Most sales organisations – and most of the sales people who work for them – are capable of describing their target market in broad demographic terms. They might, for example, choose to focus on organisations of a certain size, in one or a number of industries, in one or a number of geographical locations.
Their marketing departments might be chartered to build lists and to generate leads with these characteristics. And, of course, it’s relatively easy to identify target companies by applying these simple filters. But there’s a problem – particularly in complex B2B environments: these basic demographic characteristics are very poor predictors of whether any specific organisation is actually likely to do business with you.
It’s no wonder that “leads” that have been generated are rarely treated with urgency or enthusiasm by the sales people receiving them. They know from bitter experience that that the majority of these enquiries will turn out to be duds…
Organisations have personas too
As you may have noticed, many B2B marketing departments have become rather taken by the idea of “buyer personas” which reflect the imagined common characteristics of a number of different key buyer roles. It’s an interesting idea, if occasionally naively executed. But there’s an often even-more-important truth embedded in the concept: organisations have personas, too.
The basic demographics of size, sector and location may help you to establish the outer boundaries of your potential target market. But it’s the firmographic characteristics – particularly structure, culture and circumstances – which offer the best predictors of whether any given organisation is likely to do business with you now or in the future.
Let’s start with structural considerations. These are typically issues of fact – and often require more research than the basic demographics (but it’s worth it). They might include how the company is organised, whether they are in start-up, scale-up or mature operating mode, what their go-to-market model looks like, and so on.
They will also often include who their existing strategic suppliers or vendors are, whether they have a centralised or decentralised operating model and – particularly if you are a technology vendor – what other systems they might have in place.
You might also think of these as behavioural factors. These are issues of judgement. They typically include their appetite for innovation and their position on the adoption curve – are they pioneers, early adopters, pragmatists or laggards? You might want to know whether their vendor relationships tend to be collaborative or confrontational, and whether they typically buy on value or price.
If you’re an emerging vendor, you’ll probably also want to know whether they have a track record of buying best-of-breed solutions, or whether they tend to always default to the safety of an existing supplier or an established brand.
And, of course, you’ll want to understand your prospective customer’s current circumstances and in particular to look out for the common catalysts or trigger events that typically initiate a new buying journey. These might be internal events – such as a new executive appointment, or a new strategic priority or initiative, or they might be external events, such as new legislation or a change in the competitive environment.
And while demographic, structural and cultural considerations are the things that help to indicate whether a particular company is a potential long-term target, it’s their current circumstances (and in particular, recent changes in their circumstances) that indicate whether or not they might be a good short-term opportunity.
Identifying YOUR ideal customers
The best place to start is by examining the common characteristics of the organisations you regard as your most valuable current customers. This may not, of course, simply relate to your existing largest customers. In fact, it’s more likely to be related to what you perceive to be the long-term revenue potential – taking into account your realistic future sales including expansion, up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.
Once you’ve established who these most valuable existing customers are, you need to identify their most obvious common demographic, structural and cultural characteristics. How are they organised? Do they tend to be start-ups, scale-ups or established organisations? What about the other obvious common structural patterns?
And what about the cultural aspects? Where do they fit on the adoption curve? Do we have the potential to become trusted advisors, or will we always be merely one of many suppliers? And were they prepared to go out on a limb to choose the best solution for their organisation?
And, finally, what were the circumstances that caused them to start searching for a solution in the first place? How would they describe the problems they faced, and what did they think they were looking for in a solution?
You need to distil your findings into a simple one-page ideal customer profile that captures the key demographic, structural and behavioural characteristics. You need to identify the factors that make an organisation an ideal customer, an acceptable opportunity, or something to avoid. And you need to use this profile as the basis for your outbound marketing and your opportunity qualification.
And then you need to give each sales person the chance to tailor this generic ideal customer profile to reflect the unique circumstances of their particular territory. Once you apply this thinking, you’ll find that you are pursuing more of the right sort of opportunities and eliminating more of the wrong ones.
A version of this article was first published in Top Sales World magazine.