The Changing Nature of B2B Sales

By Hope Eyre on Feb 11, 2014

I’ve been reading a lot about the changing nature of B2B sales: journal articles, blogs, research reports, white papers, opinion from training companies and consulting firms, you name it. Exactly how the world of B2B sales is changing, what’s causing it and how sellers must adapt (or die, presumably) is subject to very broad interpretation.

 On the following three truths, however, nearly everyone agrees:

  • It’s definitely happening.
  • The Internet caused it by allowing buyers to become supremely educated about their problems, possible solutions, vendors, competitive offerings and price tag before you, the seller, even manage to retrieve your visitor’s badge for the first prospecting meeting.
  • Customers who can educate themselves need less direct interaction with sellers, therefore companies are replacing outside sales executives with inside sales reps who can sell via phone and internet, for less money.

Once you get beyond these slim points, opinion on cause and effect with recommendations for action are plentiful and vary from the painfully mundane “salespeople will need to be articulate problem solvers,” (true 20 years ago) to the provocative; more on that in a minute.

Which leads us to the now famously dire prediction from Gartner that “by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationship with the enterprise without interacting with a human.”

Or as one wit interpreted it:


Google the 85% prediction and spend 2 hours counting the number of pundits who picked it up and repeated it with certainty in support of their own interpretation of the changing nature of B2B anything.

We, too, see the uptick in using inside sales reps as replacement or supplement to field sales, and we work with companies on this.  Nevertheless, we spend much of our time consulting to organizations dedicated to the complex enterprise sale, which is a decidedly messy process still very much managed by humans.

What recommendations are experts giving B2B sellers on how to adapt to the changing nature of B2B sales?  How must you approach the educated and sophisticated buyer who’s already done his homework, making your entrance into the sales cycle later than usual, shorter than usual and automatically less within your control?

As you might imagine, I found lots of recommendations suggesting a tightened discipline around process, methodology, messaging and traditional “best-in-class” sales competencies. It was a thoroughly unsatisfying endeavor.

Until I came across this.

If you’ve never read Steve W. Martin’s sales blog in Harvard Business Review, start now with Top 10 Sales Trends for 2013, despite its date.

Professor Martin argues that the art of human interaction is now the core competency for winning deals in the changing world of B2B sales.

His list of core sales competencies includes (among others) being able to take strategic action based on the recognition and correct interpretation of the following:

  • Customer politics
  • Evaluator psychology
  • Human nature of executive decision makers
  • Individual biases
  • Personal desires
  • Customer thinking styles
  • Organizational buying psychology
  • Inter-relationships among different customer departments

To be sure, understanding buyer motivations and organizational politics have always been a component of selling, but they were considered an add-on to mastering the stages of a highly proscriptive sales methodology. Extra credit homework, if you will.

Martin’s point is that methodology, process, messaging and traditional competencies are now nothing more than the price of entry into the game. They are enough to earn the right to play, but not to win.

Structuring sales strategy around the psychological makeup of the customer, better than your competition does, is what now determines the win. (Consider the implications to the template you use for win/loss analysis alone.)

For sellers and managers who aren’t comfortable with what are derisively referred to as “soft skills,” the word you’re looking for here is yikes!

What remains to be seen is whether sellers will embrace these competencies, training firms will train on them, sales operations will support them, consultants will consult on them and managers will learn to coach them.

For more on the psychology of B2B sales, check out Steve W. Martin’s sales blog in Harvard Business Review  as well as Daniel Pink’s bestsellers To Sell is Human and A Whole New Mind.

Topics: inside sales

Hope Eyre

Written by Hope Eyre

Hope Eyre is a sales effectiveness expert who takes a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to building winning sales organizations. She regularly works side by side with sales teams around account segmentation and planning and has helped numerous complex organizations rethink they way they serve their largest accounts. Hope’s specialties include sales transformation, sales capability development, leadership development/coaching and performance management. If “sticky” could be a word to describe a consultant, it would be a perfect descriptor for Hope, as clients like to keep her around.

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