Like everything else in business, effectively selling requires a process. Whether you’re a member of a sales team or an entrepreneur, defining and mastering a systematized sales process is a key element in operating a successful business. The focus of this Trep Tip is on the institutional side– commonly known as B2B (Business to Business) sales.

The key to B2B sales is remembering that, despite the name, the process is not one corporate entity selling to another, but two humans trying to find a mutually beneficial solution. Relationships are the cornerstone of effective business, and sales is no different. Due to the number of decision makers, the institutional sales cycle is typically much longer than the retail cycle, providing plenty of time to build substantive one-on-one relationships.

The organizations we work with at trepwise are at all different stages, from newly formed start-ups to multi-million dollar businesses.  Many of them have grown, sometimes quite quickly, without fully defined sales processes. But, to take a term from my finance days, past performance is no promise of future returns, and just because an ad hoc approach to sales has worked in the past doesn’t mean it is the best strategy going forward. That’s why one of the areas where we work with our client’s is to structure a sales approach, giving them tools to scale effectively and strategically. Here are four key steps that you can follow to level up in sales:

Effectively Communicate the Problem You are Solving

The first step towards effective sales is to understand the problem you are solving. Every product or service is making some type of promise to the buyer.  A trap that many salespeople fall into is becoming too fixated on this promise without articulating the consumer insight that gave this promise relevance in the first place. Begin with the question “what problem am I solving?” You can then use this framework to determine your target audience (institutions or individuals that have this problem) as well as your competition (not just who else has the same solution, but who else is providing alternative solutions to the same problem.)

Once you have mapped out the problem it is time to craft your pitch. Your pitch should tell the product story and speak to its benefits in a way that is compelling, concise and relevant.  Unlike retail sales where the initial point of contact and decision maker are one and the same, there is an additional step in institutional sales— to determine who in an organization you should target. Who has the ability to build consensus and influence a purchase decision within their organization? How can you craft your pitch to resonate with them?

Define and map out your sales process

 Whether it has been written down or not, every business has a sales process. The process may have evolved overtime and vary slightly from sale to sale, but there are likely some key steps that all potential buyers cycle through. But having it is not enough — it is vital that you write down and map out these steps. From there, it will be much simpler to identify the tools that you or your sales team needs to support each of these steps. Is it a FAQ document?  A product demo?  Below is a sample institutional sales process with multiple steps:

Steps of sales process

Not only does the actual act of process mapping help deepen understanding and establish standard protocols, but the resulting tool can be used to effectively and efficiently train new hires.

Implement a “needs based” selling approach

As a process becomes standardized there is often a fear that it will make actions too rigid. Such concerns are not without merit — potential buyers can tell when they are being treated like just another row in a spreadsheet. The key to avoiding this type of rigidity is not to avoid building process altogether, but to implement a “needs-based” sales approach throughout the entire sales cycle.

There are two types of sales approaches — “product-push” and needs based. Product push is based around the features and benefits of a product — and pitching them to as many people as possible with the goal of converting a certain percentage of them into buyers. This approach can work for retail sales, but is considerably less effective for B2B sales. When using a needs-based approach, the seller’s primary focus is to listen to the buyer and understand where they are coming from. You can then frame your offering in a way that speaks to the needs of that particular customer, and potentially even put together a custom solution.

Put systems in place to track and reward

The good news is that even if you’re running a company or department by yourself, you’re still not alone. There are a number of software programs that can help you manage your company. For sales, the first purchase should be a Contact Relationship Management (CRM) system. As sales volume increases this type of program becomes vital to keep track of all of your leads. Unless you need a lot of customization, off-the-shelf CRM solutions are more than sufficient and fairly inexpensive. Within a CRM you can establish flows that correspond to your newly transcribed sales process, tracking clients as they move through it. Not only can this help keep track of an individual client, but it also gives managers the ability to evaluate the sales process at a system level.

A good way to visualize sales as a system is the sales funnel, with the pool of potential customers narrowing at each level. Your sales process, which we mapped in Step Two, will take leads and advance them through the sales funnel, so the two frameworks should be aligned. A certain percentage of contacts will advance from one level of the funnel to next. This ‘conversion rate’ can be used to analyze your sales process at a system level — where are you losing the most potential customers and what can you adapt to plug the holes in the funnel?  You can also use the software to analyze the effectiveness of individual sales employees, and reward those that are most effective.

No sales process is exact, and any processes should and will evolve in tandem with your business. But evolving strategically requires fundamentally understanding your current process. A good start is mapping out your current process. From there you can build your CRM system to fit this process and begin to track sales. At the end of the day always remember that regardless of whether your customer is an individual or a Fortune-500, the reason your product exists is to solve a problem. And as you systematize your sales process make sure to continually deepen your understanding of that problem by using a needs-based sales approach.