I had a ‘moment’ earlier this week that both made me feel very old and at the same time comforted that I am bang up to date in my area of expertise! I was doing a bit of Social surfing and commenting on posts from various luminaries on B2B marketing. I noticed that, not only was the central theme of these disparate posts very similar but I was repeating myself in my comments. In addition, I realised, much of my recent work with clients has also been around this theme.
This basic conclusion, whether the activity or post was about social media, sales capabilities, market strategy, marketing plans or demand generation, was that nothing fundamentally about the sales and marketing of B2B products and services has really changed over at least the last 10-20 years. Sure, we articulate what we do better and make it more repeatable and scalable with defined processes and practices; we have technology and tools to make our execution more efficient and we have far better methods of measurement to show how well we are doing – but the core of the ‘art’ (or ‘science’?) is unchanged.
There are some key success factors that have always been there, and will remain so.
Focus on a specific target market
Whether you are trying to promote a new ‘game changing’ proposition or just the latest iteration of an established solution there has to be a very compelling reason for any buyer to change what they have already for your new offering – they don’t do it for the fun of it. Change often brings pain and cost along with it so the real pain of not changing has to be greater. That compelling reason will not be the same for a 10 person accountancy practice as it is for a 2000 person manufacturing plant – you have to decide who will get most pain relief from your solution and target both actual product characteristics and the messages you use to communicate their benefits to that specific niche or group of companies.
Many sales leaders worry that they will lose potential opportunities by focusing so narrowly, but doing so does not mean you will never sell to other sectors it just means you initially focus on the headpin in the bowling alley, as Geoffrey Moore describes in his classic ‘must read’ for anyone in high tech B2B marketing, ‘Crossing the Chasm‘, and you can then move onto knocking over the others.
Understand your buyer and how they buy
Not only do we need to focus on a target market niche, but we also have to focus on the pains of the particular buyer and influencers in that niche. Within any organisation, pain perceived by the Finance Director will undoubtedly be a bit different to that felt by the Sales Director or the Project Manager. Understanding the buyer as an individual will again help us craft more meaningful value propositions and messages. Equally we need to clearly understand their processes of buying and decision making so that we can provide the most valuable and effective help for them, at the right times in their buying cycle.
While I accept that our description of this as a ‘buying cycle’ has changed a bit from calling it the ‘sales cycle’ as we did a few years ago in recognition of the fact that the buyers needs are more important than ours, in my experience the most successful sales teams always did describe the sales cycle in buyer focussed terms anyway.
Articulate your real value proposition
Your value proposition has to clearly describe how you remove the pain that you have identified as being prevalent in your target niche and buyer. This is neither a list of your product’s technical attributes or some simple woolly motherhood statements like “decrease costs”, but rather what the specific benefits to that buyer will be. You need to be answering the “so what?” question.
You will notice that all the way through this post I tend to refer to “removing pain” as the key benefit of our solution rather than anything that is a little more positive. Unfortunately, that is what our decision making processes are based on – the removal of pain (see my post, ‘Science reveals the secrets of buying decisions’ for an explanation).
You should also be aware that when we talk about a solution we mean, as Geoffrey Moore would call it “the whole product”, in other words the core product with all the added products, services, financing and delivery mechanisms that provides the buyer with a compelling reason to purchase.
Recognise that B2B marketing is about relationships not products
Despite the fact that our aim is to encourage purchases of our solutions, at the end of the day the most successful B2B marketing and sales teams I have worked in were successful because of the relationships they built with customers and prospects not due to the actual products themselves. If you take what I have said earlier as true, then that makes perfect sense – a good relationship will mean you understand your target market and buyer, how they buy, why they buy and you can most effectively match your solution to their needs. A good relationship is not about taking a quick order then disappearing until you have something new to flog – it is about a continuous engagement that means you are around to help when the customer identifies a new pain that needs addressing.
It is here that I may be forced to admit there has been a bit of a change in the last few years, but it is not a change in what is done more in who is doing it and how. Whereas when I trained as a salesman we were schooled in the understanding of a customer, the identification of pain and in the matching of solution to pain, much of that process takes place these days by the buyers themselves researching online. This means that the engagement with customers and prospects now heavily involves the marketing function rather than sales early in the buying cycle and it is key that marketing realise their role in this relationship building.
So nothing has really changed – or has it? What do you think?