We all have read reports about research telling us that people are about 60% or more through their buying process before they first contact a seller. There are organizations using this factoid to propose methodologies allowing the seller to get earlier into contact with potential customers. This certainly is an option but not the only one.
What has gotten us here?
Before we take action on such a factoid, we should probably know how it was created. As for most factoids of this type, surveys are used; in this case asking buyers about their opinion how far they are through the buying cycle before getting into contact with a seller. As there is no commonly accepted definition of a buying process, we generate an average of subjective opinions. Trying to solve business problems based on averages brings us usually also average (mediocre) results.
However if one has a closer look, the changed customer behavior did not come onto business. Businesses have created it. It is not the internet that has changed customer behavior. The customer has adapted to how businesses use the internet. More exactly, how marketing functions saw the internet as a new way to push information out to customers. Customers intuitively like this new access to information without having to reveal their identity immediately and not being dependent on a seller as the exclusive access to information.
It is however too easy to put the blame on marketing alone. Seller’s behavior has also its share for changed customer behavior. We all have our stories about when we felt being manipulated by sellers. So it is no wonder that with new ways to access information, customers tend to steer clear of sellers as long as they can.
Prospecting not being the most favored activity of sellers and their endless complaints about receiving leads of poor quality have also added that marketing is today so prominent in the customer’s buying cycle by way of marketing automation. With it came new terms and principles such as content- and inbound - marketing as well as qualified, nurtured leads that are supposedly ready to buy. This approach is also considered cheaper than having sellers cold calling to generate leads. In consequence though, marketing automation keeps the potential buyer even longer away from the seller.
What can you do as a sales manager to get your organization there?
Accepting Einstein’s insight that problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that has created them is probably the first hurdle to jump. It will not be without pain because you have to go out of your comfort zone.
Then you should probably get aware of the fact that today’s top sellers approach their job from a point of serving and making a contribution to their customers’ business. Making a quick deal with the next pay check in mind is probably no longer a viable approach. Make though no mistake, closing deals fast is hugely tempting for many salespeople. Put yourself in your sellers’ shoes. If you perceive getting late into the sales cycle and you are told that you are given well qualified leads from marketing combined with the pressure to make your numbers, how would you react? Isn’t it though the seller’s main responsibility to close deals? Yes, but not just closing any deal, especially if customer loyalty is put at risk.
Who do you think will be blamed when a customer, after the purchase, discovers that what was bought does not provide the expected outcome? Humans in business have a tendency to « outsource » mistakes by blaming factors outside of their own control for unpleasant situations.
So there is a high likelihood that the blame will fall on the company and more precisely on the seller that has sold the solution. The danger that this might happen is bigger than we probably anticipate.
Customers, today, suffer from information overload. They tend to overestimate their competency of gaining the right insights for solving their problems. This opens an opportunity for sellers to add value to cases even though the buyer considers having well advanced in the buying process. A seller with the right mindset can help the customer to gain clarity and choose the right solution to the problem.
Current sales processes are though not built for this type of seller behavior. As a sales manager, you should rethink your sales process. If the sellers are to be able to be of service to their customers and make a contribution to their business, the primary purpose of the sales process has to be the facilitation of the customer’s journey. The factoid that customers have gone through 60% of the journey before contacting a seller is though not a terribly useful starting point for a redesign.
A more valuable insight is to accept that sellers today, when contacted by potential customers or having to act on leads given to them, have a high uncertainty of knowing where the customer is in its journey. A sales process addressing this issue has to provide for a diagnosis as an initial step whenever the customer and the seller get into first contact. The purpose of this step is though not to discover potential pain as so often recommended in traditional sales processes. It is simply to know where the customer is in its journey. This allows synchronizing the seller’s activities with the customer’s journey. Years ago, I proposed the term Triage for this step. It does not matter whether the first contact is initiated by the seller or the customer.
In many cases, the contact will be established by the seller after having received a lead. For the triage to be effective, sellers must however know what entry point the customer has used to get into contact with your firm. This is the most vital information marketing has to provide when forwarding a lead to sales. This will enable sellers to hold meaningful conversations with their potential customers.
Good cooperation between sales and marketing is required for this information transfer to be effective. This point has been high on the agenda of sales managers for years without much progress being made. Yet, coordinated actions between the two departments have never been as essential for success as now. A way forward in this matter could be to stop haggling about who has the supremacy in facilitating the customer journey. Decisions on who does what should be based on who is perceived as more capable, by the customer, to facilitate the journey to get to the next stage.
An effective response to the changed customer behavior requires sales managers to change their beliefs first and then to execute on improving their peoples’ thinking. The challenges posed by existing sales processes and relations with marketing should then be addressed. It is not knowledge but execution which will provide progress.