Should We Be That Surprised By The Digital Buying Journey?

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The “big news” in customer engagement is the customer digital buying journey. The shift to customers preferring the digital channels over dealing with sales people.

Let’s be clear, a rep-free buying process, a preference for “self service,” is nothing new. Buyers have been doing this for decades, if not longer. It’s probably the dominant form of selling in consumer products. In consumer products, we know it is a low touch selling environment. We spend a lot of time in analyzing buying trends, merchandising. We advertise, promote, we package products so they visually “leap off the shelves.” Most of consumer purchases have been designed to be rep-free for decades. As providers, we are used to this, there is much science we can leverage to help us make our products more “visible,” and to attract interest. Retail stores, usually don’t have a lot of staff focused on helping the customer buy. And as consumers, we often prefer not to be bothered by a sales person. When I walk into some high end stores, I’m greeted and asked if I want help; 99% of the time, I smile and say, “No, thank you, I can take care of it myself….” Even for high end purchases!

Buying “virtually,” is not new, either. The first Sears Roebuck Catalog was published in 1894. Many retailers had no or minimal “stores,” creating virtual stores through their catalogs. The only LL Bean Store was in Maine, so much of their business was through catalog sales. For decades, I’ve bought from the REI, Land’s End, Colorado Cyclist, and other catalogs. It’s much easier and faster, plus they don’t have retail outlets close to me.

And those “catalogers” and retailers tracked my activity, often sending me special promotions, or seasonal catalogs based on my purchase history. They also did a lot of analysis on catalog performance, page locations, catalog arrangement, each time rearranging the catalog to maximize orders per page.

And now we have the ability to move much of that online.

Rep-free buying, “virtual buying” in retail/consumer products has been around for decades.

We’ve had the same in many segments of B2B. When I sold IT products, virtually every one of my customers had shelves full of catalogs. For products where customers had high knowledge, significant buying experience, or where the risk was pretty low, catalogs became an easy way to buy. Sometimes, customers might have questions, they would call the “order desk,” where people were equipped to answer questions and accept the order.

Creating awareness and visibility virtually for these products has been around for a long time, as well. Our mailboxes were filled with direct mail, we even had spam–or junk mail. There was advertising or “feature stories” in trade publications, trade shows, regional seminars, and other mechanisms help create visibility. I recall, one of the most useful “give-aways” at tradeshows were sturdy bags, with our logo, for people to collect literature for their book shelves in their offices. And customers could always call an “800” number to learn more and ask questions.

Even with more complex products, like the technology software and systems I grew up selling, too often the primary reason customers wanted to see us was just to get the latest product brochures, data sheets and information. They would ask me to mail or messenger the materials to them, I preferred to hand deliver them, so I’d have an excuse to talk about other things.

While, I preferred to focus on problems and solutions, often the latest set of brochures for a certain set of products was why the customer set a meeting. Too often, when I walked into someone’s office, they would be distracted pouring through the new literature, while I tried to carry on a conversation. I learned to hold onto the latest brochures until the end of the meeting. (You could tell the meeting was coming to an end when the customer spent more time looking at the brochures sitting in my brief case than looking at me.)

My friend, Mitch Little, did the same thing. He used to fill a UHaul rental with catalogs and literature, driving to the parking lots of his customers to hand them out, engaging them in conversations about their design and electronic component needs.

Anyone who sold in the 80’s and early 90’s did the same thing. Customer craved the materials, perhaps not because they had an immediate needs, but they wanted to learn or have references if something arose.

And over time, too many sales people thought being the vocal accompaniment to the brochure was important (I don’t recall any customer asking if they could record my narration on the highlights of a new DB2 datasheet).

As much as we’d like to think that things are “different,” we have decades of buying history with customers looking for “rep-free” or “rep-lite” buying leveraging the currently available channels for information.

And customers/prospects always seemed to find each other, pick up the phone and share experiences.

And now we have the ability to move much of that online.

Somehow, we seem surprised by the digital buying journey, though the principles are not new–it just happens to be on-line. Sure, we have a lot more capability with the on-line engagement, sadly, too often, it doesn’t look a whole lot different. Rather than getting hardcopy materials, we line our digital office shelves with folders of PDFs.

So none of this is surprising, we’ve seen versions of this customer preference for at least decades.

Having gone through this narrative, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking the digital buying journey is the electronic equivalent of everything we’ve done in the past. The technology offers our customers and us so much more than we have ever been able to do in engaging our customers.

It’s just not providing content, however tailored, to customers. It’s creating an entirely new series of interventions–digital and human, that enable us to create value in ways never before possible. We need to think how to help each customer in the buying group learn. We need to think how do we leverage digital tools to help customers collaborate with each other, how we digitally help them reach and maintain consensus through their buying journey. We need to think about how we help them navigate their process–simplifying it as much as possible. And we need to know when the most valuable intervention isn’t a digital intervention, rather a human intervention.

There are a lot of interesting technologies around “sales rooms,” or “buying rooms,” offer spaces for our customer and us to collaborate, where they can have private conversations, where we can provide content and tools to help them in their process. I think these are interesting, for now, but I see limitations. These rooms only accommodate the customer relationship with us, and perhaps our partners. But the customer doesn’t just have a relationship with us, they are considering other alternatives. So these “sales rooms,” actually make it more complicated to buy. They have to coordinate themselves across a number of asynchronous, disparate platforms, somehow pulling the threads together themselves.

Technologies like interactive gaming will, I think, create a whole new way for customers to think about how they buy, and how we engage. We might think of gaming platforms, not hosted by vendors, but independently where our customers, we, and our competitors might engage. An example might be a platform like Fortnite, where we meet our customers along with they meeting each other and other vendors.

We shouldn’t be surprised by our customers seeking self service, leveraging digital buying tools. There’s decades of history, showing this. At the same time, we need to think beyond the digital versions of what we have traditionally done.

But, as we think about the possibilities, as we think about how we help the customer and how we design the appropriate interventions to help them be successful, I can’t think of a more exciting challenge.

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