Unless a salesperson has ever had to get a company to buy something, they probably never made a big distinction between the worlds of business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B),
The B2C world seems so big as to include almost anyone and everything. If you sell consumer products you're trying to get a piece of household budgets that go towards groceries, flat screen televisions, summer apparel and much else. Although you have to know your product and your target customer, selling consumer goods might feel like an extremely transferable skill, where you can lead a team selling sneakers at one point in your career and skin care products later on.
Almost the moment you enter the B2B world, on the other hand, things are likely to feel a lot different. The world suddenly gets smaller, narrower, more specific. You’re not selling to just anyone but a particular decision-maker, working in a particular industry who may (or may not) be interested in a product or service that can address a problem that’s only understood by a certain group of people.
This shouldn’t discourage sales pros from making the move from B2C to B2B jobs, however. B2B firms can offer a highly rewarding career experience, where you can help customers who do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that allow us to enjoy things like energy, transportation systems and information technology. It can also be a highly lucrative space, given that some B2B products and services are much more expensive than some of the priciest consumer big-ticket items.
One key ingredient in moving into B2B sales is an appetite for learning. While consumer brands in the fitness space may be well aware of consumer brands in furniture because they’ve had to buy tables and chairs in their personal lives, B2B firms can be almost like islands unto themselves. A B2B supply chain company’s employees may know little about the B2B firms in telecommunications, for instance. If you want to be a rep for a B2B company, you’ll have to get to know not just your potential employer but all the other players in what may be a fairly close-knit community.
Once you’ve done your initial homework, be prepared for a few other changes as part of your transition from the B2C world.
Those with a background in consumer sales may have always worked with target personas in mind, like the busy single mother who wants to move forward in her career, or senior citizen who is ready to use his retirement to pursue some adventure. Personas work well within B2B too, but there’s more than mere demographics to take into account.
In most cases, B2B selling means thinking about a senior decision-maker who runs a specific line of business. The most common in the technology space is the chief information officer (CIO), or the IT manager, but sometimes heads of HR and marketing are the targets as well.
In other firms you might be focused on winning over the chief financial officer, while some B2B firms want to get purchases from the CEOs of startups and small and medium-sized businesses.
Even as you develop a sales pitch aimed at people with a particular job title, you’ll also have to think about the many people who report into them, the people with whom they collaborate in other departments and even their boss (who may hold the purse strings or have to give final approval).
Buying committees may be formalized in some organizations or ad-hoc in others, but usually you have to provide a pitch that not only answers the decision-maker’s questions, but those of people they’ll discuss a purchase with later on when you’re not in the room.
A consumer brand might sell dozens, hundreds or even thousands of items — like a T-shirt— every single day. Reps are rewarded for contributing to the volume of sales.
In B2B, it might take six months, eight months, or more than a year to close a single deal. On the other hand, the deal in question might be with a major bank and worth more than 10 million T-shirt sales.
This requires a different approach to cultivating a customer relationship — one that requires ongoing nurturing and attention to the unique needs they might have. While a B2B firm’s products may be offered in standard versions, don’t be surprised if you get asked to configure it or bundle it with other products as part of a deal.
A company might be interested in productivity software, for instance, but will ask for it to be customized or bundled with an additional application to make sure the way it collects and manages data will be compliant with industry regulations about privacy.
Consumers often make purchases based on how it makes them feel about their looks, how it tastes or other things that affect them on a personal level.
Although B2B products are intended to help entire companies, they also align with a personal motive: to be seen as displaying sound judgment and contributing to an employer’s accomplishment of its goals.
When a B2B buyer makes the wrong call on a purchase, it can mean losing their job because of the dire consequences the company suffers through. When things go well, on the other hand, it might mean they get promoted, or that their next big decision doesn't have to go through as many steps to get approved.
This is an intrinsically different basis on which a buying decision is made than what usually happens in the consumer world, and as a sales rep you need to keep it top of mind, always. It will form the backbone for whatever customer experience your company offers its target market.
If you can manage to hone your skills in these three areas, you might find B2B sales is pretty transferable too, opening up potential opportunities within companies you never knew existed — and all kinds of deals just waiting to be closed.