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Sales Tips: How to Create Middle Ground for Buyers and Sellers

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling®

Vendors and their marketing staffs have faced many challenges in managing inbound leads. For vendors selling complex, expensive offerings website visitors provide less than optimal entry points. A case can be made that vendors and prospect organizations are worse off than they were twenty years ago.

disconnect between buyers and sellers

In my mind it’s unfortunate but over the years sellers earned the reputation of taking advantage of buyers with sins of hype, omission or outright lying about their offerings. Pre-Y2K salespeople were seen as Subject Matter Experts and parsed out information self-servingly on offerings as they saw fit. In all fairness many sellers did their best to make sure offerings were a fit, but buyers seem to remember the people that took advantage of them. Buyers came to resent having sellers influence their requirements when making purchases.

The Internet changed all that. In the late 90’s vendors driven by a desire to drive higher revenue posted an incredible volume of information on their websites. In doing so they ceded a great amount of control. Buyers saw it as a leveling of the playing field and felt they could delay or entirely avoid having to interact with sellers and endure their transparent attempts to alter the requirements to optimize their chances of winning.

Vendors controlled all website content, so the advent of B2B social networking made it possible to get firsthand information from customers about offerings, service, support, etc.

Over the last 20 years, both buyers and vendors have made some flawed decisions:

  • Marketing treated visitors as though they were buyers. It would be more accurate to use the term researchers because most of them can’t buy.
  • Vendors grading inbound visitors by activities virtually ensured “leads” would be non-Key Players. Executives don’t have the time and few websites have adequate content to be relevant to them and require multiple visits.
  • Changes vendors made were in response to researcher, rather than executive buying behavior.
  • Prospect organizations could waste staff’s time by evaluating offerings without the support or awareness of executives that would have to fund purchases.
  • The time needed to do product evaluations increased as multiple vendors were considered in parallel rather than series.
  • Without executive involvement there often was no understanding of potential value or payback.
  • Paranoia about salespeople influencing requirements seemed to be higher than necessary. Vendors continued with large amounts of product training. That seemed to be overkill when so much information is available on websites and via social networking. Vendors allowed sellers to get into product decisions before desired business outcomes are shared.

buyer and seller connection

Middle Ground

Buying and selling does not have to be a zero-sum game. Ultimately neither party wants a train wreck. There were a few occasions as a salesperson where I chose not to take orders because I didn’t believe customers would be satisfied.

I’d like to propose some steps that could be taken to make things better for both sides:

  • Define selling as empowering buyers to use offerings to achieve goals or solve problems rather than convincing, persuading, and overcoming objections.
  • Vendors should provide sellers with more business training and reduce the amount of product training. A seller’s role when getting involved in ongoing product evaluations is to turn them into cost vs. benefit business decisions.
  • Buyers and sellers should do quick sanity checks early on to determine if estimates of payback are sufficient to do product evaluations that will require time and resources from both parties.
  • Vendors could consider putting some revenue in play. Let’s say a customer was making a $100K buying decision with an expectation of reducing scrap by 25%. As a show of good faith could the vendor could offer to bill $80K, earn $20K when the 25% goal was made and have a stretch goal of 35% so the vendor could earn another $20K. I appreciate this creates accounting challenges, but feel there should be incentives that are win-win for both parties.

I’d also like to ask you to consider how to make entry points higher. Bus dev can be viewed as attempting to take Key Players with latent needs to active need. It amounts to causing buyers that weren’t looking to look. Sellers should call at a high enough level that the person can fund unbudgeted initiatives. If leads are with lower levels, seller should qualify them as coaches that will provide access to higher levels.

In the clear light of day I don’t believe electronic bus dev touches are effective with Key Players. Consider having salespeople review a prospect’s annual report, find a compelling triggering event, send a letter to a very senior executive and follow-up with phone calls. Rather than wait for nurtured leads, taking senior executives from latent to active needs allow sellers to start as Column A and increase win rates.

Buyers and sellers share a common desire to successfully implement offerings and quantify the results achieved.  It appears buyers have tried to minimize or eliminate the chances for sellers to influence their requirements. In doing so they can waste large chunks of time in doing product evaluations before building business cases. It is in everyone’s best interest to take this approach and I believe the challenge is for vendors to show their salespeople how to migrate from selling products to enabling business outcomes to be achieved.

Sales Tips: Types of Customer Data to Collect to Improve Marketing Strategy

Courtesy of Primary Intelligence, a CustomerCentric Selling® Partner

When some marketing professionals think about surveys, they generally think about close-ended feedback. Close-ended feedback, which is typically collected in online surveys, involves rating scales, “check boxes” of applicable categories, “yes/no” questions, and other data that is typically quantitative.

Close-ended feedback is usually efficient and straightforward for customers to answer, as well as straightforward for organizations to analyze. This type of customer feedback also provides the ability to easily compare different parts of the organization, different team member’s effectiveness, and overall customer experience from a quantitative, “temperature-taking” perspective.

In contrast, open-ended feedback is typically qualitative in nature and often includes verbal or written comments that provide context behind the close-ended quantitative data. For example, an especially low rating of a “1” or a “2” on a 0-10 point ratings scale would benefit from customer follow-up to discover why the respondent rated the category especially low. Similarly, understanding a “9” or a “10” rating would help to explain and drive behavior that should be replicated throughout the organization with other customers.

(For more information on quantitative and qualitative data, download our eBook “B2B Quantitative vs. Qualitative Data.”)

customer data strategy

Types of Customer Data to Collect to Improve Marketing Strategy

Collecting Open-ended and Close-ended Feedback

Collecting a combination of open-ended and close-ended feedback is a best practice at Primary Intelligence. While collecting only close-ended or only open-ended feedback is possible, having one without the other only tells one side of the story.

In many of today’s data-driven organizations, having a CX (Customer Experience) program with only qualitative comments typically invites skepticism from data hounds, who want to know, “What can we do with this unstructured feedback?” This is especially true if text mining or text analytics is not being used to help sort and understand the feedback.

At the same time, providing only data points often doesn’t tell the whole story. Data alone doesn’t describe the why of the story. It’s also devoid of specifics, a particularly difficult situation to find oneself in when trying to understand why customers stay or go, why customers remain loyal or churn.

The most popular method of collecting open-ended feedback is through electronic surveys, with 85 percent of organizations collecting qualitative feedback in this manner. An additional 59 percent are collecting open-ended Customer Experience feedback through telephone interviews, while close to 50 percent are utilizing on-site or in-person visits.

Collection Methodologies Advantages and Disadvantages

While collecting open-ended feedback through any means is helpful in understanding customer sentiment, different approaches to collecting open-ended feedback have both advantages and drawbacks.

Online surveys

While gathering open-ended feedback using online surveys can be efficient for organizations administering the surveys, one of the principal drawbacks of collecting open-ended feedback using online surveys is that organizations cannot delve deeper into customers’ responses to ask probing follow-up questions. Additionally, open-ended responses to online surveys can sometimes be confusing, and even contradict earlier feedback provided in the survey.

On-site visits

In-person meetings have the advantage of showing customers the extent of care and attention organizations are willing to pay to them to address their needs, with executives taking the time to meet with customers face-to-face and address problems head on, not hiding behind a computer screen or armies of mid-level managers.

A drawback of on-site visits, however, is that the conversations may or may not be recorded, so capturing and analyzing the information for later reflection and comparison with other customer data may be spotty, minimal, or non-existent.

Another potential disadvantage of on-site visits is that the individual or team sent to meet with the customer may not be ideal. For example, organizations that send a member from the customer’s account team may encounter defensiveness when the account representatives hear negative feedback or suggestions for improvement. As a result, customers may be less than candid in sharing the totality of their feedback.

(For advice on how to handle negative feedback, check out this article.)

Phone Calls

Advantages of collecting open-ended feedback over the phone include reduced time and expenses compared with on-site visits, as well as the ability to ask clarifying or probing follow-up questions to tease out root issues causing customers to defect or areas of delight leading to loyalty and recommendations. Telephone conversations can also be recorded, with comments transcribed for later viewing and analysis throughout the organization.

One of the disadvantages of interviewing customers through telephone conversations is that scheduling logistics can be challenging, especially if the customer is in a different region of the world. Speaking on the telephone also does not allow the interviewer to see facial expressions or body language, and pauses can be difficult to interpret in telephone conversations.

(For a deeper discussion on phone interviews, read this article.)

Sales Tips: 3 Things to Know Before Selling to the B2B Market

Courtesy of Primary Intelligence, a CustomerCentric Selling® Partner

In recent years, selling to the B2B market has presented new challenges for companies such as buyers’ growing tendency to vet vendors using online research and the interplay between the B2B and B2C buyer experience.

B2B buyers identifying and selecting their top tier of vendors for purchase evaluations—including the short list of contenders—often do so with very little or NO input from sales or company reps. Buyers also expect excellence from their vendors, based largely on their expectations from their experiences as consumers in B2C transactions.

So, what should companies selling to the B2B market know before they engage with their buyers?

b2b selling

Selling to the B2B Market

1. The buying process will happen (mostly) without you

In terms of vetting vendors, the key take away is the fact that digital access to information has resulted in a shift of power from sellers to buyers. Instead of going to sales reps and company sources for most (if not all) of their information, buyers today can research vendors, products, services, support, add-ons, pricing, partnerships, and many other factors online, using company websites, user groups, virtual opinion leaders, blog posts, videos, SlideShare and presentation postings, and investor details.

The Corporate Executive Board estimates that close to 60% of buying activities are finished before a sales rep is even involved. Forrester estimates that up to 90% of the buying process is completed before sales is brought in. Buyers who are evaluating technology for their businesses complete more than half of their evaluation before contacting a sales rep. And they’re often seeking out users instead of either vendors or analysts.

It’s important to remember that B2B buyers are doing much of their investigative work about vendors and their offerings before they ever reach out to sales or company representatives for information.

What You Can Do:

  • Put your best digital face forward

Make sure you’re providing rich content to your audience, not only about your products or services, but also about your market leadership, your customers, and the industry overall, including trends that could impact the market in the near- or long-term.

  • Integrate Sales and Marketing

While Marketing and Sales have not always worked closely together, in the digital age it’s essential they present a consistent message to buyers. There’s even a term HubSpot coined — “Smarketing”—to describe an integrated sales and marketing strategy.

Especially at the beginning of the discovery process, Marketing must take increased responsibility for engaging and nurturing prospects. Toward the end of the buying process, Sales may play a larger role. Throughout the process, Sales and Marketing must be integrated and appear seamless to buyers.

  • Have a multi-channel presence

Because buyers will be looking for details about your company and products using different channels, you’ll need to have a presence in the channels buyers are likely to be in, including website content, social media, webinars, case studies, blog posts, online videos, and white papers.

SiriusDecisions highlights that “highly aligned B2B organizations achieve 19% faster revenue growth and 15% higher profitability.”

2. Buyers expect B2C excellence from B2B vendors

Like the rest of us, B2B buyers don’t operate in a vacuum. They compare their experiences as consumers in their personal lives to their experiences as buyers in their professional lives. For example, if someone has a seamless experience buying dog food on their mobile device at 3 a.m., they want to repeat that positive experience when purchasing your product, whether it’s industrial machinery, staffing services, or anything in between.

Practical Ecommerce notes that B2B companies selling their offerings online recognize that the customer experience for business buyers is just as important as the customer experience for consumer purchasers. Avanade highlights the consumerization of IT – policies such as “Bring Your Own Device” or BYOD – mean that the traditional delineations of B2B and B2C are no longer relevant. Instead, it’s now business to everyone since there are low or no barriers to information.

What You Can Do:

  • Model your systems after the best B2C companies

There’s really one large, over-arching implication for the B2C/B2B convergence trend, and that is to model your systems, processes, and customer interactions after the best B2C companies, usually consumer packaged goods companies, such as Proctor & Gamble or Unilever. This means having a mobile-ready platform, investing in technology to support better customer service and customer experiences, and offering self-service tools, such as pricing and ROI calculators.

McKinsey highlights the fact that most business buyers use six or more channels to evaluate potential vendors – a theme highlighted earlier – along with the fact that most buyers (65%) report poor and inconsistent experiences between the different channels. Using technology and systems to ensure consistency in user experience will help in this regard.

3. Companies with effective Personas and Journey Mapping will surge ahead

While Customer Experience, or CX, has historically been the focus of B2C organizations, it’s now making a big play in B2B enterprises as companies seek to better understand their customers’ experiences along the entire life cycle of the customer’s engagement.

One way companies are understanding their customers’ experiences is using personas and customer journey mapping. Using Personas and Journey Mapping, companies are increasingly focused on Customer Experience to drive differentiation and increase profitability. (To learn more about Customer Experience, download this guide.)

Personas vs. Journey Mapping:

* Personas

Personas are descriptions of an organization’s typical buyers based on market research and feedback from actual customers. (Check out 15 Ways to Make Your Buyer Personas Real.)

* Journey Mapping

Journey mapping is just what its name implies – it provides a map of the journey customers take with their vendors, from initial discovery to product evaluation to product usage to product support to eventual end of life or product retirement. (Check out 15 Powerful Customer Journey Maps.)

As competition intensifies in the B2B environment, customer experience initiatives can be used to both differentiate companies and to increase profitability. Because buyer personas can help to guide product development and create better marketing campaigns, they’re typically used by companies to help drive detailed customer segmentation, helping companies understand different buyers’ attitudes and criteria for purchase decisions.

Customer journey mapping can help companies identify how internal processes help or hinder their customers’ experiences at every stage along the journey through capture and labeling of customer thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Journey mapping can also illustrate customer expectations versus reality, as well as opportunities for improvement in each phase of the mapping process.

Sales Tips: How to Respond to “Best and Final” Pricing Requests

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling®

How should sellers reply when they are not going to win a transaction but are asked for a “best and final” number? Some respond with the lowest possible price with the thought being they may be able to steal the business (unlikely) or at least make it a skinny deal for their competitors. It’s not a tactic I endorse.

I believe floating aggressive prices can come back to haunt sellers if and when the roles may be reversed in the future. It would be awkward if a seller’s customers got wind of pricing that was lower than what they paid.

best and final pricing

My suggestion when asked for best and final pricing is to ask:

“Am I the vendor of choice and is price the last remaining obstacle?”

  • If the person asking is not a decision maker, indicate that he/she, the decision maker, your manager and you would have to meet to see if the transaction could be completed.
  • If the person asking for better pricing says you are not yet the vendor of choice you can respond:

“It sounds as though you have more work to do in finalizing your decision. If I become the vendor of choice at that time we can all meet to see if we can come to terms. For now, let’s leave pricing as an open item.” 

Some positive things happen by taking this approach:

  • You avoid putting low ball numbers on the street
  • The “buyer” hasn’t gotten what he or she wants
  • It makes sense for both parties not to negotiate unless you are Column A

Always and never don’t usually apply to sales, but my suggestion is to always act as though you are Column A when asked for better pricing. If you are, buyers will come back to you. If you’re not, you keep your dignity by not getting dragged into a discounting death spiral.

Win Loss Best Practices: Competitive Intelligence Leads to Strategic Decisions

Guest post by Primary Intelligence, CustomerCentric Selling® Partner

Any electrical socket around you provides a tap to a near endless supply of energy. Inside the wires, there is enough power to run a houseful of gadgets, recharge your electric car or deliver an awful shock (don’t try that at home).

But, until you use the power to do something (turn on the lights, recharge your phone, etc.), it really doesn’t offer much value. For the electricity to be effective, it must power something that is important to you. Otherwise, it is just a bunch of electrons with potential energy sitting in copper wiring.

Your competitive intelligence is very similar to the electricity in your wires. You can collect as much competitive intelligence as you like, but until someone uses it to power change in your company, it really isn’t effective at all.

competitionCompetitive Intelligence for Strategy

Your competitive intelligence is most effective if it:

  1. Strengthens your company’s position when you compete
  2. Enhances your offerings to create desirable solutions that customers will buy

Answer These Competitive Analysis Questions

To maximize effectiveness, we recommend answering these questions:

1. Top-line Revenue

  • Does this intelligence create new revenue opportunities?
  • Can we take away sales from the competition?
  • Will our existing accounts stay longer and be more profitable?

2. Bottom-line

  • Can we be more efficient or learn best practices?
  • Are there better ways to manage our processes?

3. Application

  • How easily will we be able to act on this data?

What’s Your Best Source for Competitive Intelligence? Your Customers!

How often do you talk to your customers? If you add up the touches made by sales, account management, marketing, and other client-facing services in your company, you might find that each of your customers is talking to you on a regular basis.

You should have a central management group that has established some formal information gathering processes. Very common programs would include Customer Satisfaction, Account Loyalty, Win-back, Win Loss, Client Retention and Defection. Usually, these programs fall under the heading of “Voice of the Customer” (VOC). (Check out our Resources page to learn more about these programs.)

So, you have two types of contact:

  1. Informal, everyday conversations
  2. Formal programs to gather Voice of the Customer data

The fact of the matter is that your customers know nearly as much about the competition as they do about you. They evaluated the competition before selecting you as their vendor. They are regularly courted by the competition and many of your best clients also have purchased from your competitors, either in the past or currently.

Take a minute to see if your win loss program is generating competitive intelligence.

buyer-meeting-customer-experienceIn our experience, most customer satisfaction and loyalty interviews focus on the client’s experience with their present vendor. Go one step further and:

  1. Ask your clients who they perceive as your biggest threats.
  2. Find out what they are hearing about the competitors’ recent initiatives and offers.
  3. Understand how you stack up in various performance areas.

Put the Competitive Intelligence Collected to Work

The competitive information collected from your customers will not only be enlightening but will show your company what is happening in the market place in real time. (For more reading, download 7 Competitive Intelligence Strategies Used by Successful B2B Companies.)

Your company will benefit in the following ways:

  1. Sales will know what is being said about your company by the competitors. They will have more intelligence to sell more effectively and counter negative messages.
  2. Marketing will know what the prospects and clients value in the marketplace and will be able to establish messaging that drive home the most important value propositions.
  3. Product Development will know the advances being made by the competition and will understand how well these innovations may be received by the marketplace.
  4. Executives will have the right competitive intelligence to make strategic decisions.

Last thoughts:

Are you sharing competitive intelligence with the stakeholders in a timely manner to make sure that your company is capitalizing on the market as efficiently as possible?

Collecting data and sharing customer insights are valuable competitive strategies, but competitive intelligence must be converted to actionable decisions if you truly want change.