The Internet and search providers such as Google have revolutionized the way we access and interact with information. Nowhere is this more evident than in our purchasing decisions, whether as consumers considering major appliances for our homes, or as businesspeople considering goods and services for our firms. Our desire for information, the time required to deliberate, and the potential for post-purchase dissatisfaction all seem to have grown exponentially.
Marketing expert Jon Miller agrees that the availability of online content has altered the B2B buying landscape. The growth of social media and the belt tightening of the recession have accelerated those changes. During a recent discussion, Jon, a co-founder of Marketo, a B2B marketing automation firm, shared his thoughts on the nature of those changes -- and on effective marketing and sales techniques in light of them.
Changes in the Marketing-Sales Cycle
So how, exactly, has the Internet changed the B2B marketplace?
- Sales representatives are no longer the gatekeepers of information. The days when customers had to meet with sales reps to get information on company products and services are gone. Today, buyers can study industry-specific best practices, identify recommended approaches to problem solving, and begin evaluating possible solutions months before sitting down with a salesperson.
- Demand for information (specifically online) is high. Among all demographics and across generations, interest in content is strong. Format preferences may vary between digital natives and boomers; for example, one may follow a Twitter stream or watch a YouTube video whereas another may read a white paper or attend a webinar to gather information. Everybody, however, wants access to it online.
- Buyers initiate dialogue when they are ready to talk. Push-through techniques, such as traditional cold calls and broadcast messages, are becoming less and less effective. Overwhelmed with the abundance of information, prospects tune out attempts to get their attention. When they find the need to begin investigating solutions to a problem, they use pull-through methods of accessing information, typically searching for relevant online content.
- Contacts by sales reps or offers made too early scare prospects. In the early or awareness stage of the marketing-sales cycle, buyers gather general information and become aware of potential sources; in the middle or consideration stage, they explore possibilities, identify key players, and begin to structure an evaluation method; in the late or decision stage, they conduct a rigorous evaluation.
- The sales spiel is largely irrelevant. Customers want to control the flow of information rather than receive a sales pitch. They are becoming wary of content published by companies, and seek recommendations and feedback via social media and third-party sites.
- Online body language can be observed to detect stages of the decision-making process. Just as in real life, body language can convey receptivity to sales presentations in face-to-face meetings. For example, someone searching for a “digital camera” is most likely in the early stage whereas someone searching for a “Canon PowerShot SD1400IS” is likely in the late stage of the marketing-sales cycle. Similarly, customers may signal their stages of decision-making based on social media activity, such as following a key influencer on Twitter.
- The sale is never final. Buyers may have second thoughts after the sale is made. Unwavering belief in the purchased product or service, along with buy-in among all company employees, is often needed to assure proper implementation and integration of solutions offered by your company.
Enduring Aspects of Sales
What remains the same despite the information revolution?
- Professionalism is crucial. Sales representatives have long been the face of the company. Today they should offer well-informed solutions and have much greater expertise than customers possess, given the accessibility and abundance of information.
- Relationships still matter. The abilities to quickly build rapport and productively manage communications are still important. Though the marketing-sales cycle is often longer and more complex, the sales phase (and window for decision-making) is shorter; consequently, the ability to form seller-buyer bonds nearly instantaneously can be critical to sales success.
- There is a prominent emotional component to B2B buying. Buyers are fearful of making a bad decision. Jon references "asymmetry" in describing the potential for negative consequences: The upside of making the perfect choice is just slightly better than making an acceptable decision (perhaps yielding 5 percent more profit), but the downside of being wrong could be devastating to the business. As a result, buyers often opt for the least-risky selection rather than the best selection, especially in a recessionary environment where potential job loss is a strong possibility.
- Recommendations matter. Buyers still seek advice from trusted sources, such as industry colleagues, board members, and bosses.
- All sales leads aren’t equal. Certain leads are more qualified and hotter than others.
Successful Sales Techniques in the Information Age
Given the landscape, what can businesses do better to better reach buyers and then make the sale?
- Create and publish search-engine friendly online content. Reach prospects in the early, investigative, information-gathering stage by establishing your company as a thought leader in its niche, educating prospects on best practices and giving actionable ideas. Guide decision-making processes throughout the middle and late stages of the marketing-sales cycle. Provide detailed information on your product lines and applications.
- Deliver content in various formats through multiple channels to reach diverse audiences. For example, use white papers, webinars, e-books, press releases, information guides, YouTube videos, podcasts, SlideShare presentations, Twitter tweets, and Facebook updates.
- Nurture leads. Require visitor registration to access certain content so that you can begin lead nurturing based on buyers’ interests. Show restraint in contacting prospects and making offers too early. Understand that buyers often engage and then become inactive. Use Web analytics to detect patterns typical for your company to get a sense of when prospects are ready to make a decision. Online leads can be scored in terms of customer readiness and urgency requiring immediate action on the part of sales representatives.
- Simplify in order to facilitate decisions. Information abundance and the relentless presence of social media have led to attention scarcity. Offer information that is relevant, well-understood, and easy to access. Provide expert guidance in facilitating decisions.
- Reduce buyers’ perceptions of risk and increase their comfort levels after the sale. Affirm the validity of purchase decisions through techniques that include:
1. Continually reinforcing your company’s position as a thought leader
2. Engaging with third-party sites
3. Providing easy-to-use solutions
4. Making sure there are no surprises after the sale relating to extra fees and per-transaction costs
Marketing and sales have never been easy, and while the tools have changed, the fundamentals remain the same. Cultivate trust, deliver on promises, and give your customers a reason to come back to you for more.
Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.