First, it is important to understand that the world of sales is not what it once was.
Digital disruption has pretty much forced both sales and marketing departments to adjust to the new world that both sellers and buyers now inhabit.
“The sales profession is in the midst of a radical change. Simple sales are inexorably moving to the Internet. The selling that remains is sophisticated and demanding. The salesperson of the future will become a business equal of the customer, a creative problem-solver and a value creator. These changes demand a high level of professionalism.”
Professor Neil Rackham, one of the pioneers of modern research into sales performance and methodology.
This means that the tried and true sales methods of old are being overthrown in favor of softer, advisory approaches. At the same time, hitherto proven marketing techniques – especially those that relied on print media to communicate with customers – are adapting in ever-changing ways to massively popular digital platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Facebook, and others, as well as some new ones that are still emerging.
This change to the way that marketing is conducted has profoundly influenced the way that sales are made as well. In particular, it has created a new class of customers that is more responsive to the techniques that used to be applied almost exclusively in the B2C (business-to-consumer, or retail) world. These techniques are now becoming more prevalent in the B2B (business to-business or corporate) world. Combine this with the advent of data-driven marketing and big data analytics – both of which are also being felt in both sales and marketing departments – and you have a myriad of changes that are rippling through today’s vendor organizations.
Charting a course through these unclear waters has resulted in a wide range of experimentation into sometimes-unconventional practices – some of them successful and some of them not. Not the least among them is the practice of extending the paradigm of process-specific alignment to a more holistic paradigm of true collaboration between Sales and Marketing.
As Sales and Marketing adapt to new market realities and opportunities, they are often presented with a choice regarding their operational structure: either they continue to operate in discrete silos or they adapt to cooperate in ways that will not only make them more alert to their changing markets and customers, but will also allow them to become increasingly nimble in terms of adapting to the shifting market trends of the future. Organizations that use collaborative strategies to address the long-standing complaints of Sales about Marketing and vice versa will be powerfully equipped to compete in, and even dominate, their markets in the years and decades to come.
Those who doggedly refuse to release their grip on the sales methodology and terminology of yesteryear (which we’ll turn to next) will be those that will be left in their more nimble competitors’ dust.
The Gradual Obsolescence of the Old Sales Cycle
Previously, whether a customer would buy from an organization or its competitor depended almost entirely on the sales rep and his or her ability to build and maintain relationships with potential customers. The best salespeople were those who were able to constantly expand and persuade those within this sphere of influence. Salespeople thus propelled the selling process forward (or, in the case of poor salespeople, stalled the process or even sent it backwards).
We used diagrams such as the one here to describe the stages in this process that we called either the Sales Cycle or the Selling Cycle.
We liked to describe it as a cycle because we thought that as soon as we had finished making a sale, a new potential customer (a ‘suspect’) would be waiting at the top of the cycle and we would begin an identical customer-winning process with them, thus converting them into a new prospect. Also, when upselling was a possibility, the same customer could go through the sales cycle multiple times so that their potential as a customer could be maximized.
We also used these descriptors to measure sales progress and estimate the likely interval between stages in the cycle for reporting and forecasting purposes – otherwise known as the ‘Contact to Cash’ process. Potential customers are re-named at each stage: initially, they are targeted within their pre-defined market segment as ‘suspects’, approached by salespeople as ‘prospects’, and, once they have made their first purchase, they are, of course, customers’. You are probably familiar with the concept of the Sales Funnel or the Leaky Funnel: suspects are fed into the wide end of the funnel; some leak out, leaving the prospects behind. Some of these leak out again; finally, the remainder become buyers.
The Sales Cycle, with its organizationally inside-out perspective and language, was utterly vendor-centric. The power to move the sales process through its various stages was largely attributed to the sales rep, not to the prospect. Consequently, sales consultants and sales training vendors offered a myriad of sales techniques that could, they said, rapidly accelerate the sales cycle.
This was the halcyon era of “objection handling” and of “closing techniques,” and of more comprehensive, market-research-based programs, such as Neil Rackham’s “SPIN Selling” and Miller-Heiman’s “Blue Sheet,” “Gold Sheet,” etc. plans. But informed buyers and their online research have disrupted the old Selling Cycle, creating a new purchasing paradigm, to which twenty-first-century sellers must adapt. Let’s turn now to this new purchasing paradigm – the Buyer’s Journey.
The Buyer’s Journey (Buyer’s Perspective)
As the illustration below makes clear, when it comes to the Buyer’s Journey there is distinct criticality for the vendor around the timing of contact and the messaging to the suspect or prospect. In other words, it is now critical to be proactive, to send the right messages and information and, importantly, to do so at precisely the right time. Vendors now need to be seen by buyers as experts in their field and they need to stand out from the crowd in order to be noticed and accepted by the buyer on their journey.
Early in the Buyer’s Journey, vendors have a narrow window of opportunity to create a sense of desire/demand/need for their offering in a suspect’s mind. This is the time where Marketing is most likely to play the biggest part in attracting new business as it can utilize its armory of channels and positioning messages to help suspects to discover our products and services over those of our competitors.
In the days of the Sales Cycle, a suspect contacted sales reps to obtain more information on a product or service. However, in the era of the Buyer’s Journey, the buyer follows a very different trajectory. They are most likely to go online to conduct their own research, examining – often in meticulous detail – what the market is offering. Promotional materials (marketing collateral) play a part in this, but so do independent reviews and test reports.
Content marketing (which I’ll discuss in much greater detail in the next chapter when we take a closer look at the Marketing landscape) is playing a large and still-expanding role in these early stages of the Buyer’s Journey, and these effects are passing downstream to Sales. Sales reps who answer the phone are no longer expected to inform the client, at least not to the degree they once did. What the potential customer is seeking is not broad strokes but clarification. This means that sales reps are now expected to possess not only high-level selling skills but also a wide range of subject matter knowledge.
Any reluctance or inability on the part of the sales rep to provide the information that the buyer is after (i.e. instant value-add) will likely lead to the buyer continuing their journey with another organization.
The Buyer’s Journey is, make no mistake, far less predictable and controllable than any of the purchasing paradigms that predate it. Just one disgruntled buyer is enough to spread the message far and wide and to poison the well. Bad reputations go viral in a heartbeat and the entire organization may have to expend untold energies on damage control.
Numerous studies have shown that by the time a buyer is ready to contact a vendor they have completed somewhere between 60% and 90% of their decision-making process. That means that by this time they have already whittled down their list of prospective vendors to a short-list. It is absolutely crucial that, at this time of the buyer transitioning from focusing on Marketing’s messaging to sales rep contact, the handover is seamless and that both Sales and Marketing speak with one and the same voice. So much as a sniff of inconsistency and credibility can be damaged and the sale can be lost.
Let me make this point in no uncertain terms:
Sales+Marketing Collaboration has become mission-critical.
Allowing Sales and Marketing to speak different languages with buyers and the market at large can put the financial security of the entire organization at risk. Without collaboration, buyers lose respect for, and interest in, the vendor. When they walk, through the power of social media they can (and often will) motivate other to do the same. It’s game over.
Now that we’ve looked at the Buyer’s Journey from the buyer’s perspective, let’s turn to the same journey, but this time from the perspective of the vendor.
The Buyer’s Journey (Vendors’ Perspective)
The most obvious difference in the way that vendors are approaching today’s buyers is where vendors are attempting to intercept buyers in the midst of their journey. Visibility is not as easy to find as it once was (when, for instance, print media could be relied upon to reach a wide swath of potential customers). Niche markets and segments are the new targets for visibility – particularly when these areas are rich in customers in the early stages of their journey. These are the buyers that today’s vendors are focusing all of their efforts to intercept. Effective and on-point messaging all the way from the epiphany stage (i.e. their identification of a need or requirement) to the end of the consideration/research process is now seen as the best way to win (and keep) their attention.
Back in 2012, ITSMA reported that over 68% of B2B technology buyers identified this stage as the one in which they preferred to be contacted by sales reps (https://www.itsma.com/research/results-from-itsma-how-buyers-consume-information-survey-2012/). This is where salespeople can take on the crucial advisory role that sophisticated buyers are responding to, and are even actively seeking. While they were assembling research for their recent, cutting-edge sales manual, The Collaborative Sale Keith M. Eades and Timothy T. Sullivan found that vendors who engage with buyers at these early stages in their journey were five times more likely to win business than those who waited for buyers to initiate contact (http://www.amazon.com/The-Collaborative-Sale-Solution-Selling/dp/1118872428). Simply put, informed customers are raising the bar that they then expect vendor company reps to clear for them. As shown in the illustration vendors need to become more proactive in charting the journey for the buyer to follow all the way to a successful sale, and beyond.
Since salespeople used to be the ones who were most immediately engaging with their customers in the age of the Sales Cycle, they have now been the first to experience the challenges of this newly raised bar. The vendors who are having the most success are those who increase the run-up to this bar by shifting their focus to catching buyers’ attention early in their journey. When it is a high-value product or a complex solution that is on the table, sales have never been easy to make, but increasingly informed buyers have compounded this difficulty for salespeople. One thing is sure: addressing savvy twenty-first-century customers requires sales techniques that are more sophisticated by far than those that were successful as little as a decade or two ago.
The relatively recent vocabulary shift to the Buyer’s Journey underscores the need for a sales process that empathizes with the customer – seeing the sales process through their eyes – and fortifies the points at which the customer engages with sales reps or marketing-generated content. Digital Age buyers are armed with a different set of questions, some of which are catching unprepared organizations off guard:
- Do you know what my challenges are?
- What do you know about my competitors?
- What do you know about your competitors and my relationships with them?
- What ROI (Return on Investment) can I expect?
- What don’t I know?
- Besides ROI, how are you adding value?
Each one of these questions represents an opportunity for sales reps to demonstrate the consultative and customer-centric approach that buyers are now looking for. However, while the Buyer’s Journey offers opportunities, it also harbors its own set of challenges.
First of these is being able to gather, assess and act upon customer feedback. A 2014 research report by Aberdeen Group showed that best-in-class performers were those that consistently focused their resources in a customer-centric way, i.e. the ones that are opening feedback channels and who are meticulously managing the actionable data that lies therein.
According to Accenture in a very interesting paper, called “Connecting The Dots On Sales Performance” 67% of these best-in-class performers enabled and encouraged customer feedback at every touch point, whereas only 46% of leader-trailing organizations did the same. The importance of the new customer’s voice cannot be overstated. More than anything, the new customer wants to feel that their feedback influences the way they are approached, addressed and acted upon by the seller.
Others put this figure as high as 80%, meaning that by the time the buyer makes first contact with the vendor the customer has often already covered most of the ground that used to be the territory of salespeople. Buyers are initiating contact with sales reps merely to verify what they’ve learned through their own research. It’s no surprise, therefore, that as much as 63% of sales are going to the first vendor with which customers are engaging.
According to Bob Apollo of Inflexion Point, today’s time-poor buyers are beginning to feel that yesterday’s sales model is a waste of their time (http://www.inflexion-point.com/Blog/bid/67962/B2B-Sales-and-Marketing-Is-Misalignment-Taking-10-Off-Your-Sales):
- 33 percent say they are regularly presented with too much information that is not useful to their search for a solution that suits their needs
- 29 percent complain about a lack of relevance to their specific situation
- 24 percent say that the information provided fails to address the needs of all the members of the buying team
- 23 percent feel that there simply isn’t enough truly educational content
- 23 percent believe that the information provided isn’t in a form they can share with others
Not only are vendors finding new customers an increasingly rare species in competitive markets, customer loyalty is harder than ever to obtain. The reasons for this change are, for the most part, reasonably predictable.
This means that there obviously needs to be a great deal of strategic alignment between what Sales and Marketing promise and what the organization delivers.
This consistency is expected in follow-up, but it is also demanded at every touch point in the pipeline. Organizations that can deliver a uniform experience from first touch point to last are those that are most likely to pull away from their competitors in leaps and bounds. Whether it is the sales experience, the marketing presence, or their after-sale service, new customers are highly attuned to corporate culture, and they want to feel that, from the top down, every facet of the organization is aligned, and aligned to their needs at that. Even a slight deviation is often enough to make prospects and customers start exploring other options. Ubiquitous vendors and abundant choice brought on by the Internet means that just one bad customer experience at any of the touch points – or even the perception of a bad experience – has viral potential.
We now understand that a single mismanaged touch point, one poorly aligned Marketing to Sales hand-off, even an off-message rep can poison the well in an instant. Effective inter-departmental alignment can dramatically reduce or even eliminate such inconsistent customer experiences and thus avoid disaster.
Finally, the new breed of tech-savvy customers demand a technologically sophisticated, convenient and information-rich interface from the organizations they are considering doing business with. This is putting substantial pressure on vendors to respond to these expectations with an expanded social media presence, mobility options, data analytics, and cloud capability (SMAC), but also on the new breed of sales rep, who are as much subject matter experts as they are company representatives and solution-oriented salespeople.
As we will see later on, technology is not in itself the answer, but it is definitely one of the doors through which customers might beat a hasty retreat if vendors should fail to meet their expectations.
Digital-age customers undoubtedly expect sophistication, but the higher the purchase price, the more they expect that sophistication to manifest itself in organizational service, not just in technology per se. The longer the likely tenure of the post-sale relationship (e.g. when buying a new IT backend system or outsourcing service), the more scrutiny the vendor will come under and the more they will need to respond with timely and relevant information and personalized service. It is easy to see how there is a fine balance to be struck here and that every organization may strike it differently.
The most successful organizations that I have encountered are invariably those that have adapted their people, practices and technologies so that they can look authoritative at every stage of the Buyer’s Journey and with a high degree of uniformity. In large organizations, it is not unusual for management to devote entire teams to ‘CX’ or Customer Experience. These organizations can boast people and technologies that are nimble and adaptable; they are able to deliver a consistently high-quality customer experience, and their customers are rewarding their efforts.
Read part 2 – The Evolution of The Buyer’s Journey (Part 2)