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"Research is a process where you can spend a lot of money and come up with zero. Isurus guides me quickly through the key decisions, helps me avoid the pitfalls, and makes sure I walk away with high-value implications."
-Vice President of Marketing, Enterprise Content Management System Provider
Who you are: What you say
Over the past two decades we’ve help many B2B vendors refresh their brand platform. We notice that some B2B vendors struggle to differentiate the themes and characteristics that can be the pillars of their brand platform from those that may be critical to the market, but do not represent sustainable and/or unique brand positioning.
To help clients identify the difference between the two we use a simple construct that distills things down to the core distinction.
Although almost a cliché at this point, IBM still stands out as an example of effective brand management and continues to illustrate the difference between brand development and market messaging.
We all know the story of how IBM moved from type writers, to mainframes, to desktops, to the internet, etc., etc. We know that the core of its brand platform is using technology to improve business productivity and that what drives productivity evolved over time. After all it’s International Business Machines – not International Business Typewriters.
But did you know that in 2015 IBM bought The Weather Channel’s analytics and modeling technology (it rents it back to The Weather Channel)? IBM recognized that short and long term weather patterns have the potential to disrupt supply chains, manufacturing, deliveries, even purchases. The Weather Channel’s technology enables IBM to incorporate predictions about weather and climate condition into their forecasting models it builds for its clients. These insights in turn help clients plan for disruptions and improve overall productivity.
IBM can talk about this new capability and how it helps businesses adapt to the challenges brought on by client change. Doing so takes advantage of the general awareness, increasing urgency, and broad media coverage of the implications of a changing climate.
However, while IBM may take advantage of the current visibility of, and interest in, adapting to a changing climate, IBM will never incorporate predicting the weather into it’s brand platform. Weather analytics are just a tool that IBM uses. Yesterday it was typewriters. Today its predictive analytics that forecast the impact of climate change on business operations. Five years from now there will be other issues and new tools to talk about. IBM will talk about those new tools. But their brand will be the same – they will help clients be more productive.
Unfortunately, examples like this give a false sense of how easy it is to determine what makes sense as a brand platform theme and what should be used as a point in time messaging theme. In sectors closer to the commodity end of the continuum there is often less distinction between the vendor and the product. This makes defining a brand platform more challenging, but no less important. There are also some themes that have the potential to be a brand platform for one businesses but not another. Sustainability provides a good example of this duality.
The simple Who you are—What you say construct provides a starting point for evaluating what category potential brand characteristics fall into. The following provides a brief example.
Hospitals factor HIPAA compliance considerations into almost every decision they make. As a result, companies that sell technology solutions to hospitals might consider making helping hospitals stay in compliance a part of their brand platform.
Using the construct, they would ask: Is helping hospitals stay HIPAA compliant…
- A characteristic that would continue to be true even if we change our offerings?
- Is HIPAA compliance core to what we do, or a byproduct of it?
- Would it still have value if staying HIPPA compliant became less challenging?
- Will there be less challenges with being HIPAA compliant ten years from now?
The answers to these questions will vary by individual vendor and circumstance. However, for most technology vendors, HIPAA compliance is important to deliver and message to, but not something that represents a part of a brand platform.
Refreshing a brand, or creating a new one, requires much more rigorous an analysis than the simple questions in this brand construct model. However, a brand refresh can also put individuals and teams in a state of analysis paralysis. The simple construct questions can help teams get unstuck when they feel overwhelmed and provide a guiding principle to help keep everything in perspective.
Are you hard to work with? It matters.
Do your internal processes pull customers and prospects closer to you or do they push them away?
Research shows that companies and individuals that find a vendor easy to work with demonstrate higher levels of loyalty and likelihood to recommend. They use the vendor more fully, e.g. buy more products, use more features. They will even use technically inferior products and services when a vendor makes their lives easier.
This point sounds obvious. But as vendors develop internal processes to improve efficiency and management effectiveness they can accidentally lose sight of how these processes impact customer experience, loyalty and even their brand image. For example: A sales process designed to provide consistency across a diverse sales team may force prospects through a protocol that makes them feel that the sales rep isn’t listening to their needs; or an invoicing protocol that is ideal for a vendor’s internal accounting needs may be confusing or maddening to customers.
So how do you identify the unintended consequences of your processes on the customer experience? You have several options. Start with a common-sense review of your processes. A more systematic approach is to create a customer journey map for each process. And, if you want to be cutting edge, apply neuroscience to see what’s going on in your customer’s brain.
1 Common-sense, Self-examination
An easy first step is to engage in a bit of common-sense, self-examination of any given process (sales protocol, ordering, internal hand-offs, etc.). First outline the process’ broad steps and parameters; and then ask yourself two questions:
- Who receives the primary benefit from how the process is structured and executed?
- If you personally had to go through the same process with one of your vendors how would you feel?
If the benefits of the process primarily accrue to your organization or if you would personally find annoying or troublesome, chances are it has a negative impact on prospect/customer experience and perceptions.
This basic evaluation can highlight easy fixes. It can also help your department/organization start to think in terms of customer experience, rather than internal operations. A critical aspect of this is to consider is the emotional component a customer’s experience. Negative emotions like frustration, mistrust, or anger stick with a customer much longer than the specific details of the experience. These emotions become embedded in the brand’s perception, and are difficult to dislodge.
A simple way to formalize the investigation is to add a question to your customer experience surveys: How easy was it for you to… (place an order, get an answer to your question, etc.)? Alternatively, combing through the open-ended responses in your NPS survey may identify trouble spots.
2 Customer Journey Mapping
Customer journey mapping systematically captures the broad steps customers go through in their overall relationship with your firm. The technique can also drill down on the steps associated with a specific process (e.g. sales interactions, customer support). Simply defining each of the steps a customer/prospect must go through can identify trouble spots that hide in plain sight. Perhaps there is a lack of official transition from being a new customer to an established customer. Perhaps in-person training is only available in major metro areas. Etc.
Defining the steps in a process may identify intuitive problems such as those above. However, it will not necessarily identify all of the areas customers find confusing or hard to deal with – something that seems obvious and simple to you may feel complicated and opaque to customers. Primary research with customers and prospects can bring the market’s perspective into your customer journey maps and ensure they reflect how the market feels, not what you think.
Advances in neuroscience now enable you to literally see what is going on in your customer’s brain. Tasks and activities that are hard to navigate put a greater cognitive load on the customer’s brain. Neuroscience applications measure cognitive load in real-time to identify the specific points in a process where individuals struggle most. As promising as this technology is, the field is new; the viable applications of the approach are limited; and, the tools available are mixed. Buyer Brain’s Effort Assessment Score© is a good one to investigate to get a better understanding of how neuroscience is being used today.
Regardless of how sophisticated your approach, it’s worth putting some efforts toward evaluating how easy it is for your customers to do business with you. All of their experiences with you—not just your product/service—influence their perceptions of your brand, their loyalty and likelihood to recommend you to others.
Many B2B purchases are delayed or abandoned due to the uncertain outcome of the decision. Prospects compare the certainty of the status quo (good or bad) to the potential (but uncertain) benefits of a new solution and opt for the “devil they know”. The implication: B2B Marketing and Sales can help prospects reach a purchase decision by reducing uncertainty for the new solution, and increasing uncertainty of the status quo.
A recent study by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business shows that individuals favor certainty of outcome over potential benefits – they choose a certain loss of $100 over a chance to flip a coin with the chance to pay $0 or $200. Complexity exacerbates the problem. With more moving parts in the equation, people find it increasingly difficult to envision how the future will play out.
It turns out it’s not Go with the devil you know. It’s Go with the devil you know over anything else – unless you are absolutely sure about the other option.
Companies and B2B markets tend to follow the same pattern: The more conservative the company or market, the more dramatic the effect. The preference for the known plays itself out daily across markets and organizations.
- As prospects go through their evaluation process they ask for more information, details, case studies, etc. in an effort to bring certainty in their decision. In a recent post Make it easy for prospects to buy we explored how providing all the information prospects request doesn’t help get prospects over the hump and to the buy decision – it bogs them down further.
- Flip through a B2B trade publication and you’ll see that many of the ads look the same and don’t change much over time. Behind the scenes, B2B marketers ask their creative agencies to help their brand stand out in the marketplace. However, most B2B brands stick with the original creative strategy because its performance is more certain.
- Research reports that present the data as %’s often get more attention than qualitative insights because a number feels more certain than a description – whether it is or not.
- It took almost a decade for most markets to become comfortable with cloud software solutions. They knew the cloud offered significant benefits over their on-premise solutions, but most companies didn’t want to move until they saw that the cloud was here to stay and that everyone else was doing it too.
Pain points trump benefits
Perhaps the most basic, yet important, manifestation of this trend is that solving pain-points represents a more effective sales and marketing strategy than selling benefits. Here’s why…
- Pains are certain. Concrete. They are something specific the prospect knows it needs to address. Once a pain gets significant enough the desire to find a solution outweighs the uncertainties that come with new approaches and vendors.
- Benefits are hypothetical. If a prospect does x, y, and z, they should receive the benefits. Benefits raise questions: What if a key assumption turns out to be false. Benefits come with more professional risks. Unrealized benefits lack the certainty of the status quo.
The insights from Pfeffer’s research and the day-to-day experience of B2B sales and marketers leads to one conclusion: B2B sales reps and marketers need to change the uncertainty equation.
- Increase the certainty of new solutions
- Decrease the certainty of the status quo
Increase the certainty of new solutions
Recognize and acknowledge the uncertainty
Left to their own devices individuals and businesses can easily overestimate the things that can go wrong with a new approach or soluiton. By acknowledging the risks that exist, vendors can set the parameters of what the risks and uncertainties actually are. This can include letting prospects know where other individuals/companies run into trouble, what needs to be in place for the solution to be a success, etc. Acknowledging uncertainty not only frames the issue, it increases the knowns associated with the new solution.
Create specific certainties
Reducing the number of unknowns (even minor ones) makes options look more appealing. This phenomenon is known as zero risk bias which is the tendency to prefer options that completely eliminates some risk factors in a decision but leaves other untouched, over options that may produce a greater overall reduction in risk, but do not eliminate any individual risk factor. The preference for options that completely eliminate some risks likely stems from the reduction in complexity – it reduces the factors that have to be considered in the decision.
Examples of certainties that B2B vendors can create include:
- Concrete implementation processes and milestones
- Metrics of how other customers use the solution, e.g. 75% of customers select this approach
- Definitive outcomes, e.g. the ads will stand out from competitors (which is different than saying they will be effective)
- Customer satisfaction scores
- Guarantees / Shared risk models
Raise the uncertainty of the status quo
While the status quo feels stable to individuals and organizations, it’s not. Sales and B2B marketers can point out this false sense of security by asking questions or providing data that highlight the actual uncertainty associated with prospects sticking with the status quo: Your market appears to be changing in this way, how will that effect you? These new entrants have entered the marketplace, what does it mean for your market? etc. etc.
There is no single approach or silver bullet for changing the certainty equation. Prospect perceptions of, and preference for security are rooted deep. We suggest a few starting points:
- Examine the customer journey to ensure you understand their status quo and pain points.
- Identify the benefits of your solution that are most believable to the market, and therefore have greater certainty.
- Analyze the Marketing and Sales Process. To what extent does your approach (advertising, collateral, sales process, etc.) reduce or increase certainty for the buyer?
These steps will help sales reps and B2B marketers look more certain in an uncertain world.
Do some prospects slip away at the last stages of their buying journey, even though it seems your sales and marketing teams have done everything right? You may inadvertently be making it difficult for some prospects to make a decision. The following illustrates how this situation arises, and how to avoid it (names have been masked to protect the guilty).
Yellow Manufacturing seemed ready to buy Acme Tech’s CRM solution. It had conducted research about the solutions available prior to reaching out to vendors set a preliminary budget, etc. prior to reaching out to vendors. Acme provided extensive information about its CRM suite, outlined the different options available, demonstrated everything the solution could do and answered every question Yellow raised. But after months of back-and-forth Yellow put the initiative on hold.
What happened? Acme made it difficult for Yellow to make a final decision by providing too much information. In short, Yellow wasn’t ready to process the amount of information Acme provided and ended up with analysis-paralysis.
The tendency to overestimate readiness to buy stems from a misinterpretation of the new buyer journey. Many articles from the past few years talk about how prospects are 70% (or some comparably high %) or more through their buying journey before they reach out to vendors. These data suggest that when the prospect calls a vendor, they have objectively worked through their needs, know what they want and are at the stage of collecting the specific information necessary for vendor selection.
In reality, for many prospects the first 70% of the purchase journey focuses on the rudimentary elements of the buying decision. Yellow identified the problem that needed to be solved, the type of solution that might be able to help them, and some vendors that provide that type of solution. Their knowledge was still broad and thin when they reached out to Acme and competitors. Yellow may have been through 70% of their journey, but as with many situations in business and in life, it’s the last mile where the real learning, thinking and challenges take place.
When Yellow reached out to Acme CRM, it still needed to determine whether to invest in a solution at all. By providing stacks of information about its products, Acme increased the dimensions Yellow needed to consider, raised questions Yellow hadn’t thought of before, and made the solution and decision feel too big. Collectively this slowed down the decision process and eventually knocked Yellow out of the sales funnel.
This confusion about Yellow’s readiness to purchase isn’t entirely Acme’s fault. Prospects like Yellow can contribute to the impression that they are an informed buyer. Consciously or note, Yellow worried about being taken advantage of by Acme’s sales team and process, and presented themselves as knowing more than they did. Yellow knew the buzzwords, and had specific questions—they talked a good game. In addition, when faced with complex questions, people often substitute a smaller, easier to understand questions in place of the hard ones. Many B2B technology solutions raise big picture considerations about business processes, integration, how ROI will be measured, etc. The list of specific questions Yellow asked Acme CRM reflected a need to get their head around the solution, rather than an indication that they just needed a few more details to finalize their selection of vendor.
Improving the last mile.
Vendors can implement two related strategies to improve their effectiveness and win-rates during the last phases of the prospect buying process.
- Map the last 30% of the buying journey in more detail
- Use a prescriptive sales approach
Mapping the last 30% of the buying journey
When B2B marketers map the buying journey, many tend to focus on the steps in building awareness and consideration, which happens to be where marketing has the most responsibility. However, by paying as much attention to mapping what happens after a prospect engages with the sales team can enable their company to close more deals. Some of the key aspects to explore include:
- How knowledgeable and informed is the typical prospect when they begin to interact with the sales team. This helps marketers and the sales team set a baseline for creating materials and processes that speak to prospects in a way, and at a level, they can understand.
- Identify the 2-3 core drivers of the buyers purchase motivation—even when buying the most complex product, most prospects are focused on improving a handful of key activities. This will provide a framework for marketers and sales team to speak to the benefits that prospects care most about – instead of a range of things that are interesting but unlikely to influence their purchase decision.
- Determine the internal barriers your internal champion is likely to encounter and provide data and recommendations for how they can overcome them. Once your champion is sold, the deal can still be derailed if they cannot sell it internally.
Use a prescriptive selling approach
When prospects reach out to vendors most are still trying to understand what solutions would be the best fit for them and whether to should invest at all. Many ask for different options because they don’t really know what they need and hope that one of the options presented will stand out as the right choice for them. Instead too many options can confuse the issue. Research conducted by CEB shows that vendors that take a prescriptive approach—provide a recommendation with a clear rationale instead a series of options—close significantly more deals.
That said, it is important for your recommendation to be in line with the core drivers of the prospects purchase motivation. Prospects tend to reject solutions they view as too broad in scope relative to what started them down their purchase journey. Put another way, presenting your entire suite of products can knock you out of the running if the prospect is focused on a single module.
Making it easy for prospects to buy
The vendor that makes it easy for Yellow to make a decision by presenting information they can understand, addressing Yellow’s core needs, and presenting a recommendation instead of options, is most likely to win Yellow’s business.
While B2B marketers wait for their organizations to adopt big data tools, they can leverage a range of cost-effective data sources to inform decisions that move their companies forward.
The following are some of low-cost or free data sources (little data) B2B marketers, product managers and strategists can use to evaluate market opportunities, competitors, customer needs and overall market trends.
- US Census
- Publicly available reports/articles
- Mining internal data
- Interviewing sales reps and account managers
- Deeper read of customer survey data
- Social media and job sites
- Conducting win/loss interviews
- Reference class comparisons
Hoovers/D&B (or other list sources)
Hoovers (www.hoovers.com) self-service, prospect, list-building tools can help determine the number of businesses in a segment. Once you set your parameters (e.g. Hospitals with at least 500 employees) Hoovers provides counts for the number of businesses in that segment overall and in sub-segments (e.g. hospitals with 500-1000 employees). You can refine your search, start over, etc. to get more data. You don’t pay unless you purchase a list.
US Census Bureau
The Census provides similar data to Hoovers, but has the advantage of historical data which allows you to see if a segment is growing/shrinking (www.census.gov/econ/). One downside is that the Census’ search tools are clunky.
Publicly available reports/articles (desk research)
B2B marketers need to understand the segments they serve, or plan to enter. Insights into market trends, product use, and market dynamics can be gleaned by reviewing publicly-available reports and articles. Government agencies and trade associations produce reports on broad economic trends and share data from market surveys they conduct. Each industry also has its own trade publications that discusses overall trends and challenges.
Analyst reports profile specific markets and product categories. Most analyst reports charge for full access, but there are often nuggets of information in the free synopsis. In addition, the data source is often cited in other publicly-available sources such articles and vendor marketing materials (e.g. we are in the Magic Quadrant).
Many B2B companies issue press releases when they acquire a new customer, make an acquisition, form a partnership, etc. providing insights into the direction the competitor is headed.
Having a reference librarian or researcher can make the information gathering from these sources much more effective and efficient – simply Google searches can waste a lot of time on a goose chase.
Mining internal data
Sometimes, B2B marketers don’t know what data they available because it is spread out across the organization in different systems and databases. Conducting an information audit will identify the data available for analysis. Taking it a step further, combining the disparate data into one database or spreadsheet can provide surprising insights through simple cross-tabs or pivot tables. If you have more advanced analysis/reporting tools, all the better. Some companies have staff and tools that make pulling the data together easy. In others, B2B marketers must slog through the merging, cutting and pasting data and data files.
Interviewing sales & account reps
Sales and account reps have more direct contact with customers and prospects than anyone else in your company. You can use informal one-on-one conversations, structured round-table discussions or simple online survey tools to explore the requests they receive from customers, competitors they see in the market, solutions in place, etc. Their feedback may be biased towards short-term sales, but it can still provide insights into overall market trends.
Deeper read of customer survey data
VOC and NPS surveys provide a great deal of data beyond the overall score – which often gets the attention. For example, reading through the full set of open-ended comments provides context and texture around customer needs. Combining other customer data with NPS data allows you to look at trends and differences across different type of customers (e.g. product segment, sales volume, tenure as a customer, etc.). Manually creating a spreadsheet that combines the data is cumbersome, but often faster than trying to get things combined in your ERP or CRM system.
Social media, and job sites
LinkedIn, Salesforce’s data.com, and Hoovers provide insights into a competitor’s number of employees and revenue. You can see how many staff are devoted to sales and marketing activities, where sales reps are located, etc. Each source will have a slightly different number for these metrics but by looking at more than one you will triangulate on a usable estimate.
Jobs sites such as Indeed.com and the Hiring section of a competitor’s website can indicate if the company is growing and their focus (e.g. are they hiring more marketing people than would be expected, a certain type of engineer, etc.).
A search of SlideShare can uncover sales and investor presentations and similar materials that show how a competitor is presenting itself to the market.
Conducting win/loss interviews
Conducting interviews with recent wins and losses provides insights into the market’s decision process, vendor evaluation criteria, and how you compare to competitors. Win/loss interviews are best conducted by a third-party partner. If using an external partner isn’t in the budget, the interviews should be conducted by someone not connected to the sales process.
Reference class comparisons
The goals of data-driven decisions are to predict the future and narrow uncertainty. Reference class comparisons—an analytical approach, rather than a data source—can help frame likely future outcomes. The past doesn’t necessarily predict the future, but it’s a good place to start. Future product introductions, acquisitions, entries into new markets, etc. are likely to unfold similar to previous efforts. If you predict that the new effort will be significantly different from the past it forces you to evaluate and identify the data that supports your assumptions.
Tying it together
The secret sauce of big data is that it combines disparate data to form a conclusion based on the relationships that exist. Big data uses algorithms, models, and machine learning to create an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. B2B marketers do this daily using little data, basic tools and their experience and judgement – the original big data machine.
Collecting and combining the data sources is time consuming and tedious. It also doesn’t answer all the questions – every decision is based on incomplete data. However, it’s worth the effort: It provides insights that will help B2B marketers evaluate market opportunities, competitors, customer needs and overall market trends.