Huthwaite’s CEO Tony Hughes examines how business to business selling is changing, how we can best prepare our sales teams for the future and explains why validated solution sales training methodologies like SPIN Selling are more crucial than ever.
1. The enduring face of business to business selling
I recently came across an old proposal from the early 1980s. The proposal was to a global IT hardware vendor, and the proposed solution was SPIN®Selling. Included in it was a summary of the client’s needs.
The needs presented in this 1980s proposal were almost identical to the needs we see today; difficulty communicating value, lack of quality leads, weak competitive differentiation, losing margin in the negotiation phase and wasting resources chasing deals that ultimately end in a decision to do nothing.
It’s a fact. Sales teams in 2018 are facing the same challenges as their pre-digital colleagues in the 1980s. And it begs the question. What else is unchanged in business to business selling?
The psychology of making major buying decisions
It’s not just the customer needs that are unchanged; consider the process we go through when making an important purchasing decision. Think back to the first time you made a really big buying decision. Your first house for example. Now think about your most recent big buying decision. What’s different? You are probably more confident this time around as it’s familiar territory. There are maybe a few more zeros on the price tag. You probably did most of your research online. But the fundamental process was the same; circumstances changed which made your current situation unsatisfactory in some way, you realised you wanted or needed to change, you looked at a range of options, narrowed it down to a favourite and then, probably, worried if it was the right decision before finally taking the plunge.
It’s the same in business to business. The fundamental phases that each individual goes through when making a buying decision haven’t changed. It’s basic human psychology. It’s timeless behaviour that takes centuries to evolve, if indeed it does. That's what SPIN Selling is built on.
Cost and value
But is it just the macro level where the buying process happens, or is there a commercial consideration too? What’s the trigger to make us say, “yes, I’ll buy that”? It’s fundamentally a balance of two factors: 1) What you have to give - the cost, and 2) What you get in return - the value. We buy when the value we get from the purchase outweighs the cost of acquiring it. Value received is the perceived benefits minus the cost of acquisition. And that never alters.
Of course, what makes up ‘value’ and ‘cost’ will vary over time. Cost is more than just price. It’s everything you give when making a purchase. It may include things like risk, which will be high when, say, buying an innovative solution from a new supplier. Over time the solution becomes tried and tested and the supplier earns your trust, so when you buy the second time the risk is considerably lower. The elements that make up the value balance will constantly change, but the fundamental principle does not.
An effective sales methodology like SPIN Selling addresses the value balance by enabling the customer to see enough value to tip the balance to ‘buy’.
Effective interpersonal relationships
We all prefer to do business with people we get on with; people we trust and, ideally, like. It’s another fundamental principle that never changes. The corresponding constant for the sales professional is to have strong interpersonal skills to build rapport and trust. One way of doing that is to develop empathy through a deep and thorough understanding of the customer and their challenges and needs.
That requires highly developed questioning skills and yes, again, that would be SPIN Selling.
We want to work with individuals and organisations that behave in a proper way. We know where we stand. They make us feel safer. It has always been so. If it’s changed at all, it’s become an even higher priority. The philosophy of SPIN Selling is, and always has been, to put the customer at the centre of the relationship and our research shows it’s the most effective way to behave. Being customer-centric is not only about behaving ethically, it helps you to sell more too.
Power struggles, backroom deals, clandestine alliances and the like may be the stuff of medieval times, but they’re also present in many 21st century boardrooms. When a major buying project is undertaken there is usually an element of internal politics at play, influencing individual decision makers and, ultimately, the decision itself.
Buyers buy the solution that delivers the best value for their organisations, and rightly so. However, when several solutions are closely matched, it’s human nature to select the one that most favours you personally. This is not about ethics. It may be the solution that causes you the least hassle, a brand you admire or want to be associated with or the solution that will give you most potential for career progression. It’s human nature and, as we’ve said before, human nature rarely changes.
2. The changing face of business to business selling
So if human behaviour is timeless and our human behaviour sits at the core of our sales effectiveness are the things that do change of any concern? Absolutely yes. These are the difficulties that need to be addressed. Here’s a summary of key developments.
More sophisticated buyers
There’s no doubt customers are more savvy than they were 40 years ago. They have more information readily available, better buying processes and a far deeper understanding of the solutions available to them. This is a challenge across sales, and one that SPIN Selling helps to solve.
Rise of professional procurement
Customers now, more than ever, are supported by colleagues in professional procurement. Huthwaite recently researched the issues facing the business to business sales community. The biggest reported challenge was lack of access to end-user customers brought about by the streamlining of buying processes and the rise of professional procurement. More and more sales people are now facing highly skilled professionals who are trained to commoditise your offer, attack your pricing and negotiate away your profit.
The advent of the Internet and email in the last 25 years has had a huge impact on the sales environment as we know. Information is available instantly, 24 hours a day, and that is driving attitudes towards sales in an ever more demanding direction. “I’ll get the proposal to you by the end of next week” is no longer acceptable. It’s not just younger millennials who make up the on-demand generation and expect everything to be available at the point of need. Many experienced professionals think that way too. And with advanced thinking around the Future of Work occupying many Boardroom agendas these days, how long will it be before commercial business moves outside traditional office hours, if we’re not there already?
New research by Royal Mail suggests 63% of people making buying decisions still prefer to browse a physical catalogue rather than online. But that means 37% don’t and the chances are that those who do prefer a catalogue went online to decide which catalogues to order. So, whilst a physical catalogue still has its place, a talking catalogue, the term SPIN Selling creator Neil Rackham uses to describe a typical sales rep, does not. The role of sales person as the source of product information is rapidly disappearing.
Ease/speed of product replication
Effective global communications and advanced re-engineering techniques have reduced the competitive advantage gained by product or service innovation from years to days, or even hours. Creating something new was once the core of sales success. It’s still vitally important. End-users demand innovation. But, in and of itself, innovation now has little competitive advantage.
Pace of product development
As mentioned above, the demand for innovation is ceaseless, and organisations work tirelessly to deliver new and better solutions. And they are good at it. The changes may be fine-tuning or minor or purely cosmetic, but they come thick and fast.
The decline in the sales impact of innovation began in the 1990s and the emphasis of sales shifted to accommodate it. Sales campaigns based on ‘new’ began to be replaced by campaigns based on ‘better’. Quality became the key sales message, with ISO standards and a host of other quality initiatives appearing. But quality also fell to ease of duplication and, like innovation, ceased to be a critical differentiator. High quality has become a hygiene factor. You must have it to be in the game. But it’s no longer a competitive advantage.
All of these changes have an important consequence; secrets are becoming harder to keep. Whether it’s good news or bad, a product break-through or a project disaster will be heard about by more people and faster than ever before. Your plans, strategies, pricing, client base and any number of other sensitive topics are increasingly difficult to keep confidential. But it works both ways. Your competitors, clients and prospects know more about you, but you know more about them too.
Another consequence of these changes is the pressure on pricing. The head of procurement at a global energy company has told us: “Regardless of the product or service we are buying, if there is more than one potential supplier we will treat it as a commodity.” There is no doubt it is harder to achieve premium pricing than it was 40 years ago.
Process automation and CRM
Many of these changes are further exacerbated by the advent of improved processes and systems. The ability to automate some, and in some cases all, of the buying process puts even more distance between the sales person and the end customer, whilst data capture and advanced analytics provide buyers with even more information to use against you.
Size/complexity of the decision-making unit
It was always rare in business to business selling for one single individual to make the buying decision. Decision-making units were small though, typically two or three people, of which most would be end users. The latest research suggests that now, on average, there are 6.8 people involved in a buying decision, up from 5.4 just a couple of years ago. Yet another, and increasing difficulty sales people now have to address.
Some may argue social media is a game-changer, a fundamental shift in how sales and marketing works. But I’m not so sure. Yes, the speed at which messages travel and the reach they have is massively increased and the lines between personal and business lives, social activity and commerce, are increasingly blurred. But is it really so different? What is now called ‘content’ used to be called ’copy’ and both then and now it’s basically words and images (both still and moving) that aim to influence and persuade you. Years ago customers were just as likely to chat to colleagues and friends about a buying decision as they are now. Back then it was in the pub or over coffee and now it’s on Facebook. Admittedly more people can listen in on an online conversation, which has the consequences mentioned before, but fundamentally it’s no different. So whilst it’s an entirely new, and different, medium it’s a change at the margin rather than at the core.
3. How can the past help us prepare our sales teams for the future?
Where does that leave us for business to business selling? It gives us two important strategies to consider. Each as important as the other. a) Become expert in the things that don’t change. b) Introduce flexibility and agility to respond to those issues that are changing.
a) Become expert in the things that don’t change
People buy for the same reasons they always did, to solve problems, avoid unwanted consequences, satisfy needs and reap the benefits and value of an improved situation. A sales person’s ability to uncover and develop those problems and needs and present their solution in the most persuasive way possible, is vitally important. Expert consultative selling skills are crucial to business to business sales success.
The psychology of making major buying decisions
The core process when making major buying decisions is constant but each phase in that process needs a different approach. Sales people must hone specific and different skills for each stage of that process. Sellers can monitor their markets and customer base to identify changes that will trigger the buying process. They can get close to the customer as their needs and requirements are being identified to build value and differentiation. Then, when the customer is evaluating the various options, effective salespeople will be identifying and influencing the decision criteria and analysing the competitive landscape to ensure you have the best match.
And finally, as the decision comes near and the customer begins to have doubts and concerns, the effective salesperson uses their skills to resolve those concerns and guide the customer to a decision in your favour. In SPIN Selling we call this the Buying Cycle and it sits at the heart of a sales and prospect strategy.
Cost and value
People buy when the value of change exceeds the cost of that change. Huthwaite refers to this as Value = Benefits – Cost. It’s a balance. All too often we see sales people trying to tip the balance by taking things off the ‘cost’ side.
For example, reducing hassle by taking over the implementation of the solution, reducing risk by offering guarantees and, of course, reducing the monetary cost by offering discounts. But these things don’t disappear. They are simply being transferred from the buyer to the seller. You take on the hassle and risk and your margins are cut by the discount.
Effective sellers do the opposite. They leave the ‘cost’ side alone and tip the balance by building the ‘benefits’ side. By getting the customer to see that it is worth buying your solution on the terms you are offering, you deliver the value the customer is seeking whilst retaining the maximum sales value for yourself. Building value is another essential business to business selling skill. Building value is a key element of the SPIN methodology.
As decision-making teams become bigger and more complex, effective sales people must become even more adept at understanding them. The sales team needs to accurately identify the role each individual has in the decision. This may or may not bear any relation to their job title, their attitude towards the project – are they an advocate or a blocker? Or to their opinion of your sales organisation – are they friend or foe?
Once equipped with this knowledge a sales person can approach each individual buyer at the right time, in the right way, to discuss the right issues.
All else being equal, individual buyers will favour the solution that best meets their personal interests. It’s human nature. But they are hardly likely to declare it, and may not consciously be aware of it. So how can a salesperson uncover, and sell to, these personal needs?
There are always clues. They may be contextual; someone nearing the end of their career is more likely to be looking for an easy implementation, whilst someone starting on the career ladder may be looking for a boost. Or they may be verbal, little things like the use of a particular word or turn of phrase that gives an insight into the individual’s personal drivers.
Huthwaite were once asked to facilitate a sales meeting between a major telecoms company and an equally large logistics company to discuss a global infrastructure project. Whilst the discussions were all about routers and billing and dark fibre, it soon became clear the prospects had a second agenda.
One consequence of the new system was the two existing data centres, in Europe and Asia, would be consolidated into one. And the prospects were the people running the European data centre. It was obvious. The most important thing to them was keeping their jobs. All my telecoms sales team had to do was present a solution that included a strong case for consolidating the data centre in Europe, guaranteeing they were put forward as the preferred partner.
b) Introduce flexibility and agility to respond to those issues that are changing in business to business selling
Whilst I have argued that most changes occur at the margins that doesn’t make them insignificant. Change creates opportunities. Effective sales people actively seek it out. By monitoring your markets it’s possible for you to spot change before your customers do. That gives you an opportunity to raise those changes with your customers proactively, what we would today call ‘insight selling’.
Though a little caution is needed. If you spot a significant change that presents a sales opportunity it’s tempting to go to your customer and tell them about it. If the change will have a huge negative effect on the customer you’ll earn their eternal gratitude. But if, as is more likely, the change is less cataclysmic, the customer may just think you a re trying to sell them something, and probably won’t take kindly to being told what to do by a salesperson.
A more effective approach is to go to the customer, armed with your knowledge of the change, and ask searching questions about future difficulties the change may bring and the unconsidered consequences that may follow. You are still delivering that vital, and valuable, insight but you are pulling it from the customer rather than pushing it at them. It’s far more persuasive and it’s a core element of the strategic use of the SPIN Selling methodology.
More sophisticated buyers
More sophisticated buyers require more sophisticated sales approaches. As I’ve said before the talking catalogues who focus on product/service capability and price are rapidly disappearing. As buyers take a broader view so must sellers. For example, by talking specifically about how the solution meets the needs the buyer has expressed, how it meets the needs they have implied and which you have explored together, by focussing on value not price and examining more sophisticated cost models such as total cost of ownership, pay per use or life-cycle value.
Rise of professional procurement
Professional buyers are customers too. They often get a hard time, with the customer colluding with the sales team to exclude the buyer from the process for as long as possible. But that’s a mistake. If the buyer comes in late, with no knowledge of the value and little understanding of the needs, they can focus on only one thing – price. Effective sales people engage with procurement early. They build relationships, uncover the buyer’s needs and drivers and seek to create value for them too. Just like they do with everyone else in the decision-making team.
The only thing that makes professional buyers different from everyone else is that they will be skilled, trained negotiators. They will squeeze the best possible deal out of you unless your sales team are equally skilled. Train your sales team to negotiate.
The pace of business is quickening but the technology that’s now available to buyers is equally available to you. Use technology and build processes and systems to ensure your response can always match your customer’s expectations.
Globalisation makes it harder to keep secrets and easier to compare notes. Your international customers know what your pricing is in each country they operate. They can compare service levels, the approach your sales people take and the customer experience they receive. They will use that knowledge to cherry-pick the best deals and leverage commercial advantages. It’s vital you offer a consistent customer experience everywhere you operate. Adopt and deploy one sales methodology globally.
Ease/speed of product replication
Your new innovation will not be unique for very long, possibly not even the length of a single sales cycle. As a result it can never, on its own, be a competitive differentiator. Only by weaving the innovation into your total service offering and value creation system can you build something sufficiently different to give you enduring competitive advantage. Make sure new ideas are fully integrated into your whole offering before taking them to market.
Pace of product development
Rapid product development is a real headache for the sales team. On the one hand it’s great to have something new to sell but how do you keep on top of it all? Unless there is an astute marketing team to work its magic, product development will give sales teams a list of product capabilities and features. And no one buys features.
Effective sales and marketing teams take a step back. They review the information provided by product development and ask two questions; “What problems does it solve? And “What value/benefit does it bring?” At Huthwaite we call that Persuasive Case Analysis and it’s a vital step in taking new innovations to market.
Just like innovation, quality is no longer a sustainable advantage on its own. If your quality can be quantified and is genuinely higher thias is what we call a hard differentiator. It’s a competitive advantage and can be used as such. But only until it’s duplicated by someone else. Then we go back to creating differentiation using the unique bundle of product, service, value and customer experience that your brand represents.
As it becomes harder to keep secrets it’s harder to hide inconsistencies and, more importantly, irregularities. Not only do you need one globally consistent sales methodology but one that is based on the highest possible professional and ethical standards.
Buyers will tell you they can buy your solution cheaper elsewhere, regardless of whether that’s true. Train your sales people to have the confidence and resilience to justify your value and the skills to defend it at the negotiation table.
Process automation and CRM
As with all the other technological advances we have discussed these developments are equally available to you and equally valuable. Adopt the processes and systems that support your sales effort. However, bear in mind sales people are notoriously poor at following systems, particularly if they see them as administrative tasks. To be effective any system must bring value to the sales team, they must see it as a tool not a task.
Size/complexity of decision-making unit
Everything we said when discussing internal politics earlier becomes even more critical as the decision-making unit becomes bigger and more complex. Sales people must be trained to penetrate and navigate it effectively.
Used well, social media is a powerful addition to your sales and marketing armoury. But it’s also the most globalised and transparent medium ever. Mistakes and ill-judged comments are instantly distributed and almost impossible to contain or retract. It’s vital you have a social media policy and training and guidelines for those who use it.
4. What does this mean for Sales Leaders, Learning and Development and sales enablement in business to business selling?
It’s a long-term issue
Developing expert level competencies consistently is a long-term task, especially if your sales team is multinational. However, because those competencies relate to the core, relatively unchanging aspects of business to business selling, you have time on your side. Upskilling your salesforce should be treated as a medium-term, strategic initiative and should be planned and funded accordingly.
But it’s worth it. Investing is the development of your salesforce is always worthwhile, a truly world-class sales organisation will inevitably deliver a healthy return on that investment.
Flexibility and agility
Just as the core elements of business to business selling are constant, the changes at the margins can be fast and unpredictable. Whilst you have the time to invest in the core competencies you must equally be agile and responsive to the marginal changes. It is the role of sales leadership to monitor trends and changes, use that knowledge to adapt systems and processes and feed the information to Learning and Development to enable them to develop tools and learning to respond to the change.
The newcomer filleth the eye
It’s very easy to be seduced by the latest ‘revolutionary’ or ‘game-changing’ concepts, tools and models. When it comes to those rapid changes at the edges of business to business selling these ground-breaking solutions can give you the agility and flexibility you need.
However, as we’ve seen, product and service innovation are often minor or purely cosmetic. That’s true across every sector, including business development and Learning and Development. The new game-changing methodology probably isn’t. It’s more likely to be a rehash of a previous model.
Not so long ago a new solution was introduced with the usual fanfare of hyperbole. Shortly afterwards a peer review summed it up perfectly, “There are lots of ideas in this that are new and good. Sadly, the good ideas aren’t new, and the new ideas aren’t good.”
How can an established sales methodology like SPIN Selling keep up?
In short it doesn’t need to. The core issues within business to business selling have been around, unchanged, for a long time. As a result the core competency models that address those issues don’t need to change either. What worked 40 years ago still works today because it’s addressing the same issues now as it was then. That’s why SPIN Selling, in its 4th decade, is as effective and in demand as ever. And why it remains the most researched, validated and sustainable sales methodology in the world.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the last genuinely ground-breaking sales methodology first appeared. Some might argue it was the empirical research that separated the effective business to business sales person from the hard-nosed, smooth-tongued charmer advocated by the likes of Dale Carnegie. That was research conducted at Xerox by Neil Rackham and his team – the very beginnings of the SPIN Selling methodology.
Most change is gradual - evolution not revolution. As a result most changes are the modification of existing ideas and real game-changers are rare.
This means you have the luxury of time to become expert at addressing core, relatively unchanging principles, such as how to build and demonstrate value and how to effectively address the decision-making process in business to business selling using methodologies like SPIN Selling.
Where change does happen, at the periphery, it is fast, so here you must develop the agility and flexibility to respond quickly.
Seek out quick-fixes for the marginal issues but rely on an established methodology, like SPIN Selling, to address the core principles.