How Enterprise Clients Buy: A Roadmap From a Former IBM Employee

This article is based on a podcast episode from Modern Sales. You can listen here.

When it comes to selling to enterprise clients, the first thing to understand is how they buy. Sure, there are tips and tricks that you can employ to leverage a more effective sales process. But none of it matters if your enterprise sales strategy isn’t aligned with their buying process.

That’s exactly what I tried to understand in a conversation with former IBM employee Ariel Yoffie. She headed up several large purchasing decisions for them and was kind enough to share what she learned.

What follows are lessons that you can apply to selling to enterprise clients, all pulled from Ariel’s experience as a buyer at IBM.

Here are the top takeaways from my conversation with Ariel (which she’s also written about here).

When you serve enterprise clients, there are thousands of users and use cases.

One thing that Ariel makes clear right from the beginning is the enormity of the buying process. She urges patience, and “endurance” throughout the process.

That is, enterprise clients have a long and grueling sales cycle.

It’s not for the faint of heart, and you can’t be in a hurry. Her buying cycle was long and complicated.

There were 5 phases of evaluation.

There were five distinct phases of evaluation:

  1. Reviewing vendors’ websites
  2. Sending an inbound request and receiving a response from the vendor
  3. Discovery and demo calls
  4. RFP submission and evaluation
  5. Proof of concept

Take note here: your enterprise sales process should align closely with the buying process. I’ll get to a key difference I recommend when it comes to RFPs a bit later.

After Ariel evaluated every option in the market, 27 companies had websites good enough to receive an inbound request. Only 4 vendors made it to the last stage in the process before she made a selection with the other decision makers.

Stage #2 proved complicated for some. You’d think it would be straightforward for a company to respond to a lead, but it wasn’t. Some companies took up to 3 weeks to respond, while some never did. For Ariel, 48 hours is a good benchmark for acceptable response time.

Be honest and make the sales process easy.

Selling anything can frustrating, but think about your buyer. In Ariel’s case, buying was difficult too.

She urges all sellers – whether you’re selling a product or service – to send a quick response and always be honest.

IBM needs to see integrity and endurance throughout the process. So only make promises that you can deliver, otherwise you’ll lose the client in the long run, even if you win them now.

“Some of the winners were the people who walked away,” she said. These sellers didn’t waste time by moving farther in the process. They were willing to walk away as soon as they identified a mismatch. But who wants to lose?

They didn’t lose.

The sales rep bolstered the brand’s standing in Ariel’s mind, even though they didn’t do business together. These are the kind of referral moments that can make a big difference.

Needs get surfaced many different ways.

There’s no single way that enterprise clients suddenly need a product or service. Sometimes it happens organically based on internal discussions. Sometimes they attempt to fix the problem themselves, and do it unsuccessfully.

In one case, they had an expiring contract with a vendor and began to look elsewhere. Which tells us two things:

  1. We’d do well to figure out when our prospects’ contracts are expiring with competing companies
  2. The right time to focus on customer success is much before the end of the contract

The best sales reps help with ROI analysis.

Making the business case is more important than the price. Ariel always had to build a business case and submit it to finance before a purchasing decision was final.

She developed a spreadsheet and made the case to the CFO of her business unit. “At IBM, every decision should be data-driven,” she said.

And when she had a rep that helped her do the ROI analysis, it helped her build the case. Remember, she’s already sold by this point. And knowing how content is shared, like the ROI analysis, will help accelerate your sale.

Remember the bit about making buying easy?

Just remember to be careful with ROI early in the sales process.

Decisions require a lot of people and time.

Hundreds of people participated in decisions with higher stakes purchases, which are 6-figures and above. One particular decision took over a year to do the research, RFPs, proofs of concept, and a final decision. While the data shows that 6.8 decision makers are involved in a sale, the reality is that that number swells quickly.

She buys services the same way as products.

There’s almost no difference between the purchase of products and services. For Ariel, the same 5-step process was used every time.

Given IBM’s extensive services business, she’d sometimes hire internally for service contracts, then make a decision about whether she needed an outside vendor instead.

If I’m selling to a company that provides services, I can bet they’ve tried and failed to solve their problem before talking to me. And wouldn’t it be good to know why?

RFP process can be sidestepped with a good proof of concept.

I don’t advocate that you participate in RFP processes. They’re rarely fair, they’re always expensive, and they’re quite risky in terms of the cost of sale.

I asked Ariel if she’d ever consider exempting a firm from the RFP process, and the answer is only in some cases.

The bottom line: you need to be different. The more you stand out from commoditized vendors, the more leverage you have in the sales process.

There is a note of caution on the proof of concept though. If you don’t want to do a free proof of concept, you need to go through the procurement process. Some will survive, some won’t.

Conclusion

Winning enterprise clients means you first need to understand how they buy, and have an enterprise sales process that aligns. Keep in mind that the findings here are from one single interview and not representative of all buyers. What’s clear is that Fortune 100 buying cycles are long and expensive.

Patience and endurance are the keys.

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