Back2Basics: B2B’s ‘One Ring’ — the buying decision cycle
by Mark Eardley. “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them/One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
In The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is all-powerful. It controls and influences wearers of the other rings of power. Ok, so you know about Tolkien’s hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and wizards. But you might wonder how that all connects to the world of B2B? That world has its own version of the One Ring. It’s not magical but it sure is powerful. Here’s what it does.
Right message + right people + right time = SALES
To cut through the deluge of commercially irrelevant chatter about apparently magical and ‘modern’ phenomena in B2B — such as content marketing, automated marketing, digital marketing, data-based marketing and account-based marketing — there is One Ring that binds every facet of B2B. And only one. But it’s hyper un-cool. It’s all about marketing creating sales and protecting margins. Ugh! How tacky is that?! Yep, it’s pretty gross.
The ever-contentious but always insightful Professor Mark Ritson will tell you right here how too many marketers are embarrassed by the vulgarity of producing profit. As he says, “marketing is soft and full of people that don’t even understand gross profit, let alone possess the desire to increase it.”
Buried beneath all the nonsense talked about B2B there is a hidden gem: the One Ring. It creates sales and protects margins by ensuring that marketing gets the right message to the right people at the right time. It guides everyone who influences buying on the long and often erratic trail that leads from “I’m interested” to “Where do I sign?” How precious is that, hey?
It’s not a concept; it’s a GPS for success
Here’s a very brief explanation of the directions provided by the buying decision cycle (BDC) in its three opening phases.
In the first two phases, buyers identify needs and set criteria to fulfil them. They track opportunities and threats in their markets, and consider, for example, the financial, operational, regulatory and competitive implications of potential responses. Developing such strategic insights is usually a function of board members and senior managers. They want industry-specific visions of the future, trustworthy analysis of trends and the verifiable benefits produced by associated solutions. In short, they’re looking for content that explores the sadly clichéd concept of how to gain and maintain competitive advantages.
Immediately, the BDC acts like a beacon that you can home into when deciding what you need to communicate, to whom and through which channels.
In the third phase, buyers conduct research about solutions that meet the criteria they set to address their phase one issues. This ‘find-out-what’s-out-there’ function may be delegated to operational line managers who need to report back to their bosses with hard-and-fast facts about products, services and the suppliers who provide them. Typical content in this phase includes best-practices, case studies, product sheets, pricing/cost-of-ownership guides, test reports and endorsements. Once again, the BDC highlights who you need to address, what to say, and how to say it.
Answer buyers’ typical questions in each phase…
Buyers have a list of typical questions that need answers in each of the cycle’s phases. Here’s an example of how to input those questions into the GPS created by the BDC:
Get pinpoint directions: map your content, formats & channels to each phase
Inputting directions into the BDC is straightforward. For each phase, just enter the type of content based on its relevance and credibility to its audience. To do that, it’s obviously essential to understand what the audience specifically values and therefore motivates their buying decision. The final step is to select delivery channels that will give content the visibility it now so obviously deserves.
Child’s play, really. Filling-in boxes. Crayoning by numbers. It ain’t new, it ain’t shiny and it sure ain’t trendy. But it is incredibly precious …
The cycle’s writ in stone. Been that way for decades. What has changed is behaviour within it
Behaviour in the BDC has been fundamentally altered by the internet. Digitally confident buyers neither need nor want anyone selling to them. Their expectation is that they can sell to themselves — online and on their own.
They use the net to assess trends, challenges, proven best-responses and the products, services and vendors that can supply hyper-specific solutions. Their opinions are further informed by sources such as peer-to-peer user forums and special interest groups, by analysts’ reports and by respected commentators in the media.
Sales-triggers happen early in the cycle
Critical actions — the decision-making steps that trigger sales — are increasingly happening remotely early in the cycle. More and more, the pre-sales process (the BDC’s three opening phases) is conducted on the net. Before contacting a sales team, buyers may well have pretty much decided the outcomes they want and where to get them.
The result? Buyers’ perceptions and intentions become embedded as they gain confidence in the advice they give themselves. Critically, this limits the sales conversation to two questions: how much and when can we have it?
A shift from sales-engagement to sale-fulfilment
This shift from sales-engagement to sales-fulfilment becomes most telling in the cycle’s last two phases: selecting suppliers, negotiation, contractual matters and, hopefully, the happy ending: an agreement to buy and implement. But, all too often, the ending is not happy. Self-sold customers create formidable barriers to closing deals.
If the right message hasn’t reached the right people at the right time in the cycle’s opening phases, buyers may have formed expectations of quality, time, service and price that are unrealistic and cannot be met. Right or wrong, they trust the advice they have given themselves.
For sales teams, altering these expectations late in the cycle is plagued with difficulties. When buyers are this far down the decision-making road — on their own — the sales conversation gets bogged down in reappraisals and revisions. Momentum and time are lost as buyers reassess expectations and look around for alternatives. This creates even more sales challenges. Because so many B2B companies do not differentiate themselves from competitors, price becomes the dominant factor in buying decisions.
Altered reality hits the BDC
Silly buzz-terms such as “disruptive”, “game-changing” and “new playbook” gloss over a blunt fact: the internet has created business buyers that are self-sold. This altered reality is pushing the sales function towards the end of the cycle, moving it from customer engagement to customer fulfilment: sales teams are reduced to quoting prices and lead times.
In every B2B company, the most important task is to seek and keep profitable customers. For decades, it was entrusted to highly professional sales teams — to mighty key-account managers and road warriors doing the miles from customer to customer. Their role was all about engagement: building one-to-one relationships and guiding buyers from initial interest to signing on the dotted line. They controlled the flow of sales-motivating information to customers: features, specifications, cost-benefit analyses, testimonials, case studies and pricing justifications.
Twenty-or-so years ago, (ie pre-internet) sales teams informed buying decisions. Buyers accepted the status quo of constantly being sold to — in more or less sophisticated ways — because there was little alternative. Deals closed on the basis of how offerings were most compellingly presented by the most-convincing sales teams. That long-established sales function is less and less significant. In essence, the engagement role is performed by the internet. Buyers are now 100% confident in using it to inform themselves about products, services and suppliers that highlight and address the challenges they face.
The marketing lessons the BDC teaches
If marketers don’t create visibility, relevance and credibility throughout the cycle, then even the most-able sales teams run the risk of being excluded from guiding the buying decisions that create sales.
If digitally empowered buyers can’t find the information they need — when they need it — to support their decisions, they will look elsewhere. And that’s where their interest and money will go. Elsewhere.
No sale, no margin. No good.
Mark Eardley advises B2B companies on how to govern their marketing to attract and retain profitable customers; several of his clients have grown to become market leaders. He is the author, together with Charlie Stewart, of Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. Mark contributes the monthly “Back2Basics” column, covering how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing, to MarkLives.com.