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Rethinking The Sales Process

by David Brock on April 16th, 2021

Preface: It’s always dangerous to preface an article with a warning. This is a long article. In some ways, I’m writing it to help clarify my own thinking. We are seeing a profound shift in buying, with customers preferring digital engagement channels to sales engagement. I am beginning to explore what this means for our overall engagement strategies, moving from a sales led, digitally supported to a digitally led, sales supported process. For those of you who make it through this, I’d love your feedback and ideas. This will become increasingly important for all of us in the coming years.

Buying is changing profoundly, accelerated in part by adapting to business changes forced on us by the pandemic.

For many years, we’ve seen the increased importance of digital channels in the customer buying journey. Years ago, we thought of customers leveraging digital channels primarily early in their buying journey, relying on sales people once they were serious about looking at new solutions. Over the past 5-7 years, we are seeing customers leveraging digital channels, heavily, through the entire buying process.

Even with this reliance on digital channels, we sales folks tend to think of these as support or reinforcement to the sales person’s engagement strategies. We provided a wealth of materials and content to support the sales person. They might be analytic tools, information about products/solutions, case studies, application studies, implementation materials, application guides, justification guides. All were resources sales people leveraged to support their activities with the customer. Or the customer would independently search for those, to confirm and amplify what they heard from the sales person. Putting a label on this, we might call it “Sales led, digitally reinforced buyer engagement.”

But now we are seeing a trend to inverting that process. Customer preference is moving to leveraging digital buying channels with sales people in support of this process–not leading/guiding the process. What does this mean for our selling processes and engagement strategies? How do we adapt to mirror customer preferences in their buying journeys? What happens when it becomes a “Digitally led, sales reinforced buyer engagement?”

In retailing/e-Tailing, self service, sales supported buying journeys have been the norm for decades. e-Tailing is the digital adaptation of self service (though significantly enhanced). Is this the model for the digitally led buying journey in complex B2B buying?

What do things look like when we consider:

  • Attracting and initial customer engagement through digital channels/sources?
  • Moving the customer through a qualification process that may be primarily digital?
  • Helping the customer discover, define, prioritize what they are doing, establish goals through primarily digital channels?
  • Helping the customer evaluate alternative approaches through digital tools?
  • How do we engage the “customer” in our digital channels, recognizing the customer isn’t a monolith or a persona, but different people with different goals, motivations, responsibilities?
  • How do we help customer who don’t know how to buy navigate their own buying process, aligning different agendas, priorities, biases, perspectives, and needs?
  • How do we help customers understand and address that which is very complex or complicated?
  • How do we help reduce the “buying failure rate?” (No Decision Made accounts for 53% of buying journeys)
  • Leading the customer through the development of a solution, assessing change, implementation issues, and risks of the alternatives?
  • Leading the customer through the business case/justification, pricing, and solution finalization?
  • Addressing concerns the customer might have, helping them recognize issues they may have overlooked?
  • Helping the customer build buy in and support within their own organizations?
  • What are the digital tools we provide to help the customer navigate through their buying journey?
  • Where/what sales interventions must happen, and when?

As we start to look at this, we recognize the tremendous differences in possible digital buying journeys and sales interventions for complex B2B buying processes.

In one sense, while digitally led, sales interventions may be “last mile” interventions. Where our digital resources can get the customer to a certain point, there is always a gap–what does this mean to us specifically? These are contextually, situationally unique and dynamic (changing over time). The sales intervention may be helping the customer bridge that gap.

There are some buying journeys that can be 100% fulfilled through digital engagement. This isn’t new, we’ve seen this for decades and seen electronica market places supporting these buying processes. We should expect that virtually 100% of the buying process for Transactional Buying, can and should be supported digitally, with minimal sales engagement.

But as we look at buying journeys for complicated and complex processes, the challenge is very different. How we engage our customers both digitally and with sales interventions will be profoundly different.

As we look at each of these, there are different ways we might think about a digitally led buying journey and sales interventions during those journeys.

The complicated buying process is characterized by unknown-knowns. That is there can be many possible solutions for a problem (not just direct competitors). It is the domain of “experts.” In this domain, I suspect digitally, we will have to help the customer assess themselves and their problem. We will have to provide tools for self assessment and assessing alternative approaches. We will have to provide tools to help them test our solutions and assess fit/function. I suspect the sales interventions will be in two areas, Project management/orchestration, deep engagement of experts.

  • Project management/orchestration sales intervention: This will focus on helping the customer develop and manage their buying process/journey. This will require less solution knowledge/capability but more skill in helping the customer move to a successful conclusion for their goal. Orchestration is an important element, helping the customer understand and access resources that help the customer in solving their problem, whether it’s resources within their organization, resources within the seller’s organization (e.g. experts), or partner resources.
  • Expertise: Since this is the domain of expertise, customers will leverage their own experts, third party experts, or even vendor experts. Customer experts will want sales engagement, but very specialized engagement; they will value deep expertise on the issues in which they consider themselves experts. It is unlikely we can provide that expertise digitally, since much of that will be focused on the specific issues/context the customer faces. As a result, experts from the vendor/selling organizations can help the customer experts assess the best solution for their situation.

The complex domain is, well complex. Given that it is the domain of unknown unknowns, the customer is, in fact, trying to define the problem in some meaningful way, then perhaps segmenting the problem (creating multiple complicated and interrelated issues), or creating experiments to learn and develop new approaches. It is unlikely that digital engagement strategies are prevalent here, since the customer doesn’t even have the issues defined in ways that lead them to a solution. Here a sales led, digitally supported process will dominate. But the sales engagement strategy and skills will be very different. Rather than sales skills that help the customer navigate their buying process/journey, skills focused on helping the customer with their problem solving process–helping them define/scope/bound the problem, helping them identify and experiment with alternative solutions to the problem, helping them.

Notice, this is a different level of engagement, even for those involved in the most complex solution areas. We are not helping the customer manage a complex buying process–they don’t even know that they may need to buy. We are helping them manage their problem definition/solving process. As a result, there are some very different sales intervention strategies:

  • While the issue may be “complex” to the customer, it may actually be “complicated” from our perspective. We may have seen so many organizations facing similar issues and can help them redefine what they are doing and simplify the process. The selling intervention requires problem domain expertise, project management, orchestration. An important element of helping the customer will be to get them talking to other customers/organizations that have faced similar issues, leveraging those to help the customer define a path forward.
  • Alliances and partners may be important as part of our go to market strategies. We may not have or want to develop the expertise to manage the problem solving process, instead of the buying process. We may participate in a small part of the solution and broader expertise might be required to help the customer with the problem solving process. As a result, tight/structured alliances with services organizations may be important–consulting companies, systems integration companies, and others may be critical to helping us help our customers with this process.

So what does this mean?

  1. Customer digital buying journeys are going to progress at very different rates. Why we are seeing this as new, surprises me, because we have seen this for decades.
  2. Those customers looking at well known, proven solutions, (the transactional/simple space) will move very aggressively and successfully into managing their buying process through digital channels. We have to make sure we are prepared to intercept and support these customers on that journey. We need to identify where sales interventions create unique value during that journey, designing these interventions into the process.
  3. Customers in the complicated space will leverage digital channels for learning and exploring alternative solutions. They will use the digital journey as a high level road map for their learning journey. But they will need sales interventions to do deep dives into understanding which solution will apply to their specific context/situation. They will need sales experts who both understand the solution and can help translate that into specific business results. At he same time, while the digital sources will be helpful in learning about issues, solutions, alternatives, how other people have done things; they will still struggle to manage their own work efforts to actually reach decisions and implement solutions to the problems they are trying to address. As we design our digital interventions, we will have to suggest sales interventions to help with these, or provide signals to our sales people to intervene.
  4. The complex space, will be very very different. First, we recognize the customer isn’t even on a buying journey, digital or otherwise. They are trying to identify and solve a problem they don’t understand. They will need strong intervention and support from people that can help them solve that problem. While a bit trite, it takes a “community” to help them to this–both their resources and those we can bring to the situation. This changes the nature of our engagement process, it may not just be our sales people and resources, but because these problems are bigger than our solutions, we may create the greatest value by helping bring together the resources that are critical to helping the customer solve their problems. This creates an interesting challenge for our channel, partner, and alliance strategies, making them even more important than in the past.

All of this still leave a huge opportunity unaddressed. This discussion has been based on the premise the customer has determined they need to make a change (or is at least interested in considering one). As a result of this, they are starting to search, learn, and educate themselves. But the biggest opportunity is inciting customers who haven’t yet recognized the need to change, but who needs to. These customers won’t begin their digital buying journey until they are at least curious about the opportunity to change. They won’t go to Google (or their favorite search engine) saying, “We need to address this issue….”

How do we intercept and engage these customers? How do we kick them off in their digital journeys? I think this will be driven by sales people, but probably with very different skills than many of our current sales people. They will be people focused on generating movement in our ICPs, inciting customers to change. They won’t necessarily need to be product/solution experts, but more experts in business challenges and opportunities. They will have to have skills and expertise to get the customer to ask the question, “Is there a better way to achieve our goals? Is there something we are missing?” Once the customer is asking themselves these questions, they will begin their digital journey.

Afterword: First, thanks for getting to this point. I cover a lot in this article, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the model (simple/transactional, complicated, complex, etc) is based on articles I’ve written on sensemaking. Underlying this is the Cynefin model developed by David Snowden at Cognitive-Edge

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  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    I get it.
    We are in agreement with much of what you say.

    Yet, what’s new?

    We sold Computers when most people didn’t know what they were.
    I disrupted an industry [Banking] with the Cash Machine (ATM), then the Car Insurance industry, with a Free Phone telephone. Low-Cost Airlines eliminated “Travel Agents” and made Air Travel accessible.

    I see a new event horizon, with Salespeople Informing Buyers of the ‘Consequences’ of their Purchase, not Just Value [Benefit or Utility] but of Social and Environmental Impacts.

    The ‘Context of the Sale’ is changing. SaaS was not an easy payment plan, we already had Leasing, it was a different way of doing business.

    What does it mean? I would be looking for Sales hires with a HIGH degree of Critical Thinking, Creative Thinkers, Problem Discoverers and Solvers, who can COMMUNICATE with BUYERS.

    In a hardware Store Today. Looking for a Sealant to waterproof a door, after a few rainy days, had towels on the floor. More than 30 products to choose from. A store assistant approached me “do you need any help?”

    Then, by questions, to understand the problem, the materials, and colours I wanted to bind and seal. HE SELECTED a product. He reassured me on the Longevity and the environmental impact, including advice on the empty cartridge disposal!

    I could have ordered a product from Amazon, but I didn’t.

    • Brian, always love your perspectives. As usual, we are in wild agreement. But here’s the issue I’m struggling with. What you describe is primarily the model you and I are both used to. It is sales led, digitally supported. But we are seeing an increasing preference of customers to leverage digital channels, actively minimizing sales involvement. Stated differently, it is digitally led, sales supported. How do we leverage digital channels to direct customers to engage sales or sales intercept in an appropriate context?

      One of the things I like about your sealant story, is there are decisions, where we value expertise. I’m seeing this as an increasing determinant/qualifier related to successful sales engagements.

  2. Joël van Beelen permalink

    ‘They won’t necessarily need to be product/solution experts, but more experts in business challenges and opportunities.’

    I guess you’re describing the difference between buyers ‘ready’ to buy who reach out themselves and – last 3 paragraphs – sales people who can create new buyers (i’d say that is what all sales people should be able to do, if not you are in a relationship management role).

    Even for the first segment of sellers who serve (quite literally) buyers who’ve come to them, there are plenty of wants from the buyers perspective.

    Rain group’s 2020 survey into buyer decisions shows that, here in concentrated form (click chart to enlarge):

    Here is the study

    And indeed you don’t create new opp’s by discussing features and technical details, those come last. If you’re financially literate and know their industry you can communicate with executive buyers, show them the cost of staying the same and build a buying vision.

    (Where discussing the pitfalls to prevent low adoption/utilisation is key, not hallelujah stuff about why your product is so great, 3 in 4 IT/Tech buys still fail, every buyer you speak to has in the back of their head a ((not so little)) voice saying ‘remember last time…’).

    Partner – channel – consultancy sales are indeed expected to grow significantly (some startups i worked with also chose that route after failing at sales themselves, the marketingautomation + emailspam and sdr to AE/founder strategies don’t deliver that much).

    Marcus Cauchi has a lot of experience with channel-partner sales, his estimations of what number of products out of a partners complete portfolio actually gets promoted are pretty low, most products are listings on a partners websites and get no attention from the partner’s reps. Not in the least because the companies that approached these partners are rather bad at helping their channel partner’s sales reps to sell their products.

    IT is decreasing fast as the ‘natural’ buyer for the big tech brands and tech consultancies. Their consultants need to learn how to speak to different buyers in other business units.

    I’ve been involved with business development and training and coaching of consultants of some of the large blue chip tech companies and tech consultancies. They are pretty much solely capable of selling to existing customers (who they know and that trust them already) and are literally clueless about how to deal with a new prospect, where they have to communicate – from the consultants perspective – into the unknown.

    They then resort to asking the prospect what they want to know and learn in the first meeting. Which is often impossible to say for the prospect since they were the ones approached about a new technology, innovation, opportunity etc. You can’t ask good questions about something you don’t know, you actually invited the consultant to come over and explain just that (not in the least because of their powerful brand).

    The consultant will than likely resort to an 80 page slidedeck…

    It’s very, very difficult to change their ways and since they work for a big brand and have had success with existing customers (who typically buy the ‘safe choice’ i.e. the big brand/big consultancy) they think quite highly of themselves. But they destroy more new business than that they actually create.

    I’ve seen tech consultants send executive prospects a 100 page ebook to ‘educate’ them for the first meeting. And i have seen plenty meetings called off by the prospect because they lost faith in their consultant during the pre meeting email exchanges.

    If i would do sales hiring i would look for people who are in a customer success role, or a role where they support buyers with implementing and using a technology. If they have a curious character and don’t shy from making cold calls you have the building blocks of a complete sales person right there.

    Don’t teach them ‘sales’, teach them corporate finance and macro economics, much more interesting and way more helpful to executive buyers: ‘inflation is going to hurt the buying power of x buyer segment in the near future, i propose to look at buyer segments y and r. These are the risks of that change, these are the risks of staying the same, and this is what it will deliver in profits’.

    • Joel: Wow, you cover a lot here, thank you! I won’t be able to respond to each point, I’ll choose a few.

      1. I think we are talking apples and oranges. You are focusing on how buyer use and sellers support sales people. But the data is showing that’s becoming the least preferred buying channel. Buyers are finding non sales channels (particularly as they are more ready to buy), preferential and minimizing sales engagement. As you look at this changing from sales led, digitally supported to digitally led, sales supported, I think there is a profound shift in how we work intervene.
      2. Sales should be able to create new buyers, absolutely. I’m not sure that I agree that sales people do an effective job at this. Additionally, I think a nuance is creating successful buyers. 53% of funded buying initiatives end in no decision made. Also the data would seem to question ability to create new buyers, with the majority of sales people not achieving their goals.
      3. Marcus’s work on channels is very good. I’m looking at a very new context primarily focused on the complex space (see the Cynefin model). In this space, the more diverse the group we bring to bear the higher quality decision and the faster the decision. Most of our channel models are around enabling a partner, perhaps with a more complete solution. I think the model for the future may be more how do we enable multiple partners working collaboratively.

      I’ll stop here, you have so much I could generate (and may) lots of blog posts. Regards, Dave

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