Understanding Your Customer's Decision Journey
It’s falsely comforting to think of selling as a process in which one step follows logically after another. But although rigidly defined processes might be the best way of running a manufacturing production line, they completely fail to reflect the reality of any moderately complicated sales environment.
It would be convenient if things were simpler. But the truth of the matter is that in complex B2B sales your customer’s buying processes are rarely linear, compounded by the fact that they are sometimes poorly defined or even if they are well defined are often not well understood by many of your customer's decision team.
As Gartner have identified, rather following a perfectly straight path, complex customer decision journeys typically zig and zag, go backwards as well as forwards, find themselves way off-piste, struggle to achieve consensus, can be redirected on the whim of a single powerful individual or can be abandoned at any stage along the way.
There is no magic wand, but there are a few things your sales people can do. The first is to accept that for any significant purchases, your customer’s decision-making journeys are inherently complex. The second is to accept that you will probably never achieve anything close to perfect knowledge.
But you can do your best to avoid being blind-sided by factors that you ought to be able to predict are likely to come into play. Rather than blindly following a rigid, linear “sales process”, your sales people firstly need to diagnose where their customer is in their decision journey and adapt their strategies accordingly.
As you’ve undoubtedly learned, this can change at any time and without notice. Some members of the customer's decision group may be ahead of the curve, and some behind. It’s particularly important that your sales people aren’t deceived by an over-enthusiastic champion into thinking that the group as a whole are further advanced than they really are.
That having been said, at any given point in time the centre of gravity of your prospective customer’s decision journey is likely to be in one of the following phases:
While in this phase your customer is - by and large - currently unconcerned about any of the issues you might have chosen to target and is not yet engaged in any form of active buying decision journey. However, they are still likely to be monitoring key trends that they see as relevant to their industry, organisation or role.
Your role in this phase of their journey is to educate and inform the key influencers in your key target customers by offering genuine thought leadership and insights that serve to shape their perspectives and influence their thinking.
Something - usually the result of a powerful disruptive force or a significant trigger event - has disturbed the status quo and drawn your customer’s attention to a potentially significant challenge, opportunity or threat. They are now trying to establish the likely impact of the issue, what remedies might be available, and whether there might be a business reason to act.
Your role in this phase of their journey is to monitor these disruptive forces and trigger events, to articulate a distinctive point of view, to be seen as a source of accessible and credible expertise, and to proactively reach out to the affected people and organisations.
Having identified the challenge, and having concluded that the issue is worth investigating in greater detail, your prospective customer will typically now engage with other members of their organisation, research trusted sources of information, and try and establish what credible solutions might be available - drawing up a list of potential options.
Your role in this phase of their journey is to encourage your prospective customer to consume your thought leadership content, to position yourself as a credible option, to leave them wanting to know more, and to persuade them to engage with you sooner rather than later.
Having concluded that credible solutions are available, your prospective customer now turns their attention to shortlisting their most promising options, establishing their vision of a solution and defining their decision criteria, decision team and timeframe.
This is perhaps the pivotal phase of their entire journey. According to Forrester, the vendor that does the most to shape the customer's vision goes on to win their business nearly three times out of four.
It is critically important that you actively engage the customer before or during this phase - prior to their issuing a formal tender or RFP document - after which it is often too late to reshape the customer’s thinking. If you do this effectively, you will dramatically increase our chances of winning their business.
The customer is now evaluating the pros-and-cons of their shortlisted options, further refining the business case and seeking to identify their preferred option - which if the business case is not strong enough and if the stakeholders fail to achieve consensus is likely to be a decision to “do nothing”.
In addition to promoting the merits of your proposed solution and establishing the business case, your role during this pivotal phase is to ensure that all stakeholders see the distinct advantages of your approach from their individual perspectives.
The customer's attention now turns to verifying and finalising their selection, negotiating the best possible terms, eliminating any remaining reservations and securing the support of their colleagues for the project. Even though you might have been selected, you are by no means guaranteed the customer’s business.
This is not just about securing the best deal - it is also about diagnosing and dealing with any and all perceived risks or concerns that are associated with either the project itself, the chosen vendor and the chosen solution.
The project and its associated business justification is now being submitted to the ultimate decision authority for final approval - and often finds itself competing for funding and senior management attention against other investment opportunities.
You may have eliminated all your other competitors as far as this project is concerned - but you also need to make sure that your project’s business case and executive sponsorship is strong enough for it to emerge at the top of the customer’s list of spending priorities. If you fail to pay due attention to this, there's a significant risk that the project will fall at this final hurdle.
These descriptions are admittedly somewhat idealised. It is entirely possible that some projects rush through or skip some of these phases altogether. As we’ve already identified, the journey can stall, go into reverse or go forwards. But when key phases are not completed to at least a minimum level - for example, clearly defining their requirements, decision criteria and process - it is far more likely that the customer's decision journey will subsequently fail.
You can’t hope to know where your customer is on their journey unless you observe their behaviour closely for the relevant indicators. And you can’t assume that their next step will be forwards. But you can facilitate that movement by eliminating anything which is under your control or influence that could otherwise hold them back.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a member of the Sales Enablement Society, a regular contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation and the Sales Experts Channel and the founder of Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading UK-based B2B value-selling experts.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob is now relishing his role as a pro-active advisor, coach and trainer to high-potential B2B-focused sales organisations, systematically enabling them to transform their sales effectiveness by adopting the proven principles of value-based selling.