If a software salesperson time-traveled from 2010 – or even early 2020 – to present day, they would likely be confused.
What happened to the predictable sales cycle? they would ask. Why am I dealing with a dozen different decision-makers? And why do people laugh when I suggest scheduling a product demo in their office?
B2B sales have changed dramatically in recent years. The pandemic and resulting shift to remote work is certainly a significant reason why – but COVID just accelerated multiple trends that were already underway in the software sales ecosystem.
The underlying causes matter less than the effects, because these impacts are long-lasting if not permanent. Recent McKinsey research found that between 70-to-80 percent of B2B decision-makers now prefer remote/virtual human interactions or digital self-service channels when working with their suppliers and vendors, for example. There’s little indication that this preference – which might truly vex the time-traveling salesperson of the past – will change in the foreseeable future.
Sales teams that adapt to this new world order will win. Those that insist on using the same tactics they’ve always used are essentially trying to do the impossible – travel back in time – and will do irreparable damage to their business’ revenues in the process.
In order to adapt, you first need to understand how the landscape has changed.
First, buying cycles are getting longer and longer. In B2B software sales, we’re seeing cycles grow by as much as 25 percent.
Second, sales professionals have less direct influence over the buying process than ever. Significant chunks of the buyer’s journey now occur without direct interaction with a salesperson.
Third, B2B buying decisions no longer rest with one or two executives. The single buyer has been replaced by a group of internal stakeholders – six, seven, even upwards of 10 different people.
Fourth, the sales representative today is another channel – not the channel. Moreover, in-person interaction – evident in that McKinsey stat and other research and anecdotal evidence – is no longer the most relevant tactic for closing deals.
Finally, the sales cycle has become nonlinear as it grows longer. All of the above factors have led to buying processes that seem to stop and start or move forwards and backwards, often compounded by the larger number of people with decision-making input.
B2B sales teams must recognize and run toward these new realities – not stubbornly hold on to old approaches. Let’s turn our focus to three strategies for adapting the changed B2B software sales landscape.
Eliminate Sales and Marketing Silos
As the sales team’s ability to directly influence buying decisions shrinks, they need to become tightly aligned with marketing and other relevant departments to build a robust multi-channel strategy that meets modern buyers where they are. Sales can’t do it alone.
A prime example here is sales enablement content and other forms of content marketing. It’s absolutely crucial to today’s B2B software buying journey, yet some traditional sales teams continue to ignore it.
A sales rep is less likely to be the first impression and connection point to your company. The days of long, in-person product demos and sales pitches are numbered. A robust content strategy is how sales retains influence even if it’s not physically in the room.
Remote work is a big factor here, but the necessity of high-value, multi-channel content predates the work-from-anywhere paradigm. As the single decision-maker has morphed into multiple and self-service channels have grown, things like “personalized demos” – especially if that just means you slapped their name and logo over an existing presentation – have lost their effectiveness and new formats are taking their place.
Adopt a Data-Driven, Account-Based Everything Mindset
Similar to how internal silos need to be broken down to enable a more cohesive strategy, B2B organizations must adopt a holistic account-based approach to prospective customers.
Again, you’re no longer selling to one or two key people, but a whole group of people – each of whom has different needs and different pain points. Your organization must be prepared to have a different conversation with each of them across multiple channels – including asynchronous “conversations” with your education and enablement content. This is the account mindset – you’re potentially influencing and talking to everyone as a prospective customer.
This is also where a unified sales and marketing strategy again plays an integral role. In addition to creating robust content across the multiple channels that those different decision-makers will engage with, the unified approach sets the foundation for becoming more data-driven.
So much of the data analytics discussion biases toward B2C businesses, but it’s just as crucial in B2B sales. All of your potential buyers are leaving digital footprints that tell you about their needs, their challenges, and how your company can best serve them. But not many B2B sales teams are collecting data or turning it into actionable insights at any significant level today. This remains a big opportunity for improvement.
Embrace Principles of Product-Led Growth
Much has been made of product-led growth (PLG) in recent years, especially in the software/SaaS industry. Well-known software companies like Dropbox, SurveyMonkey and, yes, Zoom are often linked with this strategy, in part because they all offer a free or “freemium” tier that allows people to try their service without spending money.
A freemium model may not be a fit for every company, but two fundamental principles of PLG still apply widely to modern B2B software sales.
First, you must listen first – and speak second, if at all. That can be a tough pill to swallow for some sales pros, but it’s critical. You must listen to users – who are potential buyers in the B2B context – and respond accordingly.
Second, and just as crucial: You must give potential buyers the ability to “play” extensively with your product. No more boring, time-consuming demos; no retread sales pitches. Let your product do the loudest talking, supported by multi-channel engagement and high-value content. They need to be able to test-drive the real thing, and on their own time.
Doing this has cascading benefits, because salespeople themselves can also develop a deeper understanding of the product from a user standpoint. And when you give prospective users a meaningful way to try your software, you’re also generating more valuable feedback and data.
Businesses need as much as ever. But the decision-makers are buying that software much differently than they did in the past. There’s no avoiding it: B2B sales has become more complex. Adjust accordingly and you’ll find enormous opportunities.