Author: Ian Meharg | Reading Time: 7-8 minutes
“Of course, the customer matters!” I hear you cry. And you have a point. But stick with this as I develop this idea of the customer mattering. Or not. And if the customer doesn’t matter, then what, or who does? Let’s look at the customer in two different buying situations: Business to Consumer (B2C) and Business to Business (B2B).
In a typical B2C scenario each customer may well have a subtly different reason for buying your product. There will be some aspects of it that apply across the board and are typically the killer features you have worked hard to develop. But how each of those and other peripheral factors combine at the point where the customer decides whether to reach for his or her credit card or not, will be harder to predict. Which means that how you engage with a more volatile customer base will be less predictable (which is why we argued, in a separate blog post, that if you are a startup it’s better to focus on B2B not B2C).
Now contrast the B2C scenario with a typical B2B purchase or decision. Businesses operate in a much more predictable way than individual consumers – they have to. So behind their final decision to buy or invest in a product or service, there should always be a well defined repeatable process that steers the decision through a particular set of “gates” to ensure that there is a return on the investment they are about to make. The most important aspect of this process to understand is, perversely, the one that is most often least understood by suppliers. And that aspect can be captured in a single direct question.
As long as YOU the seller understand what the buyer’s answer is in the context of what you can sell him, then the rest of the details about the customer don’t really matter at this stage. Their understanding will be binary – they either understand it, or they don’t.
Now here is the really powerful thing about this approach. The answer to that question will determine how the customer engages with you. This is what I am going to refer to as a “buying style”. Buying Styles are covered in more detail here. The reality is, unfortunately, that the vast majority of sales organisations operating today build a sales process and engagement method without even knowing what a buying style is, or which ones their customers exhibit. Consequently they take no account of how they need to engage with their prospects to maximise their chances of success. This leads to a toxic mix of activity-based processes, internally facing metrics that only serve the needs of the process and a huge amount of resources focused on the wrong things. The rates of success are low and even more pressure is then applied to try and compensate for the basic lack of understanding. They don’t know what they don’t know. If you operate under such conditions you will be all too familiar with how that story ends.
The good news is that there is a simple, effective and rapid way out of this. Which is to get to grips with the different buying styles that exist (there are three, but we’ll cover just two here) and then focus your efforts to align with them. So what are these different styles and why do they exist?
The most common one that B2B suppliers encounter is referred to as “Value Added”. This exists when the answer to the question is “yes”. In other words, the customer already understands the problem they want to solve or the opportunity they wish to exploit, what the potential solution might look like and who the providers of such solutions could be. They then engage with the suppliers, gather information, sometimes in a formal, structured way such as an RFP, and gradually eliminate the unsuitable ones down to a final short list of candidates.
As a supplier, often the first you know about this is when the RFP lands on your desk. Once you have identified the opportunity, you can engage in a way that allows you to differentiate your offering positively, by adding value, building trust and understanding as you go and manoeuvring through the required beauty parade to get yourself into pole position. From there the usual business of price negotiations takes place and a winner is selected. These techniques are well understood by most sales teams although practised with varying degrees of effectiveness. As long as you have aligned this, your Value Added sales style to the Value Added buying style, you are in the running.
But what if the answer to the question was “NO”? Or what if you didn’t ask the question at all but ploughed ahead with your Value Added sales style regardless? Can’t happen to you? Oh yes, it can and it does to many organisations. That is where failure and frustration build as you try to sell a solution to a customer who doesn’t understand what their problem is and therefore cannot know what a solution might look like. Remember, companies will only invest to fix a problem if it is causing them enough pain. And even then only if the change is better/easier than doing nothing.
If that IS the case, then the customer will exhibit a very different buying style called “Valued Created”. All this means is that YOU as the vendor have to help them understand the problem, or the opportunity, lead them to the value that they will realise by solving the problem and eventually to a purchase of the product or service that you can provide.
You’re probably realising by now that this is a very different approach to the one described above. Because the customer doesn’t yet understand things, he can’t and won’t engage with suppliers. Obvious. But that doesn’t mean suppliers can’t engage with the customer – provided they use a sales style that is appropriate, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s called Valued Created.
What’s different then?
Pretty much everything. To operate a Value Created style you need to know how the customer makes his investment decisions so that YOU can engage this process at a much earlier stage than before. Clearly, this requires a different set of skills as you’re not selling a product at this stage, and the ability to engage business stakeholders in a way that doesn’t frighten them. You need to create a collaborative approach to identifying the problem – or the opportunity – and work alongside them as they go through their internal process that you have not seen before. This can take a lot longer than just a simple product sale – easily up to two years in some cases. So you can’t apply the same old Value Added mindset and thinking to this as you would when you have a clearly identified problem for which your solution is a good fit. You need different people, different management and a very different attitude.
We’ll leave you with some final thoughts. The first is that the world of the Value Added B2B seller is changing rapidly as the buyer replaces the information that used to be the sole preserve of the supplier sales team with readily available information from the internet and other unbiased sources. You will only be invited to engage once they have used their own judgement, not relied on your input. Salespeople operating in this world face a whole raft of new, and exciting challenges as the pendulum of power swings firmly to the buyer. You will still engage at a similar point in the process but it will be through different channels, methods and messages.
The second is that there is an even greater world of new opportunity awaiting the Value Creator. The cycles may be longer and more arduous but if you identify them correctly then your chances of success can be close to 100% – simply because you have been involved from the very inception of the opportunity or the identification of the problem and are therefore able to steer the decision in your direction much more easily.
Does the customer matter?
Yes, of course, they still do but what matters more is how you engage with them. Until you understand that this is driven by their buying style, then you run a high risk of using the wrong approach.