The Role of B2B Sales in the Customer Decision Journey


Share on LinkedIn

With all of the talk about customer power, much of the discussion has centered on B2C environments. At the same time, studies have shown that the quality of customer experience is as important for B2B (or even more so, when you consider average transactions costs and lifetime customer value). One big difference in B2B is that, in most cases, a professional sales rep, or sales organization, plays a significant role in the customer experience (v. B2C where I can complete entire decision journeys without ever talking to a company representative—and where these digital experiences are often the focus of attention). To help sales deliver positive customer experiences, it is worth taking a look at the key elements of customer journeys and then mapping into these the role of the B2B sales team.

The customer journey is a common term used to describe stages that a customer moves through as they make purchase decisions and get value from those purchases. Every organization’s customers may have different journeys, but at a high level, the stages can generally be identified as:

  • Awareness – Customer becomes aware of need or opportunity and begins to explore options for addressing it.
  • Validation – As they learn more, they leverage 3rd parties to validate their assumptions and narrow their options.
  • Commit – The customer moves forward with a purchase.
  • Use – With the product/service “in hand”, the use it, getting help, when needed and assess if its effectively addressing the need/opportunity.
  • Expand – If they are happy, they may look at expanding their commitment by either broadening the use of the product or expanding into other areas.

There are a few things to note about with these phases:

  • Despite how they sound, they may not be linear, customers may jump around in the stages, skipping steps or moving backwards, based on new information they receive
  • The journey has lots of endpoints. And these are often roadblocks, where the customer simply abandons the journey (either entirely or with regard to one particular solution option)
  • Social technologies play a huge role in influencing customer journeys, with social recommendations often trusted more than vendor recommendations
  • In B2B, the journey phases will typically involve a mix of online and “live” interactions (live being conversations or face to face meetings with people in the selling organization)

McKinsey has an interesting picture of the customer journey that they created for consumers, but I think it also applies to B2B. One of their key ideas is the idea of the “loyalty loop”, where a customer will narrow their options on behalf of a preferred vendor based on the experiences they have had with them in the past.

McKinsey's View of the Customer Decision Journey

One of the big shifts when you think about customer journeys, or the customer buying cycle, is that it is all about the customer and what they are going through, rather than being about your sales process. At the same time, there is opportunity for the B2B sales team to play a role in guiding the journey, whether acting as an incumbent or trying to break-in to redirect the journey as an Interloper (note: you are an interloper to the incumbent—not the customer. To the customer, you want to be viewed as a source of potential value).

Journey Phase Incumbent Interloper
Awareness Make sure the customer can find information on your Web properties and supplement that with additional material to strengthen your position Work to shift the discussion toward a different need/opportunity to improve your chance of gaining attention.
Validation Provide access to formal and informal references from customers and brand advocates Use brand advocates and customers to continue to try to shift the discussion toward a different focus area
Commit Make sure that the purchase process is as simple as possible Look for signs of frustration with the purchase process and be ready to jump in with an easier alternative
Use Work with service teams to make sure that everyone knows the areas of expected value and focuses implementation and service efforts on achieving that Continue to emphasize your alternative solution and look for signs of breakdown in the delivery of the incumbent
Expand Leverage the information you know and the success of the project to expedite new journey cycles Show how you can complement the existing solutions with new solutions that will add more value, without compromising the existing work.

Some of these ideas are obvious, and they probably net out to two simple things. If you are the incumbent, do everything you can to make it easy for the customer to make a decision with confidence and then get value from that decision. As an interloper, you are trying to change the game by exposing the customer to new, slightly (or dramatically) different ideas that can create an emotional response that helps them make a hard choice—moving away from someone they know (and probably trust) toward something new and different.

We had not really talked about emotions until that last sentence, but that is the crux of the situation. Customer Experience is largely about perceptions and perceptions are based on expectations and emotional responses. B2B sales have more power than any purely digital medium to understand and interpret signals from customers and use that to form emotional connections.

A focused strategy around delivering memorable, positive customer experiences is a winning strategy not just for B2C, but also B2B. In B2B, the sales team plays an integral role in the experience lifecycle. By understanding the customer journey and looking for ways to improve the experience at that journey phase (or redirect the journey towards a better path for your business), B2B sales teams are on the front-line of customer experience efforts and can make or break the success of the strategy.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Hank Barnes
Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies--particularly around marketing, positioning, and customer experience--for technology providers. Hank has more than 25 years of high-technology sales and marketing experience in both field and corporate roles, both as an individual contributor and the marketing leader for several startups. He is a long-time proponent of customer-centric marketing and the use of customer experience as a key differentiator for business success. His posts here include content from his days with Adobe, SAP, and now Gartner


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here