By John Wysseier, CEO and President, The CEI Group, Inc.
“The single biggest challenge of selling today is not selling, it is actually our customers’ struggle to buy.” – Brent Adamson, Distinguished VP, Advisory, Gartner
B2B sales have never been easy, but a key to increasing your sales to business customers is to focus on how difficult B2B buying has become and to develop a strategy to make it easier for buyers to help their company arrive at their buying decision.
Vendor selection by committee
I’ve seen how difficult business purchases have become in the history of my own company. A little more than 20 years ago, CEI focused on one service, managing the repair and aftermath of fleet collisions. Our message was that we could deliver superior results at a reduced cost, saving money on repairs, returning drivers to the road sooner, and lowering net repair expenses through the recovery of damages from responsible third parties.
In this business, we essentially had one buyer: the fleet manager, whose imperative was to cut costs. But with our expansion into driver safety management, the number of decision-makers at each of our prospects increased. Now, in addition to the fleet manager, weighing in on the decision are risk management, environmental health and safety, human resources, information technology, finance and legal departments.
This cast of characters involved in B2B purchasing decisions isn’t confined to my business alone – it’s the norm across most industries. For this perspective, I’m indebted to recent findings of Gartner, Inc., a global business research and advisory firm.
According to Gartner, today, business buying decisions are typically made by a committee of six to ten members from an array of departmental disciplines. Gartner also notes these committees aren’t dominated by C-Suite players, but from the ranks of management below them, as well as others Gartner refers to as “hidden influencers,” people whose areas of expertise and responsibility would be affected – often, for the better – by the product or service under consideration.
A non-linear “journey”
Gartner identifies six tasks that buying committees must complete to make a purchase decision. They include identifying a problem, exploring possible solutions, determining what the solution must do, evaluating vendors, validating that one supplier can perform as claimed, and achieving consensus around the supplier selection.
Listing this obscures the fact that the journey to a decision doesn’t proceed in a straight line down the punch list. Instead, business customers engage in an iterative “looping” process, revisiting each of these tasks more than once. In fact, Gartner has drawn a buying journey flow chart with 35 to 40 different steps that loop between and around the six tasks before reaching conclusion. It amounts to a complex series of dance steps aimed at discovering and analyzing increasing amounts of information from internal and external sources, especially from and about prospective suppliers in order to make a sound business decision.
Less Interaction with Sales Teams
In the digital age, sales representatives get a lot less opportunity to influence buying decisions. In fact, Gartner has found that in evaluating potential suppliers, buyers meet with salespeople for an average of just 17 percent of their time in the process. They spend the single biggest chunk of their time – 45 percent – conducting independent research, most of it online. Another 22 percent of the time they’re engaged in meetings of their buying group to compare, according to Gartner, four to five different pieces of information each member has gathered.
It’s here that the traditional B2B game plan is changing, because what buying committees need is information – in-depth, clear and unvarnished information that demonstrates that a supplier understands their problem and has proven itself capable of solving it. And this means that to be successful, B2B vendors need to provide content that is customer-centric, educational, that speaks to their needs, and is unbiased – all of that instead of standard product pitches that tout your company’s prowess. Here, I’m talking about robust websites, videos, white papers, case studies of success stories, return on investment data, and presentations customized to the buyer’s industry and position within it.
This isn’t to say that sales personnel shouldn’t be in the loop. But Gartner recommends that they no longer merely take leads their marketing department generates and aim only for in-person meetings. Instead, sales and marketing need to work in parallel to learn about the prospect’s situation and needs, generate content specific to them, and be conduits for a stream content delivered both digitally and in-person throughout the buying process.
Empowering your buyer
At CEI, we’ve been following this path for some time now. We understand that our primary contact needs good information and coaching that enables him or her to advocate for our solution. We make sure to cover territory beyond our contact’s area of expertise, so that he or she can respond knowledgeably to the concerns of the other members of the buying group.
This new approach to B2B marketing is about forming an alliance with the buyer to deliver the information they need to make a sound business case for your solution. And, according to Gartner, by at least one measure, it works: in its survey of business buyers, it found that those who received the information they need from suppliers were nearly 2.8 times more likely to say they experienced a high degree of purchase ease, and were three times more likely to buy a bigger deal with less regret.