Companies around the world have spent a ton of money on customer relationship management (CRM) systems—more than $26 billion annually.1 Yet many are still awaiting a financial return from their investments. This is especially true in B2B companies, many of which have told us that a sales force with more data is not necessarily a sales force that generates more revenue, closes more deals, and wins more repeat business. However, we also know of B2B firms that have generated robust returns from their CRM investments. In these companies, salespeople and sales managers can’t ever imagine life without a CRM system.
So what are B2B companies that are struggling to get value from CRM doing wrong? From our experience, their sales functions continue to live by seven principles, each of which has become a myth. I’ll go through each one and explain why they have become problematic. Then I’ll discuss the new beliefs that should replace the myths.
Myth No. 1: We Have a Long Time to Sell
This now-obsolete notion is that the B2B sales cycle is long, and thus a sales person has weeks or months to close a deal after an inquiry comes in. While research suggests the B2B purchasing process remains long, the sales process has shortened. The average B2B buyer is nearly 60% of the way through his buying process before he talks to a single vendor, according to CEB.2 You have less time to make a positive impression than you did before because by the time a buyer is ready to look at vendors, he has done most of his homework. It’s a reason why 70% of B2B buyers rated timeliness of a vendor’s response to their inquiries as a key reason for choosing the winning vendor.3
This means your sales force must know precisely what matters to your customers’ decision-makers and tailor the information to their needs. B2B buyers today say the most influential part of suppliers’ websites is ‘relevant content that speaks directly’ to their company.4 If you haven’t created a wellspring of such educational content in advance, you’re at a distinct disadvantage to the competitor that has it.
But it’s not just about content. It’s also about serving that content in the channels your customer uses to engage with your organization—website, secure portals, contact centers, even social media. Your sales and service representatives not only need this content, they need relevant data on the customer from which they can draw insights. And increasingly your people need artificial intelligence to recommend the next steps they should take with customers. Your website, too, should make those recommendations to customers based on how they interact with your site.
Myth No. 2: Most Times, Best Price Wins the Business
This myth is especially prevalent in commodity businesses. To be sure, in many B2B sectors being price competitive is still important. But other factors come into play, including tailoring commodity offerings to customers’ unique needs and providing trustworthy advice on how to get more value from them.
The latest research by Salesforce.com found that nearly four out of five B2B buyers greatly value salespeople who can be trusted advisers.5 It’s because the stakes in many B2B purchases—a large investment, a career, and competitive advantage—are rising. Salespeople who help buyers think through their needs and reduce those risks stand out.
An average of 5.4 people are involved in B2B purchases, according to CEB. The biggest challenge for companies making a purchasing decision is getting their decision-makers to agree on the problem and the right way to solve it—both of which happen before they choose a supplier.6 The most successful B2B suppliers help decision-makers reframe their problem and approach to solving it.
But becoming such a trusted adviser isn’t easy. It requires a supplier to liberally share customer information and insights internally—what Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, and so on know about the same customer. In many companies, phenomenal amounts of information on any single customer exist in divisions, product units, geographies, and functions. But few can easily bring this information together because their systems don’t share data and aren’t connected.
Myth No. 3: A Strong Brand Overcomes Ineffective Sales Processes
Wrong again. I’m not saying that a strong B2B brand is of little value. It can get you in the door and on the shortlist. But if you don’t react to new sales opportunities well enough and fast enough, your company’s familiar logo won’t help much.
Companies like LinkedIn and Paychex prove that B2B companies can come out of nowhere and gain share with a superior offering and competent sales processes but little advertising. Highly competent sales forces are critical to success.
McKinsey has found that firms with strong capabilities in qualifying and pursuing leads—presales work—have win rates of 40% to 50% of new deals and 80% to 90% with repeat business.7 Using modern sales practices and enabling technologies, sales forces can anticipate and eventually predict customer needs.
Myth No. 4: B2B Customers Don’t Buy on Emotion (Thus They Don’t Need a Compelling Sales Experience)
This is no longer true, if it ever was. While B2B buyers expect vendors to provide good educational information online long before they sign a purchase order, it takes only one piece of bad information about a vendor to sour a relationship.
There’s a lot riding today for B2B companies on multimillion-dollar purchases. Emotion plays a bigger role in the decision. A survey by Google and CEB of 3,000 buyers of products and services from 36 B2B brands found B2B customers were “significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors” than consumers were to the brands they purchased.
It’s up to sales people to deal with the emotional component of the customer’s purchase decision. Giving sales and service representatives insights into customer motivations allows them to tailor their interactions to those motivations.
It is also important to not forget the basics of great sales training and management. In the end, selling remains a people business. Sales representatives who can tailor your message and help buyers understand how your solution solves their problem are fundamentals that must not be lost in this age of technology.
Myth No. 5: Current Customers Will Give You More Slack in How Fast You Respond
Many loyal customers aren’t as patient as they used to be, and for good reasons: regulatory, political, and competitive. Customers are often working against fixed time frames, targets, or business objectives against which they will be measured. We know of telecommunications equipment manufacturers that must respond to leads from telcos much faster than in the past. The reason is telco purchasing cycles have accelerated due to exploding demands for digital data that courses through their networks.
Taking six months to configure the equipment increasingly won’t satisfy such customers. Streamlining the quote-to-cash process in your organization and giving sales and service representatives the right tools allows them to respond faster. Applied across channels, those same tools can even allow customers to serve themselves to your offerings, reducing time and resource constraints.
One telecommunications equipment manufacturer now lets customers configure and submit orders through a web portal or by talking to a contact center representative. That’s shaved weeks off the old sales process.
The results (in increased sales) have been phenomenal.
Myth No. 6: B2B Sales are Sequential and Should Focus on Providing Customers with Information
Lots of companies are spending heavily on educational material that explains their products and services, and how customers should use them. But many B2B buyers still have much to sort out after they’ve read such vendor content. It is up to sales people to further educate customers.
Sales people with exceptional educational skills remain highly valued. Forrester predicts 1 million of the worlds 4.5 million B2B sales jobs will disappear by 2020, supplanted by technology. Out of the four seller archetypes, ‘order takers’ (sales people who sell non-complex offerings in non-complex buying situations) would be eliminated by self-service online portals. However, ‘consultants’ (sales people selling complex offerings in complex buying situations) would thrive because they can make comprehensible abstract concepts and build relationships.8
Technology can help a sales force make a consultative sell. A global information services company created an online community for entrepreneurs and business owners to make connections with others like them at similar stages of development. It also helped them procure the services they needed, and used gamification to measure participation and contributions to the communities. The net result was that the vendor’s brand shifted from merely being an information provider to one that assembled a community of experts.
Myth No. 7: B2B Customers Don’t Want a Multichannel Selling Experience
Not true anymore. They not only need extremely knowledgeable sales people, they need highly informative websites, webinars, seminars, mobile apps, and other channels that help them make better decisions.
With so many channels for a B2B sales force to use now, how can it create a sales experience in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? A good way to start is through a high-level customer segmentation via ‘personas’. Lay out the customer journeys for a maximum of five personas (e.g., repeat vs. new customers; infrequent vs. frequent purchasers, etc.). Then identify what information your firm possesses that would improve how sales people interact with each persona in each step of their buying journey and in each sales channel.
But don’t fall into the trap of only focusing on the customer journey and not on the supporting processes. If a customer places an order, you still need to fill it. You must link your customer-facing efforts to your back-end processes and systems. If you don’t, you’ll create an initial positive sentiment on the front end, but obliterate it when your firm doesn’t fill orders correctly or on-time on the back end, or if you provide poor service.
Many B2B sales forces continue to live by one or more of these seven myths. Those that have replaced them with truly customer-centric sales and marketing strategies have been gaining share. They are far better clued in to what their customers need, can respond much faster, and are superior at predicting what customers will need next.
1 Forbes.com, 2015 Gartner CRM Market Share Analysis Shows Salesforce In The Lead, Growing Faster Than Market, May 28, 2016, May 15, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2016/05/28/2015-gartner-crm-market-share-analysis-shows-salesforce-in-the-lead-growing-faster-than-market/#37baaf631051
3 Demand Gen Report, The 2016 B2B Buyer Survey Report, 2016, accessed May 14, 2017, http://www.demandgenreport.com/resources/research/2016-b2b-buyer-s-survey-report
5 Salesforce.com, 3 Ways to Show B2B Customers Some Love, February 14, 2017, accessed May 12, 2017,
https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2017/02/show-b2b-customers-some-love.html. Use information to build relationships during the marketing and sales cycle.
7 Harward Business Review, To Improve Sales, Pay More Attention to Presales, February 17 2015, accessed May 13, 2017, https://hbr.org/2015/02/to-improve-sales-pay-more-attention-to-presales
8 Hubspot, 1 Million B2B Sales Jobs Will Vanish by 2020 [New Research], March 1, 2015, accessed May 12, 2017, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/sales-jobs-vanishing#sm.0000qlyk851abcedbvo5ldtyig46z