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"The hardest thing about B2B selling today is that customers don't need you the way they used to." - Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman in Harvard Business Review (July 2012)

Once upon a time, sales folks believed that in order to sell, they needed to provide solutions to their customers' problems. In the old playbook, sales reps would take the time to discover a customer's needs and sell them the solutions to those needs. For a long time, this approach worked simply because customers didn't know how to solve their own problems.

But as the quote above highlights, times have changed. Almost everything that a customer needs to know about solving her perceived problem is just a click away. And the implications are huge for sales teams, who need to keep up with this new buying process.

As the sales leader in a growing B2B company, I spend a lot of time thinking about this new buying landscape. And it's not just me: many businesses are also trying to figure out how sales teams can increase their relevance in a world where information is at people's fingertips. If we fail, we spend our days responding to poorly thought-out RFPs focused on less-than-ideal solutions.

One hypothesis comes from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a well-respected advisory company. In the July 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman from the CEB put forward a new approach to B2B selling - a technique they call Insight Selling (also referred to as the Challenger Sale Model). In a nutshell, this new approach to selling proposes that the best sales reps today are those who can challenge a customer's preconceived notion and point them to the new solution.

Insight Selling hypothesizes that the most successful sales reps are those who are a source of information and best practices for their customers. And that's why for most brands, CEB's findings highlight the increasing importance of consumer insights. More than ever, brands need to arm their front-line salespeople with insights into their customers - and in a B2B world, their customers' customers - insights that those we are selling to are not aware of.

Borrowing from the tenets of Insight Selling, here are three ways consumer insights can help brands equip their salespeople in the era of the empowered consumer:

  1. Uncover your customers' unrecognized needs.

In the HBR article, the CEB researchers emphasized the need to identify people's unrecognized needs:

The star sales rep uses the occasion to turn a customer with clearly defined requirements into one with emerging needs. Even when he's invited in late, he tries to rewind the purchasing decision to a much earlier stage, Insight-based selling rests on the belief that salespeople must lead with disruptive ideas that will make customers aware of unknown needs.

In other words, selling today requires sales reps to be thought leaders. To be a high-performing sales rep, you need to be forward thinking, identifying people's needs even before they know they have them.

One important step in pinpointing these unrecognized needs is by using consumer insights to detect gaps in our customers' businesses. Armed with data, sales reps are then equipped to better identify how their company's offerings can help close those gaps.

For example, we recently did some work understanding the profile of the average sports fan and how they engage with 'their team'. We uncovered a clear gap between how fans want to engage and what many teams offer their fans. Closing this gap could lead to more sticky fans, increased ticket sales and reduced churn from those who currently spend their money with the team. If your company offers products or services that benefit sports teams, this type of insight can help open the doors when sales reps approach potential customers.

  1. Help your salespeople challenge their customers.

Insight Selling urges B2B sales reps to look for agile organizations that have emerging demands. This is in contrast to Solution Selling, an older model where sales reps are focused on brands with well-established, recognized needs.

Additionally, this new model of selling advocates for an unconventional approach: to challenge the preconceived notions of potential customers:

Sales reps are adept at selling "solutions," but customers have become skilled at finding their own; they don't need reps as they once did. In this environment, a group of high-performing salespeople have emerged - reps who've abandoned the traditional playbook and devised a novel sales strategy. Unlike traditional solution sellers, these star performers lead with insights meant to upend a customer's approach to its business, and they aren't afraid to push customers out of their comfort zone.

It's not enough to look for organizations that are willing to change: the CEB authors contend that these potential customers are more likely to buy if sales teams can offer insights on how to successfully take their business to the next level.

If I was the account lead for a large financial services company, how much more effective could I be if I was directly speaking to their end customers? What if I was focused on understanding the end customers' needs, desires, and perceptions? Armed with real end-customer data, I can confidently challenge preconceived notions or uncover dangerous assumptions in my clients' businesses.

  1. Address roadblocks in the customer's path to purchase.

According to the CEB authors, B2B suppliers are in a good position to coach potential customers on how to buy and implement the right solution. "Sales leaders often overlook the fact that as hard as it is for most suppliers to sell complex solutions it's even harder for most customers to buy them," contend the CEB authors.

I know from my long experience in sales that suppliers do have insights on buying roadblocks that regularly come up in deals. Objections from other stakeholders and cross-silo politics are some potential barriers in the buying process that customers may not anticipate. Insight Selling, the CEB authors found, is about helping customers identify and address these roadblocks to the customer's path to purchase.

Sales reps are experts in their industry; they are the best people who can explain how customers can get the most value from the solution they are selling. That's why they are well positioned to guide prospective customers in presenting that vision to other key decision makers. Brands should enable their sales teams with materials that can help potential customers navigate the buying process: relevant case studies, ROI examples, consumer insights exposing the problem we are addressing, and detailed projections can help answer questions and address people's objections.

More importantly, brands need to help their team address sales barriers by having an intimate understanding of the buying process. By combining insights from their insight communities with the rest of the data available to them, brands and sales reps are in much better position to help guide their customers in the purchasing process.

Conclusion: The new selling landscape

Technology has shifted the power in favor of the buyer, requiring brands to be data-driven, factual thought leaders. More than ever, brands need an intimate understanding of their customers' business to be in a position to identify unknown needs and to be able to coach their customers in the buying process. Customers don't believe they need sales reps as much as they used to. Let's arm our sales reps with the insights they need to challenge, inform and influence their customers in this new selling landscape.

The 4 Tenets of Customer Love - Vision Critical ebook

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