If there’s anything I’ve learned during my career in sales and business development, it’s that opportunities are quite literally everywhere – providing you can (help) create them. That’s not Polyannistic thinking, or “the glass is half full”. It’s literally true: in an increasingly global, competitive economy, buyers and companies everywhere are looking for all the help they can get – even (especially) if they don’t know it yet.

The “standard” approach to sales is either to wait for an opportunity to arise and then sell against it – let’s call this “inbound” selling. The alternative is to “cast a wide net” of suspects, find a few who are willing to speak (and are, hopefully, at least somewhat qualified) and try to work towards “a close” – “outbound” selling. But what if there was a third approach – an approach that not only delivered (far) better results, but created far less “waste” in terms of damaged relationships and lost opportunities, and was more engaging and stimulating for both sides ?

In RAIN Group’s research on Insight Selling, we found the following Top-3 factors are what buyers report make them pick one firm over another:

1. Educated me with new ideas and perspectives
2. Collaborated with me
3. Persuaded me we will achieve results

And even though this approach is gaining ground, many sellers are still too focused on applying these ideas in the context of an individual sale – not a relationship over time. Thereby missing the bigger picture: true sales success isn’t made over a single sale. It’s made over an entire relationship. Many of our clients in management consulting, financial services, executive search and technology report they “want to sell value, and build long term relationships”.

They know what they want, but struggle with how.

At RAIN Group, we’ve developed a simple, 5-step approach to collaborating with buyers, engage with them and gradually build a relationship of mutual trust, respect and opportunity.

1. Prepare buyers to collaborate

Start by inviting a buyer to collaborate – whether by soliciting their advice on a key issue, asking for an “informal 30 minutes of their time” to walk through an approach or suggesting to have a brief call to review an idea. The key is to genuinely ask for their input, not propose a thinly veiled “look at the wonderful work we’ve done with this past client” pitch.

Doing this is the first step in laying the foundation for a collaborative, open exchange – in a way that is non-threatening, value-added and truly collaborative.

2. Wonder with the buyer

Once you’ve secured the first meeting or opportunity to interact, the next step is to embark on what I like to call “diligent discovery”. We often have a tendency to assume too many things: what works, what doesn’t, what people/companies “should be doing” and the kinds of results they can achieve.

Don’t fall into that trap – instead, engage your counterpart in a series of exploratory steps that are designed to explore the whole issue, develop a deeper understanding on the underlying factors (think causes, not symptoms) and explore potential options for resolution.

When doing this, look specifically for causes, impact and effects. Ask questions like:

• What do you believe could be causing the problem ?
• What effects do you think this might have ?
• What would the impact be if you “got this right” ?
• What could go wrong ? Why wouldn’t this work ?
• What roadblocks could you see prevent this from happening ?

By openly addressing the things that could go wrong, you build trust and invite your buyer to collaborate on developing better, stronger and more long-lasting solutions. Collaboration is not about pitching, or pretending you know everything. This is the time to truly open up, admit you don’t have all the answers (and your buyer doesn’t either), but perhaps, just maybe, you can figure this out together.

3. Ask incisive questions

Especially when we’re faced with someone for the first time, we often have a tendency to avoid asking the hard questions. We feel it’s somehow inappropriate, disrespectful or rude. But think about this: when you ask a friend for advice on something you’re struggling with, do you want them to sugarcoat the issue, or tell you the truth ? The same goes for buyers – many (most) senior B2B buyers are intelligent, highly educated and have often considered an issue for a long time and “looked at all the angles”.

They don’t want someone to simply echo what they already know – they want a sparring partner who can shoot holes in their reasoning, suggest alternatives and conduct due diligence on their ideas. By asking tough questions (in a soft way), you deepen the atmosphere of joint discovery, and build the feeling of mutual exploration that leads to trust and mutual ownership. For a list of 11 incisive questions for Insight Selling, check out “Your Guide To Insight Selling Success” from RAIN Group.

4. Shape the path forward together

Uncovering the issue, its potential implications and the effects and impacts of success is great – but, unless you take one more step, it will not get you any closer to resolving it, or a sale.

The fourth step in the process is to identify potential actions, and an approach for moving forward together. Don’t just ask: what should we do now ? That’s too broad, and may cause them to suggest something that will not get them the result they need. And don’t “push for the sale” just yet either; depending on the situation, intermediate steps may be needed.

Being too pushy at this stage may mark you as a “salesperson”, and undo all the work you’ve done (and the trust you’ve built) together in the process thus far.

5. Give the buyer ownership of the idea

Yes, you’ve had a meaningful part in the conversation thus far. Yes, you’re a smart, capable professional. And yes, you may know what they need to do and already be thinking three steps ahead. But if you really want your buyer to take action, let them own the idea. When they feel ownership, your buyer will be motivated to sell it internally, able to convince others of its worth and continue to move forward in the face of setbacks and adversity.

Try the five steps to collaborating with buyers, and see what happens. As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.