Making a large purchase can take much longer than in the past, despite increased access to information. Customers consult multiple digital channels and seek advice from colleagues, all before stepping into a showroom or engaging with a sales rep. Even after a sales pitch, customers return to digital channels and colleagues to validate a supplier’s claims.
The onus is on sales leaders to make the purchase process easier
“With more information, options and people involved in a buying process, buyers are paralyzed when trying to move forward,” says Brent Adamson, principal executive advisor at Gartner.
This new buying reality makes it challenging for suppliers to understand what their customers want and need as they navigate through the decision-making process, an already arduous journey. For sales leaders tasked with anticipating and responding to emerging customer buying behaviors, Adamson says five key things should be considered.
Customers are well informed, but may be overwhelmed
Increased access to information — from product reviews to pricing comparisons — has left many buyers feeling overwhelmed. “In recent research, we found 15% of the customer purchase process is spent on the deconfliction of information,” says Adamson.
Equip account managers to satisfy customer expectations for retention
When buyers feel overwhelmed, they are more likely to regret their purchase or fail to reach a decision. Both negatively affect their relationship with the supplier.
The onus is on sales leaders to make the purchase process easier — so reps can address customers’ needs and customers can progress to a purchase decision effectively and efficiently.
Customers aren’t only motivated by delight
According to the CEB, now Gartner, 2017 Account Growth Diagnostic, 88% of account managers believe servicing accounts above and beyond customer expectations is the surest way to grow. Although better-than-expected customer service helps retain a sales account, research shows it doesn’t actually impact the degree to which the account grows.
Traditionally, account managers identify these steps to move from retention to growth:
- Deliver on commitments
- Drive consumption
- Exceed customer expectation
- Earn permission to sell
- Expand commercial relationship
However, this traditional seller approach heavily focuses on preventing loss rather than promoting growth. Sales leaders should equip account managers to satisfy customer expectations for retention, but be mindful of the large amount of time and effort that may be wasted on exceeding those expectations. Instead, account managers should focus their efforts on activities most likely to increase the likelihood of growth.
Customers want more than supplier value
In fact, Gartner research shows that conversations that offer customers a new way to think about or improve their business — what CEB, now Gartner, refers to as “customer improvement” — tend to be more effective at driving both retention and growth. These conversations enable account managers to provide customers with new perspectives on how they might operate their business (i.e., new ways to make money, save money, mitigate risk, manage inventories) that customers have yet to execute themselves. When these types of customer improvement conversations are leveraged, sellers can also reduce the likelihood that buyers will consider a competitor when renewing or purchasing again.
To implement a customer improvement approach, account managers should demonstrate these three behaviors:
- Provide customers with a unique perspective on their business
- Offer customers a vision of improvement for their business
- Explain the potential ROI of taking action on an improvement opportunity
“One might think that the best defense against customer defection is to emphasize all the superior value that can be delivered,” adds Adamson. “However, in reality, the customer conversations most likely to reduce competitor consideration are customer improvement conversations.”
Customer improvement helps to drive growth because it gives customers a reason to change their behaviors. Sales leaders should arm their teams with the resources and messaging to have meaningful customer improvement conversations, regardless of the seller offering.
Customers use digital channels at all stages of their buying journey
Not only are customers relying on digital channels when first researching an offering, they are using them along the way to validate the information they receive from sales reps. Surprisingly, Gartner research found that 83% of surveyed customers accessed digital channels even in the late purchasing stages. This highlights the need to have a digital marketing strategy specifically designed to help buyers through the early, middle and late stages of the purchase process.
Give customers an entry point on their own terms
Sales can no longer think of digital and one-on-one interactions as a sequential process. Instead, they should view them as parallel experiences that support the buyer journey. “Just because in-person begins doesn’t mean online ends,” says Adamson.
Customers rely heavily on company websites
The most popular, frequently consulted digital channel for customers — across every stage of the purchase process —is the company website. Customers primarily use company websites to help them accomplish specific buying tasks. Unfortunately, most websites are not designed to support buying behavior. Rather, they’ve primarily been designed to introduce the company.
Company websites need to incorporate three critical design elements to better help customers to buy from them:
- Give customers an entry point on their own terms
- Share solutions in their language
- Help customers do what they came to the site to do
Sales leaders should evaluate their websites to understand how they can be improved to help customers accomplish specific buying tasks.