The vast and immediate information resources of the Web–and its numerous and ever-evolving delivery devices–have placed ultimate power in commercial proceedings in the hands of buyers. Not just consumers hardwired to Yelp and Amazon, but B2B buyers, as well.
A study released this week by Harvard Business Review Analytics says that business purchasers, on average, have completed 57% of their due diligence before they engage a sales rep. And educated buyers are needy buyers. HBR’s analysis quotes a recent survey of salespeople in which two thirds said their customers’ expectations had increased either noticeably or significantly.
Suddenly customer relationship management is morphing into–years-old but rarely used–customer-managed relationships, and sales professionals are scurrying to adjust. “It really hasn’t been an overnight kind of thing, but to some degree sales organizations in the B2B space didn’t appreciate that it was happening,” says Johann Wrede, global senior director of solution marketing at SAP, which sponsored the HBR study. “CRM was the old paradigm. It was a dictated process. Here’s the funnel, take a sale from stage A to stage B in 15 days. But the reality now is that the customer is in charge and the buying process is no longer linear.”
To get in the game, says HBR, sales organizations and their marketing colleagues have to turn the tables and collect and analyze online behavioral data from customers. Along the way, salespeople have to cast off some longstanding habits, such as discussing only positives, steering accounts to certain products, and making believe the competition doesn’t exist. “To meet rising expectations,” reads the HBR report, sales reps need to “act as trusted counselors…who can offer decision makers advice on solving problems and preparing for trends—counsel that often extends beyond the products or services they’re selling.”
While quota-driven salespeople may find it difficult to adopt such radical behavior on a full-time basis, the challenge presented to their employers is even greater. “Sales is locked into what systems have been provided to them,” Wrede says. “There’s been a lag in identifying this trend among companies. Their systems are designed for the funnel approach as opposed to informing salespeople in the Big Data approach.”
Wrede says the technological tools are available to power the transition. In The Mobile Mind Shift, coauthor and Forrester SVP of Idea Development Josh Bernoff says that some of the most successful business apps are ones that put selling information into the hands of B2B salespeople when they’re in front of clients. SAP provides free mobile apps to customers and also uses predictive analytics to help them increase their success rates. But the human element must be attached to the tech piece to make it work for the sales rep, and the lone wolf deal closer may become an endangered species, as a result.
“No one salesperson or program can know everything the customer is going to need to know,” Wrede says. “There has to be collaboration across the enterprise. There has to be a virtual deal room with people across the business helping salespeople win accounts.”