Sales and Marketing are victims, they’re not the problem


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When marketing leads fail to convert, it’s tempting to blame marketing for bad leads or sales for poor execution. But there is an undeniable shift in the world that is dramatically impacting deal conversion and revenue. And if you’re not already addressing the problem, you’re in for a world of hurt.

The Self-Educated Buyer

The problem is the self-service economy and the birth of the self-directed and self-educated buyer. We live in the age of massively empowered buyers. Buyers can research, evaluate and eliminate your company and solution without you even knowing it. They can commoditise what you offer with just a few clicks. And they can assess your assertion of value and introduce competitors with ease. All without ever talking to anyone from your company.

According to Hank Barnes at Gartner, almost 70% of your buyer’s purchase decision is spent conducting internal reviews and assessments, networking with peers and considering recommendations from user groups and external experts. And just 12% of your buyer’s total mindshare is spent with you, your sales rep and your marketing content.

This Gartner finding quantifies exactly what we hear every day in our buyer insight interviews; buyers don’t believe that suppliers have anything valuable to contribute to the conversation. At least nothing they couldn’t get off the suppliers web site on their own, without having to speak to a sales rep.

The Financial Pain you’re feeling is not going away.

You’re likely already feeling the fallout from the self-service economy. A steady increase in the number of RFP’s that your sales organization is responding to, an invitation to bid on deals in the 11th hour along with two other “equally qualified” suppliers, forced deep discounting in order to compete, and worst of all, customers that do nothing after lengthy evaluations or deals that slip from quarter to quarter to quarter.

Self-educated buyers have done all their own research, narrowed down the contenders, determined their selection criteria and now they’re looking to drive out the best price from the suppliers they believe are “good enough”. Maybe not the perfect solution, but the “best one for the price”. And those deals that slip or disappear altogether? Well, maybe they just couldn’t find what they were looking for or more likely, they couldn’t translate your generic marketing content, regardless of how good it is, to their specific requirements.

There will be Blood

If you’re struggling to engage self-educated buyers you’re not alone. Forrester found that 87% of B2B marketers struggle to produce content that engages their buyers and 92% of those marketers claim to be unsuccessful at tracking ROI. Despite the lack of results, the overwhelming majority of marketers say they will continue to create more and spend more on content marketing.

But this is not where the blood will be spilled. It’s the lost opportunity.

54% of forecasted deals are lost to competition or no decision made. And it’s not the fault of poor sales execution or a lack of qualified marketing leads, it’s the failure to understand what the self-educated buyer is thinking and doing as they research and evaluate their options. Before buyers ever pick the phone and call a rep, they’ve formed strong opinions, evaluated and eliminated vendors and made dozens of decisions about their purchase.

Without direct contact with the buyer, you’re left making assumptions and guesses about what triggers their search, what outcomes they’re trying to achieve and the selection criteria that they believe matches their specific requirements.

Let’s face it, you wouldn’t be losing 54% of forecasted deals if prospective buyers found what they were looking for and got the answers to the questions they were asking.

What’s the Common Thread?

If your salespeople are getting engaged at the tail end of a buyer’s decision process, it is unlikely that your reps will know anything about how the buyer navigated the earlier stages of their purchase decision. A troubling limitation when this is the part of the buyer’s decision that marketing needs to influence the most.

The winners in the self-service economy understand this limitation and realize that the only way to influence the purchase decisions of a “silent” self-educated buyer is to anticipate their requirements, uncover the questions that they’re going to ask and provide answers that you know they will want to hear. The winners also know that they’re not going to get this kind of deep buyer insight from marketing personas or ideal prospect profiles that hype demographic data and social value statistics.

If Nick Woodman, CEO of GoPro, had relied on marketing personas, he would have pitched his new waterproof camera (back in 2004), using the same marketing language as his competitors such as “you can protect your camera while it’s in the water”. Instead, after interviewing surfers, he learned about how they surf and their problems with shooting photos in the waves. Woodman learned it wasn’t the benefit of “protecting my camera in the water” but rather the specific challenges of “how can I take photos while surfing” that were key.


A decade after launch of the first GoPro, the company grossed $1.6 billion. Their success did not come from talking about surfer demographics, income or job preference. It came from interviewing adventure seekers to understand their challenges and uncover real insight about what triggered their search for a solution and influenced their purchase decision.

We All Want the Self-Service Economy

Every day we ask buyers to tell us what worked for them and what didn’t as they completed a recent purchase. We’ve had lengthy conversations with C-level executives, business analysts, directors and engineers asking them to take us through what they were thinking and doing when they decided to investigate options to solve the problems our clients addressed. The insight is pure gold!

Our clients have used the buyer’s verbatim quotes from these insight interviews to create compelling, authentic messages that trigger a prospective buyer’s search, anticipate the questions they’re going to ask and provide the answers that they want to hear.

They’ve built case studies that focus on business and personal outcomes that they know buyers are trying to achieve, dealt with the perceived risks and barriers that they’re likely to be concerned with and addressed the selection criteria that recent buyers have prioritized in order to win new deals. And their sales people have continued this theme, sharing the details and capabilities that influenced the selection process in recent purchase decisions to guide prospective buyers through their own decisions.

Delivering what’s best for buyers isn’t necessarily about letting them decide what’s best, they’re looking for you to show them the way.

You Will Fail Trying to do this On Your Own

Unfortunately, there is a good reason why 99.9% of B2B marketers don’t interview buyers to understand what they were thinking and doing as they completed a recent purchase. It’s difficult, really difficult.

What makes it so difficult is that the best insights come from the deals that you’ve lost. These buyers have moved-on and don’t want to talk to you for fear that you will try to re-engage with them and your own sales organization doesn’t want you to talk to them either, in case you uncover failures in their sales strategy.

You’re on your own, to sell the buyer on why they should speak with you. You’ll need to master an unscripted conversation that’s free from bias and encourages people that don’t want to talk to you, to share their true stories and buying experiences openly and freely. And you’ll need a background in sales and sales management to follow the purchase process and know exactly where and when to probe for deeper insights.


Above all, you’ll need the focus and concentration necessary to capture each step of the process and learn about every individual evaluation that resulted in a decision to continue to include your solution as an option or exclude it from consideration.

There really is no natural way in the normal course of business to find out what the self-educated buyer is thinking, what they believe and what’s on their mind. And it’s their beliefs you need to adjust!

Who should you trust?

You can judge the quality of consulting advice by asking yourself a simple question “why would I ever pay a consultant to tell me what I already know.” The answer is you wouldn’t or at least you shouldn’t. If the consultant you’re considering won’t commit to providing insights that you or your staff have never heard before, you should immediately show them the door.


If the consulting firm or agency that you’re considering ever says the magic words “marketing persona”, throw something heavy at them and ask them to leave. Any decent consultant should be focused on the buyers’ decision-making process and not the demographics and social values of the buyer. If you find yourself sitting through a forty-five minute sermon on the power of multiple personas and their relevance for segmenting your market, it’s definitely time to hit the eject button.

How do you know if these insights will be any better than what you already know?

Before we take a dime of our client’s money, we conduct an interview with one of their lost deals, at our expense. As we share the results from that interview, prospective clients can understand exactly what they’re paying for and we can determine how difficult the job is going to be. In every case, this single interview has uncovered an insight or two that the client was unaware of or had neglected to consider as important.

The Self-Service Economy is all about buyer leverage

More choice has led to more in-depth research. Self-educated buyers are turning to online resources to discover their options, research pricing and gather expert and peer recommendations. Before buyers ever pick the phone and call a rep, they’ve formed strong opinions, evaluated and eliminated vendors and made dozens of decisions about their purchase.

At this point, no marketing persona in the world is going to help you. Self-educated buyers are coming to the table armed to the teeth with a deep understanding of their problem and a well-scoped RFP for a solution. The only thing left to discuss is how deep you’re going to discount your offering.

It’s essential in this world of the self-educated buyer that you hit the nail on the head quickly and succinctly for the few seconds that you have your buyer’s attention. If you’re able to speak their language and understand their problems better than anyone else, you’re much more likely to get them to call, request more information and help them find a solution before they discover it on their own.

Stop guessing. Let us help!


  1. Good read Gordon. They say the typical buyer today is 57% through the buying process before even reaching out to sales. Not only that, but you as the supplier account for only 12% of your customer’s total mindshare across the entire B2B purchase path. The idea that how you sell, is more important than what you sell, is more relevant than ever before. Thanks.

  2. The sad truth is that companies are struggling mightily to differentiate themselves with today’s self-educated buyer.

    I have CEO’s tell me all the time how “they have the best people” but what happens when you’re eliminated before you even get a chance to make a pitch.

  3. Hi Gordon – thanks for posting this. My B2B sales career began in 1985, before the Internet and online social media. Back then, I sold business software and computer hardware (what were then called computer systems, before we assigned more varied and glamorous descriptors), and my prospects were also self-directed and self-educated. To various degrees, my prospects performed everything you mentioned, including conducting internal reviews and assessments, networking with peers, and receiving recommendations from user groups and external experts.

    In my experience, buyer empowerment is not new, and it’s not an Internet phenomenon. It predates 1985, and has probably existed since the dawn of trade. I agree that information that’s available to buyers has changed the relationship between buyers and sellers. So has the information available to sellers. It’s a fluid, see-sawing, tottering mess that sometimes favors buyers, sometimes favors sellers, and certainly both in different ways. I don’t know any other way to describe it.

    While it’s common for salespeople to be concerned about more self-education for buyers, the trend has also been profoundly beneficial for sellers – something that’s often overlooked. First, for many vendors, informed buyers enable sales cycles to become shorter and often (though not always), less expensive. Second, and perhaps more important, when buyers absorb the onus of information gathering, salespeople don’t need to invest as much time with buyers who educate themselves on the vendor’s nickel, then afterward, “shop” the price. Often, the company that didn’t invest in buyer education won because they incurred lower sales costs, which helped them reduce their price. Most of us in sales have experienced being on the the plus and minus sides of this equation.

    Also, I get confused over some commonly-quoted statistics, such as, “54% of forecasted deals are lost to competition or no decision made.” Does this mean that 46% of forecasted deals are won? It’s unclear, but assuming it does, 46% actually seems pretty good to me, considering that the thing being forecast is a bunch of people making a decision. And the stat doesn’t reveal whether this is a late-stage forecast, early-stage, or a mish-mash of everything that’s on a forecast.

    Overall, when considering forecast probabilities and revenue risk, decision makers should examine the impact on total revenue, rather than the raw number of deals that close. If the 46% of forecasted orders that close happen to comprise, say, 90% of the company’s projected revenue, that represents a more acceptable planning number for the CFO than say, 75% of forecasted orders closing, but hitting less than 50% of projected revenue.


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