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Customers Are Self Educating/Informing, But What Are They Learning?

by David Brock on May 2nd, 2012

We all know the shifts in buying.  The web offers a tremendous resource to all of us.  There is an overhwelming amount of information available on virtually every topic.  There’s a lot of data that says customers don’t want to see sales people until later in their buying cycle–presumably the final phases, as they have developed a short list of alternatives.

Many think this is wonderful–certainly on the customer side they get to avoid all those terrible sales people.  From the sales side, we now get involved with really serious customers and our sales cycles can be much shorter.  So somehow people seem to think we create this terribly efficient buying and selling environment.  From the sales side, we shift our focus to high quality content, SEO, and all sorts of things that increase our visibility to customers who let their fingers wander their keyboards.

But you have to pause and wonder, is this really a good thing for customers and for sales?  Perhaps for simpler transactions, or where professional well informed buyers are invovled, this may be OK.  But in the world of complex B2B solutions, one really wonders.

What are the problems with self education?  Is it really the “right” thing for customers?  Perhaps this is an arrogant view, but as sales people are we fulfilling our responsibilities in creating great value for customers by succumbing to this self education/information?

Here are some of the challenges:

First, we all know that if something is on the web it must be 100% true, right?  This is the easiest concern, probably the majority of stuff on the web is wrong or out of date.  So how do our customers determine what’s good, what’s accurate, and what information they can rely on?  I suppose if you wander around enough, perhaps participate in discussion forums (but who knows who those people really are), we can sort through the piles of information– perhaps finding things that are more accurate than not.  Perhaps is we narrow our search to “trusted” suppliers, then we can feel more comfortable that we are getting accurate information — but how do we know who is to be trusted?  Just as with working with sales people, smart buyers need to be skeptical.

Second, “my problem is different.”  In complex business decisions, everyone has a different problem or need.  Yes, 80% of the requirements may be the same, but it’s the last 20% that really make the difference.  Companies are different, strategies, culture, priorities are different.  Their goals, objectives vary.  Their processes, history, legacy systems (in the broadest sense) are different.  That last 20% is probably the most critical to the success of any project the customer is undertaking.  Where are they going to get the answers specific to them, where are they going to get the answers specific to that critical 20%? 

Third, do they know what to look for?  Do they know what questions they should be  asking, what they should be researching?  This, to my mind is probably one of the most important concerns customers should have about self educating.  In the complex world of B2B solutions, knowing what questions to ask, what things they should be looking for, what things might be possible is critical.  How do customers know what they don’t know?  A CFO and her staff may be very knowledgeable about how they run the financial operations in their organization—but what do they know about buying a new financial system?  How many times have they bought financial systems in their careers?  What are the capabilities of these systems?  What should they be looking for and why?  How can they change their operations and processes to get much better results? 

We’r all prisoners of our experience.  We know what we know, we don’t know what we don’t know.  If we are self educating, we are constrained in our search to what we know and think we need to know.   Our ability to solve our problems is constrained by the quality of our questions.  Sure, we might stumble upon some interesting content on a web site, we might talk to people and learn new things we should be considering–but that takes a huge amount of time and can really be hit or miss.  Is this the most effective way to buy?  Is this the most effective way to drive tremendous improvements in our operations? 

Fourth, to the customers know how to buy?  Do they have the right people involved, do they know how to organize themselves, do they know how to align their objectives and put together a project plan to identify, select, and implement a solution?    After all, unless they are professional buyers or sourcing people, their jobs aren’t to buy (which, as a side note, is why we are seeing strategic sourcing being involved in more decisions where they haven’t had a presence in the past).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do customers even recognize they have an opportunity to change, and opportunity to improve and grow?  Do they realize they are missing opportunities, or understand how they could seize them?  Simply put, from a sales point of view, we are being irresponsible in serving our customers.  Our job is to help customers identify new opportunities to improve, to grow.  We can’t let our customers cheat themselves of the opportunity to achieve their dreams.  We have to bring them new ideas and insight.

Self education and self directed learning works — after all, there has been great progress in distance based learning.  But the reason those programs work, is they have very clear objectives, very clear methods, and are well structured–not random.  Self education and self directed learning can be very effective in buying, but only in well structured and well defined environments, and in using trusted sources.  For certain types of purchases this is very effective.  But in complex B2B solutions and complex business problems, things are seldom so clearly defined.

One of the major roles of sales people has been to teach.  Too often, our teaching has been misdirected, we focus on teaching/pitching our products.  The greatest value we can create is to teach our customers about different ways of doing things, about new opportunities, about things they may not even realize.  We have to help our customers learn.  We have to help our customers understand the questions they should be asking.  We have to help our customers learn what they should research, what they should be looking for. 

It’s important that we have high quality content, that we continue to create great web/social presence.  But this is most impactful when we have an educated buyer, a buyer who knows the questions they should be asking, a buyer who knows what they should be looking for, a buyer that can critically evaluate the alternatives.

Are you prepared to teach your customers?  Not about your products, but about how they can improve their operations and businesses, how they can better serve their customers, how they can outperform their competition.

What are you doing to help your customers learn?  What are you doing to prepare yourself to teach?  What are you doing to prepare your customers to buy?

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  1. David,

    I just recently discovered your blog, and I’ve enjoyed reading your earlier posts. You provide great insights!

    This post makes several important points about the potential flaws of self-education. From all the research i’ve seen, however, buyer self-eduction is now a reality whether we like it or not. So, the real question is: How can B2B marketers and salespeople adapt to this “new” buying process.

    To me, the answer is relatively clear. Instead of fighting self-directed learning, companies should support buyers in the process. In your post, you make a brief reference to content, and I would argue that content plays a central role in supporting and enabling buyer self-education. What companies should do is create content resources that are designed to guide and inform the self-directed learning process. The best content will also make buyers aware of when self-directed learning should be supplemented with “classroom” instruction.

    I look forward to more great insights.

    • David, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Outstanding content, along with great content strategies are critical in reaching and nurturing today’s buyers. But today, the sales and marketing processes are really tightly interleaved, and one cannot exist without the other. The change in buying changes the way we engage the customer. Rather than getting engaged later in the process, I believe sales people must get engaged earlier. Customer are looking for insights, they are looking for new ideas, new opportunities, ways to improve their business. It would be irresponsible to let the customer let their fingers do the walking through their keyboards. Sales should be there, providing insight, perhaps directing customers to the content that supports it.

      This is really an outstanding issue. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution

  2. Buyer self education is driven by value and technology. Buyers see less and less value from sales people so instead of sitting through a capabilities presentation they expect to be able to download it and watch it on their own schedule for example. Time is also a major contributor to this trend – more buyers doing more with less resources so they use online tools to qualify potential suppliers instead of parading them all through the front door.

    Technology changes are almost too numerous to mention – mobile, SEO, social media, webinars. These tools reflect in many ways the way people prefer to consume information.

    Mr. Dodd is correct. Companies should embrace these trends and adapt. They should create lots of great customer-centric content and reach out to their customers where they are looking – they need to get found when the customer is looking. Companies should build websites and an online presence that is not just a catalog rehash of what they sell but create interesting content that tells the story of how they make the customer’s life better.

    Done well this process helps qualify for both the customer and vendor if it might potentially be a good fit, saving both parties wasted effort.

    Marketing and sales are a part of the same process and the earlier sales is involved in the process the better. These same trends affect sale people in terms of prospecting, building trust, networking, referrals, and more. We are seeing complex sales processes started with self educating buyers but the one thing that has not changed is the need for capable, solution oriented sales people to build the relationship, seal the deal, and continue being the glue that keeps the customer engaged.

    • Todd, thanks for the thougthful comment. Without a doubt, it’s critical for companies to have strong content strategies. However, if the company doesn’t realize they have a problem, there is an opportunity to do things differently, or something similar, then they will never be looking for or consuming the content. This is where it’s important to look at the changing role of the sales person. It is less about educating the customer about the product, but educating the customer about new ways to think about their business. This activity actually may get the customer into the content cycle.

      Our research, that of he SEB tends to show the highest performers are actually engaging the customer earlier in a different way, with different conversations. The roles of sales and marketing are changed in these new processes, leveraging content and self education is an important component of the answer.

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