December 2015 Feature

Coping with the New Buyer’s Journey in 2016

by Hobart Swan

Steven KellamWith 2015 coming to a close, Channel Management Insights took the opportunity to sit down with CCI’s own President, Steven Kellam, to pick his brain about where the channel is heading in 2016.

“Someone asked me the other day for the one word I thought described our business in 2015,” began Kellam. ” ‘Frenetic’ immediately came to mind—that feeling of being wired and tired at the same time.” The year has been wired because everyone CCI does business with has been putting in long hours to build processes that capitalize on the ‘new buyer’s journey.’ “The tired part is that helping clients do all this has been a lot of work.”

So what is this new buyer’s journey?

This new journey is defined as the expanded capabilities of any buyer to conduct research prior to making a purchase. (Google refers to this change as the rise of the ‘zero moment of truth.’) “I like to compare it to the way the process of buying a car has changed,” explained Kellam. “It used to be that car dealers had all the information and the buyer had none. Boy, has that changed!” Today’s car buyer enters the showroom knowing what it costs to manufacture the car, what the dealer paid for it, and how much the same car is selling for at a dozen other dealers. The buyer doesn’t need the dealer to walk them through all the facts about the car—how many miles per gallon it gets, whether there are separate climate controls and seat positions, if the model comes with back-up cameras or accident-avoidance technology. Buyers have already found all that information online. What they want instead is for the dealer to reaffirm that the car suits the buyer’s needs, and then to offer them special value add-ons. Yes, low price is important. But if the buyer can get the same car for the same price down the street, why should they buy it here? What is this dealer going to offer them that the one down the street won’t? Will it be a killer deal? Maybe a special price for 24/7 roadside service, or an extended warranty? What value does that dealer bring to the table that other dealers don’t?

Whether that purchase is a car or a complicated data center product, today’s buyers have unprecedented amounts of information at their fingertips. Access to so much information—and to so many digital products via the cloud—has completely changed how buyers buy. It needs to change how sellers sell, too. Making this transition to the new buyer’s journey is what vendors and partners (and suppliers) alike are going through.

Solution selling has worked for years! Why change now?

The solution selling model, popular for years in the tech world, was all about how the sales people needed to walk buyers though a long, detailed discussion during which the salesperson would seek to uncover the buyer’s pain point, understand how they were trying to solve it, and what was on their requirements list. The salesperson would then go step-by-step through the process of telling the customer why a particular product or service met all of the buyer’s needs.

“The difference today is that customers conduct in-depth research on their own,” explained Kellam. Estimates vary, but most experts say that the average customer today completes from 60-75% of the buyer’s journey themselves. When they finally reach out to a salesperson, buyers aren’t looking for information about the product; they want validation that the product will work in the customer’s specific scenario—and how the seller can go above and beyond to meet the buyer’s needs.

If sellers don’t understand this new dynamic, they risk insulting or even alienating buyers. “Think about it: How would you feel if you were a customer who had put in the time and effort to visit competitors’ web sites, read all the literature, monitor the blogs, leverage LinkedIn and Facebook to get other professionals’ take on the product, follow all the social media comments on the company and the product—only to have the seller take them through some built-in sales process that re-plows all that old ground, repeating everything the customer has already learned for themselves?” You might feel like the salesperson is wasting your time because they don’t understand how people buy today.

For many of these self-educated customers, salespeople today might need to just shut up and realize that this customer is very close to making a decision. The deal is almost done! Rather than selling a solution, they simply need to reiterate the work their marketing department has done to validate the product through ROI statistics, case studies, testimonials, and social media. Yes, the salesperson might need to do a little more buyer education. But more often, the salesperson’s role is in the new buyer’s journey is to grasp the big picture of what the customer is trying to achieve, and reaffirm for them that the company’s product will help them achieve it.

Market changes are driving the new buyer’s journey

According to Kellam, three trends in the marketplace—better content, clearer context, and a new sense of empowerment—have brought about this change in the buyer’s journey.

Content

The Internet is, without a doubt, the world’s greatest content repository. But not all content is the same. In the past, vendor content tended to be more along the line of feeds and speeds—technical information designed for technical buyers. But smart companies have realized that the person who makes the technology buying decision is not always the most technically literate. (Witness the fact that chief marketing officers are predicted to spend more on technology than chief information officers.) This realization has led to the creation of more educational content designed to help business buyers grasp the practical value of a technology.

Buyers are still doing basic research. But many are going beyond that to take advantage of all the information sources now available online. As such, the path they follow to find out about a product no longer follows a straight line. There could be 7 or 8 unique kinds of research a buyer does as part of their decision-making process. They are not just checking out your content, they’re using a variety of sources to see if your claims are valid. And they’re doing this long before you provide them with one single customer reference.

Context

There used to be a saying that ‘content is king.’ “That is changing as business buyers start to expect the same level of mass personalization we are seeing in the B2C space,” explained Kellam.” They no longer want generic marketing messages or boilerplate answers to boilerplate customer questions. Instead they want—no, they expect—information tailored to their specific needs. This has led to a palace revolution of sorts in which context has become king, while content has been relegated to a slightly lower rank.

The seller’s goal today is not to send out five million emails with the exact same content, but to craft specific content that fits into the specific context in which a buyer will receive the information. This kind of targeting depends on data and data analysis. Service providers have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to capture data of interest to sellers. They combine online search data, social media posts, blogs, LinkedIn profiles, and offline purchases to create detailed customer profiles. Then they work with sellers to help them use those profiles to deliver the right kind of information to customers at the right time.

Of course, as sellers get better at data collection and analysis bandwidth, the competition moves to the question of speed: how quickly a seller can collect relevant data and convert it into actionable information. Technology today enables service providers to aggregate oceans of data. “The race is to see which seller has been able to understand where the buyer is on the buying journey, and tailor information to help them make the ‘right’ choice,” said Kellam.

Empowered Consumers

The third element that’s changing the buyer’s journey is an evolution in the mindset of buyers themselves. Today’s buyers no longer feel like they have to go through that old sales process. They don’t need to go directly to the company to find out about a product. Their goal is to get lots of information on their own—as much as possible from their peers and all of it free of the bias that comes in talking with a salesperson about the products they sell. Estimates vary, but most experts agree that buyers can get 60% or 75% of the way through their buying journey on their own, and with a better chance of accessing unbiased information than if they went to a salesperson at the start of their journey. And when they are satisfied with the information they have collected, they feel much more confident about making the decision themselves.

Will you make it on to the buyer’s short list?

“This change in the buyer’s journey is full of opportunities… and challenges,” emphasizes Kellam. “It is my opinion that this change may very well lead to a world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.” If a vendor or partner understands and adapts to the new journey, they have a chance to make it on to a buyer’s short list. If they continue to do business as usual, they will discover that they do not have a chance to make that list. And increasingly, if a vendor or partner can’t adapt and market well enough to get on that short list, they’re not even in the game.

Now, there may be some that believe that their market dominance insulates them from these market dynamics—but even billion-dollar partners that show no interest in or understanding of how to change their sales model to take advantage of the new buyer’s journey are vulnerable. But those days are gone. “The reality is that no vendor or partner is too big to fail.”

On the flip side, those that embrace change, master the brave new world of digital marketing, and meld the best of their sales and marketing efforts together have an unprecedented opportunity to distance themselves from their competition in a way we have rarely seen before. This may create a separation that will be tremendously difficult for current competitors to overcome.

This change affects everyone, including CCI

Lest you think that CCI can just sit on the sidelines and tell everyone else they need to adapt or die, the new buyer’s journey has changed the way CCI does business, too. Historically, a vendor might call us up and say they need help running some kind of channel program, maybe about fund management or a specific incentive they want to try out. “Today, our client conversations are about partner experience and program objectives,” elaborated Kellam. “It is a rare conversation these days where we don’t talk about CRM, PRM, through partner marketing, deal registration, and, eventually, fund management and incentives.”

Every single one of these conversation starts with the question of integration. “With all of the standard APIs available today, integration is the kind of conversation we’re comfortable having,” said Kellam. “We’ve done some soul searching and concluded that we don’t aspire to be a PRM company, or a CRM company, or a TPMA company. But we do want to be able to partner with all of those folks.” Why? Because of a huge shift in CCI’s clients’ buyer’s journey.

Most of CCI’s vendor clients already have a portal or are talking to a portal company. They already have a CRM platform and maybe PRM, too. “When they reach out to us, it is not to find out about all of these services; it is to figure out how to make them play well together.” These vendors understand that many of their partners need help with marketing. They’re trying to figure out whether to do marketing for their partners, help drive their partners’ marketing, or refer them to TPMAs. “Our business is to help them implement successful incentive programs,” explained Kellam. “But to do that, we need to understand the environment in which they are selling.” So the most significant change the new buyer’s journey has prompted for CCI is this major push toward integration. “Our buyers assume from the start that we can work with these other kinds of service providers,” said Kellam. “When they call us, they want affirmation that we can integrate, want to know how deeply our integration goes, and what other values-adds we can offer that our competitors won’t.”

When a sea change happens, swim faster

No matter what role you play in the market, rest assured that the evolution of the buyer’s journey will impact how you do business. Rather than slowing down, these changes will accelerate as more and better information becomes available to buyers, and as more and better data and data analysis becomes available to sellers. Changes in how buyers buy will, by necessity, change how sellers sell, whether that seller is the partner, the vendor, or the supplier for that vendor. “The new buyer’s journey is changing everybody’s world,” said Kellam. “And if it makes us all feel a little frenetic, that’s just part of the job. We all need to get used to it.”