Rethinking How Vendors Engage with Customers

by Chris Jones – August 26, 2015

A few years ago, I read a Google-sponsored study about the B2B sales process. What jumped out was a stat that the typical B2B buyer is more than HALFway (57 percent) through their buying journey before they engage with vendors. As a guy who has been a Senior IT Executive for some pretty big organizations (Genentech, Salesforce.com), and who now advises both CIOs and vendors, this caught my attention. Further, it immediately raises two questions:

First, why are customers avoiding vendors? Is there something wrong with the traditional sales process that drives the customer away? Or is there simply a better way for the customer to get through their journey? And, second, how should vendors react? What should we do to be relevant to customers in that first 57 percent of their journey? How does this fact change the rules of engagement?

Let’s Face It: The Traditional B2B Tech Sales Process is Broken

To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised to hear the 57 percent stat. Take a look at how onerous the traditional B2B sales process is in enterprise storage.

First of all, there are WAY too many meetings:

  • Initial call
  • Detailed architecture review and value prop preso
  • Meet with Application Owner or Business Unit
  • Deliver and review initial proposal
  • Proof of concept planning (many meetings in the process of developing a detailed test plan for the POC)
  • Proof of concept kickoff
  • Weekly POC status calls (sometimes these are more frequent)
  • Delivering various proposal alternatives (the first one never is accepted)

Worse yet, these meetings involve WAY too many people:

  • A bunch of folks from the vendor side (account rep, field SE, product specialist, application SME, sales management, HQ engineering liaison, customer support liaison)
  • A bunch of folks from the customer side (storage architect, storage manager, various storage administrators, purchasing, IT management, CIO, application owner, budget owner)

Think about what actually happens in all of those early sales calls. The vendor asks a ton of questions so they know what they should try to sell. The customer may have a few questions as well, but they are likely to be very general at that stage – they are playing catch-up in terms of knowledge.

There has to be a better way.

The Internet Changes Everything (Again)

The kind of information a customer needs early in the process is pretty simple: What is this new stuff the vendor wants to sell me? How does it work, what benefits does it bring compared to existing solutions? Is it something I should pay attention to? These are simple questions that don’t require a 2-hour meeting with 8 people in a conference room.

And that’s where the Internet comes in. Instead of having this information “pushed” down their throats, customers are turning to the Internet to do their initial, early-in-the-journey information gathering.

  • What is this new technology? Let’s see if I can find a third-party article on the subject. Perhaps I could watch a 2-minute video from a leading vendor as well.
  • Benefits? That’s what white papers and websites are for.
  • Cost? Sheesh – I never get that in early face-to-face meeting, but I can probably find that out online. Even better, maybe I can find an ROI calculator.

In the end, the customer may spend about the same amount of time, but didn’t need to drag 4 or 5 co-workers into a one-sided vendor meeting to get basic information.

The Google study mirrors what I am seeing with large B2B technology buyers. They do their initial research online (pull, not push), and then call the vendor of choice once they are ready to engage. The 57 percent stat sounds just about right.

How Vendors Need to Change

Which brings me to my second question: How should vendors change their sales processes?The answer is to move their early stage engagements from an outside sales force to an online model. Some ideas:

  • Put a simple, easy-to-use product demo online.
  • Create the kind of content customers are looking for and stage it where they might look for it. For example, create a simple 2-minute video that explains your solution and stage it not only on your website, but also on syndication sites such as YouTube. Or place an informative PowerPoint deck on Slideshare.net.
  • Make your pricing transparent and put it online. I know, that’s heresy in the enterprise technology world, and I’ll ruffle a lot of vendor feathers suggesting it, but the whole pricing dance feels sleazy. I always wondered if someone else was getting a better deal. In the end, CIOs all talk anyway, so making pricing so opaque was just annoying.
  • Reduce the number of outside sales people beating down doors. Instead, move to a pull model where you put all the information out there a customer might need, let your marketing lead the customer to it, and use inside sales people to engage when the customer is ready for a more personalized engagement. Only deploy the outside salesperson near the end of the sales cycle when the customer wants (and needs) a face-to-face meeting.

Everyone Wins

This new model is different. But it makes sense and in the end everyone wins. The customer wins because they get the information they need with a lot less effort. The vendor wins because this is a much less expensive way to do business. Oh, I guess there are a few overpaid, overfed salespeople who lose, but I can live with that.