How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

In my 20+ years in industrial, commercial and other non-consumer marketing communications, I’ve witnessed more than a few “big trends” affecting the nature of the selling process in the business realm.

One of the biggest of these is the approach that customers take when evaluating products and services they might be interested in purchasing. Recent research findings about these behaviors has been published that sheds more interesting light on where things are at the moment.

A survey of ~300 B-to-B managers was conducted in late 2009 by e-Research for Marketing (E-RM) for Colman Brohan Davis, a Chicago-based marketing organization. This survey, which was limited to respondents age 35 or younger, found that only a few of the 13 tools used to research products and services represented “traditional media” – print-based resources, trade shows, or consulting with industry colleagues by phone or in person.

Furthermore, the study found that even these four tactics are losing their importance compared to the use of online social networks, which were exploding in usage.

These survey results reminded me of a comment made by Adam Needles, director of B-to-B field marketing at Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta. “Somewhere around age 30 to 35, you can draw a line in the sand between people who are used to calling around to get everything and [where it’s been] all about relationships face-to-face.”

In contrast, Needles has this to say about younger staffers who conduct a great deal of the buying cycle online: “You have people whose expectation is that companies should put everything on their web sites; they should be getting real-time feeds and information, and companies should be totally integrated into … the blogosphere.”

Younger staffers tend to be influencers more than decision-makers. But this is not to diminish their importance, as they are the ones charged with conducting the research and drafting investigative report summaries and preliminary recommendations. Ferreting out information through resources like webinars and social platforms such as Twitter and blog posts, while it may seem exotic and less consequential to older colleagues, is not at all foreign to these staffers.

And we shouldn’t forget that today’s “influencer” at a company is very likely tomorrow’s “decision-maker.”

Which gets us back to the ER-M study. One big takeaway from that research was that customers are looking into all the corners of offine and online communications to find the information they feel they need to make risk-averse and “CYA” decisions that are also the successful ones that pay off well – hence building their reputations inside their company.

Tactics like direct mail marketing may seem old-hat or even quaint, but they can still be quite effective, while e-mail marketing, while fast and cheap, elicits resistance from some because they feel inundated with marketing materials that are irrelevant to their needs.

I guess it’s yet more challenging news for already-fractured marketing communications program tactics that continue to be under tight budget constraints.

One thought on “How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

  1. Now that’s interesting. And it perhaps begs a question: Where does this leave the back-slapping, good ol’ boy salesperson?

    Answer: Unemployed.

    Airline execs realized a few years ago that in the Expedia/Priceline age, price was all that mattered. The airline with the lowest fares wins. So we’ve seen a race to the nine-dollar ticket. Yes, we now have to pay for a cup of water and our luggage, but fares are low. It seems B-to-B businesses are right behind: All that matters now is price and specs. Personal relationships—a centuries-old inefficiency—are on the way out.

    We talk about branding all the time; what will brands mean in a future dominated by impersonal online price wars?

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