There’s abundant evidence to prove that today’s internet-savvy customers are much better informed and far more empowered than they were a generation ago. And it’s affecting B2B every bit as much as it is B2C.

Your prospects are able to learn about issues, find out about the experiences of others, research potential solutions and establish buying criteria without ever feeling the need to speak to a salesperson.

The new B2B buying decision journey

The vast majority of today’s information gathering is digital, and several studies have shown that the average B2B buying decision journey is around two-thirds complete before vendors are invited to the party.

That’s of course, unless the vendor – and their sales team – has given the prospect some compelling reasons to want to engage earlier, because they believe that they are more likely to be informed than bored by the experience.

Challenge or opportunity?

If you’re responsible for a B2B sales and marketing organisation, you can look at this situation as either a challenge or an opportunity. But one thing is certain: today’s empowered customers need and expect to deal with empowered sales people.

Simply telling the prospect what they could have – and probably already have – learned over the web adds nothing to the discussion. So it’s little wonder that Forrester found that B2B customers regarded 7 out of 8 discussions with sales people as having no useful value.

Many of the old-school sales people who regarded empowered customers as a threat have probably been flushed out of the system, and those that remain are unlikely to have rosy career prospects.

Rigid sales processes don’t work in complex buying environments

Some organisations have tried to respond to the empowered customer generation by implementing tightly defined sales processes that allegedly embrace “best practice”. But many of these attempts to implement process fail to materially affect sales performance.

The top sales performers tend keep winning, and the also-rans tend to carry on breathing in their exhaust from an ever increasing distance and choking on the fumes. How can we bridge the gap between the best and the rest?

Realising your sales people’s potential

First, let’s acknowledge that some of today’s current sales people are simply not equipped to participate in today’s demanding buying environment. But as long as they have the basic smarts, many of the rest harbour as-yet unrealised potential.

Complex sales are no place for rigid sales processes. What’s required is a supportive framework that encourages sales people to want to adopt proven winning behaviours that encourage rather than suppress their individual initiative or creativity.

Lessons from Helmuth

The Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is deservedly famous for declaring that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, and the same is true of a rigid sales process applied to a complex and lengthy buying journey that involves multiple stakeholders.

Frameworks, on the other hand, offer clear direction (including a concise definition of what a good outcome looks like) whilst giving sufficient flexibility to encourage sales people to use their initiative, experience and creativity.

Frameworks empower

They empower sales people. They coach them on how to introduce and explore issues that are likely to be interesting to their prospects. They equip sales people to lead the conversation towards their solution, rather than with it.

They also provide tools that have been proven to improve sales flexibility. Some of the most useful include FAQs and TAQs (frequently-asked, tough to answer questions), perfect customer and key stakeholder profiles, qualification checklists and customer anecdotes.

These frameworks are supported by training and coaching programmes that encourage the sales person to really listen to what the prospect has to say and to respond in a thoughtful, relevant way that makes the prospect want to learn more.

Frameworks are the result of collaboration

Creating a flexible framework might seem more complex to implement and manage than a conventional process, but the reverse is often true. This is in part due to the fact that the best frameworks are collaborative efforts.

Rather than being driven top-down by management, they reflect the collective wisdom of the sales team. Rather than being defined once and imposed, they evolve organically in the light of experience. Rather than trying to enforce compliance, they support learning.

Random behaviour, rigid process or flexible framework?

This all may seem merely semantic, but it isn’t. You can tell the difference between a conventional sales process and a flexible sales framework. And if you’ve got a bunch of smart sales people who are personally motivated to do better, you’ll end up with much deeper engagement – and much more productive customer conversations.

So – where are you on the scale today? Random behaviour, defined process or flexible framework? How much better could you be doing if you had the latter? And – if you haven’t already done so – when are you going to involve your smartest sales people in designing your new flexible framework?

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Bob Apollo is the Managing Partner of Inflexion-Point, and an accredited Funnel Coach. To read more of his insights, go to the Inflexion-Point blog.