Despite the radical changes in buyer behaviour and expectations we have seen over the last decade, it often seems like that the principal focus for many B2B companies is still on selling through an emphasis on sales activities and advertising.
This seems rather old school and doesn't take account of the modern trend away from interruption marketing.
It's a sales-led approach to lead generation, but that does not necessarily lead to solid conversions and long-term customer relationships.
The latest research also shows an increasing desire from buyers for self-service, which has only been accelerated during the pandemic. (McKinsey).
They are looking for vendors that can deliver on an omnichannel hybrid experience. (McKinsey) Buyers want to research and consider different solutions without interference. And they only want to contact vendors when they are ready.
Today's buyer does not respond well to cold calling or constant contact – both of which are instant deal-breakers for most buyers.
So is it time for B2B vendors to stop selling? And if so, what takes its place?
The Salesperson as Hero
If we look back historically, before the days of the Internet, a company's primary way of gaining sales was through the humble sales rep, who would physically visit clients and get to know them personally.
A good sales rep would find out their client's needs, struggles, and likes and dislikes. Therefore, they would anticipate questions, provide appropriate answers, and offer useful help and advice throughout the buyer's journey.
Buyers would develop a rapport with the sales rep, trust them, and value their advice. This human-to-human contact created loyalty and long-term, valuable relationships, enabling companies to sell and sell again to the same customer.
That customer would recommend the sales rep to other businesses, which would make the following sales approach easier.
In this past scenario, time was spent getting to know each customer and prospect. By contrast, in today's pressured environment, this time is often perceived as wasteful, and the goal seems to be to spend as little time as possible with each prospect or customer.
However, this approach is detrimental, as one of the most important things potential B2B customers are looking for is an understanding of their business, of the issues they face – their pain points. And we also know that this is one area where buyers think vendors could improve at every stage of the buyer's journey. (Merkle 2020).
In many industries, spending the time to understand your buyers' needs is a significant competitive edge.
According to LinkedIn, the four most important factors for a buyer's willingness to engage with a vendor are:
- 26% understands my company's business model
- 25% Is a subject matter expert/thought leader
- 25% Provides valuable consultation, education, or tools
- 25% Knows my company's products/services
It is clear from these four points that vendors need to invest time to meet these needs. And yet, it still seems that many B2B marketers want to distance themselves from intimate contact and generate volume – quantity over quality.
Buyers can sense this too, whilst 60% of sellers say they always put the buyer first, only 24% agree. (LinkedIn).
Measuring Sales Success
Part of the problem is that many sales/marketing departments are still judged mainly on acquisition – the number of new sales leads they can generate (against other measures such as the number of happy, satisfied customers they can maintain or even the long-term revenue from those customers).
According to HubSpot's 2021 Sales Enablement Report, 57% of businesses prioritise winning new clients, and 22% want to sell into new markets.
But is this the right approach? Is it more profitable to develop existing clients? The CIM suggests that it is; "most sources say… it costs between 4 and 10 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. Some sources say the cost of acquiring a new customer is over 30 times that of keeping an existing one."
Finding a new customer is more expensive than selling to an existing one. Yet, many companies concentrate minimal effort on keeping existing customers happy and selling to them.
It's time to realise that the wonderful thing about happy customers in today's interconnected world is that they will talk to their peers – other potential customers – and sing your praises.
Social media and other peer-to-peer networks enable these recommendations to have a broad reach and influence. Why invest money in selling your products or services yourself when you can get satisfied customers to sell for you?
Savvy marketers talk about Customer Lifetime Value – the net profit attributed to the entire future relationship, rather than the instant profit of an immediate sale. And, of course, this only works if you retain the customer and keep them happy.
To do this, you need to have a good relationship, which requires continuous communication, a high standard of customer service and delivering a decent product or service.
This last point is more important than ever before. If your product or service is poor, your only way to grow revenue is to go for more and more new customers every time. And in today's world of social media connections, peer-to-peer discussions, and industry networks, any vendor with substandard products will gain a poor reputation very quickly – a message that will spread much faster than you can acquire new customers.
Trust and Reputation
We've seen how an understanding of needs is one of the key factors in converting a lead, but equally important is your business' perceived authority, reputation, and trust. Is the buyer confidence that they can trust you with their business?
Trust is built on reputation, and reputation is built on performance and authority. Demonstrating thought leadership is a great way to establish authority. So content marketing that includes thought pieces from senior staff and in-house experts should be a significant part of your B2B efforts.
87% of buyers say they are more likely to consider a B2B vendor if they have a favourable impression before purchasing research. (DurhamLane).
Recent research has shown that the average number of people involved in a purchase decision has increased and that more managers than senior directors influence that decision. (Forrester).
Furthermore, those involved will reach out across their organisation for information and opinions about vendors and their reputation.
LinkedIn also reports that between 3 to 5 different groups, such as IT, finance, and HR, influence the purchase process based on the industry.
The implication here is that your content marketing is essential to raise general brand awareness, reach others in a buyer's organisation – not just the primary buyer – and strive to make any interactions with organisations positive.
Providing the buyer with what they want
Delivering the information that the buyer is searching for is the job of content marketing. Providing information, overviews, in-depth case studies, valuable tips, and helpful guides will all bring prospects closer to you.
There is still work in this area; 79% of buyers believe they are given irrelevant information from vendors, despite spending more time researching their purchases than ever before. (DurhamLane).
Furthermore, content can also support your existing customers, turning them into fans and ambassadors for your brand. It helps generate repeat business and subtly communicate to prospects how well they would be looked after if they bought from you.
As part of your content strategy, social media has a vital role in supporting – and selling to – existing customers. Whether it be LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, they can all be used to provide information on the latest product or service, offer help and guidance, differentiate products, respond to customer questions and provide personal support.
The Personal Touch
Although the strategies and tactics for B2C and B2B may be fundamentally different, it is always worth remembering that your B2B buyers are people too.
So content that appeals to their emotions also has a place in B2B. Content that emphasises or highlights your ethics, your green credentials and any charitable work your company undertakes is as helpful and effective as any sales-led content.
Emotional appeal is a powerful tool to get buyers on your side, but be careful regarding personalisation. Whilst we know from research that buyers crave personalisation, they want content that targets their business issues, their work-related problems, not their hobbies or home life. So, when we talk about personalisation in B2B, keep it business focussed and not intrusive.
All marketing, whether B2C or B2B, should be based on providing what the customer is looking for in the way of information and help. A successful sale comes from engagement, building trust, providing responsive support before and after the purchase, and a robust long-term relationship.
If your B2B business is focused on generating more and more leads, led by sales and is still not performing, it's time to look at the bigger picture. It's time to stop selling and start listening, providing helpful content, engaging and responding, understanding your prospect's needs, putting the buyer first and maintaining healthy and productive long-term relationships.