I plead guilty to enjoying a cold beer or two, and I’ve watched with amazement as the decade-long bull market in the craft beer industry shows no signs of abating.
Sales is ultimately a matter of building trust and developing relationships with customers – and it’s never too early to start. In the journey from the first phone call with a customer to the final close, there are numerous opportunities to establish credibility, build rapport, uncover the customer’s unstated needs, and generally show the customer that you are on their side and that you are trustworthy, professional, and thinking about how to solve their problems.
Many sales organizations think about sales in terms of the sales cycle – also known as the sales funnel or sales process: the sales team’s step-by-step journey of finding a new sales lead, qualifying the sales lead, building relationships with the customer, making presentations, making “the ask,” and finally closing a sale.
However, it’s often more useful not to look at customers from the perspective of the sales team. Instead of thinking about how to work customers through your sales process, think about the customer’s view of the conversation, and try to adapt your tactics to match the “customer journey” of going through the buying process. Keep in mind that every customer is on a “customer journey” where they go from being curious about your product or solution, to conducting some online research or signing up for an email list, to being actively interested in learning more, to being open to hearing from a salesperson, to talking or emailing with a sales person, to finally signing a contract to close a sale.
The customer journey is different for each customer – some people are more ready to buy than others, and some people skip steps in the journey or linger longer on a particular step. If you stay focused not only on your sales team’s view of the conversation (the sales process) but also have empathy for the customer’s point of view (the customer journey), your sales results will likely be better for it.
Here are a few tips on how to build relationships throughout the customer journey:
Early-stage customer research: Your customers are learning about your company and your solution and developing a first impression long before they ever pick up the phone to talk to your sales team. It’s important to start to build relationships with great content marketing – your website, blog articles, white papers, case studies, podcasts, and more. Make sure your content is delivering informative, valid material that assists the customer in making smarter decisions – not too “salesy” or self-serving. By offering smartly written, compelling, informative content, you are starting off the customer journey on the right foot – by showing the customer that your company cares about helping them be better-informed as buyers.
Initial contacts: What happens when your inbound sales leads call your sales team or send an email or fill out an inquiry form on your website? Do these new prospective customers get prompt responses from well-informed people on your team, or do they just get shuffled around in a disorganized way? Make sure your company has a consistent, smart process in place for handling and qualifying inbound sales inquiries. For example, many companies have an administrative assistant who fields all the calls and passes all the sales leads on to the sales team – but this does not give your new customers the attention they deserve (and does not qualify your leads as rigorously as you need them to be). Asking a few upfront sales lead qualifying questions will give your best leads the added attention they need, while avoiding burdening your sales team with too many bad or unqualified leads.
First sales call: Once you’ve identified a good, promising sales lead, it’s time for that first sales call from the sales team. But be careful to manage the conversation without overwhelming the prospect or coming across as too pushy or too eager. Ask good questions, and listen to the answers. Try to read between the lines and ask follow-up questions to uncover the customer’s unstated needs and problems. This will show the customer that you really care about their challenges, and that you’re not just another over-eager sales person trying to make a sale.
Presentations: Many B2B sales require several months, or even a year or more, to go from initial inquiry to close. It often takes several rounds of presentations, demos and ROI calculations to show the customer the value of investing in your solution, and you might need to meet with several different key stakeholders and influencers within the buyer’s organization before you ultimately get to talk with the key decision maker. Throughout this process of giving sales presentations, it’s important to keep your cool, stay patient, and keep demonstrating value. Work with the customer one step at a time. Remember that the customer might not be ready to move ahead to the next step of your sales process as quickly as you might prefer. Be prepared for hesitation and objections to emerge, especially as new stakeholders get introduced. Look for ways to demonstrate the value of your solution to the overall organization, while being wary of internal politics and turf battles (for example: if you sell accounting software, will the Accounting team at your customer’s organization be happy about that, or feel threatened that your solution might eliminate their jobs?).
Deal Closing: By the time a complex B2B sales deal comes to a close, hopefully you have built a trusting relationship and gradually kept educating and guiding the buyer to the point where they are eager to close the deal and buy from you. But one possible problem that sometimes emerges late in the process is questions related to implementation. Make sure that you’re prepared to offer the client detailed descriptions and plans not only for making the sale, but for delivering on short-term and long-term implementation assistance, as needed. This is another way to show your customer that you care about their needs and that you’re determined to be working at their side for the long-term.
Gregg Schwartz is the Director of Sales for Strategic Sales & Marketing, one of the industry-founding lead generation companies servicing the B2B marketplace. Gregg has developed and implemented hundreds of lead generation programs resulting in millions of dollars in revenue for his clients.