At some point or another we all shop. Whether it’s for toothpaste or ties, gadgets or golf clubs, even buyers who purchase manufacturing equipment during office hours shop for necessities and fun on their own time.
This is nothing new. Yet, for years marketers and salespeople have treated B2B buyers like a unique breed. “It’s naïve to say that B2B buyers are different,” Huthwaite President and CEO John Golden told me during a conversation on the topic. “We’re all consumers.”
In fact, Golden asserts, consumer buying behavior is increasingly spilling over to B2B. As a result, in many cases B2B buyers are halfway or further through the buying process before they contact a potential vendor. These B2B buyers want to engage with salespeople when they want to and on their terms, he said.
Golden shared an interesting story about a customer that conducted six or so months of research on Huthwaite and about a dozen competitors. Executives from the company visited the contenders’ websites, YouTube pages, social network pages, and LinkedIn groups. They also joined industry groups on LinkedIn and elsewhere. They asked about the contenders’ reputation, spoke with current customers, and downloaded content like white papers that we’re gated with a registration form. The executives were trying to build an impression of the contenders over time to see whether they had substance, Golden said.
The compelling part of the story: Not one of these companies knew they were part of someone’s purchase cycle. And the nine or so companies that weren’t selected as finalists never knew.
“This raises an interesting challenge for marketers,” Golden said, adding that marketing and sales alignment has become imperative—and going so far as to suggest that in the future marketing and sales may fade away, replace by one, cohesive “buyer enablement” team. “How can we enable the buyer to go through the purchase process the way they want to?”Golden asked. “It stands to reason that they’ll have an easier time than forcing them through your process.”
The buying process is one of the last frontiers of competitive differentiation, he said. To capitalize on it, companies need to determine how buyers want to buy and organize accordingly. And not just across marketing and sales; across the entire organization. Not an easy feat, but one worth pursuing, he said.
According to Golden, as part of that evolution B2B marketers today need to facilitate a more B2C-type buying process. “Marketers can longer simply fill the sales pipeline,” he said. “They can’t just throw leads over the wall to sales.”
Golden stressed the need for marketers to go further into the sales process. This requires gaining a deeper understanding of their customers’ industries and business issues—and then ensuring that messaging and content address those issues. And they need to provide ungated content to highlight their firms’ expertise.
Additionally, salespeople need to become more “micro-marketers” and engage buyers where they are. Today, that often means via social channels. Similar to attending networking events and conferences, B2B salespeople today need to spend time in social networks and online communities relevant to their industries and, most important, contribute value to the discussions. Don’t join a conversation to sell, Golden asserts. “Be engaging. Provide value without the expectation of an immediate return.”
According to Golden, too many organizations are stuck in a comfort zone of focusing on capturing leads and getting them quickly into the sales funnel. He recommended focusing on the quality of leads instead of the quantity. While the overall number may decrease, conversions will increase. “Often sales leaders wonder why so much falls out at the end of the sales process,” he said. “It’s because too many of those prospects should never have been in the pipeline to begin with.”
Lead quality starts with relevance. The more targeted and business-focused marketers and salespeople are, the more valuable they’ll be to buyers, and the more likely they’ll be to attract the right ones. This comes back around to understanding today’s buyer behavior. Don’t assume that B2B buyers purchase the same way they did even last year, Golden said. “Have you looked at your buyers lately? Have you considered how to give them what they want and expect at each phase of the buying cycle?” he asked. “If not, you should.”