How far is today’s B2B buyer through the decision-making process before engaging a supplier? It’s a bit like asking, “How high is up?” The actual number probably doesn’t matter. What’s important is that today’s self-educated B2B buyer—or more aptly, buyers—increasingly turn to sources other than salespeople for product information.
But if you insist on numbers, a recent survey by the Consumer Executive Board (CEB) of 1,900 corporate decision makers found that buyers are, at a minimum, 57 percent of the way through the buying process before they contact a potential supplier. Some respondents reported being as much as 70 percent complete with the decision-making process before reaching out to a vendor.
“That doesn’t leave much time for changing customers’ opinions,” says Peter Pickus, Executive Adviser at CEB. Stated another way, as much as two-thirds of the process that B2B sales teams traditionally used to close deals may be obsolete. “The fundamental implications are clear: marketers must figure out how to influence potential customers where and when they are conducting pre-purchase research.”
“The hardest thing about B2B selling today is that customers don’t need you the way they used to,” add CEB executives Brent Adamson, Mathew Dixon and Nicholas Toman in an article published in Harvard Business Review entitled “The End of Solution Sales.”
The trio contends that top performers in today’s B2B selling environment don’t just sell more effectively, they sell differently. “Boosting the performance of average salespeople isn’t a matter of improving how they currently sell; it involves altogether changing how they sell. To accomplish this, organizations need to fundamentally rethink the training and support provided to their reps,” they state.
The digital revolution
Although the CEB survey of B2B buyers was only conducted last year, the fact that buyers are completing a lot more prepurchase research online before reaching out to a supplier is not news to most. What’s startling is that few suppliers have taken direct and focused action on how to change their go-to-market models to address this shift, says Jason Robinson, Senior Vice President for Sales and Marketing of MarketBridge, a technology enabled services firm.
Supply siders’ inaction has not been for lack of a fallout from the shift to more educated buyers, Robinson says. Sales productivity is suffering, with an estimated 67 percent of sales reps not meeting their quotas, Over the past several years, B2B customers have:
• Been increasingly difficult to reach, leading to sales productivity metrics dropping off a cliff
• Complained that sales reps are woefully underprepared and seemingly not attuned to the fact that today’s customer is privy to endless amounts of information and perspective prior to ever engaging with sales
• Stopped inviting sales reps back to take the process forward, which means the money and effort invested in reaching those customers has been wasted
With digital and online channels playing a significant role in the purchasing decisions of today’s B2B buyer, conventional wisdom holds that organizations need to continue to invest in their digital strategies, including search engine performance, digital advertising, social media, websites, communities and blogs. The MarketBridge report, “The Ultimate Guide to the New Buyer’s Journey,” emphasizes that the critical part of addressing the new buyer’s journey is not merely creating digital tactics, but focusing on how your organization engages prospects once they engage digitally.
“Brands are spending too much time and effort on widespread marketing but are not engaging customers on a direct level,” the report states. “Once the buyer is actually ready to engage with a human inside a given brand, they will do so quite often through a digital channel and will expect a real-time response. When the appropriate digital engagement doesn’t take place around a key consumer segment, revenue loss is a very real scenario.”
The paradox of buying teams
Not only has the explosion of communication platforms and interaction channels ratcheted up the expectations of B2B purchasers, there are more influencers and decision makers within each prospect company involved in the purchasing process. “Reaching consensus and closing deals has become an increasingly painful and protracted process for customers and suppliers alike,” CEB reports.
Whereas an IT supplier might have once sold directly to a CIO and his or her team, today that same sale may also need buy-in from the chief marketing officer, the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, legal counsel, procurement executives and others. CEB found that, on average, 5.4 people now have to formally sign off on every purchase.
While this complicates the sales process, the good news, says Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions, Inc., is that there are a number of people that still need to be sold to. For all of the hype about buyers being 50 percent or more through the buying decision, there is still a lot of selling left to be done, Riesterer says.
“A buyer may feel it is 60 percent of the way done, but if there are 5.4 decision makers, one person may be 60 percent done, but the salesperson may have to bring the other 4.4 people from 0 percent to 100 percent. In actuality, the math to get them all to 100-percent ready [to buy] means the purchase decision is really only 10 percent of the way done when the salesperson is called in,” Riesterer says.
He argues that if companies continue to focus so intently on the notion that buyers are so far down the line in terms of a purchase decision, they may shift too much of their overall budget to front-end tactics such as social selling and automated marketing, and neglect to invest enough in sales training.
“When you think of marketing automation and what it’s focused on, and you think of content marketing and what it’s focused on, I would argue that most of that spend is to get one person to 57 percent completed with the buying decision. How much is spent on sales enablement? Are you confident that your spend and your time are allocated proportionally?” he asks.
Death of the salesman — not
Riesterer argues that a steadily declining lead-to-conversion rate (pick your number on that statistic, too) and studies that show six out of 10 prospects end up making no decision at all is further evidence that the so-called educated buyer either isn’t educated enough or the sales reps aren’t trained well enough to close the deal.
“Are people really looking at the entire picture of what your sales team still needs to accomplish once they’ve been given the name of one person who is 57 percent of the way done?” he asks. “Has anybody really thought about what still has to happen? It isn’t just finishing the last 43 percent. It involves these other 4.4 people—potentially some of them from zero — and getting them as far along as the person who raised his hand. It’s taking them all over the line together.”
It’s wrong to assume that a sales development team can just book an appointment and the buyer (or buyers) who come to a meeting will be fully educated about how they’re going to get value and what problems they’re going to solve.
“There is still a little black art in there,” says Ray Smith, CEO of Datahug, a predictive sales acceleration technology provider. “Yes, they are coming to you with higher expectations. But what they really want from you is not someone who is going to sell to them in a hardnosed, shipping boxes way. They’re looking for advice and they’re looking for references and case studies on how similar companies—maybe even competitors within their industry—have solved their problem.”
“The misconception around saying the customer is better educated is trying to derive the corollary that if they’re better educated, then the rest is easy. That’s not the case,” Smith says emphatically. “When you look at the data analysis on the back end, you see that good sales reps are good because they’re so good at the follow-ups and the engagement. They do all of the right things to prove that the art of selling is alive and well.”