12 Credible Ways for B2B Marketers to Disrupt UPSTREAM Decision Phases (Insights from a “Buy-Side” CXO)

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Customer Decision PhasesTraditional B2B sales processes/funnels are designed to launch, albeit with latency often measured in months, during what I call the Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase, otherwise known as the traditional “buying cycle”.  What a colossal strategic mistake!  B2B marketers may love to “discover” and actively pursue SOB “opportunities” and “leads”, but customer CXOs know the SOB Decision Phase to be the low-value (read transactional) back-end of a more comprehensive customer decision process that kicked off months earlier.

Aside from the funnel attach latency issue, the real problem for B2B marketers is there are 3 additional Decision Phases upstream from SOB being neglected by traditional opportunity planning sales processes.  I call these upstream customer decision phases the Influence Window.  Without credible outside intervention during the Influence Window, customers will naturally proceed in making their own investment decisions, sometimes existential decisions with a narrow margin of error.

In this post, I am going to share insights I have personally experienced as a “buy-side” CXO for B2B marketers to credibly intervene upstream in the customer’s buying decision process, beyond the low-value transactional “buying cycle”.  But first, I need to set the stage by describing an archetypical customer decision framework so you can better understand (and perhaps appreciate) my recommendations for credible intervention.

The Low-Value “Transactional” Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase

The SOB Decision Phase is the normal running state of business for a company or organization.  It includes the annual business planning process (aka “budgeting”), usually conducted at fiscal year-end, and the highly-transactional procurement decision process conducted for recurring, direct and indirect, products and services.  SOB is the Decision Phase that B2B marketers traditionally label as the “buying cycle”.  Interesting.

From the customer’s perspective, any procurement process that is repeatable, recurring, and highly-transactional, such as SOB, is a top candidate for process automation, LEAN Six Sigma, reverse auction, JIT purchasing, demand-pull fulfillment, and other 21st century procurement innovations. Said another way, SOB has been, and continues to be, internally disrupted by the customer without much value-add or direct influence from B2B marketers.

Therefore, “discovery” and “qualification” of sales opportunities, usually the first mandatory steps in a standard sales process, are not advisable starting points for B2B marketers looking to maximize ROI and credibly disrupt the customer’s higher-value Decision Phases, during an open Influence Window.  Recognizing this reality but still pushing to “discover” opportunities anyways (because the sales process mandates this activity) is a form of marketing cognitive dissonance.  It will be like pushing on a string: lots of work, not much customer enthusiasm to change anything (after all, do-nothing is the B2B marketer’s biggest competitor), and nothing to show for it in terms of customer loyalty at the end of the opportunity pursuit.  B2B marketers may knock on customer doors all day long, but during the SOB Decision Phase, these doors (not to mention the customers’ minds) are closed to sales and marketing intervention and disruption efforts.

Reflecting on my 25-year experience as a “buy-side” Fortune 500 CFO, I would estimate that the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase is the normal state of business, running 80% of the time or 9-10 months a year.  Inside the customer organization, SOB times are characterized as boring, dull, repetitive, transactional, no-change periods of times.  B2B marketers are not generally welcome.

However, for 20% of the time or 2-3 months a year, a high-value Influence Window exists when the 3 other Decision Phases upstream from SOB catch fire in the customer organization.  Influence Windows are exciting, fast moving, high-energy, big ideas and big change times.

Most importantly for B2B marketers, Influence Windows are the timeframes when executive-level decision makers and key influencers are fully-engaged and personally involved in the Decision Phases.  Business-savvy credible B2B marketers are welcome.

Introducing the Strategy Setter (SS): The Human Enzyme

If Strategy Setters were biological human molecules, say proteins, they would be enzymes that act as catalysts and help complex reactions occur everywhere in the customer organization.  Strategy Setters possess immense levels of business, financial, and company acumen.  Politically they are massive influencers, persuaders, urgency promoters, and business initiative enablers marshalling the necessary business case justification, CXO sign-offs, and project resources (human, physical, and financial).

Strategy Setters are found in all functions/departments (e.g. finance, operations, marketing, technology), all lines of business, all divisions and segments and groups, and all levels of the organization (e.g. executive, middle manager, project analyst).  Most importantly, Strategy Setters are not actively involved in the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase.  Therefore, Strategy Setters should be the #1 target for B2B marketers wanting to credibly intervene in upstream decision processes.

For the B2B sales and marketing professionals who have participated in FASTpartners’ Business Advisor Training (BAT) engagements, Strategy Setters should be considered Key Decision Makers (KDMs).

The Disruptor Catalyst (DC) Decision Phase

Eventually, in all customer organizations, a Disruptor Catalyst will interrupt the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase and precipitate the emergence of a high-value Influence Window.  By their nature, Disruptor Catalysts presage BIG strategic changes in the customer organization, creating a politically-charged atmosphere open to B2B marketing influence and the introduction of new ideas.  Disruptor Catalysts, as I define the term, are more significant change agents than random low-grade compelling events, minor organizational changes, or mundane “buying triggers”.  DCs generate the accelerant and fresh oxygen supply necessary for a strategic business reassessment inside the customer’s organization.

Disruptor Catalysts can be externally-driven by forces outside of the control of Strategy Setters, or internally-driven factors in the control of Strategy Setters.  In either case, Strategy Setters, just like the human protein enzyme catalysts, spark an environment and political atmosphere conducive and open to change.  Importantly, DCs may be positive or negative for the customer organization and they may be acted upon or ignored by Strategy Setters.

Examples of externally-driven Disruptor Catalysts include:

  • Customer Disruptions
  • Competitor Disruptions
  • Employee Disruptions (e.g. availability, skills, costs)
  • Regulatory Disruptions
  • Economic Disruptions (e.g. GDP growth, interest rates, cost inflation, currency fluctuation)
  • Tax Policy Disruptions
  • Technology Disruptions
  • Globalization Disruptions (e.g. trade policy, off-shoring, immigration)

Examples of internally-driven Disruptor Catalysts include:

  • Strategic Planning (e.g. multi-year planning not to be confused with annual “budgeting”)
  • Mergers & Acquisitions
  • Decline in Financial Condition and Performance
  • C-level Management Changes

The “Exciting” Investment Decision Phase

When Strategy Setters choose to respond to a Disruptor Catalyst, an Investment Decision Phase catches fire.  This explosion of strategic decision-making activity can occur at any time of the year.  SSs are more likely to act on DCs, rather than ignore them, since they operate under immense performance pressures, mostly coming from company equity and debt owners.  Strategy Setters are under relentless pressure to improve (or at least sustain) existing operational and financial results.  A decision by the Strategy Setters to act on a DC throws the Influence Window wide open to strategic conversations with B2B marketers.

Unlike the low-value transactional SOB phase, when SS minds and doors are closed to B2B marketers, the “exciting” Investment Decision Phase encourages BIG ideas and value propositions, regardless of whether the creativity comes from inside or outside the organization.  The only downside for B2B marketers attempting to credibly intervene in the Investment Decision Phase is that the Influence Window is open only for a short period of time, measured in weeks not months.

The Investment Decision Phase is dominated by a small elite group of trusted Strategy Setters representing different roles (e.g. analyst, manager, executive) and functions (e.g. operations, finance, technology, and marketing) in the customer organization.  In my experience, the procurement, purchasing, and sourcing functions were not represented by Strategy Setters in the Investment phase.

This elite internal group of high-performing individuals operates with significant delegated authority and autonomy from the C-suite, although C-level executives may be called on to approve the final business case argument for investment.  The pressure to act is high, the internal fight for scarce OPEX and CAPEX is fierce, and the organizational politics are front and center throughout the decision process.  In my experience as a “buy-side” CXO, the strongest business case with the most-compelling financial value usually wins the fight for scarce OPEX and CAPEX.

The business case at the center of the Investment Decision Phase usually contains 6 components:

1. Strategic Imperative – Context and linkage to the Disruptor Catalyst(s) propelling the Investment.

2. Key Business Initiative (KBI) – Qualitative description of the specific strategy, scope, and timing.

3. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) – Quantitative metrics (both operational and financial) and target outcomes (metric goals) to be achieved by implementing the KBI.

4. Critical Success Factors (CSFs) – Description of the essential pre-requisite strategy elements that must be present to assure a KBI is successfully implemented and the KPI metric goals achieved.

5. Financial Impact Analysis – Analysis of the range of KPI impact and ROI impact of the investment.

6. Approval Sign-offs – Usually determined by the financial magnitude and risk of the investment.

Interestingly, owing primarily to the rapid speed of activity during Investment Windows, the Investment Decision Phase does not normally account for 100% of the required decisions necessary to implement the KBI and achieve the KPI targets, especially with regard to the numerous CSFs that must be put in place.  Given the inevitable uncertainty of project variables, I would estimate the Investment phase captures approximately 80% of the total universe of decisions that need to be decided.  That leaves 20% for the back-side of the rapidly closing Influence Window: the Operationalize Decision Phase.  The intervention door hasn’t been fully closed for B2B marketers wanting to credibly disrupt the decision process, but it is starting to slam shut.

The “Heads Down” Operationalize Decision Phase

The reputation and credibility of Strategy Setters, not to mention the C-level executives they report to, are on the line as the assets, services, and capabilities assembled during the Investment Decision Phase get fully-integrated and implemented in the operations of the customer organization.  The Key Business Initiative (KBI) that was defined, planned, and funded in the Investment phase must be successfully implemented on-time and under-budget, and the KPI and ROI targets must be measured, documented, and achieved.

In the reality of running a business, this is an enormous task and is easier said than done.  Inevitably, unplanned issues and surprises will arise.  The performance pressure on Strategy Setters is immense and the pace is torrid.  Although 80% of the total investment decision was made in the big-picture Investment Decision Phase, 20% remains “open for debate” and unresolved, in urgent need of finalization.  Strategy Setters are “heads down” during this phase resolving last minute issues and shoring-up remaining Critical Success Factors.  Importantly for B2B marketers, these final key decisions by Strategy Setters, at the back-end of the Influence Window, will be made with minimal analysis and maximum speed.

The Operationalize Decision Phase is characterized by project management, pressured timelines, executive-level involvement, and a laser-focus on achieving targeted financial and operational outcomes as defined by the KBI.  This “heads down” concentration defines the Operationalize Decision Phase, which is the back-end of the Influence Window.  As a “buy-side” executive, I have been party to some incredibly creative and credible interventions launched by very resourceful B2B marketers during this phase of decision-making.  I will share some examples below.

The Influence Window Shuts and It’s Back to Standard Operating Buying (SOB)

Once the Key Business Initiative (KBI) associated with the Investment and Operationalize Decision Phases is fully-implemented and the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) targets are achieved, the customer organization will naturally revert back to the transactional Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase where vendor relationships are de-valued and consolidated, and procurement activities are streamlined and automated.

For B2B marketers there is almost no room to influence strategic buying behaviors when the investment decision has trickled down, months later, to the end of the Influence Window.  The low-value transactional SOB buying cycle, having never completely gone away, continues to repetitively churn in the background in the customer organization.

This reality of how the customer organization cycles through various Decision Phases hasn’t slowed down B2B marketers from wanting to “challenge”, “solve”, “consult”, and “value-sell” during the low-value transactional SOB “buying cycle”.  This may be the right strategic conversation to have, but it is executed at the wrong time in the customer decision process.  All the “challenging”, “solving”, “consulting”, “value-selling”, and “strategic account management” in the world won’t change the hard cold reality that the Influence Window has closed and customers’ minds are, for the most part, made up.

12 Credible Ways to Disrupt Upstream Decision Phases

Here are some ideas to help B2B marketers have the RIGHT customer conversation (customer-centric and strategic), with the RIGHT decision-makers (Strategy Setters), at the RIGHT time (Influence Window) in the upstream customer Decision Phases.

1. Go Slow to Go Fast (GS2GF) – I borrowed this execution strategy from Honeywell CEO David Cote.  GS2GF provides excellent, albeit counter-intuitive, guidance to B2B marketers on the frequency of launching Intervention Efforts (IE) during an open Influence Window.  B2B marketers, who are conditioned and incented for speed, should SLOW DOWN and think before probing the customer; Strategy Setters notice and admire B2B marketers who demonstrate patience, thoughtfulness, and persistence in their engagement strategy.  Since B2B marketers have not yet earned trust and established credibility with Strategy Setters, early Intervention Efforts should be planned, gamed (like chess strategy), and strategically inserted into the customer’s upstream Decision Phases on a disciplined frequency.  The goal for initial IEs during an Influence Window should be to convey (to Strategy Setters) personal interest, business curiosity, persistence, and customer business and financial acumen.

2. Target Intervention Efforts (IE) in High-Growth Regions (HGR) – HGR is another execution strategy borrowed from Honeywell CEO Cote.  Honeywell’s internal Strategy Setters prioritize new investments in geographic areas of the world that demonstrate high-growth characteristics.  Likewise, a HGR prioritization framework can be a useful tool to help B2B marketers target where it is best to launch Intervention Efforts (i.e. which customers and where within the targeted customers — LOB, segment, group, division, department).  Another useful tool to target Intervention Efforts is the Boston Consulting Group’s Growth-Share Matrix.  This 4-quadrant framework was originally designed to help Strategy Setters decide where, within their own organization, they should best make OPEX and CAPEX investments.  Stars and Question Marks are high-growth quadrants (although Question Marks have low market share), while Cash Cows and Dogs are low-growth quadrants.  While it may be tempting to initiate Intervention Efforts within Cash Cow organizations (after all, they have high market share and excess cash to invest and procure things), B2B marketers should resist and instead aim IEs at the Stars (and possibly the Question Marks) since Stars are where Strategy Setters are looking to significantly grow OPEX and CAPEX investments.

3. Start “Seed Planting” – One final execution strategy used by Honeywell is called “Seed Planting”.  In a recent interview, CEO Cote said, “You do well this year, not because of what you’re doing this year, but because of what you did in the previous 5 years.  We do a pretty good job of that ‘seed planting’ on products, geographies, and process.  We really work on it.”  This investment targeting concept can be applied by B2B marketers in two ways: (1) follow the MONEY when launching Intervention Efforts, or more instructively, follow the comments of Strategy Setters when they discuss “planting seeds” and investing in OPEX and CAPEX, and (2) consider Intervention Efforts as “Seed Planting” within your own customer account or territory of assigned accounts.  When managing your assigned accounts, also consider Jack Welch’s advice, “Management is all about managing in the short term, while developing the plans for the long term.”  Intervening today in upstream Decision Phases will pay dividends tomorrow when the seeds begin to germinate and grow.

4. Embrace Collaborative Customer Account Planning (CCAP) – There is an old African proverb that says, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone.  If you want to travel far, travel together.”  Customer “Account Planning” is a collaborative planning process, not a one-time event.  CCAP is particularly effective as an Intervention Effort when it is initiated early in an emerging Investment Window and when it is synchronized with the customer’s Strategic Planning cycle and calendar (see #5).  The CCAP team should include a small group of aligned and incented sales and marketing professionals, as well as one or more customer Strategy Setters.  At a minimum, CCAP should aspire to uncover emerging KBIs and KPIs, as well as provide analysis insights around associated CSFs and recent financial performance.  When done correctly, B2B marketers should view Collaborative Customer Account Planning as so valuable that they can’t do their job without it.  A few of my clients who embrace CCAP include CISCO Systems, Microsoft, and IBM.  Their CCAP teams consistently (and credibly) intervene when the Influence Window is open for influence and disruption.

5. Intervene in the STRATEGIC Planning Cycle – Strategic planning is conducted annually by the customer, normally in the first 6 months of the fiscal year.  The planning horizon usually spans 3-5 years.  Strategic planning activity is very different than operating planning (also known as the annual budget), which is performed in the final months of the fiscal year.  A strategic plan document is usually developed, which captures emerging Key Business Initiatives (KBIs), targeted Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), associated Critical Success Factors (CSFs), and financial projections and key assumptions.  In essence, the strategic planning process produces the ultimate roadmap for future OPEX and CAPEX investments.  This is a gold mine strike for B2B marketers!  Intervening in the strategic planning process is the single best way to credibly disrupt upstream Decision Phases.  Check out my recent blog post: Get Going: Now Is The Time To Go STRATEGIC With Buy-Side CXOs.

6. Adopt an “Investor” Persona – B2B marketers who adopt an “Investor” persona are more likely to be perceived by executive-level decision makers as trusted Business Advisors. The “Investor” persona marketers are more loyal to their customer than they are to their own company.  Investors manage their customer’s money like it is their own.  They proactively advocate for the customer inside their own company and fight for the best resources to be assigned to the account.  Full of unique customer-specific insights, Investors are the most persuasive and valuable seller profile to CXOs.  Customer executives actively seek the counsel and distinct point of view of Investors.  Investors are open-minded, thoughtful and highly analytical.  They have very high-levels of business and financial acumen.  In fact, Investors aren’t viewed by CXOs as B2B marketers, but rather as smart business people.  They set clear attainable goals and seek collaborative account planning interactions.  To an Investor, account planning is a process and not a one-time event.  While willing to accept a certain degree of risk, Investors believe strongly in deploying risk management techniques to mitigate uncertainty above acceptable levels.  They always bring viable options to the table.  Investors demonstrate high levels of business curiosity in every customer interaction.  Their communication secret is their ability to listen and clarify before responding.  They embed customer-specific insights and analysis into open-ended questions in order to earn respect and credibility.  Customer CXOs consider Investors as members of their internal team.  Check out my recent blog post: Customers Profile Sellers as Traders, Savers, or Investors.

7. Identify Latent CSFs – Critical Success Factors (CSFs) are the essential pre-requisite strategy elements that must be addressed in order to assure successful implementation of Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) and the achievement of KPI metrics and goals.  Because KBI decision-making is accelerated during the Investment Decision Phase, CSFs are often under-estimated and/or overlooked by customers; 100% of the CSFs are not identified upfront.  For complex projects I would estimate that 20% of the CSFs are unforeseen by customers during the fast-paced Investment Decision Phase, but they eventually get identified and resolved (many times the hard way) during the Operationalize Decision Phase.  CSF identification latency has a real economic opportunity cost and this is where the B2B marketer has an opportunity, based on their implementation experience with other customers, to intervene and help the customer identify latent CSFs (e.g. emerging regulations, standardization, training, etc.).  The best B2B marketers don’t talk about the attributes of their solutions during the Influence Window (in fact, they don’t mention their solution at all).  Instead, they reframe the customer conversation and talk about the latent unforeseen CSFs their solution happens to address (which are the very CSFs that are associated with emerging KBIs).

8. “Discover” Strategy Setters (Not “Opportunities”) – Most traditional sales processes launch with the “discover opportunities” phase.  The B2B marketer is expected to probe the customer looking for selling opportunities.  However, I believe sales “opportunities” are earned upstream in the customer decision process, not discovered on the back-end.  Rather than spend time probing customer about “opportunities” during the low-value SOB Decision Phase, B2B marketers should instead leverage their current customer relationships to discuss Investment phase process and parameters (e.g. timeframe, constraints, sequence) and identify the names and roles of assigned Strategy Setters.  Extra effort should be expended to identify key SSs representing the CFO’s office, as these SSs tend to have significant influence at this stage.  The goal for B2B marketers should be to expand their circle of influence of Strategy Setters prior to the opening of the next Influence Window.

9. Communicate Financial Analysis Insights – B2B marketers rarely take the time and effort to offer customer-customized financial insights in their marketing messaging.  Perhaps this is because marketers don’t value and/or possess high-levels of financial acumen, or perhaps because this process of content customization can’t be mass-produced and spread efficiently across a wide swath of customers.  Either way, what a missed opportunity to credibly penetrate decision phases upstream from the low-value transactional Standard Operating Buying phase!  One of the best ways to get “financial” is to conduct a financial ratio analysis, looking at the trends over time as well as the comparing the key ratios to competitors of the customer.  In my CXO experience, SAP, IBM and GE Capital excelled at this analysis.  In fact, GE Capital became one of my key Business Advisors during open Influence Windows because of their customized financial messaging and high-levels of business acumen and financial analysis.

10. Offer Insights on Customer’s Customers and Customer’s Competitors – This is a powerful way to catch the attention of Strategy Setters during an open Investment Window.  If there is one thing that keeps Strategy Setters up at night it’s thinking about the business strategies of their customers and competitors.  SSs will appreciate the opportunity to get smarter before making a large investment decision.  The only caveat for B2B marketers is to share only non-confidential information.  If a B2B marketer is willing to share confidential information about someone else, the SS figures the marketers are also likely to share confidential information about themselves.  A trusting reputation is built over a lifetime of interactions, but it can be destroyed in an instant.

11. Offer Assistance on Building the Investment Business Case – I consider myself an expert at building credible business cases in support of upstream Investment decisions, with an approval success rate exceeding 90%.  What was my secret?  The tips, suggestions, and insights offered by B2B marketers who had been willing to journey upstream in the Decision Phase.  These marketers, which I call trusted Business Advisors, contributed credible ideas for business case creation.  For example, they helped me think about how to create an analysis framework for financially justifying the investment, particularly around the “hard” financial KPI metrics and the ROI benefit categories.  They provided tailored examples of how similar clients financially justified similar investments.  They provided client testimonials (both private and public) from other CXO-level clients and they made introductions to these Strategy Setters.   And, since they were experts at implementing their own solutions the “right way”, they were in an excellent position to identify latent Critical Success Factors associated with Key Business Initiatives, thereby helping me avoid unforeseen implementation issues.

12. Stop Doing This and Start Doing That – Stop focusing on problem-solving and start focusing on strategy enablement.  Stop discovering opportunities and start discovering Strategy Setters.  Stop talking and asking questions and start conveying customer acumen and listening.  Stop listening with the intent to respond and start listening with the intent to understand.  Stop talking about your company and its massive market share and start talking about the customer’s business and their customers.  Stop demonstrating low business curiosity and impatience and start showing understanding, empathy, and customer business acumen.  Stop evangelizing solutions and start diagnosing before you prescribe.  Stop launching your sales process journey in the low-value transactional Standard Operating Buying Decision Phase and start disrupting your customer’s upstream Decision Phases during an open Influence Window.

Questions

    1. What other ways have you used to credibly intervene upstream in your customer’s Decision Phases?

    2. What skills and capabilities are required to do this?  How can you get these skills?

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