Going it alone
Naturally (and justifiably) skeptical of the stereotypical slick salesperson and of the traditional sales process in general, buyers today feel empowered to take the initiative and self-educate.
Prospective customers will go it alone, figuring out what product or service is best for them rather than having someone spoon-feed them information. A Corporate Executive Board study finds that, on average, people are almost 60 percent along the sales process before they even have their first interaction with a salesperson. This is a far cry from pre-Internet days, where in many industries the only way to actually get information about a company was through those same salespeople -- who are now largely being circumvented until much later in the process.
What's behind the change?
Buyers no longer have to obtain their information about a company and its products from a salesperson, which brings with it inherent bias. Buyers want to educate themselves. They know the information they need is available and are capable of finding it. It's not hard to see why self-education is preferred to working directly with a source they may not entirely trust.
They can now tap into credible, objective third-party sources -- gathering information from professional networks, asking their peer groups for direct input and reading reviews from existing and past customers. A person can learn about a brand, product or service in a variety of ways, including:
- Subscribing to a company newsletter that outlines the latest product updates and features they may be interested in.
- Reading through customer case studies that show them how the product/service may be helpful to them.
- Connecting with brands directly on social media channels to get a sense of the company's personality. Also, by looking at their responses to customer questions on Twitter, they can often get a sense of how important customer service is to a vendor.
- Viewing a webcast that could provide an overview of a product, a chance to ask some questions and additional assets if they are interested in learning more.
- Reading customer reviews on sites ranging from Yelp to CNET (depending on the product, of course).
Often the answer is just a Google search away, and long-standing industries are being upended as a result. Sites like Craigslist allow people to sell directly to each other, TaskRabbit empowers businesses to find staff with the right skills at the touch of a button, AutoTrader makes it easy to learn exactly how much you should be paying for a car and Zillow lets us know (roughly) what we should be paying for a house.
In short, the Internet has created a shift in power from seller to buyer. Easier access to quality content, from a variety of mediums, allows buyers to do their own research before making a purchase decision. And because of the massive amount of content available, today's empowered audiences are more selective about the information they do consume.
For businesses this can be a scary proposition -- the inability to control all of the information about their products that gets fed to buyers. But there is a solution. It's not easy, but it's straightforward. Help people, be in the places they want to engage and take a personal approach to connecting.
- First up is helping. Businesses can't simply push product information at potential customers. They need to become a reliable resource, focusing on providing information that will best enable prospects to make an educated, informed buying decision. It's actually quite simple. The more you help prospects, the more they will consume your content and, ultimately, buy your product.
- Be in the places they want to engage. Like it or not, in the digital world your customers are increasingly dispersed -- both easier to reach given the myriad channels they may be on and harder to reach for that same reason. You can't be everywhere at once; smart businesses know where customers and prospects are and go to them, via email, social channels or webinars (or a combination thereof). You also need to understand where that prospect is in the sales cycle in order to send the right content on the right channel.
- Finally, personalize your approach. Prospects respond to content that speaks to their issues. Analyst firm IDC recently found that about half of buyers prefer relevant, personalized offers. This is a somewhat obvious point but one that stresses the importance of not adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to selling. Personalized outreach to a defined group will likely yield more results than generic mass communication.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on what approach you're taking to reaching your empowered customers. Please feel free to weigh in in the comments section.