I thought about this and tried to reconcile it with my experience, and in particular with what I'd learned from conducting a series of "Buyer's Journey" surveys on behalf of B2B high-tech clients over the past couple of years. And I came to the opposite conclusion: that it's the brand experience that differentiates the successful companies from the also-rans. Which led to the question, “Where do B2B Brands Get Built?”
There’s no question that ubiquitous access to information has shifted the balance of power from the seller to the buyer, and that the most enlightened B2B sales people (and the companies they work for) see their role as facilitating the buying process, rather than aggressively pushing an all-too-obvious sales process.
I remember reading a recent Booz Allen Hamilton report that concluded that only 15% of a B2B buyer’s perception of the brand values of a vendor came from conventional marketing communications and that the vast majority (85%) came from the interaction the buyer had with the representatives of the vendor.
So how can the marketing function play its full role in establishing brand values in this environment?
Our own surveys tell us consistently that buyers hate being sold to, but love to learn about new ways of solving a problem, addressing a need or achieving a goal. It seems to me that the first thing that B2B marketers need to do is to clearly identify who their most promising prospects are, and what issues really matter to them. Issues based marketing, in this B2B environment, is proving to generate much higher quality prospect responses - measured by how many of them ultimately end up as customers.
This issues-based approach certainly includes the need to get found in the places where your potential prospects go looking when they search for a solution. SEO activities must be informed by a clear understanding of what B2B buyers call the problems they are trying to solve, and not just what the vendor calls their solutions. This may seem blindingly obvious, but it is striking how many high-tech B2B companies continue to take a product-out rather than a problem-in perspective.
Once interest has been aroused, marketing needs to establish a pivotal role in equipping the sales people to have issues-based conversations with clients - and, as the Booz Allen study pointed out, it is these conversations that primarily establish and then reinforce the brand experience. Issues-based sales tools, designed from the outset to support the buyer’s decision-making process are proving much more effective, wherever I have seen them used, than product-based materials.
One simple, but highly effective, example lies in the creation of an “anecdotes database”. Those of us who have seen top sales people in action have probably observed that they gain trust and develop rapport by telling stories about other customers who faced similar issues. Simply collecting together the stories that the best sales people use (this requires that marketing actually talks to sales, which is generally a good thing anyway) into a database that can be searched according to the customer’s issue has proven highly effective at helping middle-of-the road sales people raise their sales competence to something approaching that of their superstar colleagues. There are many other effective tactics for building successful sales tools.
So I think the answer to the question “where do B2B brands get built” is “in every interaction between a prospect or customer and the vendor”. Marketing communications professionals cannot afford to have their sales teams simply make up whatever comes into their heads. But if they make a determined effort to learn what is most important and influential to their prospects, and embed this understanding into sales tools that are designed to be used by sales people to support the buying process, they can have a lot more influence over how their company’s brand values are perceived than the Booz Allen study might initially suggest.