How to sell the way your customers want to buy

By Anders Björklund

How to sell the way your customers want to buy

In this article, I explain why inbound sales are the critical foundation of a modern sales team approach because as the buying process changes, your sales approach needs to transform. 

Numerous times, most of us have heard that the power and control in buying and selling have shifted from the sellers to the buyers. As a result, the buying process and the buying journeys are transformed.

Whether your sales approach relies on inbound leads or targeted outreach, whether you're a big company or minor, and whether your sale is complex or straightforward — inbound sales are relevant. 

That's because inbound sales transform your way of selling to match today's buyer — so your sales reps can sell the way customers buy.

What are inbound sales?

Inbound sales is a personalised, supportive, and modern sales methodology. Inbound sales reps focus on their potential and existing customer's challenges and needs, act as trusted advisers, and adapt their sales approach to the buyer's journey.

Inbound sales start with providing answers to attract qualified leads; this includes using SoMe and knowledge content to attract interested potential and existing customers.

Next, as an inbound sales rep, you'd want to connect with the leads to learn more about their needs and challenges. This will help you determine whether your solution, product, or service is a relevant fit.   

Once you've determined it's a relevant fit, you'd work with the lead to explore areas of opportunity and explain how your solution, product or service can help them to reach their desired goals. 

As you deepen the relationship with the potential customer, you must actively listen to their challenges and concerns and express genuine interest to help them solve their problems; you'll be able to turn qualified leads into customers and brand ambassadors.

And that's without wasting your time pitching to people who don't have an interest or need in your solution, product or service. 

Next is how to understand the difference between inbound and outbound sales.

Inbound vs outbound sales

Inbound sales is a scalable methodology that focuses on attracting interested prospects to your company and building lasting relationships to help your potential and existing customers succeed. 

Outbound sales engage potential and existing customers who may or may not be interested in your solutions, products and services.

Essentially, with inbound, you attract interested customers by providing value through inbound marketing content.

With an outbound approach, you use a sales funnel to get in front of as many potential and existing customers as possible, potentially wasting your efforts by engaging with uninterested people in what you're selling.

By comparison, outbound sales can be more challenging to implement, mainly since sales reps must conduct outreach to customers who may or may not be interested in your solutions, products or services. 

Nevertheless, there are instances in which outbound sales are exceptionally effective. Even if a target company hasn't expressed interest or engaged with your online presence, it doesn't mean they aren't interested. Instead, it can tell they don't have the needed knowledge of the types of solutions, products or services you and your company offer. 

Additionally, an outbound sales approach can be a good opportunity for your company to tap into new markets or countries. If you have qualified leads who haven't heard of your company before, you shouldn't ignore them, hoping they eventually will be attracted through inbound. This is where inbound and outbound can help your business hit its targets.  

What are more effortless, inbound or outbound sales? 

Outbound is a more complex approach, and it's more challenging to succeed with outbound selling. First, sales reps must conduct research, identify challenges and needs, and contact decision-makers with outbound sales. And this is with a pitch that outlines how your solutions, products or services will fit that company's challenges and needs; without that, the buyer never demonstrates an interest in speaking with a salesperson from your company.

Outbound selling is incredibly time-consuming. Consider how many calls it takes to connect with a buyer; someone told me it takes 18 calls. And when you finally do reach the prospective buyer or decision-maker, you need to convince them that your solutions, products or service are a good fit for them, even if they've never heard of you and your company before. Again, you're starting from scratch. 

On the other hand, inbound selling is much easier in some respects. However, the initial inbound foundation can be hard to build, i.e., creating a website with a strong SEO ranking, writing high-converting knowledge articles, and expanding your social media presence to reach new audiences. Once the foundation is established, it's easier for your sales reps to pitch to leads who've already shown interest in your content or offer.

Creating a solid inbound selling strategy is complicated since your sales managers need to develop a plan aligned with the buyer's journey. And this takes time, effort, a changed way of working and dedication. 

Inbound sales take more work up front, but it's ultimately the more straightforward approach once you've created a solid inbound selling strategy. On the other hand, outbound selling is more time-consuming and challenging because you sell to people who haven't expressed interest in your brand. 

Let's review some tactical steps to start inbound selling.

Inbound sales techniques

  • Define your buyer's journey.
  • Develop a sales approach that supports the buyer's journey.
  • Identify your ideal buyer persona.
  • Lead with a helpful, customised prospecting message. 
  • Craft customised questions to uncover the prospect's pain.
  • Give a tailored presentation.
  • Define your buyer's journey.

Legacy sales teams build their sales approach around their own or companies' needs, not their potential buyers'. Legacy sales reps focus their energy on "checking the boxes" their sales manager laid out instead of listening to the buyers and supporting them through their decision and purchase process. As a result, the sellers and buyers feel misaligned. Furthermore, this self-serving process delivers the tiniest possible value for potential buyers. Buyers don't want to be attracted, converted, demoed, or closed. These steps add absolutely zero value; the buyers can find all the information they get in these meetings without help from a sales rep.

If sales reps cannot add value beyond the data, information and content buyers can find by themselves, the buyers have no reason to engage with sales reps.

We work with inbound sales teams to avoid this issue by starting with the buyer's journey. Before they try to get in touch, they prioritise understanding their potential buyer's world.

I recommend the following three-part framework for your target buyer's journeys:

Awareness

During the awareness stage, potential buyers identify a challenge they are experiencing or a need, then decide whether it is a priority. To be able to understand your potential buyer's awareness stage fully, ask:

  • How do your target buyers describe the challenges, needs or goals your offering addresses?
  • How do your target buyers learn more about these challenges, needs or goals?
  • How do your target buyers decide whether they should prioritise the challenge, need or goal?

Consideration

In the consideration stage, buyers have clearly defined their challenge, need or goal and have committed to addressing them. Then, they evaluate different approaches or methods available to solve their challenge or pursue their goal. To understand your target buyer's consideration stage, ask:

  • What categories of solutions do your target buyers investigate?
  • How do your target buyers perceive the pros and cons of these categories?
  • What differentiates your category in the target buyer's eyes?

Decision

In the decision stage, target buyers have decided on a category. They create a list with specific offerings and potential vendors in their selected category and decide on the one they perceive best meets their challenges or needs. To fully understand your target buyer's decision stage, ask:

  • What offerings do your target buyers typically evaluate?
  • What criteria do your target buyers use to assess offerings?
  • What differentiates your offering in your target buyer's eyes?
  • Who needs to be involved in your target buyer's decision? 

A sales approach that supports the buyer's journey

Once your target buying journey is defined, you must build your sales approach. Unlike the legacy sales teams that design their sales approach first, inbound sales teams make a sales approach after the buying journey has been defined. This inbound approach supports the buyer through their purchasing journey. As a result, sales reps and buyers feel aligned through the buying journey and selling approach, not at odds.

To develop an inbound approach, ask yourself what your sales reps can do at the awareness, consideration, and decision stages to maximise support to the buyers. I recommend the following four-part foundation for your sales approach using the inbound methodology:

  • Identify
  • Connect
  • Explore
  • Advise

Inbound sales reps: You shall identify strangers who may have goals or challenges you can help them with. Then, strive to make these strangers become leads.

Inbound sales reps connect with these leads to help them decide whether they should prioritise their goal or challenge. If the buyers choose, they become qualified leads.

Inbound sales reps explore their qualified leads' goals or challenges to assess whether their offering is a good fit for the qualified leads'. If they turn out to be a good fit, these qualified leads become opportunities.

Inbound sales reps advise these opportunities on how their offering is uniquely positioned to address the buyer's challenge, need and context. If the buyer agrees your offering is best for their context, these opportunities become customers.

Here's a hypothetical sales approach mapped to a buying journey.

Define your identification process

During the Identify stage, legacy sales reps are unaware of which buyers are active in a buying journey. So instead, legacy sales reps primarily identify potential customers they believe are a good fit and start contacting those potential customers randomly. However, here's a problem: Many potential customers have already entered the awareness stage of the buying journey before engaging with sales reps. 

You should target the active potential customers first, but legacy sales reps fail to differentiate active potential customers from passive potential customers.

Inbound sales reps can separate active and passive potential customers, focusing their time on potential customers already in the buying journey's awareness stage. For example, these potential customers may have recently visited your company website, downloaded content, signed up for a webinar, or opened a sales rep's email, i.e., left a footprint of their need in some way.

Before identifying potential customers, you need to define which potential customers you can help and which ones you can't help. This is called the ideal customer's profile and determines which potential customers are a good fit for your offering.

Once your ideal customer profile is defined, you can use the following hierarchy of lead sources to prioritise your identified leads.

Inbound leads

The visitors to your company website who provide their contact information via conversions are from a company that matches your ideal customer's profile. And, do not worry if the contact is not your ideal or potential customer; make sure that you focus on their company.

Inbound companies

Companies who live by the inbound methodology get anonymous visitors from companies that match their target buyers. They have the company name but no contact information for the potential buyer. So instead, these companies use their prospects tool in their CRM to identify the companies.

Social selling

You must invest at least a few hours per week to publish content, respond to relevant conversations, and share exciting content with your potential customers. Doing so develops your brand with your potential customers and helps you identify additional potential customers and leads to pursue.

Common connections

Check all passive potential customers who fit your ideal customer profile whom you are connected to via, e.g. LinkedIn, personal friends, and family.

Passive buyers

Identify the passive potential customers who highly match your ideal customer profile as the last resort.

In all cases, enrich the identified leads with content about the potential customer's interests and demographics.

Define your connection process

During the connect stage, legacy sales reps often focus their prospecting efforts on emails, calls, and LinkedIn messages. These very cold outreaches highlight the same generic pitch to tempt potential customers to see a presentation about the sales rep's offer. However, when legacy sales reps get buyers on the phone, most of their effort is spent qualifying them on their budget size and their authority to make decisions.

However, modern buyers do not trust messages from sales reps to learn about products, solutions and services. This kind of information is available online if buyers are interested. Modern buyers are not ready at all for a presentation at this stage. They want to interact with an expert who can help them frame their goals or challenges.

When inbound sales reps reach out to buyers, they lead with a message personalised to their potential buyer's context. In their opening outreach, inbound sales reps make an offer aligned with the awareness stage of the buying journey. For example, inbound sales reps may offer a free consultation or content about the area the buyer is researching.

Inbound sales reps usually prepare themselves for the connect phase by defining personas. When they define personas, they segment the target market by company type. Then, they pinpoint the different types of people they target within those identified companies. For example, you could segment the companies you target by industry, size, or geographic location. In addition, you can segment the target people by role, title, function, or expected needs, expectations or behaviours.

Once personas are designed, inbound sales reps outline their outreach approach or sequences. The persona sequence defines how they will reach out to the buyer, when they will reach out, and how often.

Finally, inbound sales reps develop the sequence's outreach content for each attempt. It is critical to personalise the outreach to the buyer's context uncovered during the Identify stage.

Define your exploration process

During the Explore stage, legacy sales reps transition into presentation mode when a buyer expresses interest. But legacy sales reps do not understand the buyer's context well enough to deliver a value-adding presentation. Instead, because the buyer context is underdeveloped, legacy sales reps revert to generic presentations outlining information buyers already have access to.

Inbound sales reps typically transition into an exploratory mode when buyers express their interests. Inbound sales reps recognise they do not have the buyer's trust and understanding to deliver a personalised presentation. Inbound sales reps are not even sure whether they can help the buyer.

Instead, inbound sales reps leverage initial buyer interest to develop additional trust and uncover buyer goals through an exploratory conversation. They use their credibility to probe deeper into the buyer's goals and challenges. As true experts, they can assess whether they can help the potential buyer more effective and thoroughly than prospects can on their own. Inbound sales reps guide potential buyers to conclude whether a product suits their needs through a proper value positioning and a relevant questioning process during the explore stage.

Inbound sales reps build an exploratory guide to ensure the discussion is practical from the potential buyers' perspective.

Legacy sales reps deliver the same presentation and case studies during the advice stage to all buyers. First, legacy sales reps might make some light discovery around buyer needs, just enough to know they might be interested. After that, they revert to their autopilot and deliver their generic presentations.

Nevertheless, a modern buyer has already seen the content of this generic presentation. Consequently, they struggle to connect the company's generic value proposition with their specific challenges and needs, and legacy sales reps fail to help the buyers to make these connections.

On the other hand, inbound sales reps tailor the presentation to the potential buyer's context, leveraging the content gathered during the connect stage. For example, during an exploratory conversation, inbound sales reps discover whether the buyer can be helped, wants their help, needs their use, or prioritises goals the salesperson is positioned and knowledgable to help them with.

Inbound sales reps add tremendous value to the buyer's journey beyond online information when uncovering the buyer's context and tailoring the presentation accordingly. Inbound sales reps translate between generic messaging and the buyer's unique situation.

In today's selling environment, sales reps must realise that they serve a different function than their predecessors. Legacy sales reps who only do as a source of information will find themselves unable to compete with inbound sales reps who act as translators between the generic information available online and the buyer's unique needs. 

So, enter the modern sales world by taking HubSpot Academy's free Sales training.

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Anders Björklund
Founder, CEO & Strategist since 2001. Anders provides thoughts and reflections about what and how to think about onlinification and digitalisation in B2B. Asks a lot of questions, and knows what to do with the answers.
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