“An educated consumer is our best customer.”
That slogan stood out when Sy Syms, CEO of Syms Corporation, said it in television ads in the 1980’s. Customer empowerment wasn’t a popular notion back then.
Fast forward to social media-enabled 2009. A new book, Get Content. Get Customers. , by Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett, challenges the Syms ideal. According to the book, “the more informed a consumer or buyer is, the more difficult it is to sell them.” Could both statements be correct? While they don’t directly contradict, they do point in different directions. In sales, there’s no such thing as an irrefutable truth, and in my experience, there’s truth in each one.
Not everyone agrees. In metro Washington DC, where I live, major corporations employ high-dollar lobbyists to fight the risks educated consumers pose, as anyone who tracks policies of the Federal Trade Commission or Food and Drug Administration can attest.
When is an educated consumer not the best customer? When she wants to know facts about the soil that grew the carrots she ate in last night’s salad. Or when she wants to learn about the living environment of the chickens or cattle that are now in the grocery meat case. Better for the producers that she sticks to knowing generic fat, carbohydrate, and protein content, along with “sell by” date. For other foods, the lobbyists insist she also doesn’t need to see the word “imitation” on some products, that she doesn’t need to know anything about the farms her food comes from, or what pesticides were used for their production. (For a more detailed discussion about why food manufacturers benefit from disconnected supply chain information, see author Michael Pollan’s blog.)
Beyond food, The Wall Street Journal reported three related articles just this week:
FDA Says Video for Pain Drug is Misleading
SAT Coaching Found to Boost Scores—Barely
Laws Take On Financial Scams Against Seniors
What value do uneducated consumers bring to the companies profiled in these articles? Bernie Madoff won’t be reading this blog, but it’s not hard to guess how he would weigh in on this question.
Closer to where my clients live in the B2B selling world, I floated the statement from Pulizzi’s book to a few sales groups on LinkedIn and received some excellent thoughts. The consensus was that it’s preferable to sell to informed prospects. That’s good, because—like it or not—prospects are better informed than ever. But a few of the responses I received were circumspect. Informed prospects aren’t necessarily any more open minded or are better decision makers than uninformed prospects. One salesperson commented about the difficulties that occur when a prospect is well informed on price, but has a poor grasp of the complexities of the product he or she is buying.
So when it comes to prospect knowledge, information is a two-edge sword. I’ve left some sales meetings in frustration, convinced my uninformed client wouldn’t recognize a good solution if it flew in and hit him in the head. In other situations, my client did homework and told me (correctly) that he could procure reliable refurbished or off-brand equipment for one-third the cost of my proposal—information that a sane commission-driven salesperson wouldn’t typically volunteer.
But today, with social media, the information genie is already out of the bottle. It’s more fruitful to debate what to do about managing prospect information than it is to debate whether informed-slash-educated prospects are better to deal with than those who aren’t.
Here are some questions to ask:
How well-informed is your average prospect? When you begin your formal sales process, what do they already know? What don’t they know that they definitely need to know?
Where do your prospects congregate online (and offline) to get information?
For information outside of your company’s direct control, what risks and opportunities are present? What misinformation exists, and what is the impact on your sales strategy? Do you have a plan to counter significant misinformation?
What information do your prospects seek? What motivates them to seek the information, and how do they value it? Which risks are they mitigating and which opportunities do they want to capitalize on?
What information is available to them? Who contributes to that content? Who “owns” the content?
How will your prospects use the information they obtain? What portends a next step or action? What will break the buying process, and do you have ways to mitigate the risks?
Back to Syms. Whether an educated consumer really is the best customer depends on what you sell and how you sell it. Above all, be agile. If your sales process can’t adapt quickly to changes in information power, you will be debating about whether it’s better to sell to educated customers. But with social media, events move quickly. By then, it might be too late.