“The main source of knowledge is experience”
The relevance of the sales function to the continued success of an organisation is not to be underestimated. I am sure we all agree that in any organisation the sales department plays a pivotal role in the success of the business, not only in terms of revenue but on brand reputation, long-term customer retention and sustainable business growth.
It is therefore not surprising that improving salesforce effectiveness is invariably a key topic of discussion among HR and sales directors. They both seem to accept Pareto’s principle that 80% of all sales are made by only 20% of the salesforce. So, why is this specific group of individuals so successful? Do true B2B sales champions have certain traits that allow them to land bigger contracts / close more important deals?
How are salespeople perceived?
When I ask HR professionals and commercial directors “what makes your organisation’s B2B sales champions different from the average sales rep?” their answers normally concentrate on stereotyped personality traits that in most cases may not be fully linked to their actual B2B sales accomplishments.
Sales and HR directors’ responses tend to focus on a strong sense of duty, good time management, conscientiousness, being respectful, modest, being positive, responsible and reliable, inquisitive / curious, resourceful, friendly, good listeners and strong conversationalists, always willing to lend a helping hand with the ability to solve problems in creative ways. They also mention that salespeople demonstrate clear achievement orientation and strong personal resilience in their business dealings. They are persistent, tenacious, and relentless in the pursuit of their sales goals. They are always committed to follow the sales deal through (even after it is won), and finally, they hang in there under pressure and will not promise prospects which cannot be delivered in terms of product capability, implementation timelines, or pricing.
Yes, I agree with our fellow Sales and HR directors, the right personal attitude in any sales situation is vital. There is no doubt these aspects will have a positive impact on sales performance (especially when selling commodities) but are by no means the only explanation for the success in key B2B sales assignments.
Overlooked traits of successful B2B salespeople
In this respect, it is surprising that hardly anybody mentioned anything related to ‘applied business knowledge’ in their responses, the ‘intellectual capacity’ necessary to understand B2B sales situations in a ‘well-informed’ manner. I believe this is a potentially ‘overlooked trait’ that is more likely to positively influence successful B2B sales outcomes.
Individuals who sell products primarily to other businesses engage in more complex assignments than those that work solely in B2C (business to consumer) sales. In B2B sales, where the stakes are high and customers are highly educated, increasingly more demanding, sophisticated and risk-averse, personality traits alone just don’t cut it.
To be successful in today’s competitive B2B commercial environments, salespeople need to demonstrate business acumen and knowledge about the subject in order to challenge their prospective customers into considering alternative business approaches. This can only be done by establishing business familiarity and precise market awareness in conversations with clients. The application of accurate knowledge, which translate into compelling stories, energetic and well-informed sales pitches, will educate and deliver precise solutions / offer greater value to clients.
Having said this, contrary to common knowledge, the success of B2B sales professionals rely more on ‘hunger for information’ rather than solely on charisma and the right personality traits. In a complex B2B sales situation, without being well informed, a salesperson will probably look a fool at best and an untrustworthy scam artist at worst. Those ‘fake it until you make it’ approaches don’t work in today’s fast-moving multifaceted B2B sales transactions, so for the sake of your company’s image, make sure your team is well prepared and informed before you send them to face important clients.
Business intelligence for commercial success
So, what is the sort of information and knowledge that is required for commercial success? From my experience in various ‘Sales Effectiveness Diagnostics’ that I have implemented, I’ve found five consistent ‘business intelligence’ comportments that characterise successful B2B salespeople. I summarise these traits as follows:
1. Industry / Market Intelligence: Professional B2B salespeople are fully up-to-date with the business climates of industries in which they operate, both at home and overseas. They are familiar with the demand conditions of their specific sector, market trends, and the social and cultural behaviours of potential buyers. Knowledge of their competitor’s products, pricing and positioning, their main selling points, possible new product releases, threats of new market entrants and potential substitute products create the sort of environmental business intelligence required for a successful and well-informed sales transaction. Successful sales reps experience greater self-satisfaction in becoming more professional. They know newly acquired knowledge makes them more valuable to employers and customers.
2. Company knowledge: Successful B2B salespeople are well aware of their company policies, their existing sales collateral and latest promotional and advertising campaigns. They are also familiar with all internal channels of communication and sales process/client management technologies. They are good networkers, they know the right people and departmental contacts within their organisations to point their own customers in the right direction for assistance or further business. This, of course, means that they are in a good position for internal cross-selling & upselling developments.
3. Product understanding: Successful B2B salespeople do not solely concentrate on those services/products of their main line of business or departments where they currently work, but possess a detailed knowledge of ‘all’ their company’s product ranges. They thoroughly understand the products’ literature, such as brochures and catalogues, and are familiar with client case studies of successful interventions. They constantly look for all feedback, good and bad, provided by existing customers. Having a good understanding of the precise products’ features and applications allows them to present their benefits accurately and convincingly: What the products/services do, what they can’t do, what the ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ is. If your sales team does not have a profound knowledge of your product’s marketing mix, roadmaps for future developments, potential weaknesses, and post-sales support, then they will be unable to exercise any persuasive skills in convincing prospective clients to pick their business over that of their competitors.
4. Client empathy: Top performers carefully research each of their potential customers. They focus on their prospect’s issues, rather than their own offering’s capabilities. They investigate the prospect’s organisation, influencers and decision-makers, key purchasing trends, their current relationship with existing suppliers, their existing bargaining power, potential challenges and trigger events in their global business environments. They seek to uncover weaknesses and opportunities that their prospects can’t afford to ignore. They get the prospect to acknowledge the cost and consequences of not dealing with the problems identified. In doing so, they not only determine whether the potential opportunity is real or not, they also start to build a compelling business case for their own products and services. They seek key information about their prospective clients such as: Who they are? What they do? Why they buy? When they buy? How they buy? How much money they have? What they expect of your organisation? What they think about your organisation? What they think about your competitors? Such is the level of granular information which enables B2B salespeople to excel.
5. Continuous knowledge development: Sales champions are committed to their own individual self-motivation and self-improvement. There is a direct correlation between their personal growth and their increased earnings; champions are therefore keen to take full responsibility for their professional development and do not rely on their employer to be accountable for it. They constantly experiment with new techniques and ideas to achieve self-growth. They carry out systematic and continuous personal plans of self-development, training and learning, with a view to achieving sustained improvement. Successful B2B salespeople are motivated by personal ambition to better previous accomplishments. They continually update and refresh their sales knowledge, skills, tactics and techniques. They are keen to maintain their knowledge and skills up-to-date in response to constantly changing business environments and new market developments. They avoid staying in the comfort zone of stagnant product knowledge and delivery of monotone sales pitches – they constantly innovate.
The combination of these five aspects of ‘Applied Business Intelligence’ is one of the most important means for landing key B2B contracts. It becomes clear that increasing industry knowledge gives your sales reps a competitive advantage that will assist you in the growth of your business. Effective salespeople know that understanding the industrial sector and precise customer needs is at the centre of every successful sales pitch. It instils faith, trust, and respect in the buyer, which creates a positive customer experience and willingness to work with you.
The way forward…
Organisations (and recruiters) need to be aware that ‘hunger for business knowledge’ is an important sales attribute that should be encouraged and heightened among B2B salespeople. This is the sort of ‘informed’ culture that needs to be developed in your sales department. All those sales traits linked to business knowledge can be encouraged, taught, cultivated and improved upon. Certainly, there is some natural talent required, but people can learn key aspects of B2B sales techniques and be just as successful.
On a professional level, continuous learning is about further expanding your sales team skill-set, organisations need to provide tools and resources that help their sales teams innovate and build purposeful learning into the routine of their working activities.
This can be done through mentorship programmes, networking (attending conferences, tradeshows, memberships in as many relevant trade organizations, etc.), by subscribing and reading reputable trade publications, by regularly conducting online research (set up Google alerts for your topics of interest, bookmark high quality industry blogs and forums, etc.), and by following experts in social media.
The creation of a company knowledge base can also function as an information repository to provide an effective way to store critical information for the daily functioning of your sales department, providing information about customers, employees, products, and services. It will help your sales reps access important information to address customer service issues, resolve problems, and gain insight into workforce collaboration. Such a company knowledge base will save your organization money by reducing the time spent trying to find information.
Fully engaged sales professionals will demonstrate not only the right attitude but also the capacity and self-motivation to develop new skills and acquire the necessary business knowledge to be successful in the B2B sales market environment… and remember, knowledge is of no value unless sales reps have the necessary experience and intellectual capacity to effectively put it into action.
Thanks for reading this article. Were any of the insights I provided of value to you? I would be keen to get your feedback, please ‘comment’ your experience on this subject below! Thanks for your kind support.
About the Author
Gonzalo Shoobridge is Head of Action Consultancy (Human Resource / Organisational Development Solutions) at Great Place to Work.
Gonzalo’s expertise comprises 20+ years of diverse international business development / sales and HR consulting experience. He possesses well-rounded general HR management knowledge with especial emphasis in the areas of employee engagement, M&A, cultural integration, culture diagnostic, design and implementation of culture change programmes.
Prior to taking up his current post at Great Place to Work (London) as Head of Action Consultancy in the areas of people metrics and organisational development, he has worked in similar roles for other consultancy firms, research and higher education institutions, also focusing his activities upon long-term EU national economic development projects linked to employment and international trade, making full use of his market analysis expertise and previous experience as special adviser on European policy affairs and external funds in the United Kingdom.
Gonzalo earned his PhD (2004), MPhil (2001) and MBA (1995) from the the University of Bradford’s School of Management. He did his undergraduate studies (Business Administration) in the University of Lima (Peru).
Connect with Gonzalo on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/gonzaloshoobridge