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.
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.
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.