Applying E-Commerce Principles to Sales Process Engineering

Applying E-Commerce Principles to Sales Process Engineering | The Sterling Woods Group

In the past, B2Bs would never have considered trying to model their sales processes after what B2Cs do. After all, selling to businesses is an entirely different beast than selling to individuals. 

While B2Cs may be able to convince consumers to make a purchase on a whim or entice them with deals and entry-level products, B2Bs often don’t have the same advantages. They’re dealing with companies that have budgets and multiple levels of approval, and the goods or services they’re selling are often big-ticket items.

However, today it’s the B2Cs that are driving customer expectations. Whether you’re selling to a business or selling to an end consumer, you are ultimately selling to a human. And human behavior has changed. Brands like Amazon that deliver goods to your front door in 48 hours and provide stellar customer support should something go wrong have made customers hungry for that kind of experience everywhere else, including in their work lives.

That’s why it’s time for B2Bs to embrace sales process engineering. And adhering to e-commerce principles can guide them through the process.

What Is Sales Process Engineering?

In many B2B organizations, the salesperson is a god-like figure. Sales is not easy. It’s understandable that talented salespeople are often given a lot of leeway from management. The thinking generally is, “They’ve got a system for selling that works for them—I should sit back and let them do their thing. Why mess with success?”

There are a number of problems with the Lone Ranger approach, though. When the salesperson holds all of the information about a customer and handles every interaction on their own, the rest of the team loses out on the ability both to support the salesperson adequately and learn from the customer interaction to strengthen their approach to their own job. There’s no systematic way to train new people—you just have to hire a bunch of people and see who works out. You have no repeatable or predictable funnel and it’s difficult and expensive to scale.

The opposite of this Wild West sales style is sales process engineering. Sales process engineering is about creating standardized workflows, coordinating across roles and functions, and measuring what works and what does not—all sales tactics that you see B2Cs readily embrace.

In this model, salespeople still sell, but they’re supported by other teams. Everyone has their own, clearly-delineated role in the process, but they work together as a group to best serve your customers. And leadership manages the entire pipeline centrally; information isn’t siloed amongst salespeople.

Sales process engineering can change the way you do business if you know how to structure your process properly. Fortunately, the world of e-commerce provides some guidance for how to get it done.

Different Segments Require Different Processes

E-commerce brands are all about segmenting their customers. They don’t see their customers as one homogeneous mass—they recognize that different people are looking for different things. And that means they differentiate everything about their approach: the products they create, the pricing structures they build, the deals and offers they make, and the sales tactics they use.

Let’s look at direct-to-consumer clothing giant Reformation. Generally speaking, they target young, urban professionals. These shoppers are socially-conscious, looking to buy clothes that are environmentally-friendly and ethically-produced.

But when you go to their website, you can see that they’ve segmented that broad audience into narrower personas. They have a tab for Ref jeans, which serves up their more casual clothing options, a tab for shoes, and a tab for weddings (which is divided further into brides, bridesmaids, and guests).

Of course, the woman buying a pair of jeans will have very different needs and expectations from the woman buying her wedding dress. That’s why, on the jeans page, there are plentiful options and a note about their shipping policy, whereas on the bridal page, there’s a curated selection of a few dresses and a phone number and email for Reformation’s “marital specialist” team if you need personalized support.

B2Bs must also focus on segmenting their customer bases. Just like the bride will likely take more time and need more hand-holding from Reformation’s sales team before she makes her final decision, there are B2B clients who will take more time at various stages of the sales cycle than others. 

One B2B that’s applied segmentation with great success is GE Healthcare. In his case study for Harvard Business School, Sunil Gupta investigates how GE Healthcare shifted away from generic data and instead turned to real customer information to segment their business.

They used to group hospitals by the size of the facility, number of beds and patients, and geography. Now, having looked at the data, they’ve created customer-focused segments. They consider whether the customer they’re selling to is a doctor or an administrator. They weigh whether the hospital is looking to differentiate themselves from their competition by offering a superior imaging product (like the one GE provides). And they consider the expectations the customer has for the equipment—how many patients they expect to use it each day—and whether the facility will need additional services, like support and maintenance for the machines.

Segment your customers based on their wants and needs. From there, you can build out processes that allocate adequate resources to support each persona along their specific customer journey.

Nurture with Omnichannel Content

E-commerce brands have got the digital marketing game mastered. Take houseplant retailer The Sill as a great example.

Google “houseplant for sale” (or really any related search term), and The Sill dominates in both organic and paid search results. Journey over to Instagram and find them there, and perhaps join 630,000 others in following their account. Toggle over to their website and discover a solid content marketing approach. They have more how-tos and plant information than you can shake a stick at.

Their website invites you to “get the dirt” and sign up for their newsletter (and who doesn’t love a clever plant pun?). It’s the kind of educational content that builds trust in a brand. It makes even a plant novice feel like they could develop their green thumb.

B2Bs need to be just as aggressive about targeting their audience across all available channels. The well-known “marketing rule of seven” states that people need to see or hear your message seven times before they take action. If that isn’t a lesson in the importance of persistence, I don’t know what is!

Take a B2B like HubSpot. They’re in the marketing space, so you’d expect them to have a strong marketing strategy, and they certainly deliver. They have a website with a robust content platform—they’ve got articles on just about any sales or marketing topic you could ever imagine. Their social media presence is strong across social media channels. They use retargeting to run YouTube ads to people who have visited their site. They make sure that if you’ve interacted with their brand at all, they’re around every corner to remind you that they’re here when you’re ready to make a purchase decision.

That’s why your sales and marketing teams need to come together in speaking with prospects. Remember, though, that not everything needs to be a sales pitch.

Building trust with meaningful educational content is critical in the early days (be it emails, blog posts, or webinars). That often falls in the marketing team’s basket. Providing demos of your product with interested leads comes later in the cycle. And that’s typically handled by your sales team. 

But there’s a lot of crossover where the two teams need to work together. For example, your marketing team can create an enticing call to action on your website to encourage prospects to sign up for your mailing list. They can also create great newsletters and targeted offers that catch prospects’ eyes in a crowded inbox. But then the marketing and sales teams need a process for identifying who’s ready to be handed off to sales. Then they need a process for managing that hand-off, so the messaging they’re receiving from your business remains consistent throughout.

Engineering Is a Science, So Treat It as Such

We call it sales process engineering for a reason. That’s because you need to take a scientific approach to the process. B2Cs have gotten really good at analyzing data all along the funnel. That data helps them understand where conversions pick up, stagnate, or fall off. By looking at conversion data at each step of the way, they can better understand what’s working (or not working) in their current approach. From there, they can lean into the good stuff while shying away from the ineffective tactics.

B2Bs can benefit from a similarly stringent testing and learning approach to sales. Using a tool like a CRM or customer data platform (CDP) to unify all of the data you’re collecting on prospects is a great place to start. From there, you can build out a dashboard with sales KPIs.

Sharing the dashboard regularly and across your entire organization guarantees alignment amongst all of your team members. And when everyone is on the same page, it makes it that much easier to work together as a true team to grow your business.

As you gather more data, you can use it to refine your sales process even further. Learning from real-life customer interactions allows you to create a process that speaks to the actual needs of your best customers. That, in turn, helps you attract more customers like them in the future.

The world of selling has changed. There’s more overlap than ever before in the way that B2Cs and B2Bs conduct business. It’s really a B2I (Business to Individual) world now.

Many direct-to-consumer B2Cs have developed clear processes for handling marketing and sales. These processes allow them to find the right prospects, target them with the correct messaging, and ultimately win more business. When B2Bs embrace a similarly systematic approach to sales, they can improve their own revenues.

About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC

The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.

We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.

About the Author

Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.

He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.

Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.