Moving prospects along the buying process

Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review on the importance of understanding where a customer is in the buying process and of helping customers simplify the process itself: To keep your customers keep it simple. The article focuses on consumers but parallels exist in B2B markets and we have long championed these ideas among our B2B clients.

When making purchase decisions informational needs and evaluation criteria vary depending on where the prospect is in the process. Early in the process many questions focus on internal issues such as defining the challenges the company seeks to address and identifying the internal willingness and capacity to change. Early stage external questions focus on the general benefits the product or service would provide. As the prospect progresses through the buying process the questions become more specific both internally (e.g. Do we face data integration issues?) and externally (e.g. Which vendor’s feature set best matches our needs?). At each step along the process prospects need a distinct set of information to help them decide if they should proceed to the next phase of evaluation.

When creating marketing and sales materials and strategies, vendors can err by designing them exclusively around the last step in a company’s decision process by focusing on the breadth of features they offer and how they compare with competitors. This is appropriate for prospects nearing a buy decision. However for those earlier in the process it can make the decision more confusing because it can raise additional questions with the prospect before they have convinced themselves they need to invest in the category at all. It becomes easy for them to put off a decision for the time being.
To be fair, prospects help perpetuate this situation. Often they do not know the right questions to ask early in the process of themselves or of vendors. Creating a matrix of product features is easier for the evaluation team than it is to identify the strategic issues the company hopes to address through an investment in a new product or service.

At a broader level these decision dynamics also apply to market maturity as well. In mature markets and segments prospects start further down the decision path. For example, when a business considers switching banks it has a well defined understanding of what it needs and can compare the specifics of competing banks relatively soon in the process. In emerging markets companies are still evaluating if they should be making an investment at all. Mobility software solutions provide a good example; many sales presentations are being conducted before companies have determined their mobility strategy and objectives.

At Isurus we have always recommended including decision process mapping as part of any win/loss and sales effectiveness evaluation programs. Vendors that provide the right information at the right time to individual prospects and market segments create a better buying experience and keep the prospect moving along the decision process to a buy decision.