The age of the customer demands a different approach

The combination of technological changes in the internet, mobility and social media has changed the way customers buy. Knowing your customers better than they know themselves and engaging with them in a buyer-aligned way is the only sustainable competitive advantage moving forward.

Research by Forrester shows that 74% of executive buyers, once they commit to making a change, will go with the company that’s able to help create the buying vision. Industries already heavily impacted by this change have come to the conclusion that sales has changed from a push to a pull strategy. Sales now has to facilitate the buying process based on the strengths of its offering and the impact it will deliver for the customer. So a lot of companies are re-evaluating their current sales and marketing approach. And it’s no surprise that they tend to have some common questions:

  • Is my current sales process adapted to the age of the customer?
  • All vendors tell me their sales method is aligned to the buyer journey. How do I know if this is true? How do I choose the right one?

Critically important questions

Answer the questions correctly and you’ll be able to deliver the results shown in a recent study by the Sales Management Association. They found a 28% higher growth rate for companies using a buyer journey-based sales methodology, along with lower sales costs and improved margins.

But get the answers wrong and you’ll have the opposite:

  • Worse relationships with prospects and customers. You’ll even alienate them.
  • Less power. No influence over the customer buying proces
  • Lower hit rate, higher sales costs, fewer leads, less revenue, decreased margins

Below you’ll find the three most critical evaluation criteria when selecting a sales process/methodology.

1. Pseudo buyer alignment versus real buyer alignment

You can typically recognise companies offering a Pseudo Buyer-Aligned Process by the following:

      • They translate the buyer process into a sales process. So first they analyse a customer buying process and then superimpose a second process that has the corresponding sales process steps to take for every step of the buying process. They claim that because the steps of the sales process are aligned with the steps of the buying process, they have a buyer-aligned sales process.
      • It is a linear process that is identical for all opportunities.

This is not only wrong, but so theoretical and complex that the sales force find it impossible to implement with a high adoption rate. Consider a simple analogy: in the spring we plant seeds to align our farming activities with the season. But planting seeds does not mean that therefore it’s spring. You have to monitor the seasons and align the farming activities accordingly. You don’t monitor the farming activities and then deduce that the season is aligned.

When salespeople follow a Pseudo Buyer-Aligned Sales Process they make the same fatal assumption. They assume that since they executed this step of the buyer-aligned sales process, the customer will now move to the next stage of the buying process. Can you see how this is completely wrong? Their reference points are the steps of the buyer-aligned sales process, instead of those of the customer buying process.

The second problem with this approach is that the Pseudo Buyer-Aligned Sales Process is a sequential set of steps:

      • You take a step
      • Finish it
      • Check box
      • Done
      • Next step

In contrast, the buying process is neither linear nor sequential. It is a dynamic and iterative process, which means that the customer goes back and forth within each stage of the buying process. So even if your sales process includes customer milestone checkpoints when passing from one stage to the next, it still doesn’t work in reality. Because the customer may say one thing one day and then something else another day. How many times have you had a meeting where the customer was enthusiastic about something you said but then changed their mind at the next meeting. Why? It’s very simple. Customers do not live in isolated worlds. After your meeting they talk to peers, they go on the internet, they talk to colleagues. This influences or even completely changes their opinion.

Recent research by SiriusDecisions shows that 71% of customer decision criteria and their buyer journey are influenced by online information. Sales reps need to be able to see how their customer has evolved since the last meeting. Contrast this with a salesperson who follows the pseudo buyer-aligned linear sales process: “I did step A of the process, so now I need to do step B?” But who says so? Who says that because your step is executed that the customer also evolved? And if so, who says the customer didn’t change their mind or wasn’t influenced by others since your last contact? Your sales force needs to be focused on the customer buying process and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Therefore, implementing the sales steps in your CRM won’t help, even if they are aligned with a generic buying process. Your salespeople will focus on those sales steps and lose track of the buying process. What you need to do is to implement the buying process stages and tools to continuously monitor buying readiness.

Check: ask your vendor to show and explain their sales process and a screenshot of a CRM implementation.
If you see sales stages and/or a linear process, you know you have a Pseudo Buyer-Aligned Process. 

2. Company buyer journey versus individual buying readiness

As we learned in the previous point, it is critical to detect the buying stages and align activities accordingly. Not the other way around. That being said, there is another dimension to this that makes this even more critical. Each member of the decision making unit (DMU) is going through the buyer journey at their own pace, dynamically and iteratively. Each person is influenced in many ways and could potentially be involved in another stage of the buying process.

Misalignment of the sales activity with individual buying readiness will result in a longer sales cycle and a lower win probability. So there’s no need to explain why you need to install a process that enables you to monitor individual buying readiness and/or alignment of the DMU. Implementing a company buyer journey doesn’t help because it doesn’t exist. Every company has a unique buyer journey, with stages that include:

      • Definition of requirements
      • Evaluation of vendors
      • Short list of vendors
      • Negotiation with short list

As you can see, these stages are very high level and company-based. They don’t allow you to monitor individual buying readiness, which means your sales force won’t be able to individually align and influence DMU members. We have seen many initiatives from top management stall because people lower down in the organisation were not aligned in their buying readiness. Identifying these individual misalignments and having the right sales and marketing activity to resolve these friction points is key to winning deals.

Check: does your sales methodology spontaneously talk about the importance of individual alignment? Ask to see the sales process.
If it has general buying stages you won’t be able to focus your sales on aligning DMU members.

3. Is your sales process multicultural?

There is a big difference between European companies and US-based companies. Most sales methodologies developed in the US fail in implementation in European and global companies. The US has a ‘hero culture’, where the CEO, VP Sales and people delivering results are considered heroes. This has a totally different impact on the way sales reacts to or views top-down implementations and rule-based ways of working. In Europe, the fact that top management says something can actually have the opposite effect on salespeople.

Here’s a simple test to define the culture: count how many salespeople are using individual spreadsheets – a feature of the hero culture. The methodologies of US-based companies are developed using this hero paradigm. So in all the intricacies of the method you buy, you will find all kinds of resistance to adopting it from your sales force.

Check: is your methodology based on multicultural diversity?
If not, be prepared for resistance.

These three requirements are crucial if you want to implement a process that will truly align your sales with the new buyer and be adopted and used by the team.


Are sales still the exclusive domain of the sales department? If so, you may have a problem, as customer interaction has changed dramatically. Customer contacts increasingly take place via other channels, such as the Internet, social media or relations. The preparation of purchases is also strongly influenced online.

Everybody has a commercial role

Your salespersons are not the only ones who bear responsibility for your company’s lasting commercial success. Within their role, each employee needs to be aware of the ultimate aim of their activities, namely the customer. This requires a serious mentality change with plenty of companies, and perhaps also with you.

More than ever, customers expect to play a central role in your processes. This demands a targeted approach: any interaction between you and the customer matters and has to meet the customer’s expectations. You need to be able to quickly and adequately answer any question from them. In most industries this is the fastest way to strengthen your competitive position.

Your processes from the perspective of your customer’s purchase cycle

Are you ready to take your organisation to a higher level and to increase your growth potential? Then you need to organise your processes from the perspective of your customer’s purchase cycle. You have to meet their expectations with every contact. This also impacts the competencies of your employees and the manner in which technology supports your customer processes.

Create a Buyer’s Journey roadmap in five steps

For the sake of brevity we will not discuss this in depth, but in general terms you build your roadmap in five steps:

  1. describe the purchase cycle for each type of customer
  2. inventory the contact moments (including those with third parties)
  3. describe all those moments, every touch point
  4. identify the most important decision criteria and decision points
  5. convert the schedule into ready-to-use guidelines

 


Surely it goes without saying that sales and marketing departments work to serve clients? But think about it: is this really the case, and do they work well together? The alignment of sales and marketing is now more urgent than ever. Globalisation and the internet have radically changed the way people buy. Sellers used to be the most important sources of information, but now potential customers look up all their various options for themselves online. They also value their contacts’ and peers’ opinions more, which they can find online too.

So sales and marketing can no longer be allowed to operate as two separate departments working alongside each other. Even though lots of companies have tried to bring them in line over the last fifteen years, there has been little improvement:
“Marketing doesn’t result in any leads that are ready to buy,” says sales.
“Sales isn’t following leads up,” claims marketing.
“Marketing spends a lot of money but can’t measure ROI.”
“Sales has no impact on marketing expenses, and vice versa.”
“Sales always gets the spoils.”

Lower sales cost

Things can be improved by harmonising all marketing and sales activities with the market and potential customers’ readiness to buy. We call this Buyer-Aligned Collaboration, and it ensures the highest possible impact at the lowest possible sales cost.

The client controls your sales process

So promote your client to the centre of your business universe. Then synchronise sales and marketing so they quickly start to work in harmony. In summary:

  • The client’s buying cycle and the buyer readiness is the benchmark for all sales processes
  • Use software to register every decision-maker’s readiness to buy
  • Use CRM as a pragmatic tool for all departments; correct information is more important than the quantity of prospect data
  • Marketing produces sales material to match the various buyer readiness phases
  • Product information targets your client’s challenges and the impact of your solution, not the product features
  • Involve sales when verifying the buyer readiness and pick up leads at the right moment
  • Measure and benchmark all activities throughout the buying cycle and work continuously on improvement

Scientific research has shown that every buying cycle is a sequence of the same mental processes; almost as certain as a law of nature. Our Buying Clock is an easy way to see the willingness to buy of everyone involved in a potential sale:

You can work out where the client is in Buying Clock by asking questions such as:

  • Are 100% sure that the current situation has to change?
  • What can you do with the new solution?
  • Have you calculated the cost and ROI?
  • What criteria will you use to compare suppliers?
  • Are you trying to understand the differences and benefits of the various options?
  • How do you guarantee your future supplier won’t eventually drop you?
  • Have you checked if the new solution brings new problems with it?

Buying-Clock-isolatedThe clocks are far from always synchronised

You know ‘what time it is’ in the buying cycle when you’ve got answers from everyone who has to decide on the purchase. Everyone goes through the same mental processes in a purchase, and it’s very possible that different people are in different stages.

The speed at which we go through the various stages of the buying cycle depends on various factors: experience of buying similar services, understanding the various options’ impacts, the decision’s importance and impact on us and our organization. A buying cycle can last from a few seconds to months or even years depending on these factors. The deal can be sealed when everyone involved has completed all stages.

Understanding this buying cycle leads to better results

Do your sales and marketing teams know what time it is on every client’s Buying Clock? Wouldn’t it be great for your team to discover how ready your client is to buy, so they could approach them in the right way? Then sales would never start talking about product features before the client is ready to even consider buying that type of product. And marketing wouldn’t overload anyone with too much information about all the benefits. Clients will feel better understood, and make a decision faster, when approached with messages that match their buyer readiness.

When everyone in your organization can see the client’s buying cycle, you can develop shared terminology to align your sales and marketing activities and increase your efficiency and effectiveness. To maximize your organization’s potential, make your client’s readiness to buy the reference point for every action. This can lead to the following benefits:

  • Shared terminology for sharing experiences better and improving the whole team’s performance
  • Precise timing of your actions, resulting in lower sales cost and higher ROI
  • Higher conversion
  • Less loss of margin
  • Objective, predictable forecasts
  • In summary: more sales with higher margins at a lower cost