Buying is complicated—we see all sorts of research confirming this. Whether it’s the fact that the majority of buying efforts end in no decision made, the high level of of “High Regret Decisions,” increasing uncertainty on decision confidence; more data points to how buyers struggle during and after the buying journey.
One would think this is an ideal scenario for sales people to create great value helping their customers develop navigate their buying journey, enabling them to make a decision where they feel they have chosen well. But the data shows something completely different. Customers are seeking to reduce sales involvement in their buying process. Gartner data shows the time customers invest in sales people (we and our competitors) is only 17%. They prefer learning through other sources, whether they are digital sources, off-line research, or working with their colleagues.
Customers complain about sales people—"They don’t understand me," "They don’t understand our business," "They don’t understand what we are trying to achieve or how to solve our problems," "They don’t know their own products ... " The degree to which customers perceive this means that sales people are, in fact, driving customers to other sources of help, support, and learning during their buying journey.
So what we are doing, as sales people, isn’t helpful to our customers. Instead of continuing to do the same things at higher volumes, perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach. What if we started to understand the greatest challenges our customers face in these buying decisions and how we might create the right value in our engagement process?
Let’s step back a moment to understand the characteristics of these “complicated” buying journeys. They can be described as “Known Unknowns.” By that, I mean the customer is facing issues and challenges they have never experienced–or at least solved for (otherwise they would be Known Knowns). But there are people that know and understand these things, they are the experts, people who have seen these issues before, who have developed approaches for understanding them, defining them, addressing and solving them.
Deep expertise becomes critical to customers in their buying/problem solving journey. Because we work with dozens to hundreds of customers with these problems, we should have deep expertise in these issues and problems. As a result, we can create great value in the most difficult areas our customers face in these buying journeys.
But it’s important to understand what expertise the customers need. It isn’t expertise about our products and solutions. Instead, it is expertise in the problems and business issues the customer seeks to address. The expertise is all about the customer; what they need to learn, how they should be thinking about the issues, who should be involved, how others have addressed similar issues, risks and strategies for addressing those risks, change management issues, and others.
Deep expertise is critical to customer success. If they don’t have it–and if they’ve not addressed these issues before, they are unlikely to be successful, either in completing their buying journey or in their subsequent success. But providing customers that expertise changes things profoundly–it focuses on their confidence and increases their likelihood of success.
We have several clients that are beginning to think about this in their customer engagement processes. One client uses their customers’ willingness to involve experts as a qualifier for the opportunity. They know the customer is highly unlikely to successfully complete their buying process without leveraging deep expertise, so they disqualify those customers that don’t leverage my client’s experts. They’ve, also, learned that because of the breadth of issues their customers are addressing, the most successful customers leverage my client’s expertise across several areas of the problems they are addressing. As a result, their success with customers using their expertise is skyrocketing. The quality of the deals, they value they create in the buying process, and the customer success/retention is driver to their revenue growth.
We get feedback from customers in win/loss analysis. We learn that deep expertise is critical to their decision confidence and those suppliers that engage those experts in their customer engagement processes create the greatest value. When we ask what suppliers might do differently, universally, the request is for resources providing deep problem and business expertise.
Another Kind of Expertise
There’s another type of “expertise,” in addition to deep problem/business expertise, that customers need. This is what I’ve called the orchestration/project management expertise. Since these issues are very complicated, our customers struggle with even defining their buying team, process, goals, success criteria, and so forth. They struggle with knowing who in their organization should be involved, the steps they should take in making a decision. This expertise is more a process focused expertise and different from the deep problem expertise. But both are needed to help our customers navigate their buying journey successfully.
This has significant implications for our sales deployment strategies. The tendency in too many organizations is to deploy a large number of “generalists.” These people have broad territories, represent a wide product line. They have little/no process expertise (orchestration/project management). We expect them to help customers solve these complicated problems–but they don’t have the skills most valued by the customer.
We sometimes complement these generalists with specialists—but instead of being problem/business specialists, they are product specialists. They have deep knowledge about everything having to do with our products, but may not have the expertise on the problems or business issues our customers struggle with.
Our customers are struggling. We aren’t providing the sales resources most critical to helping them, so they are driven to find that support in other places. We have the opportunity to help them and to create distinctive value, but we need to provide the help that is useful in dealing with these very complicated problems.
The challenges our customers face are increasingly complicated. We have an opportunity to increase their success, and ours by providing them the expertise to address these issues.