October 31, 2016

CEB Expert Roundtable: The Complexity of Modern B2B Sales

Written by

For this episode of B2B Nation, we spoke with a panel of sales experts at the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit in Las Vegas. The panel included:

In this episode, we discussed the inherent complexity of the salesperson’s job and how that complexity impacts productivity. The panel experts provided advice for navigating the modern sales cycle, appealing to buyers, and managing free time. 

The roundtable was separated into three different sections, each lasting around 15 minutes. Listen below!

Part 1: Complexity for the Sales Rep

Part 2: Complexity on the Customer Side

Part 3: Practical Tips for Overcoming Complexity

Listen to the full, 45 minute roundtable discussion here:

Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.*

B2B sales complexity can cause reps to be busy, but not productive.

Jill: One of the things that’s been top of mind for me is what his happening from the individual seller’s perspective, and how complex their job is.

They live in their CRM, on the phone, online, and in all these different systems. This causes exhaustion, because they bounce back and forth between different tools and are distracted. They’re really struggling with their distractions, but they don’t realize it, because it’s how they work. Organizations could pick up an hour or two a day by changing how salespeople work.

Brent: I think most salespeople would agree with the statement, “I am incredibly busy,” but they wouldn’t all agree with, “I am incredibly productive.”

Jill: Most sales people I talk to these days are working from morning to night and are still checking email at 9:30 at night.

Brent: Let’s talk about some things we do in this environment to manage this complexity

Lori: Jill talks about exhaustion, but the word that comes to my mind is frustration. I work with a lot of companies outside of the technology bubble, in manufacturing and distribution and professional service industries. They have too many tools, not enough time, and they just can’t get everything done. So they’re getting extremely frustrated. Couple that with other issues in the company, and it’s hard to be a seller.

Brent: Absolutely, I find that the same thing that we’re seeing in the research here at CEB and the Sales Leadership Council is what we’re seeing at the organization level.

Nick: There’s almost a flywheel effect when you’re looking at the complexity of the the sales rep’s world. Heads of sales want to add tools and support their reps and reduce complexity, but the irony is that when you add more tools, it only compounds the complexity (because they have to navigate more technology). Some of our latest data shows that the average opportunity requires 4.3 internal individuals to support the sale, and an average of 8.5 tools to move a deal through the pipeline. The average seller navigates an average of 340 support touch points in a given month. So it’s a compounding effect that is all done with the best intentions, but just adds a burden to the job.

Brent: What do you do in a world when all the help we provided just makes that environment more complex. There are two other effects that are interesting for a researcher but frustrating for a salesperson. First, people find that their sales cycle is too complicated, and the company isn’t helping them, which makes them disengaged, so they move to a new company but don’t find anything better when they move. The other thing I find is that leaders are quick to blame the sales reps for the problems in the environment, blaming the individual for the system’s shortcomings.

External Complexity: How Customers Complicate the Sales Cycle

Lori: When we’re starting with the buyer’s journey, that opens things up because most sellers don’t know how to add value to the buyer. We have to train new sellers and retrain experienced sellers so they can look at the cycle from the buyer’s perspective.

Brent: So, Jill, is your recent work focused on internal complexity or external factors?

Jill: To me, everything’s about the customer, and until we understand who the buyer is and what they expect, nothing will work. But buyers’ expectations have changed. They expect you to add value with every single interaction, so your salespeople need be smart about the buyer’s journey and the buyer’s world. They need to adjust to that and tailor their messaging to new expectations. Salespeople need to focus and do research and pull it all together to present to the buyer.

Brent: There’s another point I want to throw out there that has become more complex; empathy has become more important. Not just your ability to understand your customer at the business level, but to be able to project yourself into their shoes and their lives. What does it feel like to be the buyer and live in their lives?

Empathy in the Sales Cycle

Lori: In order to put yourself in the buyer’s world, you need to understand it. People buy emotionally, and so we need to understand their emotional world.

Brent: And the customer is struggling with complexity as well.

Jill: There was a study from France that looked at the success of negotiations. They made three groups that each had buyers and sellers. There was a control group that acted as normal, a group told to empathize with the buyer, and a group told to think like the buyer and solve their problems. The control group set a baseline. The second group did better than the control, so it did help, but the real winner was the third group. 77 percent of the people in that final negotiation felt that both sides (buyers and sellers) were satisfied.

Brent: Nick, we spend a lot of time talking about complexity, what is top-of-mind for you?

Nick: If we think about what the customer is going through when they’re trying to make a decision with stakeholders, you wonder how decisions ever get made. They often don’t. With the number of stakeholders, functions, and locations in the buying unit, customers get overwhelmed. As a salesperson, being empathetic not only simplifies that process for the buyer, but also simplifies it for the seller. If the seller can find the true business challenge, and slow down the process to simplify the information, that will help the buyer and the seller succeed. You don’t have to say yes to every request. Instead, direct the buyer to what they really need.

Brent: So, stop being so responsive and start being prescriptive. Jill, you had a thought.

Jill: This really creates a different role for salespeople. You have to teach people how to do this, because they are not just salespeople at this point, but change agents. Leadership and salespeople become project managers, because different perspectives and opinions must be managed. These are new skill sets that salespeople need to be taught in addition to selling.

A Final Word of Advice

Jill: Slow down. Slow down so you can do what’s right.

Lori: Prioritize. Don’t rely on your manager to do your job for you. You’ll need to guide your own processes. Prioritize your jobs so that you can reach your goals. Don’t rely on the company’s systems to get everything done. And I want to see the leaders helping reps too.

Nick: The one piece of advice I’d like to give to sales teams is to simplify the process for the buyer. Have some empathy for the customer so they’ll actually have a chance of understanding what’s important about your product. 

* * *

B2B Nation is a podcast for B2B sales and marketing professionals, featuring expert opinions and advice on the most important topics in the industry. Check out our other episodes on SoundCloud, or follow us on Twitter: @Technology_Adv.

This expert round table was recorded live at the CEB Sales and Marketing summit in Las Vegas, Nevada and edited at the TechnologyAdvice podcast studio in Nashville, Tennessee.


*Some excerpts have been paraphrased to enhance readability.

Free Download

CRM Software Buyer's Guide

Get My Free Guide