- Exploration stage: Exploration can be time-consuming. It’s no wonder that staff-level “explorers” (both LOB and IT staff) do most of the work and thus have the most influence in this very early stage. The (LOB) executive who owns the problem is also very influential. IDC Guidance: Make a compelling case for change that will convince the executive who owns the problem. Also, educate the staff-level explorers so they can serve as internal experts. Spur the internal conversation with “shareable” content that says, “Hey, check this out. We really should be talking about this issue.”
- Evaluation stage: Many more influential players, including the CIO and purchasing, are added to the team during the middle stage of the decision journey as the enterprise works through the complexities of consideration and selection. IDC Guidance: Since vendors are infrequently present at the table to explain their messaging during internal discussions, there is a premium on clear, complete, easily accessible, and shareable information.
- Purchase stage: Financial and contractual considerations are most important at this final stage. Purchasing function and even the CEO rise in influence, while other players move into spectator mode. IDC Guidance: Marketing needs to help sales close the deal. But also stay alert to social buzz. The closer the deal gets to the wire, the tension rises. On one hand, the buying conversation gets very narrow, personal, and specific to the deal, and on the other hand, it widens out to intensely search for any final verification of a good choice or any final hidden reasons to divert the process.
For a company with dozens of product lines, numerous possible personas, and a global presence, developing content can be a daunting venture. The number of permutations for information types and distribution sources can be overwhelming. But before going crazy, you might be surprised to know that customers may not need as much personalization as you think – what they really want from content is utility.
IDC’s 2015 IT Buyer Experience Survey examined the content requirements and preferences of various types of technology buyers. We compared buyers who work in the IT function with those in various business functions. We compared buyers of cloud solutions with traditional on-premise technology solutions. What we found surprised us.
IDC does recommend tailoring content for specific audiences. It is helpful for ease of consumption, for relevancy, and attractiveness. However, the buyer research told us that covering some basics was even more important.
- Highest priority – make sure content is complete. Buyer groups are much more similar than they are different. Buyers have one primary commonality – they are all human. Humans follow the same type of a decision-journey. All audience groups generally need the same kinds of information and mostly prefer similar sources to get that information. The highest priority task should be to make sure the core information is available. Clearly and simply answer the buyers’ questions for all stages of their decision-journey. Lack of critical information at a point when a buyer needs it will slow or stop journey progress.
- Make core buying information easily accessible through at least four communication channels. Those four channels are your website, your sales team, search, and some number of third party publications – preferably voiced by objective people. Your website is the buyer’s default location for all information. Buyer’s talk to sales people at the point when they really need detailed answers. If sales people don’t have the answers, everyone loses. (Hint: a humble Q&A fact sheet for sales is super helpful). Discovery is the name of game in the earliest stage of the decision-journey. Search is by far the number one tool for discovery and buyers also like to find ideas for improvement perusing both general business and special interest sites.
These content tasks may be more challenging than marketers expect. Many of the buyer’s questions are not answered by even the best thought leadership pieces or the most well-messaged product data sheet. For example, Product Service Reviews was the second most desired type of content at the earliest stage of the decision-journey – not something most marketers have at the tips of their fingers.
Before going through the (worthwhile) effort to customize content for different audiences, make sure you are covering the basics and serving your customers’ the most important information needs.
More information is available in the IDC report, Categorizing the Content Needs of Different Buyer Types: IDC’s 2015 2015 IT Buyer Experience Study (#258780) (Subscription required)
Robert sits in an office near Provo, Utah at what looks like the console of an air traffic
controller. But instead of directing jets through the airspace, he’s using Twitter to guide a software company’s buyer through her decision-journey. Part marketer, part sales, part tech service, Robert is one of an emerging breed of “virtual” sales reps. Could this be the dream team that B2B has been waiting for?
The B2B “Genius Bar”® as a Role Model
The “virtual” sales rep role in its ideal form provides the personalized, anticipatory, service of a five-star hotel. Think of it as the B2B version of an Apple Genius Bar – using virtual tools. The Apple executive team modeled the Genius Bar after Ritz-Carlton’s customer service. Hallmarks of this exemplary concierge service include a personal touch; a warm, friendly, attitude; and attention to satisfying customer needs at every step. Sales expert Anneke Seley says the “virtual” sales rep culture is a far-cry from the historical “me and my quota” rep.
Sales teams are finally coming to grips with digital age facts. The culture shift recognizes that engagement must be sensitive to the appropriate stage of the buyer’s decision-journey. “Buyers aren’t ready to buy until they are ready to buy”. Marketers all know by now that buyers prefer self-sufficiency and they avoid talking to sales people until the decision-journey is substantially complete. IDC research shows that for tech products averages this distance averages about 50%. Now sales is also starting to appreciate that buyers are alienated when by placed prematurely into the arena. At the same time sales leaders don’t want to waste an expensive sales resource on someone who isn’t ready to buy.
Digital May Not be Enough
Content marketing is what companies must do to fill the gap when buyers won’t talk to traditional sales people. Content marketing is a hugely important communication strategy and companies will not be successful without mastering it.
Yet, for B2B companies, a completely digital engagement solution may not ever be the right answer. For one thing, content marketing capabilities in most companies is still ramping. Even when content marketing becomes excellent, digital may never be personal enough. Some B2B solutions are so complex, customized, or require so much trust that a human must intervene for the buyer to be truly served. It may also be in the vendor’s best interest to involve a good sales person early. One tech CMO told me that although the company could offer eCommerce, a human touch tripled the size of the deal.
The End of One-to-One
Sales must abandon the image of the lone hero acting alone. A distinguishing feature between traditional sales and marketing has been that sales covered one-to-one interactions and marketing covered the one-to-many. The evolving “virtual” sales model is somewhere in-between. Maybe we can call it some-to-one.
Because the Apple’s Genius Bar is not just a person. It’s a chain of orchestrated interactions constructed not only with people but also with data, technology, knowledge, content, training, and culture. It takes a village to offer five-star concierge service.
This shift means new responsibilities for marketing. To engage in a buyer-sensitive way, marketing must provision “virtual” sales reps, train them, and merge them into new types of campaigns. These new reps will be power users of CRM and marketing automation. They will be adept at social selling. They will depend on behavioral data and pitch-perfect content. Depending on the company business model they may generate leads, qualify them, develop business, close sales, or offer technical buying assistance.
IDC believes that the challenge of aligning with sales and instituting sales enablement will seem like baby steps compared to the full-on role integration of this new function. CMO’s should jump on this trend now.
Genius Bar is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.
Everyone’s hot to leverage social selling and social marketing. But what about the other side of the equation? Do B2B buyers use social media for purchasing support? An IDC study says yes! And contrary to common assumptions, it’s the senior executives who are most enthusiastic.
The most senior buyers are the most active social media users. IDC’s Social Buying Study, completed in February 2014 in collaboration with LinkedIn (Slideshare version) studied the online social practices and preferences of B2B buyers. The study concluded that 75% of the B2B buyers studied and 84% of C-level/vice president executives use information from social media and interaction on social networks to make purchase decisions. I’ll be talking about this study at the sold-out Sales Connect conference later this week.
- They want to use vendors that have been recommended by people they know
- They want to work with sales people who have been referred to them
- Their social networks are critical for checking references
Social media make accessing trusted networks easier. Buyers have long trusted their offline professional networks for this purpose. Online social networks improve access to trusted existing networks and open up networks that more easily extend beyond traditional boundaries. The bigger the buying decision, the more important social networks become. The study found that social buying correlates with buying influence. The average B2B buyer who uses social networks for buying support is more senior, has a bigger budget, makes more frequent purchases, and has a greater span of buying control than a buyer who does not use social networks.
B2B buyers use different types of social resources at different stages of the decision-journey. It’s important not to lump all social media into one big stew of a category. “Social” is a media attribute that enables peer-to-peer audience participation. Some media are highly social and others not at all.
- Early Stage: when buyers are exploring whether to solve their problem, they favor news-type resources. Industry-specific media are #1, internet search (a socially-curated information service) is #2, and microblogs like Twitter are #3.
- Middle Stage: when buyers are evaluating solution options, 3rd-party experts become #1, industry-specific media are #2, and internet search is #3.
- Final Stage: Online professional networks (e.g., LinkedIn) are buyer’s the #1 preferred information source in the final stage of the purchase process, when stakes are highest. This final stage is the riskiest stage because by this time, buyers are teetering on the brink of commitment where they will soon reap the benefits of a great decision or plunge into the abyss. It’s at this point that they most need the confidence advice provided by their professional network. Online network services like LinkedIn make this easy. Third-party recommendations are #2 and topic-specific communities become #3.
- Relationship building, referrals, and recommendations are shifting online, so make social marketing and social selling a priority. Social marketing and social selling are not responsibilities that can be relegated to a special team low in the organization. Marketing executives should consider social aspects to be an integral attribute of all campaigns. Sales professionals and others in key customer-facing roles need to be active on social networks. At best, companies will miss an important opportunity to connect and at worst could incur real damage.
- Respect the context of social interactions. Understand that when using the digital channels, buyers are seeking access to their trusted networks for information to increase decision-making confidence. Social channels are not simply a new avenue for spamming or cold-calling. Instead, each individual must earn his or her place within the trusted network of people that buyers will invite to participate in the purchase decision.
- How to evaluate the strategic priority of the solution as well as the technical and business benefits
- How to build consensus across line of business, corporate IT and other key players in the decision making process.
- Marketers: lobby your top executives to make regular sales process training for marketing a priority.
- Sales executives: demand that marketing know how the different parts of your sales force work so they can more effectively develop prospects and serve customers.
- CEOs: get smart about your customer supply chain by applying the same level of due diligence and process discipline to it that you have to your product and services units. As a result, you will make much more effective use of marketing investment and be able to hold your whole customer facing team accountable for its contribution to your strategic objectives.
IDC’s CMO Advisory has conducted an annual IT Buyer Experience survey for the past six years. We have tracked many changes and interesting trends, but one thing stands out as a consistent inefficiency in the market: every year IT Buyers report the purchase processes can be approximately 40% shorter. Over the course of a 10-month average process that means the potential is to accelerate revenue by an entire quarter. This is a huge opportunity for both buyers and sellers with tremendous financial incentives for both and yet no improvement in six years. Why not and what to do about it?
Buyers put about 2/3 of the blame for this inefficiency on themselves. There are scheduling issues, conflicting agendas, changing budgets, changes in personnel, immature purchase processes, etc. The challenge for vendors therefore is two-fold:
- Reduce the inefficiencies that are inherent in their own marketing and sales processes, and
- Better facilitate the buyer’s process(es)
To do this, vendors need to intimately understand the Buyer’s Journey. It starts with Exploration, moves to Evaluation, and ends with a Purchase. Buyers spend the most amount of time in the Exploration stage, largely independent of direct vendor interaction. As they move through each stage, their agendas change dramatically and the process accelerates. Buyers spend less time in each subsequent stage and have higher expectations of vendor response times. By carefully defining and monitoring buyers’ journeys, marketing and sales can better serve customer needs, keep pace with buyer expectations, and cut out big chucks of inefficiency.
For example, in the Exploration stage, the buyer’s main objective is to establish fit between their business challenges and a solution. The main resources they use are related to trends in their industry. The primary internal influencers are business buyers (functional leaders, business unit mangers, and executives.) Once they enter the evaluation stage, however, their objective and trusted sources change completely.
In our report, IDC CMO Advisory 2013 IT BuyerExperience Survey: Create and Close Customers up to 40% Faster, we outline specific steps IT marketers should take at each stage in order to get the right messages to the right decision makers. For more information, please contact me at gmurray (at) idc (dot) com.
I was surprised to hear so much talk about the ‘buyer’s journey’ at a recent Sales 2.0 conference. More talk than I often hear at marketing conferences! Having said this, it was clear that many people who talked about buyer’s journeys did not know what the term meant.
A hesitant raise of hands at one sales enablement panel showed that a little more than half the room thought that their company used a buyer’s journey framework. The panelists didn’t buy that answer. Sniffed one, “Most companies lift the sales stages right out of their CRM system and call that a buyer’s journey.”
What isn’t a buyer’s journey? It isn’t a sales methodology. It isn’t build rapport, uncover needs, identify options, propose solutions, and close the deal. It isn’t a product life-cycle. It isn’t development, launch, grow, mature, decline. It isn’t marketing stages. It isn’t build awareness, create interest, engage, and persuade. All of these processes can be useful to guide an important function. However, they all describe vendor’s journeys – not buyer’s journeys.
So, what is a buyer’s journey? A buyer’s journey is a framework that describes the cognitive process each buyer must personally traverse leading from Apathy (Do I care?) to Commitment (How can I buy this?). IDC’s Customer Creation Framework highlights three simple stages of this journey: Exploration, Evaluation, and Purchase. You can break these stages into sub-steps if you like.
In the simplest terms, a buyer’s journey is really nothing more than a list of questions. Buyers have different questions at different steps of their journey. If buyers get their questions answered clearly, positively, credibly, and with relevance, they will take another step. If they do not, they stall or abandon their quest.
Let’s take the example of some questions on a buyer’s journey towards a new car:
- Exploration: Is my current car headed for a problem – how do I know? Are there new cars that I would like better? What cars are new this year? What do I really need?
- Evaluation: Which cars offer the best value? Which do I find most attractive? Is this supplier trust-worthy? What do the experts say? What do my friends think? How can I test drive?
- Purchase: How much can I afford? Should I buy this now? Do I find terms acceptable?
Where do you get these questions? Ask your buyers! Ask the people in your company who talk to buyers – sales people, customer support, systems engineers, etc. Listen to social media chatter. My experience has been that you can collect 95% of the questions you need after you have talked to about 30 people who have a broad range of roles and backgrounds.
2) Answer the questions.
Do not avoid the thorny and evil questions! I like this quote from Robert Frost, “The best way out is always through.” Every unanswered question is a place where prospects can get frustrated and where leads will stall or fall out of your pipeline.
You can collect both the questions and the answers in a spreadsheet or an FAQ document.
3) Put the answers on your website and give them to your sales team.
But these are secondary issues. If you don’t first have the answers that your buyer needs, all these secondary questions are a total waste of time.