With big budgets at stake and multiple decision-makers to convince, B2B sales has never been easy.
But it’s arguably becoming even harder.
Once upon a time, when a buyer was in the market for a new product, they’d ask their network for recommendations, then reach out to those brands to learn more.
That’s rarely the case today.
The contemporary buyer has more information at their fingertips than they could ever hope to read.
They don’t want to be spoon-fed by a sales rep — they want to take the lead.
Indeed, 33% of all buyers (and 44% of Millennials) desire a totally seller-free sales experience, while B2B buyers typically wait until they’re 57% of the way through the sales process before reaching out to sales.
So it’s no surprise that buyers typically spend only 17% of their time meeting with potential suppliers when they’re considering a purchase
How can B2B sales teams engage and convince buyers when they have so little contact with them?
Clearly, the same old tactics no longer cut it.
In this article, we’ll discuss what B2B sales means today, examine what modern B2B buyers are looking for, and explain how to meet their needs.
What is B2B sales?
Business-to-business (B2B) sales involves selling products or services to other businesses.
While the goal of any sales organization is to sell things, B2B sales has its own unique challenges.
They’re often dealing with teams of buyers rather than individuals, and they’ll very rarely close the deal with a single conversation.
In fact, a Gartner study of 506 technology buyers discovered that buying teams spend an astonishing 16.3 months to complete an average new IT purchase.
Imagine speaking to a potential buyer for more than a year. It must take the patience of a saint not to start screaming, “please, please, just make your minds up!”
For that reason, B2B sales is a dedicated profession with its own skill set.
B2B vs. B2C sales: What’s the difference?
B2B reps sell to other businesses; business-to-consumer (B2C) reps sell to consumers.
Pretty obvious, right?
But there’s a little more nuance to the whole B2B vs. B2C conversation.
Fact is, there can be a lot of overlap between the two.
Take one of the world’s most recognizable brands, Nike, as an example.
People who work in Nike’s high street stores are effectively in B2C sales. But it also has a whole team of reps who sell Nike products to other retailers. Those folk are in B2B.
So it’s not as simple as saying some companies do B2B and others do B2C.
With that in mind, let’s explore some of the key differences between B2B and B2C sales:
|Sales cycle length||Longer||Shorter|
|Transaction type||More likely to be a subscription or lead to ongoing transactions||More likely to be a one-off purchase|
|Number of buyers||On average, 6.2 decision-makers are involved in the B2B sales cycle||Typically 1-2, depending on purchase type|
|Number of leads||Salespeople typically deal with a low number of high-quality leads||Reps deal with a high volume of colder leads|
|Customer acquisition cost||Long sales cycles means a higher acquisition cost||Acquisition costs are lower and mostly made up of marketing spend|
|Salesperson expertise||Reps require deep knowledge of the industry and buyer pain points||Buyers have fewer questions, so reps don’t need a ton of experience and industry knowledge|
|Sensitivity to discounts||Discounts aren’t likely to play a big part in buying decisions||Consumers are often highly swayed by discounts because it’s their money|
Examples of B2B sales
B2B sales is typically spoken about as if it’s a single entity. In reality, it comes in three distinct flavors:
1. Wholesale and distribution
Businesses in the wholesale and distribution space sell products to other businesses, which then sell them on to consumers at a markup. For instance, food distributors sell ingredients to restaurants.
2. Services and software
Rather than a physical product, the vendor sells a service or a piece of software that performs a vital business function, or allows the buyer to save money through efficiencies and productivity gains. SaaS sales falls into this niche.
These businesses sell a physical product that supports another business, such as office supplies or workwear. The sales process here is actually quite similar to B2C, although the volumes are typically a lot higher and the buyer may require signoff from someone higher up the ladder.
What is the traditional B2B sales cycle?
B2B sales used to be a lot less complex than it is today.
Before the internet came along and improved/ruined all of our lives, the traditional B2B sales cycle was pretty consistent.
Your marketing team would fill up the pipeline with top-of-the-funnel leads, then hand them over to sales, who were tasked with moving them through a buyer cycle that looked something like this:
- The buyer becomes aware of a problem.
- They research potential solutions.
- They attend presentations and sales pitches.
- They raise objections and negotiate with the sales rep.
- They buy the product or service that best matches their needs.
In that example, sales would be involved from stage three at the latest and maybe even earlier in the process.
It was a repeatable process, with much of it happening on the seller’s terms.
But, as my mom always tells me: “All good things must come to an end.”
How the B2B sales process has changed?
Today, with so much more information available to them, buyers can seize control — meaning those traditional approaches are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
As we’ve already noted, that’s resulted in B2B buyers waiting until much later in the cycle to connect with salespeople.
So much so that a “modern” B2B sales process might look like this:
- The buyer becomes aware of a problem.
- They research it at their desk.
- They pick it back up a couple of days later on their smartphone while commuting to work.
- At the same time, they reach out to their network for recommendations.
- And they also look at testimonials, forum discussions, and social media posts.
- Somewhere along the line, they might see a social media ad for one of the brands they’re researching or for a different brand with a similar solution.
- Then, they Google one or two solutions and look for reviews.
- Taking all those steps into account, they decide which product to purchase.
- Only then do they reach out to the sales team.
Except it’s actually even more complicated than that because six different decision-makers could be taking those actions simultaneously!
With so many touchpoints and devices involved, it’s hard (or impossible) to predict how the B2B sales funnel will work for any given buyer.
Which leaves us with an important question:
What do modern B2B buyers want?
The key to developing effective B2B sales strategies lies in understanding what buyers are looking for from your sales organization.
To do that, you first need to understand who your buyers are.
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess because TrustRadius has done some super-helpful research on the subject.
For starters, if you’re picturing B2B buyers as a bunch of old dudes sitting around a boardroom table, you’re wrong.
Today, three in five B2B tech buyers are Millennials.
It’s safe to assume the numbers are pretty similar across other verticals.
That’s right: Millennials don’t just buy avocado toast and artisan coffee — we also buy B2B products and services.
(We do love avocado toast, though.)
So what would persuade those Millennial-aged buyers to purchase from you rather than a competitor?
1. Not all buying resources are equally valuable
Millennial buyers are very particular with how they research business challenges and find ways to solve them.
In a nutshell, the big takeaway here is: they don’t value sales reps and vendor materials as a source of information.
On a scale of 0 – 4, respondents awarded vendor reps a score of 2.8 for trustworthiness and influence, while vendor websites fared even worse.
In contrast, Millennial buyers love digital resources that give them control over the B2B sales process, like:
- Product demos
- Online reviews
- Free trials
Indeed, free trials were rated as the most influential and trustworthy of all B2B buying services, which speaks to buyers’ preference for independent research, unencumbered by sales reps.
What does this tell us?
This is all about “show me, don’t tell me”.
Rather than listing a bunch of features and benefits, your reps should point buyers in the direction of resources that help them discover those features and benefits for themselves.
2. Millennials want to lead the buying process
Okay, so we know Millennial buyers are big fans of a free product trial.
But it goes further than that.
It’s not just that they like the opportunity to play around with a product without having to pay for it first; it’s that gaining hands-on experience is the buying “resource” they’d be most disappointed to lose.
In short, the more you can transform the buying journey into a self-service process, the happier your Millennial customers will be.
This chimes with separate research from McKinsey & Company, which found that more than three-quarters of B2B buyers are now happy to use self-service or remote online channels for purchases worth $50,000+.
What’s more, one in three would complete a transaction worth $500,000 or more without ever speaking to a rep face to face.
Imagine telling that to a B2B field sales rep 20 years ago. They’d never believe you.
What does this tell us?
If you have the means to offer a free trial, you should absolutely do it.
That way, your sales team can reach out with support and guidance a couple of days after a new trialist signs up.
It makes the buyer feel like they’re still in control while giving your reps a legitimate reason to get involved in the process and demonstrate their expertise.
3. They value feedback from peers
Millennials might not trust the information they receive from salespeople, but they definitely value input from their peers.
Respondents to the TrustRadius survey named referrals and user reviews as two of the top five buying resources they wouldn’t want to lose:
There’s plenty of other research to back up this point. For instance:
- Capterra discovered that 64% of software buyers want to read at least six different reviews before making a purchase.
- A separate TrustRadius survey revealed that 67% of buyers describe reviews as a “very important consideration”.
- Research from Software Advice found that 78% of marketers say referral marketing produces “good” or “excellent” leads.
Again, it all points to the fact that Millennials are pretty skeptical about the stuff salespeople tell them.
In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by adverts, it’s hardly surprising we’ve become so cynical.
But at least we still seem to trust independent sources.
What does this tell us?
Referrals and positive reviews are worth their weight in gold, so you need to make sure you’re generating plenty of them.
Build this into your sales process.
A week or so after a new customer signs up, ask them to review your product (and link them to your preferred review platform).
And consider offering some kind of incentive for referrals — whether it’s a free gift, a discount on their subscription, or access to premium features.
4. In-depth reviews are the most helpful
By this point, it should be clear that reviews are extremely valuable in the B2B sales process.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper into what makes for a “good” B2B review.
According to TrustRadius, it’s all about quality rather than quantity.
Only 7% of respondents cited the recency and number of reviews as important factors in guiding their buying decisions, while just 14% said the same about the product’s overall score.
In contrast, 39% focus on the content of the review, and 33% look out for reviews from people like them.
So if you have thousands of five-star reviews that say nothing more than “GREAT PRODUCT!”, don’t expect buyers to be convinced.
What does this tell us?
Your customers are busy people.
When they’re writing a review, they’re doing you a favor.
The last thing they want is to spend a bunch of time thinking about what information to include.
So make their task as easy as possible by providing a few helpful pointers.
For instance, you could tell them how much time (and money) they’ve saved by using a specific product feature.
3 B2B sales strategies to engage & convert today’s buyer
We know that the B2B sales process has become a whole lot more complex in recent years.
And we also know that B2B buyers are no longer satisfied with letting sales reps guide them on the path to purchase.
We’ve already discussed a couple of tactical approaches that can help you give buyers the information they’re looking for without putting them off.
Now, let’s take a look at some broader B2B sales strategies to drive conversions in a sales-adverse world:
1. Use an account-based approach to align sales and marketing
Despite the wealth of collaboration technology available to us today, misaligned sales and marketing teams are still all too common.
We’ve all heard the complaints.
Sales say the leads generated by marketing are hot garbage.
Marketing responds by saying they don’t get enough (useful) feedback, and that if sales can’t close one deal from 1,000 leads, that’s their problem.
Those conversations are unhelpful, to say the least.
One solution is to take an account-based approach to sales and marketing.
In account-based marketing (ABM), sales and marketing jointly identify target accounts, build highly personalized campaigns to target individual accounts and work together to move buyers through the pipeline.
No more finger pointing or lack of accountability. Instead, both teams work in tandem to get deals across the line because everyone’s involved throughout the full length of the B2B sales funnel.
The results can be impressive, with one study discovering that at companies with mature ABM programs, account-based actions are responsible for driving 79% of sales opportunities and 73% of total revenue.
2. Build a library of shareable (personalized) content assets
If you’re going to take an account-based approach, you need plenty of high-quality, highly customizable content assets.
Because buyers don’t want salespeople to tell them how brilliant your product is; they want to read (or watch, or listen to) content assets that explain how to solve their business challenges.
Research from LinkedIn shows that buyers are spending more and more time engaging with thought leadership content, with the average B2B decision-maker reading it for at least one hour per week.
So it’s no surprise that 53% of marketers say they’re increasing the prevalence of thought leadership in their content strategies.
To be clear, this isn’t about churning out a bunch of generic ebooks, infographics, or explainer videos.
It’s about building content tailored to the specific goals and requirements of individual buyers.
For an email marketing automation company like Encharge, a “generic” approach to sales and marketing might mean writing an ebook about how automation can help B2B companies generate more leads.
With ABM, that generic ebook could become an in-depth analysis of how email marketing automation would benefit that specific organization, based on their existing tech stack, sales and marketing resources, and target audience.
Sure, producing such highly targeted content is difficult.
But because you’re focused on a smaller number of higher-quality leads, your content team can afford to spend more time on the assets they create.
3. Enable sales reps to become subject matter experts
Sure, buyers are waiting until later in the sales cycle to speak to sales reps.
You’re probably worried that means you’re missing out on potentially valuable sales conversations.
But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
A lot of those top-of-the-funnel sales interactions are low-value. The prospects in question aren’t a good fit for your product or don’t have an immediate need for it.
By freeing sales from these tasks, you’re giving them the bandwidth to become genuine subject-matter experts, which will further support your ABM efforts.
Expertise is a highly valuable trait in sales and one that’s seen all too rarely.
Indeed, a Hinge Marketing survey revealed that subject-matter expertise is the top way for B2B buyers to evaluable professional services firms.
So the more your reps understand your target audience and the challenges they’re facing, the better placed they’ll be to close the deal when buyers do (finally) reach out.
Drive B2B sales with Encharge
We’ve spent a lot of this article talking about how the internet has made life harder for sales teams.
It’s turned buyers off speaking to reps and onto doing all the research themselves.
But we’re not trying to sound like a bunch of luddites longing for an earlier age when the most advanced piece of technology at our fingertips was a typewriter.
Because tech offers a ton of benefits of sales, too.
Arguably, the biggest benefit of all is automation.
It handles all the busywork, allowing you to spend more time building smarter B2B sales strategies that truly resonate with buyers.
With Encharge in your corner, you can:
- Create engaging lead nurturing campaigns in a matter of minutes, helping you build trust, strengthen relationships, and showcase your most valuable product features.
- Build lead and segments based on form response, behavioral data, and CRM attributes.
- Target leads with highly personalized messaging, and automatically follow up with people who haven’t opened or clicked your previous emails.
- Create alignment between your sales and marketing teams and keep them on the same page by syncing your contact data between your marketing automation tool and CRM (Hint: you can do this with our new HubSpot integration).
- Automate repetitive sales tasks in your CRM. Thanks to our integration with HubSpot, you can automatically create or update new records, deals, tasks, and more in your CRM.
Of course, we know that buyers aren’t just going to take our word for it.
They want to find things out for themselves.
That’s why we offer a 14-day free trial, with all features included and no credit card required.
Give us a try and find out why 3,600+ companies use Encharge to automate their marketing.