Twenty-five years ago, I was but a mere snot-nosed kid out of college who suddenly decided that law school was not in the future. With a recession in full swing, and a need to pay the rent, I took the first job offered and went into sales.
Having learned nothing about the sales profession in college, I picked up a copy of Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling — still have a dog-eared copy on my bookshelf. I learned everything I could about the buyer types, account management and the sales process. “Know the process; work the process,” as my first sales manager used to say.
Typically, that process came down to five to seven steps that generally covered the following areas below.
However, research from Google and CEB titled The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing provides new insight into buyer behavior, and it challenges the conventional wisdom. According to the study, customers reported to being nearly 60 percent through the sales process before engaging a sales rep, regardless of price point. More accurately, 57 percent of the sales process just disappeared.
What are buyers doing if they’re not talking to sales? They are surfing corporate websites to identify and qualify vendors, instead of the sales force qualifying them. They are engaging peers in social media to learn more about their needs, potential solutions and providers. And they are reading, listening to and watching free digital content that is available to them at the click of a mouse. No longer is the sales force the sole source or gatekeeper of information.
What does this mean for sales and marketing?
The study recommends focusing efforts in three areas: (1) improve marketing communication integration; (2) develop and activate a content strategy; and (3) strengthen multichannel analytics. Nothing new or breakthrough here, but the study provides good examples of how companies are executing against each point. In addition, I found a number of other points to take from the research.
1. It is not all bad news – For products or services with low price points and/or margins, having customers direct themselves through the sales process can help reduce the cost of sale and/or create leverage for the sales force. In fact, in certain situations, an organization might want to encourage and/or incentivize this type of behavior. The research also found that some customers felt comfortable going through 70 percent of the process before making contact.
2. Changing buying behavior – A former manager of mine used to say that technology changes fastest, then consumer buyer behavior and eventually, organizations. The 57 percent stated in the research makes for a good sound bite; the fact is, that number will vary, greatly by customers, transaction, industry, etc. The point is that change is a constant; the question is how far ahead or behind are your sales and marketing efforts? Are you keeping pace? The second question is, how would you know?
3. Content distribution – As the study notes, the sales force is still the most effective and important communication channel. When developing the content strategy ensures that the best and/or most valuable content is not in the public domain, reserve it for the sales force.
4. Time to take social media seriously – With well-informed prospects, sales reps have to quickly learn what buyers know or perceive about the organization, products/services and competitors. Social media can help them better understand what is motivating buyers to take action, what buyers believe to be true, and perhaps most important, who they believe.
Business decision-makers will continue to drive their buyer process deeper into the sales process. As a result, relevant content will continue to escalate in value, especially content related to consideration and purchase drivers, and the business application of the product or service.
With ever-increasing knowledgeable buyers waiting longer to engage, sales has to transition from being a “product pusher” following a process, to an insight “provider” adding value to the buyers business. As the study states, sales must deliver “pointed insights and evidence that seek to challenge an entrenched point of view among potential customers.”
Finally, it is time to recognize that we’re not in control, and perhaps we never were. The traditional sales process is now obsolete; it is time to follow the buyers’ journey.
He blogs regularly at www.B2Bknowledgesharing.com