If you want to start a business that deals with other businesses as its customers, that is commonly referred to as the B2B world. When you are selling in a B2B environment, there are two ways to go about selling. You can go top-down, in this arrangement you sell directly to the ultimate decision-maker. The other option is bottom-up where you sell to the ultimate user. Both approaches work, but we need to understand the implications of each to better sell in a B2B environment.

Your customer is not your consumer

One key of B2B selling you need to grasp early on is that your customer is rarely your consumer. The person who decides on whether or not to buy your product is usually not the person who uses the product. We can draw a parallel with products targeted at children, where the person who makes the decision to buy (parent or guardian) is not the same as the person who enjoys the product (child). This presents a little complexity in who to target. Do we go top-down or bottom-up?

Top-down selling

Top-down selling sounds very good from the start because you are targeting the person who makes the buying decision. The assumption here is that if you have the buy-in of the decision maker, you have 90% of the work done already. So your goal here is to speak directly to the people at the top of each organisation and sell to them.

One advantage of working in this setting is your time spent on sales is always spent with a decision-maker. This means you can rest assured you’re cutting out on wasted effort. Another advantage of top-down selling is that you may experience a shorter sales process than in the case of bottom-up selling. Generally, in B2B sales, the most challenging part of getting a sale through is getting the decision maker to agree. In many organisations, power rests at the top and once that decision is made, subordinates are usually tasked to make things work.

However, there are disadvantages to top-down selling. Firstly, because your interface with the decision maker rather than the user/consumer, you may have trouble with product fit when it comes to the users of the product. A worst-case scenario is one where despite the buy-in from the top, the ultimate users may reject the product. Top-down selling also presents the difficulty of accessing decision-makers, they are usually very hard to get a hold of and have gatekeepers.

Bottom-up selling

In bottom-up selling, it is pretty much the opposite. Your sales efforts are spent on convincing the users first and getting their buy-in. The goal here is to get the product fit early on and ensure that the people who will ultimately work with the product will enjoy doing so. These people will then push the proposal to use your product in the organisation up the totem pole.

The first advantage here is getting the product fit early on in the conversation. The second advantage is there is much less gatekeeping at the lower levels of organisations, and the people you want to speak to are much more accessible. You also gain the advantage of relying on people in the organisation as internal salespeople who advocate for your product to the decision-maker.

As with top-down selling, bottom-up selling also has its disadvantages. While you get the advantage of internal advocacy for your product, you may not be selling to people who are aware of the bigger picture regarding all factors that influence the choice of product. If you do not have time to interface with the decision maker, you may be rejected without understanding all that goes into the decision. You may realistically never get an opportunity to speak to the decision-maker in bottom-up selling.

The reality is that you would ideally want to be adept at both top-down and bottom-up selling in B2B environments. You will also need to factor into your marketing and communications; to make your messaging works both top-down and bottom-up. You may prepare for top-down selling but be approached with a bottom-up opportunity. In other cases, the decision maker may require that you convince the end users first.