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You Have To Start At The Beginning

by David Brock on August 3rd, 2014

The other evening, I was relaxing, watching something on Netflix.  It was a mystery thriller, with quite a complex plot that had taken some very interesting twists and turns.

I was a two thirds of the way through the movie (70% to be precise), when my wife joined me.  She had been busy doing some things, but when she sat down, she immediately started asking:  What’s happened?  I don’t understand why this character is doing this?  What are they referring to here?  I made it through about another 5 minutes of the movie, but all her questions were distracting me and annoying (I couldn’t tell her that).  I knew I couldn’t tell her to be quiet and watch, so patient husband that I am, I said, “Let’s go back to the beginning and watch it from the start.  Then you’ll understand what’s going on.”

That’s what happens in too many sales situations.   For lots of reasons, we are getting engaged later in the buying process.  Data shows customers may be 57-70% through their buying process before sales is engaged.  Yet we’ve missed the most important part of the buying process.  Like the movie, we’ve missed all the stuff that sets up the ending.  More importantly, we’ve missed the opportunity to shape or influence the ending.

We want to pummel the customer with questions, “How did you get to this point?  Why did you make these choices?  Would you consider rethinking some of your priorities? What are you really trying to achieve?  What’s driving your need to change?”  Perfectly reasonable questions, but unlike the watching a movie with my wife, the customer can say, “We’ve already done our research, we just need some answers from you, we don’t want to backtrack, just give us the information we need.  Please don’t waste our time, answer our questions.”

It’s a difficult situation.  But for us to be truly effective, we do have to understand a lot of that stuff the customer has already gone through.  Even though they are impatient to move forward and don’t want us to slow down.

Without understanding these issues, how can we be sure that we are providing the right/best solution to the customer, not just answering their questions?  They may have missed some important things, they may not have known things they should have been looking for, they may not have even been asking the right questions in their research earlier in the buying process.

Unless these are things they buy every day, they are highly unlikely to be experts in the issues around “What should we do?  What is best practice? How do we avoid making mistakes and missteps?”

Sometimes, you can get the customer to back up a little, sometimes they’ll share what they’ve done to date, but they are always impatient to move forward.

So it’s important, as much as possible for sales to get involved as early as possible in their buying process.  To do this, we have to be able to provide value to them–it’s usually not about what we sell.  We have to help them understand what they are trying to achieve, organize themselves and align their own internal agendas, understand the things the should be looking for, the questions they should be asking.

Ideally, through insights and teaching we have provided, we provided the leadership to help drive the change and they are engaging us as partners through their whole buying process.

The movie is never as good coming in at the middle or towards the end.  We miss a lot.  Likewise, the value we create in working with our customers is never as good–for them or us, if we come in at the middle or towards the end.  We lose a lot by no starting at the beginning.

From → Performance

  1. Aside from the perfect analogy and great post, Dave, all I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t call MY wife annoying, on the Internet. (Been nice knowing ya. 😉

    Well, okay, as usual, that’s not all I can say. What a perfect case for using research, trigger events, insights, and any means possible, to get in front of prospects and clients and *create* an opportunity, whenever possible, rather than coming to the movie late.

    • Clearly I suffer from burying my foot deeply in my mouth. Nothing that a very expensive dinner and showering her with gifts and attention can’t help. And I know she will take full advantage of my embarrassment.

  2. Dave, let me know if you need a place to sleep; I have a two bedroom doghouse.

    You indirectly called out the problem with marketing taking over too much of the sales process. As much as some buyers need more nurturing and as busy as salespeople are today, too many salespeople want SQLs to cut down on the upfront work. I have a strong opinion about the misuse of marketing automation. Having marketing build up the buyer as long as possible and sending in the closer at the end works great on paper.

    Marketing automation has the ability to create a playing field similar to RFPs. The buyer establishes strong opinions and beliefs about your goods and services through self-education and nurturing by marketing. Sales bringing something new to the table or undoing a buying team’s fixation on their vision is difficult, even unrealistic.

    Successful selling takes time and effort. I learned very quickly that dependency on marketing leads alone would not support my sales goals and learned to love prospecting. Ready to close SQLs are a wonderful fantasy that doesn’t pay the bills.

    I don’t mean to mean to bash marketing automation. I believe MA is a powerful tool when used to support reality.

    • Gary: Great comment. I think in an effort to engage customers differently–perhaps responding to what they think they want, we’ve created an imperfect storm–a convergence of events that rather than improving the outcomes we can create for our customers, we create outlets that cause us not to engage customers in the most meaningful and impactful ways.

      People are increasingly leveraging web based resources, self education, and deferring sales engagement. A lot of this is driven by being time poor and the desire to be efficient. A lot of that is being driven by poor salesmanship and people doing whatever they can to avoid sales people.

      Neither of these is necessarily the right answer for the customer. Customers, unless they buy very frequently, are not the experts in solving a lot of these problems, or even recognizing they have a problem. Doing research on the web can help, but it doesn’t address the customer’s specific problems/issues or address what I call the “last mile problem.”

      Without beating around the bush, too much of sales execution is just bad!

      But the issue is not necessarily avoidance, counting on the ability for customers to self educate, providing the content so customers can figure it out themselves is not necessarily the best solution. Fixing the sales engagement problem and sales execution may be a better approach.

      We talk a lot about sales/marketing integration, but we still treat them as sequential rather than interleaved processes. Marketing is taking more of the sales process, then tosses the lead over the wall to sales. Sales picks it up later in the cycle. We’ve not integrated sales and marketing, we’ve just shifted the transition point.

      We might consider, sales might be the very first call, providing insight and helping the customer frame the issues they should look at. Then marketing might take on more of the education, then sales might reengage, helping the customer narrow and prioritize the issues, then marketing reengages until sales is required in the final stages. Or is it inconceivable to think that sales may start it, marketing closes it.

      It’s a vicious cycle–driven both by accepting certain customer behaviors and bad strategies/practices from sales and marketing. Perhaps we need to challenge customers differently (no I don’t mean Challenger) and challenge ourselves differently to create a better outcome.

  3. Yowza and agreed on Marketing Automation, @Gary. I had an experience last week that blew my mind. Well used, it’s a treasure trove for nurturing. Poorly-used, it’s a barrier to relationships. Fodder for another post, Dave. I’ll share more on that next week.

    Bigger take-away for me on this post… the need to break in earlier, with relevance, not just another horrible “I’d like to see if we can help you” approach.

    • Gary always stimulates additional posts. Got one I’m mulling over.

      • You’re too kind David. Most people say call me a pain in the neck that leads to positive result that drives the pain (me) away. And I’m always happy to be inciteful, right Mike?

        “We talk a lot about sales/marketing integration, but we still treat them as sequential rather than interleaved processes. Marketing is taking more of the sales process, then tosses the lead over the wall to sales. Sales picks it up later in the cycle. We’ve not integrated sales and marketing, we’ve just shifted the transition point.”

        “Sales & Marketing Integration – Not Alignment,” I love it!

  4. Yuegang Zhao permalink


    Like always, thanks for the great post and good education. I recently walked into a situation where we met with the customer for the first time, we had a few email exchanges before that, and the customer called in procurement and other groups in the meeting to discuss a product that he was ready to buy. The problem was, it was a wrong product for him. We had to unwind the situation and start from the beginning. It is a great lesson to the sales person visiting with me but it is also a delicate situation as we were trying not to embarrass the customer in front of the group for doing the homework wrong. So sometimes we are forced to restart because customer was trying to run as fast as he can but on the wrong track.

    • Yuegang, it’s great to hear from you. It’s often embarrassing and difficult to get the customer to rewind and restart. It’s best avoided by getting involved upfront to help them shape the issues in the right way.

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