The path to purchase is changing in business to business (b2b) too

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There has been much debate about how the path to purchase in business to consumer (b2c) marketing has changed the way consumers purchase. The easy access that consumers have to online reviews and testimonials, price comparison sites and a plethora of online brand information is changing the way consumers evaluate nearly all buying decisions, except maybe ‘impulse’ or heavily branded products, prior to purchase.

Noticeably, there has been less discussion on the path to purchase in business to business (b2b).

Our Schema® work, and research from others, is showing that the b2b process is also changing with implications which are not obvious. Our work shows that suppliers of all types should be aware of this or they will find themselves excluded from pre-sales dialogue or brought into the conversation so late that they and forced into a ‘commodity’ discussion with a likely disastrous impact on margins. Suppliers need to react by considering the whole path to purchase process and the role of media and channels in that process, including the changing role of the sales person.

How things are changing in b2b

Customers in b2b can find out much of what they want to know from the web. They can find others with their issue, discuss it with them, see what competitors are doing and download content from consultancies and others which show what best practice looks like. In many b2b markets they can look at all potential suppliers in a market and see reviews on those suppliers or on their competitors. In the same way that consumers can determine much of their purchase information before purchase, so can b2b customers. Depending on which research you read, 60-90% of the sales decision in b2b is made before the buyer asks to see a salesperson. Even big ticket sales, such as big capital purchases or purchases of consulting or outsourced services, are impacted by this. So what are the implications for b2b suppliers?

Sales people must fundamentally change the way they sell

The b2b sales world moved on from product selling (“these are the features and functions of my product versus competitor’ products”) to solution selling (“what is your problem and I’ll show you how my product can solve it?”) around the 1980s. Customers didn’t always know how to solve their problems in the past and often relied on (or were persuaded by) sales people to give them an outside view of the world. Many purchase mistakes were made on the back of this process. Customers are better informed now and they have access to much information that they pretty much know the ‘solution’. The sales person’s role has to be less about asking lots of questions to find a solution and more about being providing insight (e.g. “here’s the trends we see that are applicable to you and why”; here’s what others in your market (or a related market) are doing that you should consider”; “based on our analysis, here’s the real crux of the problem”; “your company is playing at this strategy and we understand why – but here’s how you can commit more fully to it and this is what it could be worth to you”). So the nature of the sales process must evolve. We’re seeing a different type of selling now, and this is confirmed by Matt Dickson, Editor of CEB, in a recent HBR article and blog.

Sales person competencies are changing

The new type of selling process requires a more, intelligent, persuasive, challenging sales person. They need to meet customers early in the sales cycle, perhaps invited in response to some thought-provoking content strategy (see below). They need to not just take a brief from the client, or ask multiple questions as part of the ‘solution sell’, but provide challenging insights on how their prospect customer can save money, increase revenues, reduce sales cycle times, increase innovation, improve efficiencies or whatever, which furthers their customers’ thinking. However, it is interesting that most of our b2b clients are recruiting and developing ‘relationship’ salespeople and according to Dickson, these are the worst performers in today’s more demanding selling process. Neither Dickson nor I am suggesting that a salesperson should be without empathy, or should ignore the customer’s perceived issues or should not look to build a relationship. On the contrary, these sales competencies are as important as they always were. What we are saying is that the salespeople who win business (the ‘hunters’) need to have a greater degree of insight about the customers (and the market, including competitors) they are selling to and the competencies to be challenging and disruptive when necessary.

It’s not all one way

The customer can find out a lot about his company’s issue and about possible suppliers. But sales people can know more about their prospect customers too; looking at their contact’s LinkedIn profile, tracking their social comments, aggregating the social comments from all employees in the target companies to get a sense of what is going on. This information can give a salesperson the ‘in’ they need to begin an insight-rich discussion.

Much of the organisation needs to evolve

This change in information flows during the path to purchase impacts not just on sales person – recruitment, incentives, organisation (the hunter/farmer debate again), development and coaching – it impacts on support teams such as marketing, service, technical support, logistics and R&D. These functions often have the base data to develop insights which, properly coordinated and packaged, can help sales people understand and present insights more powerfully to their client. But the functions must be encouraged, tooled up and skilled to do this. The role of b2b service and technical support for instance, must change to reflect the need to provide salespeople and customers not just with technical brochures and sample materials, but with insights which will help customers understand how they can better use the product or service to achieve their business objectives. If these insights are packaged up, then sales people will be better able to sell in today’s market. Ideas and insights fly around the business system (the organisation and its partners) but are not harnessed in a way which can bring them to life to be deployed rapidly at the sharp end of business. Social media approaches and technologies can be used to help facilitate this innovation process, involving collaboration with select customers if at all possible.

(c) TCF 2012 SCRM Model

B2b marketing must define the role of digital media in the sales process. They must start (as Schema® assessments do) with the b2b customer lifecycle; from the way they win new customers, keep existing customers, develop the value of customers and manage the cost of doing this. In the path to purchase, they need to look at the role of insight-rich content in providing information which drives inbound contact (some call this inbound marketing). They must understand the role of influencers, who they are and how to engage them. They may create social communities, seeding the community with insights, facilitating conversations, encouraging peer-to-peer dialogue – but they must be aware that this may generate unwelcome comment. Critically, as a matter of business as usual, they must prompt clients (and provide the tools) to leave testimonials and reviews in places where they can be seen. All this is designed to capture the interest of a prospect early in the sales cycle.

The social business model; 21st century customer management

We have spoken a great deal in the past about the emerging ‘social business’ model. It is a term which is alien to many because that word ‘social’ can appear very ‘non-business’. We simply call it ’21st century customer management’, because that is what it is; integrating contemporary philosophies (e.g. engagement, participation, dialogue) and technologies to engage with and manage customers more effectively. Our Schema® work shows that the social business set up, as represented in the diagram, is becoming a target operating model for leading b2b companies globally. Contact us for more details or leave a comment here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Neil Woodcock
Neil is Chairman and CEO of The Customer Framework Ltd. and visiting Professor at Henley Business School. An honours graduate, he worked in B2B sales & marketing with Mobil Oil, B2C marketing with Unilever and consultancy services with Andersen Consulting & McKinsey. Neil has written 5 books on customer management, is on the editorial board of leading journals and is an Honorary Fellow of the IDM.

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