B2B Complex sales: how to convince buyers in 2021

All B2B sales processes weren’t created equal. In B2B there are complex sales and B2B mass markets. Let us focus here on complex sales and try and understand how B2B buyers have changed and accordingly, how salespersons should work from now on to better perform.

Complex sales: how to convince B2B buyers in 2021

The world unites and contains everything in its writer Cicero's embrace. So does complex selling. Here's how to master it
According to Roman lawyer/writer and Statesman Cicero, the World encompasses all sorts of things and all are intertwined and interrelated. So do complex sales.

No so long ago, I was exchanging views with some American analysts about complex sales (aka enterprise sales) and B2B buyers. I was asking them questions about the different types of B2B sales. They didn’t seem to understand what I was referring to, which seemed strange to me.

Complex sales are complete different ball-game

I have been involved in this business for more than thirty years (either on the sales side, on the Salestech side in support of sales forces, or in marketing in partnership with salespeople as part of ABM teams), and as someone who is familiar with the nature of B2B sales, I reckon that there are no two similar types of sales in B2B.

As such, complex sales is a very different animal, it requires specific approaches and techniques. Above all, salespersons involved in B2B complex sales should understand how buyers’ needs* have changed  and how to address them.

In order to fully understand the challenges of complex sales in the current context, I interviewed Yves Blandiaux from Wave4growth.

*Note: here, the word “buyer” is to be taken in its broadest sense and not as “member of the purchasing department”

Complex or complicated sales?

Let us note right away that “complex” does not mean “complicated”, it is a word derived from Latin (complexus = to embrace, to surround – Mundus omnia complexu suo coercet et continet [“the world brings together and contains everything in its embrace” – Cicero]) and which means that one phenomenon is linked to many others through numerous interactions.

A complex sale involves multiple stakeholders, a longer sales cycle, and a high degree of perceived risk on the part of the buyer — Sales Hacker – George Brontén

In the meantime, to better understand what complex selling is, it must be well-defined. For this, I invited my friend and partner Yves Blandiaux from Wave4growth, an expert in the field, with whom I had the chance to work in partnership with Cisco where he used to be employed. Incidentally, we are currently building together a new training programme revolving around complex sales.

Complex sales seen by one of its highest ranking practitioners

This partnership generated an incremental business of 60 million euros per annum for the service provider of which I was the senior alliance partner at the time. It goes without saying, Yves is a complex selling champion who knows the idiosyncrasies of that job, and his work has been instrumental, particularly in the telecoms and IT sectors.

He now works with SMEs in Belgium, where he resides, and Europe, complex sales aren’t specific to large businesses. Far from it. What makes your sales process complex is the nature of your product or service as well as your clientele, it has nothing to with your size.

With this article, you will learn all about this exciting and forward-looking subject because, as I often say, B2B holds a lot of opportunities for professionals and managers. In these troubled times, it is important to remember that B2B suffers less, in many sub-sectors, and even continues to grow with the crisis.

Vente complexe
Wave4growth’s Yves Blandiaux

In these uncertain times, the critical question is how to create an impact for your customer when you have something complex to sell.

When buyers are asked about the meetings they have had with sellers over the last few months, most of the time they express a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Buyers are frustrated with salespeople

9 times out of 10 customers are unhappy or even frustrated with the interaction they had with salespeople.

Here’s the reason why: salespeople do not teach them anything. They neither surprise them nor challenge their point of view. They merely pitch in front of their clients, without trying to present creative and innovative ideas to help them solve problems in a different manner.

The world is indeed becoming more and more complex, and customers are becoming increasingly informed about what they might consider as an innovative solution. Hence, their level of expectation while meeting with a potential salesperson is much higher than what it used to be in the past.

On the other hand, suppliers of these complex solutions still can’t get vendors intrigued in their portfolio, solution, architecture, and programme. These salespeople arrive in meetings in front of a customer who already has a clear view of what he can expect from the supplier.

This is where the salesperson really needs to be trained in new techniques to be able to turn the customer’s view around, and at the same time create surprise and unexpected interest for him.

Beyond Solution Selling: buyers expect more from vendors

In 1982, Michael Bosworth wrote Solution Selling. At that time, one already had to ask salespeople to stop pitching their product features. In complex sales, you have to focus on the buyer, or even better, on the customer’s ecosystem and above all, one’s customers’ pain points.

Yet, buyers may have seen vendors as solution providers, but now they expect much more.

In the past, we relied heavily on the relational aspect of complex sales: we knew our clients, got on well with them, and had access to privileged information that allowed us to make a difference while doing business.

A lot of salespeople are shying away from this solution selling positioning, and are wondering if they really know how to do solution selling.

Now, customers are moving away from this model, even though it is still highly valued by many vendors. A provider with whom they are good friends and with whom they have a good relationship is a plus, but it is no longer enough.

The customer has to be taken completely out of his comfort zone and for that, the sales force has to be focused on challenging buyers rather than building a special relationship.

B2B complex sales
Buyers in complex sales increasingly expect to be challenged and shown problems they didn’t know they had (latent pain points [1] according to Bosworth’s pyramid) – schematic by Visionary Marketing on behalf of Sparklane 

Sellers need to be more interested in how they are going to sell rather than what they are going to sell.

There are two fundamental components in regard to investing in “how to sell”, and all companies that take care of these, will succeed in creating a sustainable competitive advantage. Here is what salespeople should work on to make a difference:

  1. Building stories that will resonate in every client meeting

Skill number one is about building stories that will both surprise and challenge the customer. These are not generic stories, solutions, products, or programs which can be delivered by any vendor, but stories that will resonate with the buyer.

  1. Co-creating the story with the client around a conversation rather than just delivering a presentation/pitch

Salespersons will have to learn more about conducting convincing conversations rather than simply presenting the story. It requires both, and for it, they should be trained to challenge their customers.

There are skills that can be learned, and then cultivated. As with any new skill you wish to acquire, it takes learning, but above all a lot of practice to become a champion in complex sales in the 21st century. We no longer need salespeople who merely deliver the pitch they’ve learnt by heart and bring little value.

We need sellers who will go and extract value from the market – something of utmost importance in selling, but has at times been undervalued. In a company, the creation of value is linked to the development of products and solutions, R&D, and everything that happens upstream; but this value remains untapped as long as it hasn’t been extracted from the market, and to do so, we need sharp sellers.

Sales is changing, and it is high time that salespeople learn to challenge their clients, listen to them, question them, know how to answer their questions and above all co-create with them the desire to work with the company they represent.

Further reading on complex sales at thebalancecareers.com

Yann Gourvennec
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