Selling in different sectors | Same same, or Same different?

By July 26, 2017Blog
Same but different

I was asked recently whether I thought selling in different sectors was essentially the same or fundamentally different. In this post, I look at four sectors and look for similarities and differences in the sales approach. The sectors I have picked are; Professional Services, Financial Services, Health, and Technology. I appreciate there can be significant differences within these broad areas and am always happy to engage in discussion with industry specialists.

Before we start – a bit of language!  The ‘same same’ and ‘same different’ idea comes from New Testament Greek where there are two words for ‘another’.  ‘Allos’, meaning ‘another of the same kind’ and ‘heteros’, meaning ‘another of a different kind’.  It struck me that selling across sectors is a mix of both words.

To put some structure on this thought, I am using the six drivers for change in Business Development that I described in a recent post; Business Development Isn’t What It Used To Be | The Need To Change


We need to sell in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world.  Of course, the elements of VUCA apply across all four sectors and we need to be able to sell in an environment that is inherently unstable and rapidly changing, rather than waiting for normality to return.  As Alex Marshall concludes in a recent article in ‘Cam’ magazine, “So there you have it.  We may have turned a corner, but there’s an awful lot waiting for us there”.

But let’s look at some specifics in the four sectors;

Professional Services sector

In professional services the implications of VUCA for business development focus on being in the right place at the right time.  Corporate events and life events are often what drives an engagement, but they are increasingly unpredictable. We need to be the first person the client calls when they face a change.  We need to foster the relationships that will lead to the transactions.  We need to be seen as part of the client’s relevant set.  That means providing content as a continuous stream of interactions.  We need the right frequency of contact.  We need those who know how to develop relationships based on trust. (watch out for a planned post on trusted relationships).

Financial Services sector

In financial services Business Development, VUCA probably applies most to the professional’s ability to be simultaneously entrepreneurial and compliant.  In a volatile world, it also means moving away from the old reliance on performance and personality, towards a skill in navigating complex situations and structures.

Health sector

In health, the greatest impact of VUCA is probably in complexity and ambiguity.  Steve Johnson of PharmaFT points to the increasing complexity of buying in the health sector and the move away from single contact with prescriber towards multiple contacts with a wide range of stakeholders, many of whom will be influencers rather than actual buyers.  Ambiguity comes into play as Business Development professionals cope with better informed but advice-hungry users and navigate the tensions between increased demand, new solutions and stretched budgets.

Technology sector

In technology, VUCA probably affects Business Development professionals most strongly in unfreezing decision making – customers may be reluctant to take significant financial, technological or structural decisions when the outlook is volatile and uncertain.  The professional needs to be able to show how the solution manages risk for the customer and to ensure that the proposed solution is aligned with the customer’s strategy rather than being a discretionary purchase.

Low growth

As I write, the IMF is projecting growth at 1.7% for UK, 1.9% for the Eurozone, 2.1% for USA and 3.5% for global growth.  If you are projecting organic growth above these figures, then think where it is going to come from.  Are you in a sector or geography which is outperforming these figures? If not then growth can only come from taking share of wallet from competitors, identifying new markets or from innovation. This applies across all four sectors but flat growth probably impacts more on professional and financial services than on health and technology.

Buying behaviours

There are common trends across the four sectors but we can identify some differences.  In health we can note the move from prescriber to non-prescriber buying alluded to by Steve Johnson above.  Steve also notes that the market is now less receptive to the concept that ‘branded is best’ and is more prepared to look at ‘me-too’s’, solutions from emerging competitors and even old solutions that have new applications. In equipment sales (both in health and technology) there is an increased complexity and formality in buying behaviours, a strong emphasis on future-proofing and lifetime costs.  Specialists point to a power shift from the IT specialist to the end user.  In both financial and professional services Business Development professionals point to an increasing use of procurement, the commoditisation of their offerings and a greater mix of channels.

Digital selling tools

Sales automation and enablement affects all Business Development professionals.  In financial services we should highlight the rapid advance of AI.  One consultancy we work with is active in applying machine learning to the insurance claims process to improve the customer experience, manage risk and control costs.  Blockhain will undoubtedly generate change in both information flow and contracts.  There are very exciting developments in the digitisation of proposals and contracts and we are working with some excellent partners in this field.  Social selling and the automation of content marketing will continue to change the way Business Development professionals communicate. It is interesting to note from a recent social selling survey that only about 1 in 4 organisations are providing any development for Business Development professionals in social selling and as few as 1 in 10 have a long term social selling strategy, plan and process.  Whichever sector you are in there is a strong challenge to move from being what I have described as ‘analogue sellers in a digital buying world’.

Customer centricity

I have been reading, thinking and beginning to write on trust in business development and customer relationship management. At the heart of trust building is the client’s sense that you are at least as focused on them as on your own agenda. There are generic aspects of customer centricity and I’ll be writing about this in future posts but there are some sector specific points too. In professional services it is critically important to introduce the team and give them the opportunity to position themselves throughout the buying process. As your client I want to see the team and sense what it will be like to work with them. So early and consistent team selling is a vital skill. Professional services practitioners are often seen and valued as experts by their clients so there is a risk of telling more than listening. A commitment to understand the client before advising will really help the Business Development process. In financial services, customer centricity requires the Business Development professional to harmonise the provider’s risk and compliance processes with the client’s requirements so the client accepts possible constraints early on. There also needs to be clarity about charging structures. In technology, customer centricity frequently centres around the customer feeling that the supplier is flexing to them rather than their having to adapt to the supplier’s technical specification. In health the issue is often about understanding who the customer actually is – the health professional, the prescriber, the procurement/commercial team or the patient – and ensuring all the stakeholders feel their needs and wants are being addressed.

Sales learning

Again we can see some consistent trends and some sector-specific emphasis. Across all four sectors there is an increasing stress on moving from transaction to strategic conversation.  Business Development professionals need to develop strategic account management skills, the ability to form business cases that identify mutual value and which talk (in pharma terms) about ‘value beyond the pill’.  In terms of the ‘how’ of sales learning there needs to be a recognition of time pressures – this is particularly relevant in professional services with the driver of billable hours.  All four sectors tend to employ intellectually able Business Development professionals so this needs to be acknowledged. Conceptual learning is usually fast but there is a tendency to veer away from practical application and the ability to do rather than just the capacity to know. In both health and technology there is a risk of getting over technical, particularly with non-technical buyers.  Business Development professionals need to reinforce the commercial and inter-personal aspects of selling.  Sales learning is going through significant change and professionals from all four sectors can benefit from the new approaches.

In conclusion

I hope you have found these reflections on similarities and differences in business development helpful.  If you would like to explore the subject further I would be happy to talk with you, probably involving one of the sector specialists in the team. Find out more about our Business Development Training here