Recently, one of our best sales people went out on maternity leave. That left me having to jump back into the trenches and take over her responsibilities for a while. Her job is to recruit software companies to sign up for our lead generation program, typically by cold calling a targeted list of strategic accounts. This summer, that became my job.
“Cold calling” is an understatement. It was like having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head.
I had forgotten how challenging cold calls can be. Moreover, it seems like prospecting has gotten more difficult since 2006 – 2007, when I was selling most every day to get this company started. Cold-called prospects are almost entirely non-responsive. Many of those that I did reach were quick to deflect me, even before I explained what we do. We’ve got a great value proposition: high-quality sales leads, pay-per-lead, no contractual term, no up-front investment. Why were prospects so unresponsive and often disrespectful and rude?
It’s not just cold calling. It’s nearly as difficult to engage prospects that actually request information. Many software companies contact us via our website, and then go silent for months. The software vendors that are our customers report that buyers are increasingly hard to reach, even when the buyer requests information from the vendor (A humorous note: these are often the same vendors that didn’t return our calls when we were first recruiting them). Certainly, something has changed in the world of business-to-business sales.
I know the answer. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while. Marketing bloggers like Craig Rosenberg and Jon Miller are talking about it. Industry professionals, such as Art Sobczak, are even writing books about it. “IT” is the disintermediation of the sales person.
Basically, the Internet has greatly reduced buyers’ dependence on sales reps. Before the Web was part of everyday life, buyers had limited resources for evaluating products and services. Let’s consider software sales: a decade or two ago, buyers were dependant on sales people to provide the information they needed to evaluate a purchase – product functionality, hardware requirements, pricing, etc. Buyers could attend a conference or trade show, refer to industry publications and research analysts (e.g. Gartner) or seek out suggestions from their closest peers. However, in the end, sales reps served as the primary source of information.
With the rise of the Internet, we have seen a significant transference in power: from seller to buyer. Now, when a potential buyer is researching a product or service, they can find most of the information they need at their fingertips – on the Web. For example:
- buyers can learn the basics on vendor websites, trade journal sites, and third-party authority sites;
- a search for “[company name] sucks” will turn up common complaints about a product;
- peer reviews are available online or buyers can identify other users via LinkedIn.
- product updates are instantly available via Google news, Twitter, etc.;
- someone, somewhere, on the net, is blogging about the software category; and,
- awesome sites like Software Advice (shameless plug) provide free, well, software advice.
Information is power. A decade ago, it was in the hands of the sales person. Today, the buyer has it too.
What this means is that buyers now engage sales people far later in the sales cycle. Whereas they used to engage vendors about a third of the way into the process, now they are waiting until the last third. Why contact ten vendors up-front and parry with adept salespeople when you can narrow the list down to just two on the Web?
When buyers download your white paper, view your data sheet and watch your flash demo, they are just feeding their research process. Don’t expect to reach them by phone yet. If you’re lucky, they might watch a WebEx demo. Did they ask for a price quote? They are probably ball parking their budget. They’ll get in touch when you’ve made the short list and they have really detailed questions.
There are three other concurrent trends complicating the issue further:
- buyers are distracted by too much information (e.g. email, IM, SMS) and they are busy;
- we are all competing for that attention, but most of our messages sound the same; and
- buyers still research solutions in a down economy, but they don’t pull the trigger as fast or often.
So yes, our jobs just got a lot tougher. Every sales person’s job is tougher. However, like most challenges, the companies and individuals that figure out how to execute in this new environment will reap big rewards. The following is what we think it will take to succeed in an era when the buyer controls the process.
Traditional sales and marketing best practices are table stakes
We all know that good sales and marketing requires:
- Solving buyers problems, not selling them a product;
- a clear and concise value proposition, differentiated from the pack; and,
- a quantifiable return on investment (ROI).
These are “table stakes” these days – you need them to be in the game. And while they are still as important as ever, the game has changed, and it’s time to up the ante. In addition to these best practices, the salesperson must also work to engage the customer. If you haven’t got these three nailed by now, hang up the phone.
Hang out where buyers research
If potential customers are going to third party websites for information, you had better be well-represented. If your customers are on Twitter, you should be “tweeting”. If they are scouring the blogosphere for information, you need a blog and you need to network with other bloggers. If they search in Google – they do – you need to rank well and advertise in AdWords. Bing too. If the buyer is asking about products on LinkedIn Groups, you had better be an active member. We’re not the first ones to give this advice, but what we’ll add is that you have to prioritize these web marketing efforts. Creating accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn, AdWords and YouTube is not enough. You need a real strategy, a team that can execute, and measurable goals.
Give and you will receive
To get buyers’ attention, give them what they want. These days, that’s information, not a pitch. Anticipate what buyers want and fulfill that. Recognize that buyers are in control, rather than fighting against the trend. Buyers want to see how easy it is to navigate your UI; give them a flash demo on your website. Buyers want to see how their peers are using your software; give them case studies. Buyers want best practices and thought leadership ideas; give them white papers – not product pitches that look like white papers. Importantly, be careful what you ask for in return. Do you really need them to complete a long form telling you everything about themselves, or can you just get an email to stay in touch? You can learn more about the buyer as they come back for more of your great content. Oh, and if you fear putting all this information out there in front of competitors, one answer: they already have it from that sales guy you fired last year.
Build trust over time, without direct engagement
Finally, just like in any relationship, trust is key. What is “trust” in this case? It’s trust that you know a lot about their business – enough to solve their unique problems. It’s trust that you and your company are thought leaders with momentum, pushing the technology solution forward, rather than selling old solutions. It’s trust that you care enough about the relationship to invest over time, not just for a quick sale. Even with all their new-found information and power, buyers are still scared. They are scared of making the wrong decision – scared to disappoint their boss. They see their biggest risk as “being sold” on the wrong solution because the sales person knew how to manipulate them. The only way to assuage that fear is to build trust over time. None of this is new, but what is new is that you need to build this trust without direct engagement. Not easy. You must build the trust by giving buyers what they want on your website, via email, on social media sites, etc. Your willingness to share your expertise is critical.
This certainly isn’t a detailed “how to” guide for the new customer dynamic. There is a lot more to consider. However, this sets the stage for a series of upcoming posts we’ll write on sales and marketing execution in a market where the customer holds control.