Dec 22, 2010

Sales People Are Not Enough, Buyers Have Changed

Sales isn’t all that different than it was thirty or forty years ago. E-Commerce didn’t displace sales people as many pundits predicted, and I don’t see that trend ever truly materializing. People still buy from people. Even though technology has made it easier for us to engage with organizations, we still need people to assist us with our major purchasing decisions.

That being said, our purchasing habits have evolved quite a bit since 2000. The catalyst for all of this is our unprecedented access to information coupled with search. In less than a decade, consumers have acquired far more information than they ever had and became better equipped to make their purchase decisions. In many cases the customer knows more about a company’s product than its sales people do.

Sales people are essential, but not very influential

Consider your own purchasing behavior for a moment. If you were to purchase a new car would you A) go visit a few dealerships and let the sales people tell you about your options, or B) go online and figure out your options, and create a shortlist of cars you would like to test drive?

I bet you chose B. That’s exactly what I did earlier this year. My previous car died on me, and I had to replace it quickly. So I did what most car buyers do; I went online. I visited the car companies’ sites, and played with their configurators. I did some searches and read the reviews from both the experts and the users. After a couple of hours I had my shortlist. I drove three cars that afternoon, and made my decision on the spot. I got a shiny new VW GTI.

The sales person who sold me the car might have considered himself a hero for winning my business, but in reality he only played a small role in my purchase decision. His job was to reinforce what I already knew, give me a little more context, help me experience the product, and negotiate and close the deal. His role was essential, but his influence was minimal.

Know your customers’ buying process

My car buying experience was not unusual. I would hazard a guess you would have approached the purchasing process in a similar fashion. But extrapolate this experience further, and consider it in a B2B sales context. How are your customers approaching your organization? Are they visiting your website before picking up the phone to speak with a sales person? Are they searching Google to discover other companies to speak with? I would say the answer is yes to both.

There are two trends here. First, customers have choice. Lots of choice. Spend a few minutes on Google, and you can find virtually anything. As customers, we’re using this capability to our full advantage. In the pre-Google era, we might have asked a sales person, “Who are your competitors?” This was a sound strategy to identify other companies we should talk to. Today, it’s faster and easier to search Google for additional options, and based on what we find online decide whom to call.

Secondarily, the buying process doesn’t start with a sales person. It starts with marketing. In my car buying experience I was completely interacting with the car companies’ marketing programs. Honda, Volkswagen, BMW and the like are fully using the Web to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. They know their customers have a need to research their products from multiple perspectives, and they work hard to provide rich digital experiences and content to fulfill these needs. The strategy pays off. I would suggest up-to 70% of the car buying cycle is taking place online without any sales intervention.

How do your customers buy? It’s important to know how they evaluate their options, and the steps they take to make a purchase decision. The better you understand how your customers buy, the better you can support their purchasing process.

Create a single buying experience

Look at all the elements influencing your customers’ purchasing decisions. Your customers don’t see sales, marketing and customer service as distinct entities. They view them all as one.

The challenge is maintaining brand consistency across all the various customer touch points. Your customers can interact with your brand on your website, in person, over the phone, through social media, by email and so on. This means catering to them consistently across all fronts, and not relying on your sales people to pull the whole buying process together.

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