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.