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The buyer-seller gap is real - and it’s a big problem for B2B

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher June 7, 2018
Who'd be a B2B sales person? There's a lot to consider these days.

In The Growing Buyer-Seller Gap: Results of the 2018 Buyer Preferences Study (registration required) from the Miller Heiman Group a clear story is emerging. The story shows us that customers are continually changing how they approach the decision-making process, but sales organizations are not keeping up. The question is why? The answer, not simple.

According to the study, only 53% of sales representatives are meeting or exceeding quotas, and this is the fifth straight year that number has declined:

Buyers are changing substantially faster and to a greater degree than sales organizations.

But here’s the interesting thing. It’s not that sales reps are dropping the ball. In this study, 61.8% of buyers said sales people meet their expectations, and 31.8% exceeded expectations. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it?

The problem is, meeting expectations isn’t enough anymore:

While buyers may not be demanding the replacement of their sellers with new technologies, they might not miss them if they were to go away.

Sales people are not considered as important because they aren’t engaged early in the buying process. Check out the chart below to see that salespeople are the second last resource used to help solve business problems. Is this because sales reps focus too much attention on their products? After all, isn’t it their job to sell products?


Another problem: according to the study 57.7% of buyers said they see little difference between sellers (10.4% said all vendors are equal). This is the case even though salespeople are taught to understand the customer’s needs and map products and solutions to those needs. The ones that do that best should stand out, right? Again, not that simple.

Get the buyer's attention early

It stands to reason that a sales rep needs to get in front of a buyer as early in the buying process as possible, but once they are there, what’s the right approach? It’s going to depend on the buyer.

In B2B sales, products are bought by committee. It’s almost never one person’s decision; it’s a committee decision. In this study, there are an average of 6.4 decision makes involved in the process over a period of at least five months. The likelihood that all those decision makers have the same decision-making style is pretty small.

Sales people have a challenge. They need to engage with these different buyers according to each buyer’s preference, and certain buyer personalities are more open to working with salespeople earlier on than others. Figuring this out is an important step in closing that seller-buyer gap.

The study also recommends a few other things salespeople can do to support buyers and develop stronger relationships:

  • Know the market, know the company, find as much out as you can about the company and potential needs or challenges before you meet them. If your first meeting is all about getting to know them, and you are asking a ton of questions, it may be perceived as you not knowing anything or not doing your homework.
  • It’s about an experience, not an interaction. This one is interesting because it lines up perfectly with the marketing story. Customers want to know that you are invested, not just checking boxes and dotting i’s. Some suggestions given include active listening, advanced questioning, virtual presentations, storytelling, business case/ROI analysis and perspective.
  • Go beyond the sale. Again, similar story as marketing. It’s not just about closing the deal; it’s about developing a relationship that demonstrates a “continued interest in its [the company’s] success.” A company that operates with silos - marketing, sales, service, support - will not be successful.
  • Offer insights and expertise (perspective). The study suggests that this is the biggest opportunity to set yourself apart from the rest, but it requires that you be good at the first three things on this list. Perspective means you understand the market well and you can generate ideas and recommendations that may change how the customer moves forward.

My take

The B2B buying process takes time and involves many stakeholders. It’s a challenging process for sales reps even when they do understand their market intimately. More than understanding the market dynamics and how to speak to customers about it intelligently, it’s that final piece – the perspective – that often falls short for sales reps.

When you are a new sales person, getting that perspective takes time. But even seasoned sales people don’t always have it. The pressure to make a sale often pushes a rep to take shortcuts and push products before they have a full understanding of needs or take the time to think up ideas that will help the buyers in ways they hadn’t thought of. This pressure isn’t going to go away, but things do need to change in the same way it has had to change for marketing.

ABM programs, sales enablement programs and associated technology can help, but only if the organization recognizes why the gap between buyers and sellers exists and puts forth a plan to close it.

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