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B2B Salespeople Need to Act More Like Travel Agents

Customers are overwhelmed; they need help, not your latest sales pitch

Having more information doesn’t always make it easier to decide. Consider the travel industry: with the explosion of internet travel sites in the 2000s, consumers took charge of their own travel, and travel agencies hemorrhaged business.

Fast forward to today and, according to the travel and leisure marketing firm MMGY, the use of travel agents increased by 50% from 2014 to 2015. The reason is that consumers, overwhelmed by information and inundated with choice, are again turning to someone to take the work out of travel planning.

B2B buying and selling has followed a similar trajectory; a wealth of easily available information has made it possible for buyers to do much of the work themselves. By 2012, nearly 60% of a typical B2B purchasing decision — researching solutions, ranking options, benchmarking pricing, and so on — was happening before the buyer even had a conversation with a supplier, according to CEB analysis. But just because customers can research their purchase doesn’t necessarily mean the process is going smoothly.

In fact, the torrents of information, expanding array of options, and growing size and diversity of purchasing groups have led to a kind of purchase paralysis. Customers take longer than ever to make purchases, and abandon them more often. At the same time, second guessing and post-purchase regret are on the rise, while loyalty is falling. The increasing complexity of purchasing makes it increasingly hard, and buyers are now looking for sellers who can make the process easy once again.

Changing the Direction of Travel

If you think B2B purchasing hasn’t become that bad, try this simple exercise: think about the last major purchase for which you sat on the buying committee. Perhaps it was a CRM solution, a consulting engagement, or new infrastructure. Now think about the stakeholder group on day one and how that group had changed by day 100.

Think about the information you initially consulted and how that changed over time. Consider the revolving door of experts, colleagues, vendors, and their specialists. Think about the seemingly infinite set of options you needed to consider. Now ask yourself, if given the choice, would you do it that way again? Probably not.

By becoming their customer’s “travel agent,” leading suppliers are spinning the challenges customers face into tremendous commercial advantage. They’re easing customers’ burdens by guiding them through difficult decisions and choices, and improving “win rates” for high-end solution sales by as much as 60%.

This is borne out by three examples of how firms in three different industries simplify the purchase process.

  1. An employee wellness benefits provider uses content marketing: Programs to support employee wellness and keep health care costs in check are a fairly new type of service. As such, many HR departments have never made this kind of purchase. As employers try to learn about the market, a mob of brokers, sales people, “employee evangelists,” and others typically flood the decision makers with information.

    As one firm that provided benefits watched its customers become increasingly overwhelmed, it created marketing and sales content focused exclusively on best practices for purchasing wellness benefits. The content is highly prescriptive, guiding customers through the stages of decision making, assessing their readiness to provide wellness benefits, and walking them through benchmarking exercises and even RFP builders.

    This guidance is vendor-neutral; it doesn’t promote the provider’s solution, but instead guides prospects through the purchase process, offering practical tips and warnings about pitfalls they may encounter. Subtly, within the content, the provider orients customers toward its distinct strengths without overtly pitching its solution. The campaign has resulted in dramatic increases in marketing leads and sales.

  2. A marketing automation company creates bespoke presentations: When customer decision makers don’t agree, it can make purchasing difficult and slow – or simply scuttle deals altogether. Consider the common situation where a marketing head approaches the CIO seeking approval for a marketing automation purchase.

    If, as often happens, the CIO believes the company’s CRM solution already does adequate marketing automation, they may block the purchase. To address this problem, one supplier built a series of ready-made decks for marketers to present to CIOs and other stakeholders in the purchasing decision.

    These decks contain benchmarking tools, customizable ROI calculators, and other content to showcase the potential impact of the firm’s solution, and, most powerfully, they use the language and metrics of the stakeholder receiving it.

  3. A health care software company uses networking events early in the sales process: Sellers often use references from previous customers to help get a new one through the final stages of a difficult purchase. Most sellers approach this in a similar way. They get their happiest customer on the phone with the prospective customer late in the sales process and ask them to sing the company’s praises.

    This software company takes another approach, asking customers who have recently completed a significant purchase that is similar to the one the prospect is evaluating to spend half a day alone with the prospective customer early in the purchase process. The engagement is billed as a networking and best-practice sharing event, so both companies benefit.

    But the software company asks the customer reference to candidly discuss their purchase process. This includes openly discussing missteps they made, pitfalls to avoid, information to consult, RFP advice, and how to best engage with the software company. Because this is a true peer-to-peer networking opportunity, few prospects turn away the opportunity. As a result of the reference engagement approach, the software company has seen cycle times fall and deal win rates increase.

    Like these companies, B2B suppliers need to focus on making it far easier for customers to buy. Senior sales managers need to start thinking aobut what opportunities  they have to become their customers’ travel agent.

 

A version of this post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.

 

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