Managing the Sales Process When the Buyer is in Charge

Updated: May 20, 2010

The buying cycle is always longer than the selling cycle. Every sale, since the dawn of time, began long before the salesperson was involved. Long before the cold call, long before the lead was generated, long before the first presentation. Buyers start by recognizing or establishing a need, typically based on a gap or pain or obstacle in getting what they ultimately want. Then they consider what they think they want, do some research, and eventually reach out to (or accept calls from) prospective providers.

As a seller, your visibility to pre-sales buying stages used to be non-existent. But now, thanks to the social web, you have greater access and visibility to the buyer's early consideration stages than ever before. They're asking colleagues and peers about it on forums, pontificating about it on Facebook and Twitter. And smart sellers get to know their buyers so well that they begin addressing the source of the gap/pain/obstacle before it becomes acute for the buyer. Smart sellers are working themselves upstream with buyers, creating trust & credibility before their products or services are needed.

Most leads aren't ready to buy, and you can't force them to go faster. According to research from MarketingSherpa, only 10-15% of sales leads are qualified and ready to buy. That means the majority of prospects you meet, though the right company or individual, aren't going to do business with you right now.

Know this going in and you can model your activity and output accordingly, without creating outlandish expectations about what's possible. But more importantly, respect the buyer's timeline, give them the space they need, and build a long-term sales development pipeline for yourself by nurturing those leads actively and regularly. Stay with them, with value-added content, as long as you need to. Yes, you can drive some urgency to make a decision faster. But in many cases, you simply cannot (and attempts to do so are counter-productive).

Add value, and give it away for free. Teach your prospects. Give them something unexpected. Help them do their jobs, or lead their lives, easier, better, faster. Become a trusted source of information not about what you're selling, but the outcome it enables and represents. Become a go-to and referable resource of information that addresses the core needs, objectives and situations your customers and prospective customers live in on a regular basis.

Creating that value does take time and resources. It's an investment on your part. And you should not only do it, but give it away for free. This strategy accelerates the impact of your content, exponentially increases the size of the very top of your prospect engagement pipeline, and ensures that the volume of "natural" inbound leads will not only increase over time, but remain a sustainable resource for months to come.

Enable buyers vs. managing sales. The right buyers want what you're selling. They want to remain in control. They will make decisions based on their own criteria, not yours. Honor these boundaries, and build your own sales process based on the way your buyer buys (not based on the way you want to sell, or are used to selling), and you're far more likely to gain the buyer's respect and business.

And you can't just do this once. The way buyers will buy is guaranteed to evolve. The steps they take, the tools they use, the influences that affect their direction and decisions. In a B2B sale, even the roles of buyers and buyer influencers within an organization can change dramatically, and quickly. Know your customer, your buyer, and their processes well enough and you can set and modify your sales strategy accordingly to create frictionless selling environments.

Join the buyer community. Sales yesterday meant sponsoring or advertising in places where your buyers congregate. Today, to build credibility, you need to participate. You need to become an active part of the community in which your buyers exist, and you need to do it by participating as a peer, not as a seller.

This doesn't mean impersonating a buyer, but does mean sharing, exchanging and seeking information to make the buyers smarter. Not smarter in purchase decisions, but smarter in doing their jobs in general. Those you directly engage will benefit from and appreciate your perspective. And others in the community will also see and respect what you're doing, and will be more inclined to engage or work with you in the future.

Turn buyers into sellers. If you make the sale, provide a product or service worth talking about, enable your customers to become sellers on your behalf. Actively collect and share their success stories in a variety of formats and mediums (written, video, audio, online, etc.). Give your customers incentives and tools to share your content with others.

This doesn't just mean referral offers and tell-a-friend incentives. It also means giving them a steady feed of the same content you may have used to engage them in the first place, and encouraging them to directly share and distribute that content to their own peers and networks. This ensures your message gets in front of exponentially more prospective buyers.

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