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“B2B customers complete 57% of their purchasing decision before contacting a supplier.”

This is easily the most frequently quoted line in B2B sales and marketing during recent times.

Ever since  CEB Marketing Leadership Council released this finding in their HBR article in mid 2012,

  • Some startup CEOs have questioned the need for sales
  • A few have even publicly avowed to never hire another salesperson
  • Some sales reps have started waiting for the prospect to call them. In other words, they’ve stopped prospecting.

I’m sure CEB never intended any of this to happen, so its famous statement must also be one of the most highly misunderstood ones in B2B sales and marketing.

The danger with following any of these approaches is that your prospect will call your competitor’s salesperson whenever they do contact a supplier. In other words, they won’t contact you at the right time.

To understand why, let’s look at the steps in a typical B2B technology purchase process:

  1. Have pain
  2. Acknowledge need to solve pain
  3. Explore alternative solutions to fulfill need
  4. Decide on one solution
  5. Create a longlist of 10 suppliers for selected solution
  6. Carry out preliminary analysis of 10 offerings to arrive at shortlist of 3 vendors
  7. Conduct deep dive evaluation of shortlisted vendors
  8. Select one vendor and conduct negotiations
  9. Contract with selected vendor.

Before the Internet, the prospect would contact multiple suppliers at Step 3 and talk to their salespersons to learn about the various options available in the market and how different solutions addressed their needs. (For the moment, I’m ignoring the small percentage of prospects who, even in the good old days, would engage purchase consultants – think Capacity Planning Group of TCS for IT hardware purchases – and complete Steps 3 through 5 before contacting a supplier.)

Now, in the world of Internet, prospects can access a treasure trove of information and complete steps 3 through 6 by themselves. The empowered Buyer 2.0 needs to contact vendors only at Step 7 – and, then, only the 3-4 shortlisted ones.

As a result, steps 3 through 6 have become a blindzone for sales in the world of Buyer 2.0.

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Suppliers who get blindsided by it will get excluded from the prospect’s shortlist without even being given the opportunity to make their pitch. Or, to quote McKinsey from its article Do you really understand how your business customers buy?, “Customers may be “liking” or “not liking” a prospective offer long before the sales rep has even presented it.”

To escape this fate, salespersons need to navigate the blindzone successfully.

From our experience of working with several B2B technology companies, one way to do this is to engage with prospects earlier than before. This resonates well with research:

  • According to McKinsey, “two-thirds of B2B deals are lost before a formal RFP process even begins.”
  • CEB itself says, “To win a deal, you’ve got to get ahead of the RFP.”

Great sales reps used to engage with prospects very early even in the good old days. I know one veteran B2B sales manager who used to tell his team over two decades ago, “if you get an RFQ without knowing about it in advance, you’ve already lost the order”. The implication of the modern buying behavior is that every salesperson needs to get ahead of the RFP. CEB defines “earlier than before” as the stage when prospects have “emerging needs” i.e. when their requirements are not fully crystallized.

In a follow-up post, I’ll walk through a case study of successfully navigating the sales blindzone. Spoiler Alert: The conventional “solution selling” approach doesn’t cut it.

Ketharaman Swaminathan On April - 10 - 2015

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IT Marketing, Uncategorized

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