The Opportunity Before the Opportunity


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If you want to engage your customer, you have to earn the right.

If you’re in B2B sales, I don’t have to tell you that buying has changed dramatically since the “Great Recession.” Sales professionals and account managers are now competing for business in an environment with unprecedented challenges. Buyers have all the power. Procurement calls the shots. The tips, tricks, and techniques you acquired in sales training and learned to rely on aren’t nearly as effective as they once were and in many cases no longer apply at all.

I could launch into excruciating detail about how it all happened, but you’ve lived it, so I’ll spare you the lesson in recent history. Instead, let’s look at where we are right now, because it’s pretty straightforward: Buying has changed. Selling has failed to keep up.

So what can a B2B salesperson do?

Steve Andersen, founder of Performance Methods, Inc. and my co-author on Beyond the Sales Process: 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World, says, “In my line of work, I talk to customers every day and they share some fascinating insights with me. Across the board, from industry to industry, at every level from middle management to the C-suite, they tell me that they are tired of being processed, manipulated, and coerced into buying decisions. They crave authenticity from their suppliers, and they value supplier relationships that are based on transparency, competence, credibility, and trust. And, they’ll pay more for those qualities, even in today’s difficult selling environment.”

This is not so different than it’s ever been, but in many cases, today’s salespeople have been convinced that buyer-seller relationships no longer matter. And customers can sense that. How do they know? They know because the majority of suppliers only show up when their customer announces an intention to buy. Until there’s an RFP, most suppliers are MIA.

This hands-off-except-when-it’s-time-to-buy approach not only distances you from your customer when they need you the most, but it also puts you at a great disadvantage just when you need the competitive edge. Steve puts it this way: “If you haven’t been asked for your insights in advance of a formal request being issued, and your input is nowhere to be found when you read it, it’s probably because a competitor got there first.”

That’s all well and good, you may be thinking, but how am I supposed to “get there” before the customer is looking to buy anything? That’s a valid question, and it’s one that Steve and I have posed in one form or another when we’ve interviewed some of the world’s most successful salespeople and account managers. The good news is, there are indeed best practices (not tips, tricks, and techniques), and they are consistent and highly effective—but an investment of time, energy, and effort is required on your part, and not just when your customer is buying, but before and after the sale, as well. You’re going to have to up your game, and the best time to get started is when there is no opportunity on the horizon.

In the vast majority of buyer/seller relationships, your customer spends less than two percent of their total time actually buying something from you. Therefore, engaging with a customer in the pre-opportunity phase, before they’re buying, offers some distinct advantages. For instance, when there’s no opportunity on the table, it’s likely that your competitors are focused elsewhere, so you won’t be one of a chorus of voices clamoring for the customer’s attention. This is also a time when your customer is feeling considerably less urgency to make a decision, because they’re not under the crunch of a deadline, restricted by specific requirements, or juggling the requests and needs of their colleagues and senior executives.

Before you consider initiating any kind of conversation, you have to earn the right: become a student of your customer. This requires research, the kind of homework that can’t be accomplished when there’s a deal on the table, because at the speed business operates today, you simply won’t have the time. There’s a great deal to learn—consider your customer’s culture, their partners, their industry, their people, their pressures, their objectives, and their challenges, and you’re just getting started. What do they care about? What’s impacting their world?

With a wide-ranging preliminary understanding of your customer, you earn the credibility to open a discussion about what’s important to them, what’s possible for their future, and what their success looks like. And through those discussions, you will earn the trust you need to elevate the conversation to a level that that few if any of your competitors can. When it’s clear that you understand what your customer cares about, especially when they’re not looking to buy and you’re not trying to sell, your authenticity will set you apart and strengthen the relationships you are building.

Business has changed, and as sales professionals, we have to keep up or fall hopelessly behind. In today’s customer-driven world, reaching the next level of success can only be achieved through a change of mindset, a change of attitude, and a change of heart regarding how sellers and buyers do business together. Earning the right to engage with your customer is the best place to start.

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Dave Stein
Dave specializes in helping his clients win critical B2B sales opportunities as well as helping them hire the best sales talent.Dave is co-author of Beyond the Sales Process. He wrote the best-selling How Winners Sell in 2004.


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