In B2B sales, one-size-does-not-fit-all is a cornerstone proposition. There are no generic customers; hence there are no winning generic strategies – each customer is unique and every winning account strategy must take that uniqueness into consideration.
When thinking about what it takes to formulate a winning sales strategy, a good starting point is remembering you are dealing with a complex buying environment. Many decision-makers and influencers are involved, the needs and issues are multi-layered and often conflicting, and the solution configuration and implementation management is likely to be complex and sophisticated.
Given this situation let’s explore two overarching ideas for how to develop a winning account strategy.
Comprehending the customer. The best practices for formulating a winning strategy all start with developing an understanding the customer. Top sales performers develop a comprehensive picture of the customer and average performers develop snapshots. Let’s examine some ideas for what it takes to develop that comprehensive understanding:
- Understanding the Buying Process. It is hard to sell if you don’t know how people buy. Crafting an effective account strategy requires knowing who the players are, the roles they will assume in the buying process and their opinions of you and the competition?
You also need to know what the buying process looks like – for example assuming that it mirrors your selling process is a common mistake. Even the often-held notion that the buying process is linear is at risk in many major accounts.
Last, and importantly, just because you are starting at the beginning of your selling process, don’t assume the buyer is at the beginning of their buying process. It is well to remember that although the number is somewhat notional, approximately 75% of the time customers make their final decision halfway through the buying process. Many salespeople do the right thing but do it too late.
- Interpreting the Business Environment. Events occur in the business environment that impact – positively and negatively – your probability of capturing the business. Top sales performers are aware of these events and adjust their strategy accordingly. These events tend to fall into three categories:
- Business Context – example: a new competitor
- Your Company – example: new product introduction
- Customer – example: your internal champion leaves
These changes are occurring constantly. This is one of the reasons that winning account strategies cannot be developed and then stored away but instead must be constantly reviewed and updated.
- Knowing the Decision Criteria. Competition is almost always present in B2B sales; therefore:
(1) Know the decision criteria the customer will use to decide between competitors.
(2) Determine how you fit against the customer’s decision criteria. The fit is a two-way street. You must determine in an objective fashion the degree of fit between the customer’s decision criteria and your capabilities. In addition, you must obtain the customer’s perception of that fit. It is often the case that the two assessments are not in alignment and a part of your strategy is what to do about the misalignment.
For example, there are times when it is legitimate to help a customer change their point of view. A misperception about one of your capabilities is an example. A second example is when a customer deems a particular decision criterion to be extremely important and it is your experience the priority is misplaced. This, of course, is a road to be walked with care. If the customer would end up making a better decision if they changed their assessment, then changing brings value to the customer and to you and that’s legitimate. Obviously, it is not legitimate if the viewpoint shift is strictly in your self-interest.
(3) Obtain the customer’s perception of how the competition fits with the decision criteria. With all that information at hand you can make a good assessment of your competitive position as viewed by the customer.
Thinking innovatively. It is well to note that account strategy development has bit of a checkered past. In the bad old days account strategy was fundamentally about how to pitch your product and how to counter those nasty objections encountered along the way. As time rolled on, things got better but often account strategy was mainly about filling out a form that was then filed away never to be seen again.
Fortunately today the world is a better place. More and more companies have recognized the need to help their sales reps to think and act strategically.
So what are some additional tips for getting that right? Recently we came across a great article in the Harvard Business Review by Mark Chussil about frameworks that can help salespeople to do a better job thinking strategically. The article was about business strategy in general but we thought it was particularly useful for those of us in sales.
Mark’s first suggestion is to shift from starting with the question “What should we do?” to a question that tends to broaden the alternatives – “What could we do?”
The notion of “could” asks what if?, what else?, or why not? The article provided several specific framing questions:
- Imagine you could do it again and you’re saying, “I wish we’d thought about X.” What is X?
- Ask what would be the equivalent to your situation in another division or territory and how would they strategically handle it.
- Ask what you’d do if you were a new company preparing to enter your market.
- Ask what you’re afraid your competitors might do.
- Note your favorite metaphor for business: chess, war, making deals, enriching shareholders, satisfying customers. Switch to another.
Today markets are going through transformational changes. The medical sales and technology industries are classic examples. Buyers are changing what they buy, how they buy and what they are willing to pay for it. Moreover in the future the dust is unlikely to settle. Instead the new constant will likely be a constant state of change.
In such a market environment there is limited room for the “tried and true.” From a strategic perspective doing the same old, same old is not going to carry the day. Thinking and acting strategically to bring unique innovative ideas to each account will take on increased importance.
Sales reps and companies that adopt the “let’s just stay the course” strategy are likely to continuously erode their competitive advantage. “Tried and true” is likely to reemerge as “Sorry and Sad.”