There’s this awkward truth that sales professionals never talk about. A challenge that usually doesn’t get brought up in sales meetings or bid reviews, doesn’t get complained about at the water cooler and definitely doesn’t get discussed amongst friends. It’s such an uncomfortable topic, that most sales trainings don’t really address it, or at best kinda dance around without calling it out. But however uncomfortable it is, it’s still the truth. People don’t like to deal with sales people. Buyers don’t like being sold to. Us B2B sales professionals are seen as a necessary evil that should be avoided, if possible. We get grouped into the same bucket as second hand car salesmen and snake-oil sellers who can’t be trusted and are only driven by personal gain.
That view is not a recent development either. This underlying negativity towards the sales profession has been around for a while. Wolf of Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, Glengarry Glen Ross, the Boiler Room and other populistic depictions of our profession, all enforce that snake-oil stereotype of dishonest human beings whose main motivation is personal gain, with no regard to damage done to others. And these stories always end it tears; the last scene tends to involve a culpable and sweaty insider wired with a microphone, followed by the FBI raiding the sales villain’s premises. Not exactly the poster children that make us proud of our profession.
Sure, in the last twenty years, the sales profession has smartened up. But so have the buyers. I am sure you’ve seen the stats from the likes of Gartner, Forrester and CEB saying “57% of the purchase decision is completed before a customer even calls a supplier”. And “two thirds of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally”. Those headline grabbing numbers obviously simplify things, but nonetheless, they do expose the existence of our uncomfortable truth. B2B buyers prefer to research their options online, away from the sales person. Only when there’s no other way to get the information they’re after, do they call in the rep – like when they want a demo or pricing.
Of course, poor sales practices are to blame for these perceptions and the resulting behaviour at the customer’s side. Us sales people have to be more customer centric, and be more consultative. We need to listen, and help the buyer find a solution that fixes their pains. We should tailor our messaging to the customer’s needs, and show how our offering is the best solution for them. In short, the best sales people are problem solvers who guide buyers to find the right solution. Right?
Wrong. In SaaS sales, we don’t need problem solvers. What we need is problem seekers.
Problem seekers help customer uncover problems they’re not aware of yet. Problem seekers guide customers to look at their pains in a different way, because “the old way of doing things, no longer works”. Problem seekers take buyers by the hand as they formulate their needs, the budget they need for that, and the people they should be involving, before they start looking for a solution. Problem seekers take control way before BANT happens. Because when Budget, Authority, Needs and Timelines are established, it’s already too late – it becomes a matter of problem solving. And there are three reasons why problem solving in SaaS sales is a bit of a shitty exercise that makes us frustrated and want to give up.
Firstly, our uncomfortable truth means that buyers won’t let you in – they will do their problem solving research online. They simply don’t need sales people to find a solution. Secondly, we sell SaaS, which is a (typically multi-tenanted) solution that roughly does the same thing for everyone. We don’t develop features or customise modules specifically for individual customers. In other words, the only way that we can solve a customer’s problem, is when what they’re looking to solve, co-incidentally is exactly aligned with what we’re selling. Clearly, counting on that happening, severely limits our chances. Finally, even if a sales person is able to provide an eye-opening new view that makes a buyer rethink the way they look at their problem, it’s hard to get a B2B buyer to back-paddle. Once a multi-stakeholder buying team has decided on budget, business needs, the people to involve, and the timelines to commit to, it’s an uphill battle to go back and change things. It’s possible, but no one likes to do it.
So what to do?
Much of this thinking you’ll recognise as challenger sales. Whether you adopt such (or similar) sales methodologies or not, it’s important you acknowledge the role customers allow you to play. Once BANT has happened, your ability to take control, or even to add value, is limited. If you truly want to add value, become a domain expert about the problem, not just your solution. Adjust your sales pitch to talk about your customer, rather than you. Focus your outbound activities by segmenting your market based on propensity to buy, not just industry. This allows you to get in early, before a client starts shopping around. Make sure your internal sales reviews and CRM reporting focus at the early stages of a deal, not the later stages. True value for the buyer can and should be added early on, when key decisions around the problem are made. Become a problem seeker and work hard to get a seat at the table when that happens. Because it’s during these very early stages where deals are won, not the later stages.
Not all B2B prospects are the same. An online retailer has different technology needs than a bank. They simply care about different things. While the latter has share of wallet and compliance top of mind, the retailer lies awake about conversion and logistics. As a result, these different goals and business models lead to different characteristics for a B2B prospect, with different pains, and different budgets to fix those pains. Most SaaS sales teams recognise this need for tailored sales strategies and tactics in their territory plans. That is, to some extend; a key aspect typically doesn’t get the attention it deserves, setting the sales team up for failure.
Let’s start with what your territory plan most likely already covers – positioning. If you sell a SaaS solution that roughly does the same for all customers, it doesn’t mean your sales pitch should be positioned in the same way to all your prospects. Your pitch should be tailored, so that potential buyers can recognise their own pains and objectives – and easily see how your solution can help with that. Your sales training would have focused on customising talk tracks and sales pitches to client-specific themes. Maybe you even have a sales enablement team that created vertical-specific playbooks, to help position the value of your solution through tailored sales messaging. Awesome – the more your pitch is positioned in line with the prospect’s view of the world, the better.
There is another aspect of the notion that not all prospects are the same, and it typically doesn’t get the attention it deserves in sales plans. Segmentation. In fact, the concept of segmentation sometimes gets mixed up with positioning. They are two different things. Positioning determines what you will pitch, while segmentation determines who you will pitch that message to, or in B2B sales: what kind of companies you will go after. The aim of segmentation is to identify high yield segments – that is, a group of accounts that are likely to have the highest chances of buying from you, or that have the highest growth potential for land-and-expand deals. The whole idea is that you should target those accounts before you go after other segments that are less likely to buy from you. Yet, many B2B SaaS sales teams don’t put a lot of thought into what such companies tend to look like.
What is often in place in terms of segmentation is pretty rudimentary. Most B2B Sales teams merely look at “vertical” or “size” as key characteristics for segmentation, and blindly take guidance on that from headquarters. For example, they’ve prioritised “Retail” or “Financial Services” over “Manufacturing” or “Government”. Or they decide to only go after “enterprise accounts”, or organisations between 10 and 1,000 employees. But these segments are often way too broad: thousands of accounts end up in a territory with the presumed notion they’ll all have the same propensity to buy. This absence of a smart segmentation strategy in sales nearly always leads to a lack of focus – with frustrating results.
There’s nothing worse than filling up the top of the sales funnel with the wrong kind of opportunities. It creates a false sense of hope, which will take a while to get exposed, because reps often find it difficult to let go of an opportunity once it’s past qualification. They end up wasting time and resources as they repeatedly push the opportunity into the next quarter. To see how big a problem that is for you, run some pipeline reports on “Pushed out more than 3 times”, “Lost to No Decision”, or “Lost to a competitor that we don’t really think is a competitor”. If that raises some alarm bells, you need a more thoughtful segmentation approach that goes deeper on this notion of propensity to buy.
So, what to do? Segment your territories on propensity to buy by implementing the ABC Model. “A” accounts are those who are most likely to buy, “B” are less likely and “C” are the ones you want to avoid (even if they joined five of your webinars). Develop a parlance where Marketing, SDRs, Sales Reps and Sales Management show an understanding that the companies they go after should fit in either the A bucket, maybe the B bucket, but definitely not the C bucket.
This ABC distinction should be done on three areas of characteristics: Firmographics, Technographics and Demographics. Your current segmentation most likely already covers some of the Firmographics. These are the things you can easily determine from the outside: the number of employees at the prospect, its vertical, revenue, business model, and geographical reach. But as said, you need to go deeper.
In SaaS, the Technographics often say much more about likelihood to buy; it reflects the current technology footprint of an account. Buying SaaS needs a level of maturity, which often is revealed by other technology solutions the prospect uses. At its simplest, Prospect A who uses your cheaper competitor is more likely to be ready to “upgrade” to yours, than Prospect B who has never even bought SaaS and still uses manual processes and spreadsheets. Even if Prospect B is of the right size and in the right vertical! Determine what these Technographics look like for your A, B and C accounts. Then, use tools like Ghostery, Builtwith, or Datanyze to see what technologies are in place at accounts in your territory; get the enterprise edition so you can integrate it with your CRM.
As for Demographics, you look at the people side to determine the propensity to buy.Companies tend to develop (or hire for) specific skillsets first, before they buy the technology. Not the other way around. Look for key skills and role titles that are telltale signs for a readiness for your solution. At its simplest, who is more likely to buy from you? Person A who used your tool before and just started a new role in a different company that’s growing rapidly, or Person B who’s been in the role for ten years with a company that’s hardly investing in new technologies? Again, decide what these skills and roles look like for your A, B, and C accounts. Then, see what’s out there. Tools like Zoominfo and Discoverorg offer some value, but don’t always have good data for companies and contacts in APAC. Linkedin is your biggest friend here, particularly the jobs section, where you can create alerts that let you know when certain roles pop up. Go after companies that are hiring for those skills as they will likely be in the market for a technology solution soon.
I know that this sounds like a lot of work, but remember, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Some of the tools mentioned will make this effort easier, and predictive analytics solutions like Leadspace, Mintogo, Insideview, and 6sense can even automate much of it. However, they don’t always have quality data sets for APAC. And since propensity to buy characteristics in APAC are not necessarily the same as those in the US or EMEA, be careful on relying too much on such technologies. For now, spend some time doing it yourself for your territory.
The effort of thinking through this ABC segmentation will create more focus in sales. It is not meant to be an algorithm that’s 100% correct, but it still will provide a more granular appreciation around what makes a prospect more likely to buy from you. Have a workshop with marketing, the SDRs, the CSMs and the AEs to determine what makes an A account, and what makes a B or a C. That exercise in itself is going to create several aha! moments that will lead to more focus in your marketing and sales activities.
I often come across two key challenges, when consulting enterprise b2b sales teams:
Several deals in the pipeline keep on getting pushed out, after which they finally get closed to the dreadful “No Decision” stage. Then, everyone seems to agree these deals should not have been qualified-in in the first place. But, the next quarter, the same things happens again.
After closing a deal to the even more dreadful “Lost to Competition”, post-loss analysis reveals that prospects believe the product differentiators are not that aligned with their needs or budget. Yet, no one picked up on that before the decision.
Such problems are nearly always the result of weak execution of the early stages of the sales process. And typically, this weak execution is a result of a poor design of the sales process. The Sales Process simply does not align with the Buying Process.
The Sales Process
For most B2B sales teams, the Sales Process invariably looks like this. The first stage is “Prospecting” – finding a prospect that potentially has a need for your product or service. “Qualification” then follows, with validation steps around BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timing). When that gets cleared (or, more likely, when the rep thinks it does), the whole sales train comes in motion with numerous activities focused at linking your solution to the prospect’s needs: “Discovery”, “Demonstration”, “Proposal”, “Negotiation”, etc.
The Buying Process
In reality, the Buying Process (all that happens at the prospect’s side) begins much earlier than the Sales Process (that what happens at your side). At the prospect’s side, a company typically goes through three phases, before they start looking for a solution. These phases roughly go like this: 1) Something Changes, which then 2) causes or aggravates Pain or friction, which then 3) gives rise to Needs. Which triggers the search for a Solution. For instance, that Change that gets the whole Buying Process in motion, could be the prospect’s competitor creating price pressure, or new government regulation, or margin erosion, or a current vendor not performing. Or – the Big Change – the prospect’s customer (often the Consumer) is changing. They want things faster, easier, in a self-serve fashion, or cheaper (because that’s the expectation set by companies like Netflix, Amazon, Uber, or other companies that don’t even play in the prospect’s industry). This Change creates Pain because the prospect’s current processes and infrastructure were created before this Change occurred. People at the prospect then realise something needs to be done (or not), they define their needs, and then look for a solution to meet those needs.
In those three phases where Change leads to Pain, and then to Needs, some crucial decisions get made on the prospect’s side. And not all of them are made explicitly, some just ‘happen’. The internal owner of the problem is assigned or arises, the priority over other business problems is determined, an initial business case gets established to determine whether to indeed move forward, needs get defined, a rough view of the solution gets formed, expectations around timelines are set, and resources and budget get earmarked. Once that’s established, the search for a solution starts. The main stage in the Sales Process that covers those first three important phases of the Buying Process, is that “Prospecting” stage. Sure, it’s not always all that linear, but key factors that determine the potential fit of your solution really get shaped in these very early stages.
In other words, fundamental decisions that impact your ability to win the deal are made in the “Prospecting” stage – before the evaluation really starts. The reality is that once an opportunity clears that BANT qualification hurdle, your ability to influence is greatly reduced. The train has left the station, and if you weren’t steering it, there’s no point jumping on board.
And that’s where the Sales Process design often is wrong. Sales emphasis actually increases as the ability to influence reduces. Sales management tends to only get involved once opportunities are well progressed – post Qualification. Solution Consulting and Processional Services assign domain experts once it gets to “Discovery” or “Proposal” stage. Management start scrutinising things once an opportunity is in “Decision” stage. In other words – when the reps or sales manager’s ability to influence the outcome is minimal. CEOs get introduced at the tail end, when the processes set in motion typically don’t allow prospects to change tack, even if they’d wanted to. Yet, that super important “Prospecting” stage – where the ability to influence is at its highest – hardly gets any scrutiny.
How to fix it
Determine your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) and ensure you Get in Early. Focus; selling change in enterprise is about quality, not quantity. Agree on the importance of the “Prospecting” stage, and rearrange your weekly sales meeting to ensure the agenda also addresses the top of the funnel. Have Marketing and Sales Development present, to share their Lead Generation activities to start conversations early. In your CRM, consider breaking up “Prospecting” into “Reaching out”, “Initial Meetings”, “Selling Vision”, and “Vision Match”, before moving on to “Qualification”. In the 1:1s with the sales reps, scrutinise opportunities in qualification stages and don’t be afraid to slow things down. If you don’t already have one, create a process around qualification; have multiple people constructively review such opportunities to avoid eagerly qualified opportunities lead to “No Decision”. Review those “No Decision” opportunities in more detail to find the cause. I often come across reps that qualify too eagerly simply because they want Solution Consultants involved, and the Sales Process dictates that SCs only get assigned to opportunities past Qualification stage! If that’s the case, train reps to have better business conversations to avoid they rush into showing what your solution looks like. Consider changing your Sales Process to involve SCs before “Qualification” with key accounts. Whatever you do, develop an understanding how your prospects buy, and what you really can still influence at what stage. A simple first step is to stop calling it a Sales Process; it’s a Buying Process.
“Please skip the slides, we’ve already been to your website. Just show us your demo, and we’ll let you know”
“No, don’t send a sales guy, just send us the guy who can answer our technical questions”
“We’ve done our research already, just give us your price”
You probably have had a prospect tell you something like that. You’ve also seen these (for us B2B sales professionals) unsettling statistics saying 70% of a business buyer’s journey is completed before the sales rep comes into the picture. Or that 90% of a buyer’s research happens online. All of this proves what we all already know: B2B buyers are much more independent as they contemplate options during their evaluation process. However nice your smile, they won’t call you in until the Buying Cycle is well on track.
Inbound and content marketing, with a big focus on educating prospects during those early stages, is typically seen as the solution to this challenge. And often, it works well. But there are scenario’s where relying on inbound marketing is not only an ineffective approach, it can actually create noise and distractions that will seriously hamper your sales success. Scenarios where a prospect needs to look at their problem from a different angle. Scenarios where you need to Get in Early to have a chance to show them that. Scenarios where the prospect can’t explore options fully without involvement from an expert – you. In SaaS, two pipeline characteristics are typically evidence of these scenarios. First, there is a lot of activity at the top of the sales funnel, with very low conversions. Prospects are interested, but unconvinced. Secondly, annual renewal levels (for those that did convert) are well below 90%. Customers didn’t really understand what they bought, didn’t integrate it properly, bought it for the wrong reasons, didn’t manage internal expectations around ROI, misjudged the impact of self-service, or a combination of all that. Oh, and that same buyer who told you he wasn’t interested in meeting a sales guy, probably blames you for not making him aware of what they really were buying.
I often come across SaaS companies that struggle with these challenges. Particularly US-headquartered companies that assume our market is as mature as theirs, and implement the same sales strategy here. Frustrated with the lack of success, they ramp up marketing to get more leads. Or tell marketing to just get better leads. Or they end up questioning the skills of the sales reps. Or, the worst of all, they start discounting to get the deal or renewal. All in all, a slippery slope.
So, what to do?
Assess the level of change your solution will have on the people, processes and technology side at your customers. With change, I mean how much the buying organisation needs to adjust before they get value from your solution. Do they need to change processes? Do they need to restructure responsibilities or even departments? Are end-users skilled to perform all tasks that come with self-service, and do their job descriptions and KPIs support that? Have they ever bought something like this before, and do they know what questions to ask? Most of all, do they even know what success looks like? With all focus on your exciting SaaS offering, it’s so easy to forget (on both sides) that a successful implementation and renewal need more than your technology alone.
If the Change Impact is low, inbound is probably the best approach. The introduction of your solution represents an incremental improvement of how they currently work – not a Big Change. Just ensure your content and processes make it really easy to buy from you. The Change Impact will be high on the other hand, if your offering involves automation of manual activities, or new self-service tasks that traditionally sat with IT or other non-functional users. Or if you rely on buzzwords like Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence – anything that has represents a Big Change to people, process and technology. In that case, a pure inbound driven approach is likely to create too much noise with the wrong prospects kicking the wrong tires. Instead, develop an old-school outbound strategy with a focus on those prospects that are most likely to buy. Don’t drop inbound all together, as long as you focus – it’s about quality, not quantity. Fight like hell to Get in Early into the Buying Cycle. Embrace Challenger Sale or Insight Selling, slow down your prospects, and position yourself as a Trusted Advisor for Change.