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What do winning B2B sales organizations do to gain market advantage? Not what they used to, that’s for sure. Within the past decade, the world of sales has changed dramatically. In a podcast recorded at Ariba LIVE in Las Vegas, principal analyst Dana Gardner of Interarbor Solutions talked with Mike Schultz, president of the sales consulting firm RAIN Group, and Brady Seiberlich, IT e-procurement and development manager at National Business Furniture (NBF), about what separates winners from losers in today’s volatile B2B marketplace.

Though many forces are driving the shift in sales dynamics, two things play a key role:

  1. A parity view of sellers: Today’s buyers see seller offerings as somewhat similar and interchangeable, says Mike, which means that conventional feature-function-benefit selling no longer works. Instead, sellers must compete by helping customers use and apply their products and services in ways that deliver the greatest benefits. In this scenario, the power of the ideas, innovation, and collaboration that sellers bring to the table matters most.
  2. Information symmetry: Gone are the days when sellers controlled the lion’s share of information about their products and services, while buyers had all the need and desire. The ability to research and network online has eliminated this asymmetry, enabling buyers to learn most of what they need to know about planned purchases without ever contacting sales teams.

It all adds up to a more level playing field—where sellers must be smarter than ever to succeed. “Sellers used to be able to just take orders; they can’t do that anymore and still win,” Mike points out. Brady agrees, noting that better-informed buyers are challenging sellers to work harder and deliver more in order to win and keep new business.

So how can sellers adjust? A recent RAIN Group study of B2B buyers’ purchasing behavior found that winning sellers—those best able to foster customer loyalty and gain repeat business—sell in a radically different way than their less-successful peers. And here’s what makes the greatest impact: When deciding between sellers with roughly equal products and services, buyers chose the one who created a better purchasing experience. "How the seller treated the buyer, what they did with the buyer were the tipping points for why they got awarded the business,” says Mike.

To build this winning experience for your customers, consider the following strategies:

  • Make buying easy through shared technology. Connecting with customers through the technology networks, applications, and mobile interfaces they prefer helps you build trust and strengthen relationships. It also makes you easy to buy from, since you’re already part of the systems they’re integrated with and use every day. For example, NBF joined collaborative business networks early on, creating an efficient, data-driven process for sales that streamlines buying from beginning to end. Along the way, the company built a solid track record as a tech-savvy seller, making it the highest-rated furniture provider on the Ariba® Network (see this case study for details). Another bonus: The experience gained with one customer can be leveraged to make the process smoother for others. “We’re trying to push customers to continue to buy from us off these networks, because we’ve proven how simple it can be,” Brady says.
  • Bring value-add to the buy. For example, NBF has replaced paper catalogs with highly detailed product information on its e-procurement website. “Information is huge for us,” Brady says. “We give customers as much information as possible, because they want to make the decision themselves and be done with it.” But if customers do have questions, NBF gives them direct access to expert help. With an average 10+ years of experience, service reps can tap deep product knowledge to find a solution that really fits each buyer. The company also invests in technology that improves buyer-relevant data and analysis, which benefits both sides.
  • Offer insights unavailable elsewhere. By doing so, you demonstrate to buyers that working with you brings superior value—a crucial differentiator in driving sales wins. A buyer in the RAIN Group study explained how this impacted an important software purchase he was making for his firm. In the final bid stages, he met with the two leading contenders to share his concerns about unknown pitfalls that could arise as the project moved forward. One seller responded by surveying 15 of his own clients, then writing up a brief report of insights to set the buyer’s mind at ease. “He created his own little focus group to gather information for me, so I could think about what challenges might await me,” the buyer reported. “The other guy didn’t do that.” Despite having a higher bid price, that seller won the bid, since the buyer recognized the value of such support in ensuring the initiative’s long-term success.
  • Provide missing context. All too often, sellers trying to negotiate even complex, high-value deals report that “the purchasing person they’re working with doesn’t actually understand the business context of what they’re trying to get done,” Mike says. Yet with the right approach, you can turn this to your favor. Don’t be afraid to introduce relevant ideas, teach buyers new ways of thinking, and push back when they head down unfruitful paths. Suggest approaches that alert buyers to needs or considerations they weren’t aware of, and offer industry knowledge or inside expertise that can help them make or save money. This illustrates what your company brings to the table that differentiates you beyond price. It also reminds buyers that the cheapest seller isn’t always the best seller.

The bottom line: Though today’s selling environment presents big challenges, it offers big opportunities as well. And while negative feedback travels fast in this networked world, so does word about what’s interesting and worthwhile. This means the more you can show how working with you benefits buyers—over and above the value of your product alone—the better off you’ll be. “The technology amplifies the good sellers, and they end up selling a lot more,” Mike says. By delivering real value in the right ways, “You can win and win consistently.”

Want to dig deeper? Listen to the podcast, read the transcript, or join the discussion by adding your thoughts below.