The sales cycle has changed, and you have to change with it. In the article titled “The New B2B Sales Imperative” written by Nicholas Toman, Brent Adamson, and Cristina Gome, they conclude that “most B2B sellers think their customers are in the driver’s seat—empowered, armed to the teeth with information, and so clear about their needs that they don’t bother to engage with suppliers until late in the process, when their purchase decision is all but complete.”
Customers don’t see it that way. They may be better informed than ever, but CEB research shows that they’re deeply uncertain and stressed. Buying complex solutions, such as enterprise software or manufacturing equipment, has never been easy. But with a wealth of data on any solution, a raft of stakeholders involved in each purchase, and an ever-expanding array of options, more and more deals bog down or even halt altogether. Customers are increasingly overwhelmed and often more paralyzed than empowered.
More information begets more questions, with the result that customers take longer and longer to make a purchase decision—if they ever do. At the same time, the number of people involved in B2B solutions purchases has climbed from an average of 5.4 two years ago to 6.8 today, and these stakeholders come from a lengthening roster of roles, functions, and geographies. The resulting divergence in personal and organizational priorities makes it difficult for buying groups to agree to anything more than “move cautiously,” “avoid risk,” and “save money.” One CMO has memorably referred to this as “lowest common denominator purchasing.”
Finally, the expanding range of options that B2B customers face requires increasing amounts of time for evaluation as stakeholders deliberate over the trade-offs. Research shows that for individual consumers, greater choice isn’t necessarily a good thing; the same principle applies to big B2B purchases. No matter the choice, some stakeholders will always find aspects of an alternative more appealing. In addition to slowing the purchase process, an excess of options leads to post-purchase anxiety: “Did we do the right thing? Would another choice have been better?” Research shows that such second-guessing occurs in more than 40% of completed B2B purchases.
That customers struggle to buy comes as a surprise to many suppliers. Senior executives at companies around the world describe the complex-solutions purchase process in one word, “hard,” “awful,” “painful,” “frustrating,” and “minefield.” A typical solutions purchase takes twice as long as customers expect it will. Clearly, much of what makes the process so hard has nothing at all to do with suppliers and everything to do with customers themselves.
The solution? Make buying easier.
Suppliers have of course been working on simplifying sales since the dawn of selling. Unfortunately, the very tactics they think will increase ease of purchase often do the opposite. Research finds that the vast majority of sales professionals believe that giving customers more information helps them make better decisions; that they must flexibly respond to a customer’s direction (even when they disagree with it); and that it’s “extremely important” to help customers consider all possible alternatives. Sellers are striving to be more responsive than ever—taking the customer’s lead and providing whatever support is requested. They ensure that customers have all the data, cases, and testimonials they might need to guide their decision-making, and they lay out a suite of options, continually adjusting the offering as customer demand evolves. This approach seems like the right one, and it’s in keeping with suppliers’ desire to be more customer-centric. Yet it drives an 18% decrease in purchase ease, according to a survey of more than 600 B2B buyers. Piling on more information and options just makes things harder.
Whereas the responsive approach typically depressed purchase ease, a proactive, prescriptive approach increased purchase ease by 86%. Prescriptive suppliers give a clear recommendation for action backed by a specific rationale; they present a concise offering and a stable view of their capabilities; and they explain complex aspects of the purchase process clearly. A simple prescription might sound like this: “One of the things we’ve learned from working with customers like you is that purchasing folks are going to get involved, and probably late in the process. And when they come in late, things tend to blow up. So you’ll want to bring them in earlier. When you do that, they will have two main questions: X and Y. Here’s how to answer them.”
Not surprisingly, customers perceive prescriptive salespeople as being one step ahead, anticipating and eliminating obstacles. That translates directly into business results: Suppliers that make buying easy are 62% likelier than other suppliers to win a high-quality sale (one in which the customer buys a premium offering). In fact, purchase ease is by far the biggest driver of deal quality found across three large studies. What’s more, customers who complete a prescriptive, easy sales process are dramatically less likely to regret their purchase or to speak negatively of the supplier, and are more likely to repurchase, than customers in conventional sales interactions.
Although every deal is different, all deals are typically more similar than not—especially within a particular industry, across a specific customer segment, or for a given offering. The most effective prescriptive sellers learn from the purchase processes and challenges of a handful of customers to effectively prescribe to a wide range of similar customers, scaling their capability. Selling prescriptively is less an individual rep skill than an organizational aptitude that can be deployed across channels, from sales conversations to marketing content to customer diagnostic exercises.
Prescription may take many forms, but the companies that have mastered it employ the same practices: They work to deeply understand the customer’s purchase journey; identify the most significant customer challenge at each buying stage; arm their salespeople with tools to help overcome each challenge; and trace the customer’s progress so that they can intervene at any moment to keep the process on track.
Today’s best suppliers help customers consider not just what to buy but how. They use: mapping the journey, identifying barriers, designing prescriptions, and tracking progress tactics to win the deal. But they also share two overarching organizational characteristics: First, they avoid focusing on getting customers to buy from them and instead concentrate on how customers make purchase decisions. This may seem like a minor distinction, but in fact it’s a profound one, and fundamental to the best practitioners’ success. Second, they tightly align their sales and marketing teams to support the customer journey from start to finish—breaking down the historical barriers between those functions in the process. As a result, these companies create consistent and relevant tools, messaging, and guidance to shape and simplify the purchase journey, drive sales, and ultimately increase customer loyalty.