If you are the type of founder who thinks technology is everything and that great products sell themselves, read no further. In fact, if you have developed a product meant for large enterprises and you feel this way, I am sorry- you have wasted your time reading up until this point. However, if you are struggling to make sense of the complex landscape known as enterprises, I think this article may help you.

I have spent a long time in B2B technology sales, and I want to share some practical advice for entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the B2B marketplace. Let me start with some harsh truths:

  • B2B sales takes a long time (I’m talking months, potentially even years)
  • You need to spend money to make money (I don’t mean bribes – I mean travel, free prototypes and pilots, and the cost of simply waiting for the next meeting to advance the discussion)
  • B2B clients don’t care about small ticket purchases (Think big. Solve big problems.)

You may be thinking: why should a small start-up even be in the B2B space ?

Answer: B2B sales has huge payoffs; a single large and committed enterprise customer is worth a thousand fickle-minded retail customers.

I see smart entrepreneurs all the time – I admire their passion and energy, their sheer brilliance and tech-savviness, their coolness and self-confidence. God bless them. Our society will be saved by our young entrepreneurs.

What is lacking, however, is an appreciation for what it takes to sell products or service offerings in a B2B market. After spending over 20 years in the B2B field, and having been a part of wildly successful sales campaigns and crushingly disappointing sales pursuits., I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a mixed bag for me, and it will be for you as well. But you don’t need to make the same mistakes I did.

So here are three bronze nuggets about B2B sales (I can’t honestly claim gold, and besides, I need to keep some aspirational headroom for future learning):

1.) A sale is not a transaction. Rather, a sale is a solution to a problem. I see too many entrepreneurs  who invent great products that look like solutions looking for a problem. If your product cannot relate directly to a problem that your customer is facing, you won’t have a sale anytime soon. You will need to spend a lot of time simply understanding the problem.

2.) Sales is about people. There’s an old adage in sales which goes something like this: “people buy from people”.  This notion is about establishing trust and fine-tuning an attribute often referred to as “likeability”. This encompasses all manner of things, but mainly it goes back to problem-solving and being trust-worthy in a business context (i.e honoring your commitments).

On one occasion, I had to turn in a colleague who behaved with less than complete integrity, and the client, in appreciation, made me a trusted partner and gave me all the business I bid for over the three years that followed.  On another occasion, I made a reference to a project I had done for a client, without their explicit permission, at an industry conference. The client terminated its relationship with my company when that came to light. It cuts both ways – so you have to be extremely careful about building “trust”.

3.) Most buyers have bought into the solution long before they meet the sales person:  In today’s market, enterprise buyers have access to practically unlimited information about products and vendors. They make up their minds about what they will buy long before you meet them. Recent research about technology buying behavior suggests that buyers do about 60% of the research before they even contact a vendor.  Around 60% of the time, they select their vendor even before the formal selection process begins, and another 20% of the time they decide mid-way through the process.

If you’re thinking, “My product is unique, and no one else has anything comparable in the market,” here’s the bad news: if buyers don’t know how to compare your product to what they have seen before, it’s going to take you a lot longer to sell them the product. Be prepared for that.  B2B Buyers are creatures of habit and familiarity, and if your market is a conservative sector like healthcare, no one wants to make the first move and be the pioneering customer.

So is it all hopeless?  Of course not.  On the contrary, if you can crack the code (not the kind of “code” you’re thinking of), there is a huge pot of gold because: a.) there are high barriers to entry and b.) you will sell larger volumes of your products or services with a smaller number of clients.

If this article struck a chord, send me a note. If you disagree, hit me up for a beer one of these days. I want to hear all about your own experiences.

Happy selling !

Photography: Anthony Easton