involved 140 schools across the United States. Held twice a year, the event is an important corporate recruiting opportunity. This is the first time the competition was held online.
“Many of the companies that participated said it was an eye-opener because the students were able to adjust to selling via WebEx,” Riggs says. “We heard, ‘I don’t know if my full-time salesperson could do what your students just did.’”
Will Digital B2B Sales Stick?
As McKinsey noted, the shift to remote selling came to the forefront as lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders and quarantining forced people to stay home. It’s unclear whether face-to-face B2B sales will return and when. Not everyone is a fan of selling over Zoom.
“I like looking people in the eye and being able to read the room,” Brooke says. “You get the body language; you can see when people are disengaged and adjust. You give up some of that with online interactions.
“If I’m asking someone to sign a six- or seven-figure deal, they want to look me in the eye, too,” he continues. “With COVID, however, they’re going to have to look me in the eye via video camera until further notice.”
In-person interaction is far superior to digital sales, Haley says. He predicts in-person sales will return – at least partially – once people feel safe again.
“Face-to-face selling will stay around because it’s simply the most effective communication medium, and many B2B sales won’t happen without it,” he says.
“I don’t think we’re seeing the end of face-to-face sales,” she says. “I think we’ll see a combination of pure virtual and blended teams.”
Whether salespeople rely on new or traditional methods, some things won’t change, Riggs says.
“The human touch – showing that you have genuine compassion and empathy – and the reality of relationship-building will always be important, no matter the medium we use,” he says.
Supporting Virtual B2B Sales Teams
Ultimately, it’s up to B2B sales managers to help their salespeople do well in today’s highly virtual environment.
“I would be very heavily focused on my sales management team,” Riggs says. “They’re going to have to lead this charge. Managers need to provide coaching and insights.”
Adds Richardson, “Virtual sales teams need managers who motivate them. They need to have team meetings every day to make sure those people in their home offices are growing revenue and building up the customer base. They also need to have focused plans and goals. Salespeople need inspiration and motivation like everyone else, and they need it on an ongoing basis.”
As McKinsey notes, sales leaders are already moving quickly to navigate the next normal in B2B sales, with the best ones focusing on how to make targeted changes that will help their organizations outlast the downturn and start preparing for the recovery.
Now, to You
What’s your B2B sales team experiencing right now? Have you shifted to sales by videoconference, webinar and phone? Will you continue to rely on digital for the foreseeable future? Let us know in the comments below.