In Deloitte: The Future of B2B Sales is “Experience Selling, Bob Thompson relates a discussion he had with Harry Datwani, a Principal at Deloitte Digital about his company’s research on the B2B buying experience. According to Datwani, the study was conducted because the B2B buying process is changing rapidly — driven by customers/buyers. The report notes that “B2B buyers are being influenced by their experiences as consumers” and that the “B2B buyer is shifting from buying products and solutions to buying experiences that generate value from the first interaction to long after the order is placed.”
Datwani is exactly correct on why the definition of customer success has evolved as follows.
In the new definition, the buyer’s journey becomes a key component of customer success and a key differentiator for you. Your mission is to give customers not just a great product or service, but also an end-to-end buying experience that matches or exceeds their expectations. According to Harvard Business Review, exceeding expectations with customer service when an issue arises is not as good as simply meeting their needs in the first place. Even companies that focus resources on providing great post-sale customer service can fall short if the buying experience is lacking.
This is where your marketing and sales teams come in. Following are four imperatives that marketing and sales can collectively use to create alignment and produce positive buyer experiences:
Imperative 1: Remove Customer Friction
This one should be a no-brainer but unfortunately is often violated. You need to remove anything that prevents the sale, or leaves the customer with a bad taste. It starts when all members of the executive team go through the buying process themselves, preferably anonymously. All instances of potential friction should be captured, including:
- A cumbersome website – difficult to navigate and hard to find information.
- Complex order forms.
- Requirements to enter the same details more than once.
- Long wait times to talk to a sales person or chat rep.
- Uninformed or uncaring staff.
- Prioritizing rules over common sense.
This is not the time to compliment the staff that crafted the buying process (unless it is perfect), but rather to be ruthless in finding and eliminating all sources of friction. Never assume that what is intuitive and crystal clear to your engineers and MBA staffers is likewise so to all potential buyers.
Imperative 2: Practice Congruent Messaging
To eliminate buyer confusion and post-sale remorse, marketing and sales should present the same customer-facing messaging. Customers who are told one thing during the purchase process and discover another after buying, are rightly frustrated and can express this frustration by leaving poor reviews. The marketing department, which usually controls messaging, can help the sales team message correctly by:
- Focusing on internal training.
- Creating customer-facing messaging templates (e.g. email and presentations).
- Monitoring for message consistency – with no optional behavior allowed.
- Aligning your brand message with your customers’ experience – from initial contact through product or service delivery and usage.
- Providing your prospects and customers all the information they need pre- and post-sale, to reduce the need for later customer support.
Imperative 3: Demonstrate Greater Value
Marketing and sales teams together can create a better buying experience by delivering better value throughout the pre-purchase process. As the below graphic shows, there is a great difference between vendor/suppliers at the lower end of the relationship food chain and those that reside at higher levels.
When you can occupy the position as a consultant or trusted advisor, as opposed to a vendor, you are adding significantly to your customer’s buying experience. And this starts not only with the products and/or services you offer, but also your mindset. Your mission must shift from selling to “serving”. As any of us who have experienced an overly aggressive salesperson can attest, prospects can sense your motivation. You serve by being a problem solver and information provider. You also serve through your rock-solid commitment to delivering on your promises. And as referenced above, marketing and sales both serve customers by delivering a consistent, differentiated and congruent message.
It’s possible to start at a lower rung and work your way up the relationship food chain, but it is difficult. Vendors seldom end up as consultants or trusted advisors. Interestingly, I have seen companies and reps go down the food chain and this is painful for all involved. Train your marketing and sales teams to start high and stay high. And when friction comes up in the buying process, the job of everyone on your team is to eliminate, not reinforce the friction.
Imperative 4: Utilize the Right Sales and Marketing Metrics
Companies often use well-known metrics like net promoter score (NPS), customer satisfaction (CSAT) and Customer Effort Score (CES) to monitor how they are doing at keeping customers happy. While these are useful macro-level KPIs, there are some specific measurements that help the marketing and sales departments track their performance in creating a pleasant and productive buying experience.
- Conversion of initial inquiries to opportunities.
- Average sales cycle length.
- Losses to competitors (and why).
- Product returns and non-payment.
- Number and quality of online reviews.
- Number and quality of referrals.
Problems with customer friction and incongruent messaging will always show up in these metrics. And the great news is: if you follow the four imperatives in this article, you will not only foster better customer relationships but also spur improvements in revenue and profitability. For more on the relationship between customer experience and financial performance, read Good Marketing Can’t Overcome Poor Customer Experience.
Hi Chris: I agree with these four imperatives, though I recommend adding Start with the right intent. Many clients I work with toil over enacting the right strategy and tactics, and planning infrastructure to make them happen. But when asked about intent, things go off the rails. Frequent answer: “close the deal, of course!” Over time, I have learned “Close the deal!” is exactly what comes across to prospects and customers. That corrodes trust right out of the gate. So I think it could go on your list somewhere. Maybe #1 – but I’m obviously biased.
Second, you’ve exposed an interesting conundrum on the hierarchy on #3. While vendors might aspire to have their reps anointed “trusted advisor”, they lose sight of the fact that only customers grant that trust. This confusion creates problems when vendors assume their reps fill that role, because in the vendor’s words, “we’ve done all the right things.”
Despite the fact the term Trusted Advisor is widely used in sales and selling, I’ve almost never seen this ideal in the context of a commission- or incentive-driven sales engagement. Actually, make that never. When sales reps have income or other reward-based motives riding on a buying decision, can they be unquestioningly trusted? I don’t say this disparagingly, but it’s useful to face the elephant in the room. When pay is on the line, trust becomes less pure.
After all, the overwhelming majority of sales reps are not held to professional boundaries that might obviate my question, such as the Hippocratic Oath. At best, the Hippocratic Oath and other professional codes of conduct only theoretically mitigate conflicts of interest. Absent such constraints, I think assigning the word trust in these circumstances can be misleading. Adding to the complexity is that a rep’s financial reward in a transaction is rarely, if ever, known to customers. I can’t think of a time I ever disclosed to a customer how much commission or bonus I stood to make on a sale – or how much I needed that income.
Thanks for the great points Andy. I agree that starting with the right intent is a key imperative. Potential buyers do sense when your primary motivation is to close the sale, particularly at the end of the quarter! And yes, it is hard to be seen as a trusted adviser when there is commission-based compensation involved. However, I have experienced cases where a B2B sales rep helped me conclude that a particular product or service was not a good match for my company. This is where a strong pipeline of qualified prospects comes in handy.
Hi Chris: I found this article I wrote on the topic: A Trusted Advisor Who Earns a Commission Is Just an Advisor. (please see http://customerthink.com/hold_the_trust_a_trusted_advisor_who_earns_a_sales_commission_is_just_an_advisor/ ).
Until sales organizations eliminate the self-inflicted conflict between Make quota and serve as a trusted advisor, I am unconvinced that Trusted Advisor is attainable, or that it’s useful to admonish sales reps to anoint themselves with this title. Far better, in my view, to devote time and effort to encouraging the behaviors that are assumed to be involved: honesty, fairness, compassion, and ensuring clients’ interests are favored in every sales engagement.
Andy, I disagree that being on commission automatically means you can’t be trusted.
Your assumption seems to be that every sales rep is coin operated. If they have a commission at stake, then that’s the only motivation.
Not so. The key is not the commission, but the culture — of the rep and the company. Reps in large/complex accounts know that an ‘always be closing’ mentality won’t build trusted relationships for the long-term. If a product/solution isn’t a good fit, say so.
Business leaders are also waking up the fact that every deal is not a good deal. Prospects that are a bad fit are better never being a customer.
A recent Deloitte study found some evidence that “experience selling” is creeping into sales organizations.
All that said, it would be interesting to see research into how many buyers really hold reps in a ‘trusted advisor’ status. In business, no one is “unquestioningly trusted” regardless of compensation issues.
Bottom line: it’s not just about quotas, commissions, or incentives. If the culture of the company supports doing the right thing for the customers (and betting on the long-term relationship) then becoming a trusted advisor is possible, and I think a worthwhile aspiration for strategic sales professionals.
Great discussion points by both Bob and Andy. Due to the fact that both seller and buyer know that commissions are involved, It is not always easy to gain “trusted adviser” status. However, like Bob says, it does start with culture. And good culture starts with insisting that sales reps focus on the “serve” more than the “sale”. I have had (and still do have) this level of status with certain clients even though our relationship is commerce-based. Likewise, I have granted such status to sales reps that I believe, when push comes to shove, will do the right thing for my company and me, regardless of commissions. As Andy said, companies should encourage the type of behaviors that foster this level of trust. Of course this is easy to say in theory, but harder when revenue and profits are on the line.
As co-author of The Trusted Advisor, this dialogue interests me.
For what it’s worth, I think Chris’s article is solid and useful. I also agree with Andy’s emphasis on the importance of intent. The one thing I’d like to differ with, however, is Andy’s point about commission structure necessarily making it impossible to be seen as a Trusted Advisor.
The issue, I suggest, is not the compensation structure – it is the transparency about that structure, or lack thereof, that drives the perception of trustworthiness.
Consider a financial advisor, a real estate broker, an investment banker: they all have problems being perceived as trusted advisors – but only when they try to hide the basis of their compensation. If they’re open and forthright about it with customers, including the pros and cons of their structure, and offering education about industry practices, it ceases to be a problem – in fact the willingness to discuss such issues earns them trust points for transparency, candor and low self-orientation.
To be fair, a lot of commission-paid people add to the mess by assuming that maximizing short-term compensation is done by focusing on short-term behavior; the result is exactly what Andy points out in his first paragraph: ““Close the deal!” is exactly what comes across to prospects and customers.”
They forget what Goldman Sachs used to practice and preach: “Long-term selfishness.” Meaning, if you truly serve the client’s needs at all times, not only will you do better in the long-term, but in the short term as well. In fact, the long-term is made up of successive short-terms. If you’re on commission structure and still act in the client’s best interest, even where it appears to conflict with your short-term interest, you end up creating an obvious case of client-first behavior – made even more transparent and obvious because of the presence of short-term incentives, openly shared.
I’d say structure is not destiny: intent and transparency play more dispositive roles in the creation of trust-based relationships.
As with so many other aspects of selling today, “it depends”. Customers who are transactional buyers of familiar purchases may simply require that the sales person and the company they represent offer highly competitive prices, delivery and product quality. When the customer feels in control of the buying process, the idea of positioning the salesperson or sales process as a “trusted advisor” may lead to the conclusion that they are paying for value added that they don’t need.
On the other hand, in a discretionary, unfamiliar yet important purchase where there is a high degree of decision risk, trusting the salesperson and they organisation they represent to deliver best advice is often critical to the buying decision. Does the salesperson behave as if they have the customer’s best interest at all times, or do they appear to simply want to take the order (often with manipulative tactics) and run?
Buyers have a way of sniffing this out. If the cost and consequences of making a bad decision is high, then trust will play a significant role in their decision whether to buy at all, and if so, who from. Confidence in achieving the desired outcomes seems to be a critical factor.
And look at this from the vendor’s perspective: if manipulative practices are used to sign up the customer, the chances that they will ever become a satisfied, profitable long-term customer are low. Why bother chasing them in the first place?
BobT is right to stress the critical importance of sales and organisational culture. Being regarded by our customers as trusted advisors can only be earned through setting and achieving realistic expectations, through caring about their outcomes and through the real-world performance of both our company and our “solutions”.
In business, as in most things, we commonly use verbal shorthand. In just two words, “Trusted Advisor” distills a bundle of positivity that can advance our business development strategies, and talent recruiting efforts. It can also demonstrate our customer-centric chops, establish our commitment to doing the right thing, promote our brands – what have you.
It’s also numbing, because shorthand is easy to bandy about. That’s why it’s important to regularly step back and ask (in this case) “Trusted Advisor – now what, exactly, do you mean by that?” Then, unpack it.
The reason I commented in the first place is that more often than not, I hear sales executives crow about their sales reps being Trusted Advisors. But when digging into the matter a little further, I discover a roaring fire of goal conflict: Draconian penalties for not making goal and large revenue-based financial incentives co-habitating with “be a trusted advisor!” Maybe someone has seen this as a harmonious combination, but not me. In my experience, the inherent friction is near-ubiquitous. “Trusted Advisor” – easy to say, hard to execute.
First, I think using the term Trusted Advisor without establishing what it means – or should mean – is a slippery slope. Condensing it to shorthand and expecting that people tacitly understand the underlying behaviors, in effect, makes it meaningless. Second, as has already been pointed out, it’s pointless to pursue Trusted Advisor relationships if your comp plan and culture screams that for reward and recognition, revenue is paramount.
I appreciate the discussion. These ideas dovetail nicely with a book that I am writing. Thanks to Chris for posting.
Trust is important and most salespeople aren’t very good at building it – including those who aren’t on commission. I do not believe that commission and trust are are effected by one another.
I wrote a White Paper on Trust in Sales a few years back. It has some extremely surprising findings in it and you can download it for free at https://info.objectivemanagement.com/page/The-Trust-Project.aspx
An old maxim to remember: People love to buy and hate to be sold.
As Bob Apollo notes, transactional purchases (rapid, repetitive, routine) really don’t need a trusted advisor; they need a reliable supplier/vendor that delivers on time at a competitive price. Such purchases are begging for technology as Amazon amply demonstrates.
But as risk, or the perception of risk, increases, so does the need for trusted advice. Unusually large purchases, new ventures, new solutions, carry some degree of uncertainty and/or exposure. Doing your homework, or having someone to provide support and guidance become much more important–and valuable. And as value is added, it’s reasonable to assume some compensation will be paid.
Culture, an attitude of “serving rather than selling,” being transparent, and being in it for the long haul, are all part of playing Win/Win. Keeping current and expert in your industry are part of being professional.
Whether commissioned, salaried or some combination of these, how you show up initially and continually will define your trustworthiness and, thus, your worth.
Another maxim to remember: Sales is the highest paid hard work and the lowest paid easy work to be found.
Andy, I think you’re right to rail against sales executives who proclaim their reps are — or should be — trusted advisors and then tell them something completely different with pressure to make quota no matter what.
But I am wondering just how big a problem this is? Does anyone have any research they can share?
I haven’t personally encountered a rep using that term. But I have had interactions with bankers that show terms don’t mean much. One bank called my contact a “private banker” and sold it much like a trusted advisor. When in reality that person’s job was to enforce bank policies and didn’t advocate for me when problems occurred. Another banker had a more prosaic title which I don’t even remember, but he acted as a trusted advisor. Guess which one now has all of our banking business?
But since we’re talking about the term, what does “trusted adviser” literally mean? The dictionary says trusted means:
regarded as reliable or truthful.
and advisor (or adviser):
a person who gives advice in a particular field.
So, why does “trusted adviser” need to further defined? It simply means a trusted person who gives advice.
Having been studying and writing about the customer’s buying process for a looong time, I found this article interesting. I’d like to make some observations about each Imperative:
Imperative #1. The advice to “go through your site like a buyer” has a fatal flaw – those inside a company, especially those who don’t spend a lot of time interviewing customers, won’t be thinking like a buyer. They won’t know what is most important to the buyer. They will take certain things for granted that the buyer may absolutely need to know. They may over-emphasize an aspect of their product or service that is almost completely irrelevant to the buyer. Not a good test.
Imperative #2. Before marketing creates materials that they “throw over the fence” to the salespeople, marketers must first interview customers to know the questions they have during the sales process (and the answers that satisfy those questions), and then interview their sales people to ask the same thing. (They will discover that the salespeople don’t hear “all” the questions customers have during the process, because by the time they come to a salesperson, they have gotten many of their initial questions answered, which has its own implications.)
Imperative #3: Everyone would rather be a trusted advisor than a commodity. But that can only happen if the sales person is truly super knowledgeable and determined to help the customer solve the problem, regardless of the outcome. At the very least, the best way to become trustworthy is to be someone the buyer can trust. Just being attentive and helpful is the first step in building trust – and any sales person who can’t “hear” the customer will never get past that bottom step. And I agree with Bob A – that the nature of the product or service will determine if a trusted advisor is even wanted. I refer to it in terms of scrutiny – the higher the risk/price, the higher the scrutiny. You don’t need a trusted advisor to buy bubble gum, but you’d be happy to have one at your side when buying a house.
Imperative #4: No argument with the concept, of course. But periodic in-depth phone interviews with customers, where open-ended questions are asked, can reveal a) what the company is doing right and should be promoted and b) what the company still needs to fix.
But I also have one big problem with this article. The buying process is nothing more than a series of very specific questions. Before a salesperson can even think about being a trusted advisor, they must be able and equipped to answer those questions to the buyer’s satisfaction, honestly and knowledgeably. In my experience, only about 1 out of every 10 or even 20 salespeople are able to do that. That is sad.
Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed reading it and the comments.
Hi Bob: good question – one that merits a full article, which I commit to writing in the near future. But a few thoughts right now. Unless the purpose is to label a sales employee ‘trusted advisor’ and nothing more, I don’t recommend pumping the concept into organizational parlance, and leaving it to chance how it’s interpreted. Rather, the power of ‘trusted advisor’ is in the coaching conversations it fosters, the behaviors it encourages, and the value it creates for the buyer and seller.
If my personal interpretation of ‘truthful’ is being scrupulously honest, how might I act in deciding whether to share information that could be consequential to my prospect? I might believe that I’ve maintained my honesty when I’ve shared just enough factual information, and nothing more. Some might argue that while I’ve maintained my truthfulness, I’m not being trustworthy, because I haven’t volunteered what my prospect might need to know, but didn’t think to ask.
These conundrums occur constantly. Complicating this matter is timing. I can be scrupulously honest, fully transparent, but simply wait to disclose certain facts. For example, after my prospect has purchased, I might mention that the software release they’re getting is the last one my company plans to develop for their platform. By my hypothetical ‘truthful’ interpretation, I’ve checked all my personal ‘trust’ boxes, (truthfulness, full disclosure) but am I really ‘trustworthy?’ This is why I recommend going beyond the ‘trusted advisor’ shorthand, and delving into the organization’s expectations, and aligning those to employee interpretation and values – or vice-versa.
Same for advice: it’s a spectrum from ‘rock solid’ to ‘shaky.’ Assuming that advice has a quality component, how can sellers ensure that it’s present beyond just issuing advice? Again, this points to the importance of delving beyond strict definitions.
I’m interested in Charles’s thinking on this since he wrote a book about it. For me, Trusted Advisor is influenced by three variables: The seller’s intent, the buyer’s/seller’s situation at the time, and the buyer’s decision to grant trust. For salespeople, intent is the only variable under his or her full control. Similarly, the decision to grant trust is solely in the buyer’s domain. As I have mentioned previously, vendors can do ‘all the right things,’ but for any reason, if the buyer doesn’t trust, there’s no ‘trusted advisor.’