It’s that time of year again, there are lots of posts around the popular research that indicates, “Customers aren’t engaging sales until they are, 57, 70, 90 (depending on the research you read) through their buying cycle.”
As usual with the posts, there are the usual doom and gloom announcements about the future of selling and the “death of the traditional sales person.” Depending on the point of view being promoted and the services or tools being sold by the writer, things are shifting to social, marketing automation, content, inbound inside sales, and any other configuration of whatever is being promoted.
I’m always surprised at the number of sales professionals prepared to fold their tents and accept this. Or perhaps they want to, perhaps it’s easier just to become RFP fodder, churning out responses to customers who have figured out what they need through the 57, 70, 90% of the buying process. Playing the numbers and pricing game to win their fair share of RFP’s.
Accepting that customers can do without sales help for most of the buying cycle is terribly dangerous–not for us, but for the customers. Customer can’t afford to wait to engage sales professionals late in their buying process. There is too much at stake for them to wait. We as sales professionals can’t let customers do this to themselves and must engage early in the process.
Let me drill into this a little further–I’ve written about this before, I apologize to the regular readers who think I’m a broken record. Let’s look at flaws to the thinking that customers don’t need professional sales until they are 57, 70, 90% of the way through their buying cycle.
First, this whole 57, 70, 90% thing assumes the customer has recognized they have a problem and need to change. The problem with this is too often, they don’t recognize the need to change until it may be too late and they are operating in crisis mode. In today’s world, customers are so consumed with just getting through day to day, the last thing the want to do is disrupt what they are doing and change! For them, doing nothing is pragmatic, even survival. While they may recognize there are better ways to do something, until the current situation becomes intolerable, few sane people will drive for change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Often, customers are too busy with the day to day survival, they are blind to the opportunities they are missing, or that there are better, more efficient ways of achieving their goals.
So one of the key roles of the modern sales professional is to help educate the customer about these things. They need to help the customer realize they are missing opportunities, they have to help teach the customer there are more effective and efficient ways of achieving their goals. They have to help the customer understand their markets, customers, and competitors are changing, perhaps creating threats the customer is unaware of.
Whether it’s Insight, Provocation, Teaching, or something else, a key role or sales professionals is to help the customer realize they must change, they must look at new approaches and new methods. As a result, the sales professional is key in helping customer initiate the buying cycle.
Second, this whole “self educating” idea is flawed in that it assumes the customer knows the questions they should be asking themselves, the things they should be looking at. It assumes they perfectly understand the desired outcomes they want to achieve and the things they need to get there. If they do, then it’s fair they can self educate, do web research, participate in conference discussions, rely on high quality content from vendors. But in complex B2B sales, it’s highly unlikely they have such clarity and know what to look at, what questions they should be asking. Even if they have bought similar things in the past, unless they are buying the same thing every week, it’s highly likely the solutions and vendors have changed tremendously since they were last in a buying cycle.
I’ve used these examples before, but how many times in a Development VP’s career, have they looked at a new project management system, changed their design tools, and so forth. Or a manufacturing VP implementing a new manufacturing line or system, or a Marketing VP implementing new Marketing Automation tools, or a Sales Exec looking at new CRM and Sales Automation tools, or a CFO looking for new financial systems. They make these decisions so infrequently that the capabilities of the solutions–even the needs driving the changes are very different. So they don’t know what they should be looking for.
So the modern sales professional helps educate the customer not about the products, but the questions they should be asking themselves, the issues they should be considering.
Third, related to the previous point is what I have termed “the last mile problem.” The web is great for providing general information, case studies, use cases and other general information. New tools and great content programs might provide information relevant to a persona, a specific industry/market, an enterprise sizes (i.e. SMB), but it can never provide the very specific answers to the question, “How does this apply to my specific situation?” This is where modern sales professionals help. They invest the time in understanding the customer–who will be impacted, current issues, priorities, risk profile, capabilities, and many other things unique to the customer at this time. They can then recommend the solution that best fits what the customer is trying to achieve. They can identify the issues the customer should be concerned about in implementation. One of the roles of the modern professional sales person is to help the customer understand the last mile problem and to make sure the solution solves their specific problems.
Fourth, the 57, 70, 90% issue assumes the customer can organize themselves to buy. That they know who to involve, how to align diverse priorities, interests, agendas. But the data shows something quite the contrary. Well over 40% of forecast deals, end in No Decision Made. So if we look at pipeline deals and others, that number can only go up.
There are simply too many things that can derail our customers for sales professionals to abandon 57, 70. 90% of their buying process—leaving it to them. Too much is at stake for them, lost opportunities, lost revenue, their jobs, their companies!
We owe it to our customers not to let them do this. We owe it to them to provide leadership—helping them recognize they need to change, guiding them through the buying process.
This is what value creation is really about. This is what our customers expect of us.
But all of this demands change within our own organizations. Both in how we help the customer learn and how we engage them. It requires tightly aligned sales and marketing organizations. It requires new skills and capabilities of our marketers and sales people (and managers).
Sales people stuck in educating customers about products and solutions—regardless of whether they pitch products/solutions, or do it consultatively will become the dinosaurs of our profession.
All the traditional skills of a sales person, whether it’s called solutions, consultative, insight selling or goes by the names offered by various sales training vendors are just table stakes for the modern sales professional. Modern sales professionals are business people–helping their customers’ businesses achieve the highest levels of performance. To do this, modern sales professionals have extraordinary business/financial acumen, they have rich critical thinking and problem solving skills. They are strong project managers, able to align resources from many organizations and help them through their process. They’re fantastic collaborators–again leveraging resources in the customer, in partner organizations, and within their own organization to help customers achieve their goals. They are agile, nimble–adapting quickly to changes. They are obsessive about learning and relentless in their execution.
If we value our customers, if we want to create the greatest value for our customers, we have to recognize our customers can’t afford to have us wait until they are 57, 70, 90% of the way through their cycle.
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