The 2017 B2B Buyers Survey Report from Demand Gen combines the insights of 283 executives and directors to show how the buyer’s journey has changed over recent years. One big finding? Buyers, from both the B2B and B2C categories, no longer wait for companies to introduce themselves: 75 percent of respondents said that they now use more sources to research and evaluate their purchases — themselves.
With so many research avenues at their disposal, in fact, customers are free to form opinions about a brand before their first engagement with the company. Brands therefore have less control over the message customers receive, which more and more is determined by market feedback, word of mouth and social media.
The message, then, is that to engage customers in this evolving market, companies must go to them — but, fewer than you’d expect actually do that. According to research from Corporate Visions, only 58 percent of companies surveyed said they have strategies in place to match engagement techniques to different parts of the purchase journey.
Without a tailored approach that accounts for buyers in all stages of the purchase — from content consumption to sales interactions — brands cannot reliably engage their prospects.
Content’s value in the modern sales funnel
Modern buyers no longer want salespeople to do their thinking for them and instead prefer a cache of relevant content, with a salesperson operating more as an optional guide.
In fact, customers, who typically seem wary of brand content on principle, value educational content over sales-oriented content because they often assume that sellers will put their own interests ahead of objective information. Thus, those brands that provide customers with high-quality research materials before a purchase are those that earn buyers’ trust, so long as those materials don’t attempt to hide the company’s desire to make a sale.
In terms of the content’s substance, customers ultimately have two fundamental questions when approaching buying: How did the product solve other clients’ problems and help them run more efficient, profitable operations, and what does this mean for me? Companies that provide content replete with data points and case studies that answer these questions maximize their content’s value.
Still, content doesn’t replace salespeople, because salespeople often produce some of the most valuable content: sales presentations. Buyers prefer sales presentations over blog posts, ebooks and case studies. While those other types of content are important, sales presentations provide direct, no-frills summaries of how the product will add value to customers’ lives, helping them more clearly understand what a specific solution can do for them.
How to blend content with human conversations
Given what content provides customers in today’s marketplace, when prospects finally turn away from content and turn to live salespeople, they expect more than regurgitated statistics and information. Forcing salespeople to offer a specific product in customer interactions actually lowers sales for that product and decreases post-sale customer satisfaction, primarily because customers find this approach both redundant and unhelpful.
Instead, the best salesepeople are not number pushers, but solution providers who listen to and use a customer’s own research to provide recommendations that directly address problems that that customer might not recognize on his or her own. Despite the tons of data and market intelligence available, sellers are still in the problem-solving, people business. And when customers have access to both great content and salespeople who can guide them — not carry them — companies can turn drawn-out buyer journeys into reliable conversions.
Ultimately, customers respect companies that share information. So it’s smart to empower them with knowledge via strong content, and then offer advice as the seller positions a company as an authority and directs customers where to turn at each point on the buying journey.
Companies that want to follow this process and provide the content and sales experience modern customers want should follow these three steps:
1. Give up on message control. Thanks to viral content and social media, companies no longer have tight control over their own images and messages. Don’t resent this fact, though. Embrace it by sharing more information about your company’s strengths, flaws and products. The more transparent your company and the more you utilize the insights that your salespeople provide — both in terms of what they bring to your content and the value they offer your customers — the more customers will believe your message.
In fact, a survey by Cohn & Wolfe revealed that 91 percent of global respondents polled said they believed that honest communication about products and services is an important quality for companies to display — in person and in messaging. Companies that break down barriers and encourage internal departments to share information freely, then, will find that they can more easily distribute a consistent and authentic image that engenders customer trust.
2. Select brand attributes to champion. Tell customers what your company stands for, and ensure those qualities shine through every transaction, exchange and customer service interaction. If customers don’t see the company as unique or personable, they’ll turn to a competitor with more clearly defined values. For example, the ecommerce clothing company Stitch Fix leans heavily on the intimacy and personalization it provides for its customers through its very visible founder and CEO, Katrina Lake, and understands that such custom attention is what differentiates it in the marketplace.
Even less “cool” companies, like B2B businesses and banks, can still appeal to customers’ human sides without straying off-brand, by letting charismatic people within the organization speak through blogs, video presentations and other content, in order to provide a voice and face customers can trust.
3. Put solutions above sales. In this age of transparency, companies with authentic missions to help customers enjoy more loyalty and financial success than competitors that put sales above solutions. Salespeople in particular who understand customer needs and recommend only content and products that directly address those concerns are essential. Not only will this increase the likelihood of a sale, but also create a believable brand story that fits with your disseminated content — one that customers will also share with others.
Patagonia, famous for its on-point branding, regularly seeks to identify potential issues with suppliers and distributors to ensure that it doesn’t work with anyone who fails to uphold its high standards for environmental friendliness. This proactive approach resonates with customers, showing Patagonia lovers that the company believes in its mission and puts its message above profits.
Don’t let online noise tell your company story and leave customers wondering, while your salespeople linger in the shadows. By controlling your message, advocating your company’s particulars and value solutions above sales through a blend of content and salespeople, you can curate a brand image, marketing strategy and sales philosophy that builds customer trust and leads to long-term financial success.