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.