Tips for unlocking peak performance in B2B sales 

Editor’s note: Mike Porter is a clinical professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. 

What is the difference between transactional and relational sales in B2B? How important is it for firms to assess the needs of dormant customers? And what role do industry-specific influencers play in the B2B sales funnel? 

I recently conducted a set of sales team and customer interviews on behalf of a leading producer of specialized construction materials to help answer these questions and more. The process revealed several areas that remain problematic for businesses that sell products or services to other businesses.

Balancing sales efforts appropriately

This firm, like most others in B2B, engages multiple audiences to facilitate sales. The audiences included project leaders/designers who could specify the product; intermediary influencers (on the client side and “distributors” partnered with the firm); and most importantly, the end user or purchaser. 

In this case, two paths to market existed. One path included huge projects driven by specialists (architects) with general contractors as the final customer. The other path to market was a sea of contractors making decisions to purchase on a job-by-job basis.

Based on the research, the sales teams focused the bulk of their efforts on the big projects. And much of that time and effort could be looked at as free consulting on the application of the product, which impacts the overall cost of the sale. 

In contrast, sales to contractors often involved little guidance for specific jobs.

Sales failed to consider that 80% of product sales come from the contractor driven sales, not the large buys. To improve overall sales, B2B organizations must take this data into consideration before doing the pre-work necessary to effectively balance sales efforts.  

Making the call: Transactional vs. relational sales in B2B 

Conversations with the contractors quickly established that the material producer’s sales team barely contacted them. Even when considering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most found difficulty remembering the last sales contact and the contacts recalled seemed transactional. 

These critical customers don’t expect the handholding needed for large jobs but do appreciate a relationship built on regular contact for when questions arise or new products release.

Even before conversations with these contractors, I wondered about the depth of sales relationships because it took way too long for the sales team to recruit participants. 

Experience in working with sales teams suggests that given the chance to cherry pick customers to essentially “review” service motivates salespeople to quickly offer up favored clients. In this case, it seemed the salespeople struggled to find “friendly” customers.

Nurturing influencers: The role of industry-specific influencers in B2B sales 

In addition to neglecting a key customer group, the sales team lost touch with key influencers. 

In this case, distributors described receiving minimal attention from the sales team. This matters most to the primary buying group of contractors because they tend to ask for recommendations from distributors long before contacting the company. 

Failing to maintain relationships with influencers, particularly those in formal partnerships, minimizes potential revenue.

Mining for potential customers: The importance of understanding customer needs in B2B sales

The sales team struggled to provide contacts for interviews with existing customers, and the firm lacked the resources to provide either a prospect list or list of dormant customers to attempt inquiries. 

Not assessing the needs and experiences of lost customers and potential customers represents a singular problem for many sales driven organizations. Whether due to poor targeting and lead generation or call reluctance on the part of salespeople, the day-to-day data gathering necessary to understand customer needs fails to occur. For potential customers, no experience exists to assess, and for lost customers, no one can know what experience made them stop buying.

Focusing on the needs of B2B customers

This firm failed in three areas common to selling products and services to other businesses.

First, your business needs to understand your key decision makers and influencers and adjust sales tactics accordingly. Part of that means knowing which customers really represent the most revenue. 

In the case above, the key recommendation involved expanding the sales team to include a person or two to focus exclusively on the contractors and working with distributors as influencers. The existing salespeople provide excellent sales and service to the big customers who require personal attention. That means finding a different kind of salesperson to service this other group with a different set of needs.

Second, no customer wants to feel ignored, but contacting too often can seem pushy. Great salespeople find ways to balance this by building strong relationships, and then generating logical reasons to stay in touch. Your marketing team should help with this by creating new messages to share with customers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, approaching B2B sales and marketing based primarily or exclusively on information gathered from existing customers severely limits growth. You need to gather information from lost customers and robust targeting of potential customers to expand client lists. This may require some creativity, and in particular a different approach than simple lead generation.

Consider research on a competitor’s clients or new categories of users. Focus on the needs of those customers, both in the product offering and the service/experience. Knowing these things provides a platform to align your organization’s products and services to the new customers.