This article was first published on Jan. 13, 2021 on the Harvard Business Review website.
As the pandemic persists, most B-to-B companies are finding that selling to current customers has moved to virtual methods, such as connecting remotely using video or telephone, with surprising ease. But acquiring new customers remains extremely difficult.
With limited or no opportunity to meet in person, buyers naturally turn to known, trusted suppliers who already understand their business needs. For sellers, this makes access to prospective buyers the first chokepoint. And if sellers do get access, virtual-only connection makes it difficult to address additional challenges of winning new customers. These include:
- Getting a handle on the buyer’s needs. Virtual selling makes it harder to probe and ask questions, especially for discovering needs that are complex or latent.
- Winning the buyer’s trust. Buyers are more likely to be open and forthright with salespeople they know. Especially with high-stakes decisions, a seller who has built a reputation and history has an edge.
- Demonstrating differentiated value. This requires truly understanding a buyer’s needs and buying criteria. Again, an incumbent has an advantage.
- Understanding buyer decision making. Buying influences are especially difficult to determine virtually when the buying organization and process are opaque.
Sellers with an established customer base are seeing payoffs by focusing disproportionately on nurturing current customers. As sellers face restricted access to and success with prospects, competitors are facing similar challenges in getting to the seller’s existing customers. Consequently, it’s a good time to double down on current customers who have unmet needs. Sellers can look for opportunities for expanded usage of existing products, for broadening the offerings, and for growth across geographies and business units within the customer organization. The demonstrated expertise, experience, and trust built over time will pay off handsomely now.
It’s always true that selling time is wasted with prospects who have no need and urgency. And the odds of success are low when offerings are undifferentiated from alternatives. In the virtual sales world, these situations have become “no oxygen” zones, where limited success has become no success. Further, pushing unneeded products on buyers weakens a seller’s reputation, making prospects less likely to engage in the future even if offerings become relevant.
Obvious as it is, when prospecting, it’s critical to lead with offerings that are differentiated from alternatives. From there, success requires reworking the sales playbook.
In-person selling is much more forgiving than virtual selling. Skilled salespeople can recover from deficiencies and setbacks when working face-to-face with prospects. But recovery is much harder in the virtual world. The following effective sales practices become even more important.
- Focus on “being found” and not just on “finding” new customers. Even before the pandemic, buyers were increasingly using digital information to educate themselves about issues, solutions, and suppliers before engaging with sellers. The pandemic accelerated this trend, further elevating the importance of a seller’s digital presence. Sellers boost digital presence by continually analyzing and improving online content so it’s valuable and relevant to prospects now. Other strategies include boosting the visibility of content through search engine optimization (SEO), posting consistently on social media, and building relationships through online communities.
- Leverage referrals. The effectiveness of referrals is well-recognized. Especially now, referrals are the one powerful tool for getting past the access chokepoint. Referrals can transfer earned trust from a customer to a prospect. Customer testimonials and case studies can be effective. Even more effective are virtual roundtable discussions that connect customers and prospects, and warm outreach to prospects through a salesperson’s business network.
- Personalize the connection. With restricted access to new customers, sellers are unlikely to get a second chance to impress a prospect. Consequently, sellers must bring their A-game. To start, this means doing homework to learn as much as possible about prospective buyers and their business before reaching out. It also means learning about what has worked for current customers in similar circumstances and bringing relevant ideas to the prospect. It means turning on the camera for virtual meetings (even if the prospect does not) and listening rather than plowing through a pitch. And it means following up on requests for information with responsiveness and value that stands out from the competition.
- Add value beyond the product. When uncertainty abounds, the opportunity for sellers to add value escalates. Buyers are worried about more than ordinary business needs, both rationally and emotionally. Prospects are more willing to talk to sellers who have new insights about their business or industry, or who can share what customers in similar situations are doing. And when sellers add value before the sale, prospects are more open to sharing their concerns that help surface latent needs.
- Leverage advocates inside the buying organization. When acquiring new customers, sellers often begin by building trust with one individual within a customer’s buying organization. That individual then helps the seller connect to other decision makers across the broader organization. As the relationship network grows, the seller gains new insights about the customer’s needs, competitors, buying process and decision authority.