Dealing with the Informed Customer


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | Oct 09, 2013


One of the major changes in the business-to-business marketplace over the past 20 years has been a dramatic shift in the balance of knowledge from the seller to the buyer.  Thanks to the Internet and the various search tools available on it, many buyers know a lot more about the vendors than the vendors do about the prospective customer.  In fact, a recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that they completed nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision on average before having a single conversation with a supplier.

For about 150 years, during the pre-Internet era of traditional marketing and sales, the vendor company controlled most, sometimes all, of the information.  On the consumer side, a buyer might be able to find information in a publication like Consumer Reports or in a specialty publication, like the Kelly Blue Book.  But on the B2B side, there weren't any meaningful resources. 

The Internet has brought about a democratization of information.  This is a phenomenon predicted by the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto in the 95 theses they published, Luther-like, in 1999.  "Markets are conversations," they wrote, and "the Internet is enabling conversations that were simply not possible in the era of mass media….As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized." 

Well, okay, although I suppose it's only fair to point out that not all of that information prospective customers gather about us is accurate or reliable.  As anyone knows who has gone to a restaurant with a high Yelp rating, only to find that it's a greasy spoon—but nonetheless beloved of the teenagers who write most of those reviews—not all information is helpful.  

Source, authenticity, context—these elements matter.  In the anonymous world of the Web, we are smart to ask who is it that posted that negative information?   A disgruntled customer, a sneaky competitor, or a plain old nut job?  They all have equal access to the Internet and all can provide "information" about our products, services, business ethics, or anything they feel like.  Even if the information comes from a neutral or positive source, did it arrive on the customer's laptop unaltered?  Or were important parts deleted?

What this means, of course, is that sometimes a self-informed customer is actually a misinformed customer.  But people have a bias toward believing what they have uncovered for themselves, so the sales person's job just got a whole lot harder.  Now the typical sales call has to include major effort to find out what the customer thinks he or she knows and what it will take to change that prospect's assumptions .

So what is a sales person to do?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Do your own research.  

Spend 30 minutes learning about the prospect's organization before you make the first call or visit.  Even if this is a warm lead from your Website or somebody who has contacted you directly, make sure you know a bit about them.  Research conducted by the University of North Carolina School of Business found that senior executives are most willing to listen to a sales person if that sales person demonstrates in-depth knowledge of the executive's business.

2. Be disruptive.  

That doesn't mean thrashing around in the customer's office or spilling your coffee across the desk.  It does mean looking for fresh insights that may jolt the audience off the rails of traditional thinking. This is the principle of the so-called challenger sale," which was showcased in the Harvard Business Review and in a book of the same name. Instead of uncovering the customer's need through conversations, the sales person elevates unrecognized needs and emerging demands to a new level of awareness. This kind of disruptive information gains attention and establishes credibility while flanking the competition.

3. Feed the beast.  

If you can't control the flow of information about your products and services any more, you can at least feed the beast—that is, publish your own content on a continuous basis. Companies should create repositories of interesting, challenging, useful content that their sales people can repurpose and send to prospects and customers alike. According to content marketing guru and self-proclaimed "sales lion" Marcus Sheridan, if a potential customer has read 30 or more pages of your own content, you have an 80 percent better change of closing the sale.

4. Keep the pool filled.  

To create that repository of content, encourage employees to post content to a central location so that it can then be shared outward to others.  This may be a tough step in some corporate cultures because it requires trusting employees to recognize content opportunities and to create content that is relevant and interesting.  

Good luck dealing with informed, misinformed, even deformed customers!  To make the job a bit easier, take a look at the sales playbook technology and message automation tools available from Qvidian.