Headline: Here are 12 strategies to help B2B sellers create demand by having the RIGHT conversations (catalyst-driven) with the RIGHT decision-makers (Strategy Setters) at the RIGHT time … during the Influence Window when executive-level buyers are at their peak influence potential.
In an earlier blog post, I said that in selling, timing is everything; there is a right time and a wrong time to target the executive buyer. I argue that the right time is during a customer decision phase I call the “Influence Window”. The wrong time is during the “Standard Operating Buying” (SOB) decision phase.
B2B sellers can chose to ignore Influence Windows when executive buyer influence is at its peak potential, or they can embrace the reality that companies cycle through different buying/investing phases during the year. The best time to engage an executive buyer is during the Investment Window decision phase and here are 12 strategies to kickoff demand.
1. Go Slow To Go Fast (GS2GF) – I borrowed this strategy from former 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 last execution strategy used by Honeywell is called “Seed Planting”. In an interview several years ago, former 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: An Executive Buyer’s Suggestions for Improving B2B Account Planning.
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: 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. Check out: Do the “Discovery” and “Qualification” Stages of Your Sales Process Deliver a Personal ROI to Your Customers?
9. Generate 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. Check out: The DuPont Formula: The Quintessential EQUATION to Help B2B Marketers Demonstrate FINANCIAL Impact.
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. Check out: Make Your “Customer’s Customer” Your Personal Sales PURPOSE.
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.
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?
Image licensed from iSTOCKPHOTO by FASTpartners LLC