The Magical Power of 73%

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“57% of the purchase decision is complete before a customer even calls a supplier.”

Gosh. That seems like a lot. Anyone going higher?

“Technology buyers are two-thirds of the way through their buying process before they engage with tech vendors’ sales teams.”

I like it. Do I hear 73?

“SiriusDecisions predicts that by 2020, 73% of the B2B sales process will be complete before a sales person is ever engaged.”

. . . 90?

“Although it varies greatly with product complexity and market maturity, today’s buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out to the vendor. For many product categories, buyers now put off talking with salespeople until they are ready for price quotes.”

It’s apparent that we’re edging toward 100%, at which point, the venerable salesperson will quietly slink from corporate org charts, tail tucked. An anachronism, squeezed out of a job, along with coopers, wheelwrights, and telephone operators. Press delete. Good. That wasn’t very messy. Now, where were we? Oh yes – generating revenue. Please, let’s continue.

These statements could not proliferate without idealizations of B2B buyers as intellectual superheroes – infallibly rational, knowledgeable, no-nonsense, process-oriented decision makers. Numbers-driven C-Somethings who are never, ever persuaded unless there’s a strong business case. The right business case. Behold, surviving salespeople, The Buyer’s Journey Workflow! Understand it. Accept it. Hold it close, for it is sacred.

A fantasy that Hans Christian Andersen could have spun into a fairy tale, The Paved Pathway to Purchasing Perfection. On PowerPoint, the buyer’s journey always progresses left-to-right, or top-to-bottom. Nested, colorful arrows represent the steps, each one distinct and clearly labeled. Some journeys have three steps: awareness-consideration-purchase. Some have seven. There are other versions, too. I like the one with seven.

For me, a better, albeit darker, title for the buyer’s journey would be Lost in the Woods. I haven’t published my flowchart, but I offer the Tokyo subway map as a useful approximation. A twisted convolution of overlapping lines pointing in every direction. Some going off the page, others coming back on. I’ve carefully labeled each node: Fits and starts, Squabbles, Indecision, Indifference, Infighting, Infatuation, Inaction, Firm Commitment, More indecision, Hidden agendas, Misunderstanding, Reconsideration. At the terminus of this mess – assuming a terminus exists – is a box labeled Just do Something. So, if you’re into mapping out buying steps, go ahead. Pick out some milestone events and plug them into a schema. Just remember that they are often imaginary, and they rarely happen in the order rendered.

If you subscribe to a less-linear, more imperfect notion of the buyer’s journey, then it seems a stretch to assign a percentage to how much can be complete before engaging with sales. Or the reciprocal, how much of the sales process is complete before engaging with a buyer. Complete and engaging are themselves imprecise terms, subject to rancorous debate in Philosophy 101. I won’t even go there. So when I read precise-sounding predictions like 73%, I start to wonder. Not 72%? Not 74? A rounder, friendlier number, perhaps? Whoa, buddy! Time out! I’m more comfortable with honest vagueness like pretty much all, or darn near every bit.

To me, asserting such hair-splitting numbers to processes as poorly defined and understood as selling or purchasing a complex B2B solution is the statistical equivalent of dropping a raw egg on the floor, then, after using only a fork, boasting to the world that you successfully collected very bit of what splattered. In fact, I’m fine with, “We got most of it, and the dog took care of the rest.”

When I dug into the provenance of the 73% prediction for seller engagement, this story took an interesting and quite unexpected detour. Turns out, in business development, 73% is a wildly popular finding. For example, I learned that,

73% of all CEOs feel that their CMO lacks credibility with regard to generating revenue.

73% of IT executives are influenced by social networks in decision making.

73% of [b2b customers] have engaged with a vendor on a social network.

73% of B2B marketers are producing more #content than they did a year ago.

73% of B2B organizations have a person dedicated to overseeing content marketing strategy.

73% of sales enablement teams share best practices for sales techniques and tactics.

73% of companies have no process for requalifying leads.

73% of marketing executives use spreadsheets for analytics.

73% of companies currently use, or plan to use, buyer personas.

73% of B2B marketers are not even measuring mobile traffic by device.

73% of B2B marketers use video as a content marketing tactic.

This, just a partial list, culled from my new-found collection. Coincidence? As I read through these findings, it’s hard not to suspect a hidden purpose for this alleged precision. A revenue purpose. After all, in a persuasive argument, 73% has more gravitas than its homelier cousin, around ¾. 73% connotes that the provider has paid rigorous attention to detail, and has the chops to grant statistical granularity. I’d use it with my teenaged son regarding how we interact when I ask him to clean his room. “Over the past three months when I made this request, you acted sullen 73% of the time.” He might just reply, “You know, Dad, no need to fact-check. You must be right. Again.”

In this age of lauding data analytics, performance and productivity measurements, and statistical exactitude, no one wants to say, “A whole bunch of the time it seems like . . .” – at least not among peers. But often, I think vagueness is more reasonable and appropriate. Maybe, even more credible. In the meantime, if anyone asks me to speculate on what percentage of CMO’s will leave their jobs for better pay in the year 2020, I know what number I’m using. And I’m guessing there’s a 73% probability I’ll be correct.

Oh – one final note that I promise to keep brief: The SiriusDecisions prediction that by 2020, 73% of the B2B sales process will be complete before a sales person is ever engaged? I never did find the detail that became the genesis of this article. If anyone knows of a study that was conducted, please send an email to arudin (at) contrarydomino (dot) com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Andy, I agree with your point that the implied precision is a fantasy.

    However, it was also a fantasy when sales reps claimed they “closed” all their deals, when in reality some orders happened because buyers were ready to buy and the only way to order was to call a sales person.

    I’m not one to declare the death of the salesperson is coming anytime soon. The role is evolving and great sales professionals with trusted relationships will still be consulted early in a buying process.

    But there are too many studies that point to an undeniable trend — one that I’m 73% sure is really happening. Customers do more research before contacting a sales rep. How much more is debatable, and it’s equally unclear just how anyone would determine “completeness” of a chaotic buyers journey regardless of the amount of internet research done.

    I spoke with SD some time ago, and they had a more nuanced response to the “X% complete” statistic. The real answer doesn’t make for the kind of sound bite that media pundits or vendors like to propagate, yet as memory serves it supported the trend of buyers doing more homework before engaging sales reps.

  2. Hi Bob – Sure, anyone can dive into whether buyers are truly 73% of the way through a buying process before engaging with vendors. Part of the reason I think it’s lame to assert such findings. The bigger issue is how buyer activities are trending, and I agree that, in general, buyers are doing more things before directly soliciting the support of vendors.

    What’s concerning to me is how these findings are spun. The premise so often used is that this upward trend (now anywhere between 57% to 90%) reinforces the notion that sales (in particular) has become less relevant in the buyer-seller collaboration. Are salespeople being phased out? Are they unimportant? Does the trend indicate that their duties are less demanding or less relevant to buyers? I’ve heard and read all of this when these buyer journey stats are given.

    The parallel argument is in aviation, which has surfaced lately following the GermanWings crash in France. Experts have indicated that the pilot’s role in safely operating an aircraft has been diminished to the point where it is now within our technological grasp to have commercial flights without a pilot on board an aircraft. Eliminating the pilot in the cockpit, the reasoning goes, would reduce or eliminate the risk of incidents in which a mentally-disturbed pilot could commandeer a flight. Underpinning this claim is the widely-shared statistic that today’s commercial pilots spend as little as 7 minutes manually piloting the aircraft. Our natural inclination when considering this number is to think that pilots are on their way to becoming a vestige of technological imperfection – it’s only a matter of time until computers can mitigate all the risks that pilots pose.

    If you accept the fact that technology is taking over more pilot functions (which I do), the right question to ask is not ‘when are pilots going to be phased out?’ but ‘why are pilots so crucial in performing the functions that they DO perform?’ (e.g. pilots still perform 100% of takeoffs in commercial aircraft.)

    This has close parallels to the role of salespeople. Pre-engagement, customers might be doing more on their own, but that doesn’t mean that the vendor role or value is in any way diminished or less important. If “73% of the buying process is complete before a vendor is engaged,” I believe that the seller’s role in the remaining 27% is pretty crucial, is hard to automate, and won’t be replaced anytime soon.

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