‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’
—George Bernard Shaw
Way back in the sepia-tinged days of 2011, in the days before men trained eagles to attack rogue drones and hoverboards were still the stuff of the Back To The Future movies, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff cast his eyes to the future.
Speaking at his company’s DreamForce conference, Benioff called for an 'Arab Spring' in the business world. What did he mean? Well, Benioff had noted the role that social media had played in the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
‘There were no signs that said, “Thank you, Microsoft.” There were no signs that said, “Thank you, IBM.” No. Look at this. “Thank you, Facebook,” in all these different languages, in all these different cultures.’
He then likened the toppled dictators of the Arab Spring countries to CEOs who refuse to listen to their customers and employees:
'It’s not so long from now we’ll start to hear about “Corporate Spring” and “Enterprise Spring”,’ said Benioff. ‘We’ve seen Mubarak fall. We’ve seen Khadafy fall. When will the first CEO fall for the same reason?'
While it may seem a little over the top to compare behavioral shifts in the business world to people liberating themselves from the yoke of tyranny, Benioff was certainly right about one thing: customer behavior has changed, changed utterly. Social media has seen to that.
Benioff argued that B2B needed to change too, to fit in with the changes in the world. He said that B2B companies had to become social enterprises themselves, rather than ignoring technology or dismissing it as only for consumers. He said that customers and employees were already interacting over social media, regardless of whether it was verboten or not by the company higher-ups.
Today, we can only marvel at Benioff’s foresight. A 2014 survey of 1,900 corporate decision-makers conducted by the US-based Corporate Executive Board (CEB) found that buyers are already a minimum of 57% of the way through the buying process before they decide to contact a potential supplier. Some of those surveyed said they were as much as 70% of the way through the sale before speaking to a vendor.
Buyer behavior has also become far more difficult to predict. As Mahuya Ghosh, the senior product manager for Dell, noted in an article for LinkedIn, the non-linear nature of the modern-day buyer’s journey is a direct result of the shift from selling to buying.
What does that mean in terms of the funnel and pipeline models traditionally used to predict buyer behavior? Ghosh is in no doubt:
'[T]he concepts of pipeline and funnels should be relegated to plumbers’ toolboxes (no offence to plumbers). There are many variables at play that affect visibility to buyers and that’s why the entire buyer’s journey needs to be reimagined to get insights into sales predictability.'
Throw away the funnel? It sounds like sales heresy. But it is part of a growing trend of successful salespeople ripping up the rulebook. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, CEB executives Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman respond to their company’s aforementioned survey by arguing that the 'solution sales' method of recent decades has become obsolete.
Because customers are now so far through a purchasing decision before contacting a vendor, they tend to be extremely well informed—often more so than the sales rep themselves:
'Customers in an array of industries, from IT to insurance to business process outsourcing, are often way ahead of the salespeople who are ‘helping’ them,' say Adamson, Dixon and Toman. 'In this world the celebrated “solution sales rep” can be more of annoyance than an asset.'
It’s easy to see why salespeople are struggling. Everything that they know is suddenly wrong. The more experience they have, the more wrong they are!
So how do we adjust to this brave new world of B2B, with its new, unpredictable, expert customers?
React To The Change
Surveys and sales statistics point unequivocally to changes in buyer behavior, and top business minds like Marc Benioff are warning CEOs to change or be overthrown. Even so, a great many companies are still steadfastly clinging to their old strategies, like a man who won’t leave his house because he built it himself and lived there all his life, despite the fact that a flood is about to wash it away—and him with it.
Jason Robinson, senior vice president for sales and marketing at MarketBridge, a technology-enabled services firm, says that the surprising thing is not that buyers are doing so much pre-purchase research—it’s that so few suppliers are reacting to the shift in customer behavior by changing their go-to-market models. This inaction has come at a price, with an estimated 67% of sales reps not meeting their quotas in the U.S.
Robinson notes that, over the last few years, B2B customers have complained that sales reps are poorly prepared and out of step with the fact that the modern customer has a wealth of information at their fingertips. This has led the customers refraining from inviting the sales rep back to continue the process, meaning the money invested in reaching that customer in the first place has been wasted.
If that seems like a bleak outlook, the CEB survey found that a select group of salespeople are flourishing in this new environment. How? By doing what we suggested above and throwing conventional sales wisdom to the wind.
According to Adamson, Dixon and Toman, these reps do three things differently:
- They evaluate prospects using different criteria to other reps, often targeting organisations in a state of flux instead of stable companies with a clear understanding of their needs
- They seek out a different set of stakeholders, preferring skeptical change agents to friendly informants
- They coach those change agents on how to buy, rather than asking them about their company’s purchasing process
The Shift From Sales To Marketing
Another reason why salespeople who are using traditional techniques are suffering is because, thanks to the shift in emphasis from seller to buyer, the onus to make sales falls more and more on marketing. With 57% of the process that sales teams usually performed already completed unilaterally by the buyer before contact, the tried and tested methods used to closed deals may not work any longer.
This means that B2B marketers must step up to the plate. ‘B2B marketers must take responsibility for engaging with the customer through more of the buying journey,' says Lori Wizdo, a financial analyst specializing in B2B. 'To do this, you need to engineer a cross-channel marketing strategy to successfully engage with buyers who proactively seek the information they need—through digital and social channels, from peers, on YouTube, at events, and through your sales reps—to advance their decision process.'
Peter Pickus, executive advisor at CEB, puts it even more succinctly: 'The fundamental implications are clear. Marketers must figure out how to influence potential customers where and when they are conducting pre-purchase research.'
Marketers can do this by analyzing the typical phases of the buyer’s journey: awareness, research, try and buy. Awareness is the buyer realising that they want a solution to a problem. Research is self-explanatory and, as we’ve seen, ever more thorough. The 'try' phase is where the customer looks for a hands-on comparison; the 'buy' phase is where they understand the differences between products and make their ultimate decision.
Mahuya Ghosh argues that, before you even draw up a list of targeted content for each phase, you should create content that 'adheres to the tenets of “experience marketing.”’ These four tenets are as follows:
- The tone of the content should be human, conversational
- The content should be augmented by good visuals like videos and infographics
- You should experiment and fine-tune, for example by A/B testing
- You should constantly act on feedback and look to improve
Ghosh says that these four criteria apply across each phase. Once you have looked at these and honed them, only then should you move on to refining a specific process for each phase. She advises reimagining the buyer’s journey by treating it as a series of personas, with visual storytelling elements.
Lori Wizdo suggests looking at what she calls the 'five W’s of interrogative investigation':
- Who is your buyer? A single executive? A duo? A team of people. Tailor your approach accordingly
- Why is a buyer speaking to you? What problem are they seeking to solve?
- When are they talking to you? At what stage of the buyer’s journey are they? Your approach will be different depending on what stage they are at
- What content can you provide to address buyers’ questions, and how does the buyer want that content packaged?
- Where does the buyer seek their information? From websites, webinars, events? From your colleagues?
As we’ve looked at previously, this shift in customer behavior also means that sales and marketing need to be far more integrated than was traditionally the case. This means that they are not stepping each other’s toes with regards to clients and that they are pooling and sharing information across and integrated system. Both departments will require the other one’s expertise at some stage in a deal, so this cross-fertilization is essential in a buyer-oriented market.
This is a process that needs to take place across the organization: sales and marketing increasingly have joint ownership of revenue, and that needs to be reflected in joint stewardship of the buyer journey - right from the start.
Is The Salesman Going The Way Of The Dodo?
Put away that petted lip, traditional salespeople. The primacy of the buyer and the consequent increased importance of marketing doesn’t mean that your skills are obsolete. In fact, another new trend in B2B means they have a relevance that you perhaps didn’t anticipate.
Previously, there would be one buyer at a company who would do all the research and make an executive decision on the purchase. He or she might possibly have to run it past one person, two at the most, before signing on the dotted line. Nowadays, companies have entire teams involved in making a purchase decision.
As CEB noted, 'Reaching consensus and closing deals has become an increasingly painful and protracted process for customers and suppliers alike.'
CEB found that, on average, 5.4 people are now required to agree to a purchase before the deal is rubber-stamped. However, the likelihood is that one person will have researched and pursued the deal. Even if they were 57% of the way down the line with the deal before making contact with the salesperson, the other 4.4 people might still be back at square one.
Tim Riesterer, the chief strategy and marketing officer at Corporate Visions, says 'the salesperson may have to bring the other 4.4 people from 0% to 100%. In actuality, the math to get them all to 100% ready means the purchase decision is really only 10% of the way done when the salesperson is called in.'
Embrace The Change
As Marc Benioff so perceptively observed five years ago, change was afoot in the B2B industry. Yet the surveys show that, despite the statistics, many companies are still reluctant to accept the supremacy of the buyer and acknowledge that methods must be adjusted if they are to achieve sustainable success. Don’t let yourself get caught in the rut they are in. Listen to Shaw: change your mind and you can change anything.
About the Author
A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.More Content by Geoffrey Walters