Geoffrey James is an award-winning journalist and author who writes a daily column on selling for Inc.com. He previously wrote Sales Machine, the world's most-visited sales-oriented blog, and has written hundreds of articles for such publications as Technology Marketing and Selling Power. He can be reached at GeoffreyJames.com.
I'm not a sales guru, and I don't do sales training. I'm a reporter who writes about sales techniques and technology. You've probably seen my feature article in SellingPower magazine, my erstwhile Sales Machine blog on CBS, or my daily column on Inc.com.
I've interviewed dozens of sales experts and trainers and discussed sales technique and sales management with hundreds of sales managers and professionals. The most important thing I've learned is that business-to-business (B2B) selling is fundamentally different from business-to-consumer (B2C) selling, and attempts to bundle the two into a single set of winning behaviors are doomed to failure.
As I point out in my newly published book, How to Say It: Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies from the World's Top Sales Experts, there are several reasons why it's silly to treat B2B like B2C:
- The B2B buyer is vastly more sophisticated. Because the Internet makes comparative pricing information publicly available, it is not at all unusual for a buyer in a B2B transaction to know more about the product category and competition than the sales professionals who are trying to sell that type of product.
- The stakes are much higher. B2B buyers and decision makers are being paid high salaries to understand what they’re buying and how it will be used. They can lose career points and get fired if they make a wrong decision, something that never happens when a consumer purchases a lousy consumer product.
- B2B selling requires more knowledge. When you're selling to businesses, it's not enough to understand a product and be able to present it coherently. B2B selling generally involves diagnosing a customer's challenges and then coming up with a customized solution that may very well involve a long-term business partnership.
- B2B selling demands better people skills. When consumers buy a product, typically there is only one decision maker involved (or possibly two, like a husband and wife). Corporate buying decisions can involve dozens of decision makers, influences, stakeholders, and naysayers. It takes extraordinary abilities to work with many different types of people, all of whom have different agendas.
- B2B selling involves more patience. Even big-ticket consumer sales (such as homes and cars) can be completed in a day or week at most. By contrast, B2B deals can involve weeks and months of intermittent activity, meetings, phone calls, and back-and-forth documents as the deal moves through the customer bureaucracy.
- B2B selling is more sensitive to economic disruption. One of the first things to take place in an economic crisis is that firms lock down purchasing, add more layers of decision making, and demand concessions from their vendors. This happens even for deals that have already been signed, and such tactics derail even the best-designed sales campaign.
- B2B selling involves large sums of money. In consumer sales, million-dollar deals are unusual and limited primarily to luxury homes. In B2B selling, by contrast, deals that involve millions of dollars are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Even billion-dollar deals are struck from time to time.
Why do so many people continue to treat B2B sales like B2C sales? I think it's a legacy from the days when B2B selling consisted mostly of providing information and taking orders. It was simpler back then, and so the simple techniques that worked in B2C environments still worked in B2B.
Not any longer.
P.S.: My new book is dedicated to Gerhard Gschwandtner, who has taken the time, on several occasions, to coach me personally, advise my career, and encourage my writing. I can't thank him enough.