The Definitive Guide to B2B Sales

February 20, 2020 Tarmo Tamm

A great salesperson can sell anything to anyone.

That’s what we’ve been told about the practice of selling for longer than most of us can remember. And it’s probably at least partially to blame for why those outside the sales world make light of the distinction between selling to companies and selling to consumers.

It turns out, it’s just not true.

Aren’t All Sales the Same?

The statement’s so false, in fact, that Inc. Magazine named it to its list of the eight biggest myths about great salespeople. The fact is, the magazine asserts, even the most successful salesperson is likely to fail when they attempt to sell in a different sphere than the one that they have previously performed well in–such as changing from outside sales to telesales.

So, why isn’t it true that a great salesperson can’t simply sell any product to any market?

Because sales isn’t that different from other professions: each segment of it is different. It requires its own set of tactics, knowledge and perfect processes. Does that mean that someone who sells in one manner will never be able to become a high performer in another sales sector? Of course not! It simply means that prior sales knowledge doesn’t precisely prepare a professional to jump into another sales role devoid of proper preparation.

To understand how very different separate portions of the sales ecosystem are, perhaps the best examples are the disparate roles of business-to-business sales and business-to-consumer sales.

What is B2B Selling?

Business-to-consumer sales, according to the Canadian Professional Sales Association, is the selling of items to one individual consumer. Retail sales are an example, where a company designs and manufactures goods and then the same–or a different– organisation markets and sells those items to a person who is shopping for products. Purchases are often made on the spot and there is generally a single consumer involved in the purchase.

By contrast, business-to-business sales involve selling items or services to a business. These sales usually require a longer business relationship and include multiple decision makers.

That’s a simple overview, but the differences between B2C and B2B selling are actually fairly complex. And they need to be deeply understood if a salesperson is deciding either to make a change or to begin their career.

Inside this guide, you’ll learn:

● Why the lead pool for B2B sales is so much smaller than it is for B2C sales
● The difference in required product knowledge for B2B
● How many decision-makers are required for B2B sales
● The length of the B2B business relationship
● How the evolution of B2C sales is changing the B2B landscape
● Will AR Change B2B Even More?

The B2B Lead Pool

This one’s the most surprising difference between B2B and B2C sales: when you’re selling to businesses your customer pool is tiny. If you’re lucky. If you pick a particularly specialised product to sell you may not get tiny. You may end up with a minuscule pool of potential customers.

Okay, there are fewer businesses than there are individual consumers out there in the world. Those new to the business often think that they get it as they process that statement. But, they reason, there sure are a lot of businesses out there, too, so the pickings won’t be all that slim.

And this is where it gets tricky.

Because the moment a company decides what it will sell to a business they’ve drastically reduced their potential customers. A business that chooses to market an olive pitter, for instance, has in its lead funnel all Americans who are generally in the market for small kitchen tools. They’ll probably count out college kids and they will certainly need to cross olive-haters off the list. But other than that, it’s reasonable to assume that the market is wide open for that fast, functional olive pitter. It’ll need to prove itself better/easier/chicer/cheaper than all of the other olive pitters out there. But the field of buyers they are competing for is vast.

How Few Customers are There?

Now, let’s consider a B2B example set forth by our friends at Forbes magazine. A company decides that it would like to manufacture and market flat screens for automobiles to be used for entertainment and information in the second and third rows. These are screens that can play movies and television shows and also be used to play games and surf the internet. Before this organisation can even begin to consider whether their screen is as durable and beautiful as the other screens out there, they’ve got a serious issue out of the gate. They have less than two dozen potential customers.

You read that right.

That’s because Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, and Toyota collectively make up 70 per cent of the U.S. automobile market. Almost two-thirds of all auto parts that will be bought from any company–including those toddler-pleasing backseat screens that our imaginary salespeople are hoping to sell millions of–will be bought by those five companies. The pool of buyers for products in this industry is restricted, making it harder to break into the market and also far more difficult to exist as a smaller player. The auto industry is an extreme example. But solutions to business problems have an inherently smaller market than do solutions to everyday-human problems.

The Need-to-Know Basis

The level of knowledge required to sell B2B products versus B2C products is far higher. Individual consumers buying a blender want to know that the appliance is priced well, will last, is durable, and has the features that they want. Beyond that, the consumers are not interested, generally, in developing familiarity with the way that the works inside the blender perform. What that means for the salespeople at that blender company is that their required product knowledge is limited to those topics that their buyers are interested in.

For sales of products such as software, however, the questions that buyers expect answers to will go far deeper. According to research from Aberdeen Group, the most successful sales organisations are those who have the highest overall product and service knowledge, best understand clients’ and prospects’ business challenges and are able to map solutions to challenges. In other words, these are organisations whose salesforces understand their products and how they will be used by myriad customers. That’s not surface knowledge, but it is what is needed in the B2B sales world.

Sales software company Tenfold cautions that the B2B sales process doesn’t end in a purchase until the buyer: 1) believes that they will get the benefits that they were promised, 2) feels secure about the salespeople they’ve dealt with, 3) is comfortable with the brand that they’re doing business with, and 4) is pleased with the product that they’re purchasing.

According to the sales trainers at the Rain Group, the challenge for many sales organisations is that they aren’t set up to instil these learnings in their teams. Instead, they focus that precious training time on building sales skills. Now, no one’s going to tell a sales organisation that it’s not important to equip its employees with information about how to sell. But for business-to-business sales companies, it’s just as important to ensure that those selling the products are fluent in the solutions that they provide and the way that clients use them.
Sales personnel also need to build their questioning muscles, honing their abilities to make those inquiries that will help reveal both clients’ needs and the places where their product can be helpful.

It’s Not a One-Person Decision

For sales professionals who are unfamiliar with the B2B space, getting used to the existence of multiple decision makers, often of different seniority levels and in different departments, can be difficult. According to the Harvard Business Review, however, it’s not so easy for the decision makers of the B2B world, either. As solutions get more sophisticated, business buyers are on the hook to learn more and more about every iteration of the product that they’re buying, as well as those that they’re interested in.

And more and more professionals are facing the pressure because the number of employees it takes to close a purchase has jumped from 5.4 on average three years ago to 6.8 in 2017. The roles that these decision makers hold are now more varied as well, as are their locations. That means that B2B salespeople need to be well versed in dealing with a broader group of client types, as well as working with both onsite and remote stakeholders.

The inbound marketing geniuses at HubSpot have some tips for getting used to dealing with so many cooks in the sales kitchen. Their advice: figure out who you’re talking to, and what kind of decision maker–or imposter–in particular you’ve gotten access to.

The first type is the gatekeeper, who is not, in fact, a decision maker, but whose buy-in is nonetheless needed. They’re an executive assistant or associate to the decision maker that the salesperson actually needs access to. While the gatekeeper’s title may give their role away, they may have a position name that camouflages their status. If that’s the case, leading questions such as asking if they work closely with the decision maker that you want to speak to can help to diagnose their role. HubSpot suggests that, if you determine you’re actually talking to a gatekeeper, you do an end run around them. Try calling back after hours when they’re unlikely to be in place to screen your call before it rings in the boss’s office. This isn’t a permanent strategy, however, and can backfire if used as such. A better option may be to engage the gatekeeper, who Hubspot notes may well be aware of the decision maker’s pain points, the needs of the office and even the timetable on which a buying decision may be made. It may sound like selling twice, but in some cases marketing well to a gatekeeper means that the gatekeeper will actually do some of your work for you in getting their boss familiarised with your offering.

Another client representative you may encounter is the influencer, which HubSpot describes as a junior-level employee who the actual decision maker has tapped to do the initial research on your product. This is not someone who has been empowered to make a purchase or negotiate a deal, however, they are truly tasked with the job of learning about a vendor’s product. As with the gatekeeper, treating the influencer like an ally and someone worthy of your tie and concern will yield dividends. To diagnose how much power the influencer holds, ask about people within the organisation who may interfere with the adoption of the product.

When the salesperson gets to the actual decision maker they will have arrived at the C-suite, or somewhere nearby. Here they’ve found the person who signs the check and books the business. Sometimes vendors encounter decision makers who are also looking to do their own research with a service provider or product salesperson. More often this decision maker will only be accessed after going through a gatekeeper, influencer or both.

One more employee that HubSpot cautions sales professionals about, however, is the self-proclaimed decision maker. This person is a toxic prospect. The B2B salesperson will know the self-proclaimed decision maker by the amount of unsolicited information that they provide, including their importance at the company, the types of decisions that they are empowered to make, and even the amount of money that they are paid. Much of it’s probably not true, and none of it will lead to a sale. As soon as it’s clear that the person is trying too hard to prove their own importance and their own decision-making abilities, the salesperson should start looking for another contact. True decision makers rarely exhibit these behaviours.

How Long Will a B2B Sale Take?

For salespeople who make the switch from consumer to business sales, one of the hardest things to adjust to may be the length of the sales cycle in B2B sales.

Consulting group Step Change suggests that salespeople invest the time and research in learning how long the average sales cycle in the industry that they serve. Next, they suggest finding out if possible how long competitors are taking to close sales. If an organisation is taking significantly longer to close a sale than others in their space, their process needs to be carefully evaluated. Step Change recommends learning the different lengths of the decision-making process that may be needed for different types of buyers. For instance, some customers may need six months, another set may require nine months, and most may need twelve months. Rather than stopping at creating an average, more helpful information can be gained by looking at these subsets of buyers and determining what they have in common with those in their same group. This may lead to the ability to predict, based on knowledge of the prospect, how long they will need to close the sale.

But Wait! B2B Sales May Become More Like B2C
Business-to-business sales have seen changes in the past two decades, but business-to-consumer sales have lapped them several times. The ways that consumers research, shop for and purchase products have changed in almost every respect in the past twenty years. And that rebuilding of the buying experience has only begun to find its way into the business buying world. Expect a whole lot more of that change to spread to B2B in the near future.

A Salesforce Research report shows, for instance, that 81 per cent of business buyers find the customer experience to be as important to them as the products and services that a company provides. And almost seven out of ten expect B2B businesses to deliver an “Amazon-like” buying experience. Finally, more than half of the surveyed B2B buyers have ended a business relationship with one vendor and moved to another one because of sub-par customer experience.

A Mckinsey report had similar findings. The consulting group surveyed 1,200 purchasing decision-makers in small, medium, and large companies throughout the United States and Western Europe whose job duties included purchasing high-tech products and services. Mckinsey found a large disparity between what buyers said was important to them in making business purchases and what it turned out had actually influenced their buying behaviour. Price and the quality of a product were what survey respondents shared that they found to be most important. But when Mckinsey dug into the actual purchases that respondents made, they found that the overall sales experience seemed to play a far more significant role in the decision-making process than had been reported. In fact, Mckinsey found that by having a highly thought of sales experience an organisation could boost its share of a customer’s business by an average of 8 to 15 percentage points.

Will AR Change B2B Even More?

Software entrepreneur Marc Murphy says that augmented reality truly hit the mainstream with the incredible popularity of Pokemon GO, and that opened wide the door for the B2B sales space to start using the technology to its best advantage. AR makes immediate sense as a tool to facilitate consumer purchases. For instance, using AR to let a buyer see a sofa that they are considering in their living room in order to gain better information about how it will look, fit and feel in the space. But the applications in B2B buying may not be quite as obvious.

That doesn’t mean they’re not there, however!

As detailed above, the expectations that they develop as individual consumers are starting to seep into the buying environment that B2B decision makers demand. Murphy notes that the products that are the most natural fit for AR in the B2B space include those items that are large and may be harder to sell outside of a specially designed selling space such as a showroom or a plant. Innovators have begun working on technology that will create a version of B2B products that can be played with by clients. While it’s not the real product, it will look and act like the item that the customer would be buying. However, for the company that makes the product, the production of this digital copy costs a fraction of the price tag of the original item.


For those new to the sales profession and those making the change from selling to individuals, there can be a lot to learn when getting started in business-to-business sales.

The information contained in this guide, however, offers an excellent start in acquiring the knowledge needed to 1) reach decision makers within prospect organizations, 2) develop the product expertise that will put customers at ease, 3) understand the lead pool for B2B sales, 4) predict the length of each client’s decision-making process, and 5) adapt to the changing expectations and technologies of B2B selling.

Tarmo Tamm

Tarmo has sold at least 12 different products and services and worked as a Sales Manager on at least 14 projects. The efficient practices described in this book have been successfully implemented for B2B and B2C. These principles have been tested over the phone, in conference rooms, implemented in retail business, at shopping malls as well as in door-to-door sales.