In contrast to Business-to-Customer (B-to-C) sales interaction, in Business-to-Business (B-to-B) sales interaction it is rare to make a sale on the first couple of contacts with a potential customer. Thus, one of most important objectives of the salesperson in a face-to-face sales meeting with a B-to-B customer is to obtain an incremental commitment to move the sales case along via ’the next step.’ This incremental commitment might be what the salesperson (SP) and the customer (C) agree to do after the meeting in order to advance the sales process. In addition, without an agreement for the next step, the sales meeting can be considered a failure, at least from the SP’s perspective. Recognizing the importance of the next step, it is hardly surprising that the earlier literature on B-to-B sales usually states that it is SP’s task to propose a commitment that will move the sale forward in some way, and it is recommended that the commitment proposed is the highest realistic commitment the C is able to give. Drawing on Conversation Analysis (CA) as our method and analyzing authentic video-recorded initial B-to-B sales meetings, this paper investigates how, at what point, and after what other actions, incremental commitment towards the next step is proposed and discussed in successful B-to-B sales meetings.
The professional selling process is continuously changing. Sales approaches seem to evolve from an early transactional sales process to simple need satisfaction and relationship selling models, to a more complex collaborative and value co-creating sales processes today (Borg and Young 2014, Haas et al. 2012; Töytäri and Rajala 2015, Töytäri et al. 2011, Weitz 1981). Recent studies suggest that sales happen through exploring customer needs and finding suitable solutions together. Several author teams call for rethinking the sales process (e.g. Barber and Tietje 2008, Dixon and Tanner 2012, Sheth and Sharma 2007).
We argue that along the shift towards the value co-creating selling approach, a sales process becomes a collaborative effort that involves a series of meetings where seller needs to invest more worktime and resources to the sales case over time. Therefore, it is essential to obtain a clear commitment from a customer to advance the sales process to the next collaborative step. Thus, obtaining incremental commitment several times within the sales process becomes an important element for success. Therefore, it is surprising that the extant body of knowledge lacks research on incremental commitment.
The present study aims to explore how salespeople obtain incremental commitment in authentic real-life B2B sales processes. To do so, we use video-recorded naturally occurring sales meetings between professional salespeople and business customers. We study incremental commitments in the context of complex professional services and IT solutions selling in Finland. Our data includes seven videos, with a total running time of 6 hours and 32 minutes. To analyze buyer-seller interaction in-depth, we apply a conversation analysis (CA) method, adopted from the linguistics field of research to sales research.
Today’s sales process calls for an ability to obtain an incremental commitment
Traditionally, salespeople worked as product experts, representing the product to the customer, and providing functions consistent with marketing communication and persuasion perspectives (awareness, interest, desire and action). Each sales meeting was viewed as a discrete transaction with something specific to be accomplished. This led to the development of a seven step selling process (Dubinsky 1981) widely adopted and still used today (Sheth and Sharma 2007).
Yet circumstances have changed dramatically for the sales force. Forces such as purchasing becoming more centralized and strategic, including more focus on fewer suppliers (Ulaga and Eggert 2006), a shift toward services (Shet and Sharma 2007), rising costs of selling (Rackham 2011), technological changes and the emergence of solution sourcing have meant that the traditional single call, seven step model may no longer be relevant today. Many of these forces point to an increase of automation of certain sales processes, and a transferring of certain customers to digitized selling channels. However, for those customers that remain, expectations for value creation, higher service levels and the role of the salesperson in understanding their business are elevated (Rackham 2011; Sheth and Sharma 2007).
Sheth and Sharma (2007) propose that this elevation means a customer-focused sales force rather than a product-focused sales force. This includes a focus on services and solutions over product, whereby a salesperson practices solution selling rather than being a walking billboard; salespeople must understand customer problems and participate in the development of solutions. This shift is accompanied by continued customer support. Trust, service excellence, a new selling process focused on problem solving, and internal advocacy for customers all take on important roles in solution selling.
Barber and Tietje (2008) propose a move away from a traditional sales process to one in which the buyer and seller jointly create value. They suggest that value stream mapping can provide a tool to accomplish this. They identify the following steps:
- identify value desired by customer,
- identify the value stream for each product and eliminate steps that don’t create value,
- line up remaining steps in a continuous flow,
- transition from push philosophy of selling to one where the customer can effectively pull value from the firm.
Implications for sales include being more collaborative in the diagnostic stages of the selling cycle, proactively planning for customer needs within the proposed solution, a shift from selling to helping customers buy (find and implement solutions faster), and communicating transparently (Barber and Tietje 2008).
Dixon and Tanner (2012) also point out that through the emergence of solution selling, value co-creation, as well as the proliferation of virtual and team selling, traditional sales process models need to be revised. They call for a transformation in the definition of selling from a seven step linear process to one that is contextualized and humanized. They propose using the metaphor of an architect to understand that the sales process has changed. The salesperson is an architect for change that add value by challenging existing paradigms, diagnosing business challenges, and designing valuable solutions together with the customer. This approach involves on-going conversations and collaboration across the series of sales meetings.
All of these proposals have certain implications. To synthesize, proposed recent ideas represent an idea of advancing sales through continuous collaboration and deepening of the relationship as the actions and risk become greater the more invested the companies get in the process. To master sales in this new era, obtaining incremental commitment along the extended sales process becomes a critical ability for salespeople. However, we really don’t know what that looks like in more complex selling situations, so there is a gap to explore.
As the present study aimed to explore how salespeople obtain incremental commitment in sales interaction in its ordinary settings, we turned to video recordings of authentic initial sales meetings. The study context is B2B sales meetings in the complex professional services and IT solutions industries where a value co-creating sales approach is often applied today. We used naturally occurring initial sales meetings between professional salespeople and their prospective customers, as opposed to role plays, experiments, or students. SPs and customers didn’t have a previous business relationship. The dataset includes seven video recordings from three case companies representing complex professional services and IT solutions. We selected salespeople through random sampling within the firms, thus providing a reasonable variety of profiles. Video recordings were captured when a consenting prospective customer was identified.
We applied the method of conversation analysis (CA) to analyze how salespeople obtain a customer’s incremental commitment to advance the sales process. Our CA analysis approach follows a qualitative analysis method using audio and video recordings of naturally-occurring activities to study the details of actions as they are temporally and sequentially arranged by participants in collaboration (Mondada 2013). We employ the CA method to identify key interactional activities that seem central in obtaining the incremental commitment. We believe that new insights into the practice of achieving a customer’s incremental commitment can be gained through detailed scrutiny of how sales practitioners accomplish their day-to-day work.
In our video-recorded data, the overall structure of the discussion about obtaining customer’s incremental commitment follows a five-part schema.
- A proposal of a pilot, a project, or some other concrete next action involving the customer is made
- The customer organization’s internal reflection and discussions about the next action are addressed
- A time-table for the next actions is negotiated
- A next meeting or contact between the salesperson and the customer is scheduled
- The salesperson summarizes the agreed next actions
We discovered that the negotiation of the incremental commitment is a circulating process, sometimes involving several proposals within the step 1. When customer rejects the first proposal as a too big or unfeasible step forwards, the salesperson later makes a second proposal for a smaller commitment. Customer starts to further consider and reflect it to his everyday business (step 2) only when the proposal is of right size of commitment.
Interestingly, in our data this 5-step schema is regularly initiated (by a salesperson or a customer) after the business meeting has reached its half-way point but before two-thirds of the meeting has passed. However, despite the relatively fixed location of its initiation, it should be noted that this schema may vary in its length. In successful sales meetings, where the salesperson is able to get the customer’s incremental commitment for an action that brings a deal closer, the schema takes more time and includes more of the above mentioned steps, compared to the less successful sales meetings. For example, in one of our video-recordings, the salesperson does propose a pilot for the customer (step 1 of our schema), but the customer turns it down and there is no further discussion about how to proceed. Thus the meeting is a failure from the salesperson’s point of view. In more successful cases, the negotiation of customer commitment is a circular process during which the nature of customer commitment circles through a series of steps to become more precise.
In this short paper, we are interested in the signs that allow the salesperson to decide the right time to propose an incremental commitment from the customer. We find that the salesperson wants both a clearly verbalized interest in the service, as well as a clearly verbalized need of the customer for the service being offered before s/he proposes commitment.
Through a detailed analysis of one 48 minute video-recorded B2B-meeting between a sales firm that offers strategic solutions for businesses and a customer organization that focuses on the development of well-being at work, we provide examples of our findings. The findings are validated across our entire sample. The salesperson (SP) has described the product and service that her company offers, a virtual platform for brainstorming where both the creation and evaluation of new ideas are possible. She has given an example how this service has been applied in practice. In our first excerpt, the customer (C) offers a first sign of an interest toward the service by stating that the service “could work” in one of their projects.
Excerpt 1. 20 mins. ”Could work”
1 C: One place where this type of way or (0.4) process could work is
2 where we are now (0.4); I don’t know if the term ”Quantified Self”
3 (0.)says anything to you
5 SP: £no it doesn’t£ he he
6 C: ”Quantified Self” is (0.2) like this kind of phenomenon – –
By saying that the service “could work”, the customer does state a sign of interest, but he does not offer any sign of personal commitment yet. Rather, he states that under the circumstances and in the context of their possible future business, the service might be suitable for use. In excerpt 2, he continues his description, and goes on to offer a sign of personal commitment.
Excerpt 2. 22 mins. ”We could consider”
1 C: so ehm, (.) we have now like allocated this new project
2 ”Quantified Employee” a small slice of funding?
4 SP: yes.
5 C: so ehm,
7 C: there, like,(.) in a way we could consider that kind of brainstorming
8 like that, (0.4) and see how do the employees feel – –
In line 7, the customer makes a reference to the organization that he represents (“we”) and describes the service that the salesperson offers as one that they “could consider”. When compared to excerpt 1, this is a more concrete sign of interest, as it is not only the circumstances that make the service possibly suitable, but also their organizational desire. Shortly after this, the salesperson asks about the timeframe for this project, thus requesting more specific information. Then, when the customer has described the project in more detail, he for the third time offers a sign of interest towards the service. Crucially, this time he also states a need for this kind of service.
Excerpt 3. 26 mins. ”We could need”
1 C: so there, (.) like, (0.2) th- (0.2) there (0.2) to this
3 C: to this project so that type of, (0.6) or something like that
4 we could like anyway,
5 SP: yes.
6 C: could need.
7 SP: yes. (0.4) .hh so there we could begin like this that
8 (0.4) that (0.2) all these organizations who are involved,
9 or private persons involved, we could invite them to
10 like, (0.4) co-develop [in a way
11 C: [yes.
12 SP: like what does this mean – –
After the customer has stated a need (lines 3–4 and 6), the salesperson goes on to produce the first step of our schema, a proposal of a project that would apply their service to the customer’s context (see lines 7–10 and 11).
What has led her to decide that this is a right moment to move on to the discussion of customer’s incremental commitment? We argue that it is the repeated signs of interest from the customer (excerpts 1–3), personal willingness to consider the service (excerpt 2), as well as the statement of a need for this kind of service (excerpt 3) that enable this decision. While this provides only one example in our analysis, our data and analysis process demonstrate the phenomenon over and over. The salesperson then proceeds to develop the various steps for the incremental commitment proposal.
Although abbreviated here for this abstract, our data point to two main findings. First, we see that there are particular steps that, as included, advance the likelihood of success in obtaining incremental commitment. Second, we see that in these successful cases, salespeople are attuned to hearing subtle signs of interest, and in particular when the interest is coupled with a need. Since the presence of both aspects of customer response seem to related to the likelihood of agreeing to next steps, we show necessary requirements for advancing the call.
This work advances the selling area by 1. Demonstrating that incremental commitment is explicitly requested by salespeople in actual long term selling contexts, 2. Showing that there are certain times during the call when the salesperson is most likely to be successful in asking for incremental commitment, and 3. Showing the “best” approach to propose incremental commitment to the customer. Previously this phenomenon has not been delineated to this degree. While the notion of incremental commitment was generally believed to be an aspect of the sales process, it was not confirmed, nor details known. We also demonstrate that CA is a viable method to further refine our understanding of the sales process.
What this confirmation and delineation does is provide a tool for sales managers to develop their salespeople. If we understand the best way to propose next steps, and when to do it, then we can train and coach salespeople to be more successful by tuned in for the proper signs and by developing a process for proposing incremental commitment that can be learned and developed to improve success. This not only increases the salesperson’s likelihood of success in moving the sales process forward, but also helps the customer by making the process as efficient as possible and assuring that the co-created solution is truly reflective of what they are interested in and actually need.
The data and analysis presented here are a limited picture of the broader data and findings we have, as constrained by space. We believe that the richness from this type of qualitative data, coupled with the CA technique, will yield additional insights regarding the sales process and how incremental commitment is obtained. However, we do recognize some limitations that should be addressed in future work. For example, this sample is limited to one country, and to highly complex, technical industries. Further exploration needs to consider the robustness of these findings over multiple contexts. Additionally, with only seven observations, we require further specific testing of success or failure against a larger sample.
With the changes that are characterizing the sales process today, work like this is needed to assure that we have a rich understanding of the sales process as it operates today and in the future. We believe this work provides a springboard to encourage more and richer work on the sales process in actual practice.
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Jarkko Niemi, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Ratapihantie 13, 00520 Helsinki, Finland, firstname.lastname@example.org
Timo Kaski, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Ratapihantie 13, 00520 Helsinki, Finland, email@example.com
Ellen Pullins, University of Toledo, 2801 W. Bancroft Street, Toledo, Ohio 43606, firstname.lastname@example.org