Look around you. In every aspect of society, all around the world, the way we’ve always done things has changed or is in the process of changing.

We aren’t buying CDs, we’re streaming music. Video games are more popular than movies. Instead of filling shelves with encyclopedias, we’re walking around with supercomputers in our pockets that give us access to pretty much all human knowledge, wherever we go. And our cars? They drive themselves. 

Against this backdrop, pollsters tell us we don’t really trust many of the institutions upon which we rely anymore — not in government, and not in business.

In this era of non-stop transformation and pervasive skepticism, the buying habits and expectations of B2B customers are also undergoing significant upheaval.

Throw Out the Old Sales Rules

Millennials, for example, are tech-savvy, sophisticated buyers who demand a frictionless experience. Why does that matter? Because in addition to buying consumer goods, they’re now involved in 73 percent of B2B purchasing decisions (pdf).

According to a recent Forrester report, millennials will form 44 percent of the workforce by 2025 (fee charged). B2B-focused companies whose sales practices and cultures are still cemented in traditional, direct sales practices and methods are on a dangerous path. Ignoring this revolution can create career-ending moments for sellers, and business-ending moments for the companies that employ them.

From a selling standpoint, I wouldn’t say “gone are the days” of the direct salesforce and the large, multiyear deals negotiated on the golf course or over a steak dinner, but clearly, sellers and companies playing by the old rules can no longer achieve success or growth rates by living in this fading landscape.

Today’s businesses must rapidly transform how they go to market and the ways in which they show up in front of the customer. B2B buyers no longer need to speak with reps early in the sales cycle. They are already educated and informed. When your sales reps sit down for the first time with a customer, they are dealing with a self-directed, knowledgeable person who has spent hours conducting their own online research and engaging with their peers in online forums, social network communities to gather information about their options, your company, your competitors and quite possibly, even you.

This is why having a well-oiled marketing and sales process is essential to gain customer consideration and trust. It is imperative to engage with customers where they are learning and showing up with digestible, informative content. If you aren’t there during this phase, then you certainly aren’t going to be there when they are ready to make buying decisions.

The new B2B customer may be diligent in doing their homework before bringing you into the picture, but they are still looking for an actual human to be part of this process. This is especially true when they are considering critical, large purchases for their organization. So, what type of a salesperson needs to show up in these discussions?

Learning Opportunities

Talk Solutions, Not Products

B2B customers want to engage differently and expect a salesperson who will deliver intangible expertise — insights into their problems that can’t be found through a few internet searches. Here’s what today’s buyers most definitely do not want: sellers who start the conversation with product speeds and feed. They don’t want to be sold. They want to see that you truly understand their business challenges. They want you to take them on a journey through their problem and your solution so that they can take others in their company on that same journey and get buy-in on a buying decision.

For example, instead of displaying a typical catalog of products, present your solutions in a framework that demonstrates how you can partner with your customers to help tackle their business problems, differentiate their company in the market and help them provide new services to their customers. Point-product conversations will come, but you will never get to that stage if you don’t first demonstrate real insights into their issues and a level of expertise that they haven’t already learned through their own research.

A Transformation of People, Processes and Products

Ultimately, in order to adapt to the new buying habits and expectations of B2B customers, you must transform your people, processes and products. Naturally, your product and service portfolio must evolve to meet your buyers’ needs and provide them with the online (including a “Try before you Buy”) experience that they’ve come to expect in their everyday lives.

Your processes must also transform, rethinking the way you market, the type of digital content that you develop and where that content shows up to best meet and exceed the needs of the educated customer.

The last piece of the puzzle are your salespeople. With the B2B salesforce expected to contract by 1 million by 2020, it’s imperative to remember that salespeople are not order takers. They spend countless hours re-training, learning new skills and new selling approaches. They must be equipped with the right tools to go beyond the speeds and feeds and deliver that intangible expertise and framework for change that customers demand.

If you want to be relevant, profitable and continue to thrive in today’s digital age, every company needs to successfully engage with the modern B2B buyer. Don’t hold onto the past. Enjoy those golf outings and steak dinners with your friends and family instead.

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