As customers – both B2B and consumer alike – take more control of the buying process, the power of a brand relationship is more compelling than ever. Use this to your advantage and stand out from competitors.
The New Sales Funnel
Before people were empowered by digital access to product information, online discounts and easy comparison shopping, the universe of choices was tightly controlled and carefully managed by sellers. Companies decided which products or services they wanted to promote, then their Sales and Marketing teams went to work to build awareness, create interest and drive demand.
Now customers move themselves through the sales cycle, gathering information online, doing research, reading reviews, and so on. If and when a sales rep gets involved, it’s often much later in the sales process.
The further along the process that first connection occurs, the less opportunity there is for sellers to influence decisions and build relationships, at least in the traditional sense. This is especially true in the B2B world where sales reps have traditionally been the ones to help customers navigate purchasing decisions, often keeping them focused on a limited universe of options.
A study by the Corporate Executive Board found that B2B customers completed nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision cycle before even having a conversation with a supplier. Buyers set requirements, researched solutions, ranked options and compared pricing without even engaging a sales rep.
We see the impact of this shift in retail and consumer sales as well. Retail stores often serve as showrooms for customers who research products online and simply want to see or touch the merchandise before completing a transaction online. Retailers are fighting back with strategies to counteract undercutting by online merchants while embracing online channels of their own.
Brand Makes a Difference
Both online and off, marketing efforts to build brand reputation and awareness are critical to shaping the decision process early on. It’s brand that will get your company into the decision mix, and brand value that will keep you there throughout the evaluation process.
Building brand influence through online channels, using social media, branded display ads and other digital strategies can distinguish your business from a host of competitors. Understanding the new buyer behavior and becoming part of the process can catapult your business to the top of a buyer’s shopping list.
This doesn’t mean being everywhere with excessive retargeting, over the top email campaigns or in-your-face pop up ads. Instead, you need to become an ally for buyers, helping them find the information they need to make smart decisions.
Content marketing with informative articles, videos and objective reviews can fulfill a buyer’s need for information while building credibility for your brand. Showcasing your product in use, providing relevant case studies offering feature comparison tools allows prospects to do their homework and positions your business as a trusted, go-to resource.
Provide the appropriate information at various stages of the sales cycle instead of overwhelming prospects with too much at once. Use a contextual approach that takes advantage of tools like marketing automation to deliver resources that move a buyer along until they’re ready to connect one-on-one.
Sales as Sherpa
Throughout the new decision process, sales representatives are playing a new role. Educated customers may challenge sales staff on representations about their product. The response must collaborative, not adversarial, gently guiding prospects to the correct information and building trust along the way.
If your branding efforts have successfully engendered a foundation of trust, buyers will be more receptive to advice from their sales representative when the personal connection is finally made. Otherwise, they may be looking for a reason to rule you out of the mix.
Just as a sherpa helps a mountain climber realize the benefits of all the training that happened before the climb, a sales representative should serve as an expert guide for a well-prepared client. This relationship requires trust from the client, reinforced by the actions of the sales person.
Ultimately, the role of sales is helping a buyer achieve their goal, not forcing an objective on them. It’s a matter of asking, “Where do you want to go?” and “How can I help you get there?” instead of saying, “Here’s where you need to be.”
Learn to Dance
Success in the new sales cycle requires an adept dance, carefully coordinating sales, marketing and communications resources. Buyers might not be ready to talk with you right away, but they do want to know that you’re there for them, providing support as they chart their course towards the best buying decision.
Buyers want to know your company, your brand, is one they can trust. Deliver on that, and you’ll earn the privilege of guiding them to the final sale.