Thursday, 24 September 2015

What is the best way to shorten the B2B purchase cycle?

Forrester's New Purchase Funnel

What is the best way to shorten the B2B purchase cycle?

Ever since research has proved that anywhere between 50%-80% of the B2B purchase cycle is completed by buyers on their own, without allowing any “interruptive marketing” by brands, there has always been an itch among brand marketers to see if the purchase cycle can at least be collapsed or shortened. The problem with B2B buyers is that their decision gestations are long and they proceed from one stage of the purchase funnel to the next in deliberate, slow and thorough steps. Moreover, a lot of research from Forrester now suggests that the entire shape of the purchase journey has changed and it’s all become a very complex maze that marketers are unable to predict or decode. Is it then really possible to speed up the purchase cycle of B2B buyers when you are not even clear what the purchase cycle is like any more?

Shown in the diagram below is the new purchase cycle for B2B as depicted by Forrester Research. Looking at this one can sympathize with B2B marketers who can’t seem to tell the head from the tail. But to answer the question about whether, despite this confusing picture, B2B marketers can still exert influence at certain points in the B2B purchase cycle to try and hasten the customer journey … it seems B2B marketers are answering that with a “Yes”. It does seem possible to speed up customer decision-making in B2B, many of them say, provided marketers play the game with a great deal of covert attentiveness to the customer, and respond to certain inflexion points in the journey with a certain adroitness.

Five ways to try and shorten the B2B purchase cycle …

Do everything you can to reduce your own selling complexity, first.

A number of B2B marketers are still adhering to cumbersome selling processes which are a relic of offline selling methods. There is needless to-ing and fro-ing at the marketers’ selling procedure end which then makes them so pre-occupied with fulfilling their own methods that they take their eyes off the customers and the real customer needs. Customer needs are not what they used to be before either.

A classic case I came across recently was that of a B2B brand habituated to having a “doubt clarification document” when selling offline. This document would go up and down the customer team hierarchy many times and return to the marketer (after many iterations) with the collective doubts of the buyer team. This needn’t have even been replicated online since the online customer knows and prefers a simple FAQ page. If the FAQ page had been designed with sections of different information answering doubts of multi-level, multi-discipline customer teams, and a way of updating the document with the latest information had been focused upon, the tediousness of the “doubt clarification process” could have been totally eliminated. A simpler, swifter information dissemination process online could have made the process faster for both the marketer and the consumer (who incidentally has an even shorter attention span these days than he used to in the “offline” days!). This is just one example. In many marketing departments of B2B companies many such outdated and meaningless processes continue to be key poles of activity even after they have “gone digital”.

Another classic offline method that many B2B marketers still pursue online, without applying thought, is to provide just the required information that customers may may need without anticipating what else they may need next – and thus they themselves lengthen the customers’ decision-gestations by offering webpages of content that do not do an exhaustive and “in-depth” job. B2B marketers, on the other hand, who put out “substantial and definitive guides”, for instance, seem to hold customers better than those who merely scratch the surface of issues in their content. A “definitive guide” not only provides more than expected information and thus impresses the customer better, but it also acts as an encouragement and a convenience for the customer to get all his information from the one exhaustive source than to be searching in ten different sites for the same collection of information. The marketer then looks “customer-centric” and the customer then feels like his research load has been lightened.

In the final analysis, marketers need to look at shortening their own selling cycles by eliminating age-old selling stages, as well as provide in-depth information “in one single shot”, whenever possible, to make it unnecessary for customers to be spending longer than they need to in the exploration phases of the purchase cycle.

Convert as much as you can of after-sales inputs into pre-sales inputs.

It’s almost always the case in B2B markets that the core product is bought with subsequent customizations in mind, specific to customer needs. But marketers seldom realize that if the customization module were to be digitally developed and exposed to the customer earlier in the purchase cycle, even at a slightly high development cost, the time collapsed in terms of customer purchase-gestation (of all subsequent customers of the product) would more than pay back the cost of putting up the customization module. Having a method for early online customization and approval of the product saves a lot of time that it usually takes between approval of the vendor and subsequent approval of the product, which is normally the process sequence in B2B.

A particular case study I remember participating in was a project involving sale of some machinery and its accessories between a buyer and seller. Normally the seller would have had to go through the process of being vetted for credentials and shortlisted, and then his product would have had to go through the customization specifications cycle. This was short-circuited by the seller by putting up a digital customization module on his website upfront as something the customer and his teams could keep experimenting with to help them finalize product specifications, even as the seller was being vetted. Thus by the time the seller was approved, so was the product.

Not every seller can do exactly this, but the moral of the story is to look deeply at whether you could re-order the normal buying sequences so that some customer decisions can take place simultaneously instead of stage by stage. The justification of any expenses to achieve this would naturally be in the ROI. Marketers will need to be able to see that by so re-ordering the buying sequence they could be helping not just one or two customers, but they could well create a more efficient system that shortens the cycle for many future customers.

Embrace David Allen’s famous “Getting Things Done” model by focusing on the “Best Next Action”.

The writer David Allen, as many of you may recall, became famous for his concept and his book titled “Getting Things Done” (or GTD for short). David Allen’s concept was essentially a high-productivity idea where he showed people how to get things done – and done more smartly – by avoiding looking at a whole list of to-dos and getting overwhelmed. His notion was that it would be rather smooth to go through a whole list of things to do if one were to just narrowly focus on the question “What’s the best thing to do next?”

The beauty and simplicity of this approach was in two things: one, you don’t get perplexed by the details of any complex project with many steps if you just focus on the next step and get it done; and two (this is more important!), by asking “What’s best next?’ you actually question whether the next thing put down on your list is actually really the most ideal next thing to do – or is there something else that could be done instead to make the whole list faster, easier, less back-and-forth and more streamlined.

The GTD system is an ideal answer to B2B marketers who may be looking to “silently guide” customers on shorter paths to purchase. For instance, we marketers create a lot of content mapped to the requirements of customers at each stage of the buying process, but has it occurred to us to give the customer not just what he wants but something that could actually shorten some processes for him? For example, what would you expose to the customer next after his exploration phase in the purchase cycle? Would you show him a price comparison chart, or an ROI justification sheet for your product, or a case study? Normally you would follow the customer and show him what he seems to want – or alternatively make all of these cheatsheets available so he can choose. But how about exposing him to what you want him to see – so that you can actually help shorten his purchase cycle by a few steps? Thinking creatively along these lines of what is the “best next” may help you get your customer to jump many steps that you and he previously thought were mandatory!

Cultivate a “late-stage-rapid-action” mode and put your all into the last mile.

B2B marketers should ideally adopt a two-paced strategy … at the initial phases of a customer’s purchase journey, they have to main distance, reserve, and a covert vigilance over the customer (either manually or via automation), and then at the final stages of a customer journey they have to ready for extremely rapid response. In fact the response at this stage has to be so rapid as to prevent the customer from backtracking on any decisions he has taken to come so far. It’s easy to describe this process, but hard for marketing teams to achieve in practice.

The closest analogy to this strategy is fishing. When you camp out for fishing, all you can do for hours on end is to hold the fishing rod, and wait with inordinate patience for some stir of feeling on the rod that tells you there’s some action happening at the bait-end. And then once you feel surer that something is really biting the bait, you have to reel it in so fast that it has no time to slither back into the water nor even lose its bite on the bait. It has to be such rapid action that your hours of waiting pay off. If you fail to be extremely agile and alert and on-the-ball at the very end, the whole long arduous wait will have to begin all over again!

The larger the fish, actually the more difficult it will be to reel it in fast enough, and the slightest give on your side will let the fish off the hook. The sheer weight of the fish will also make it hard to react fast and hang on to the catch. It’s absolutely the same with the way B2B marketers may have to pace themselves as the customer makes the purchase journey. You have to keep your eye on the rod and yet wait endlessly till the customer looks to bite the bait. And then you have to reel the customer in so fast that he has no time to backtrack no matter how slippery he is!

Pounce on the opportunity to offer your help with getting senior management buy-ins.

It’s common in B2B Marketing that the onus of getting senior management buy-ins of the customer side will invariably fall on the marketers rather than the junior management of the customer side. Even if marketers are not directly brought face-to-face with the senior management at the buyers end, often it’s the “business case” made out by the marketer that is used by customer teams to get their seniors on board.

Many marketers lament that they have to bear the burden that is not theirs, and ask why indeed, should they be in the position of having to do the work of the junior management of the customer side? But there is huge opportunity in volunteering to be the go-to person for acquiring all customer side buy-ins. In this digital market when customers are shopping right up to the penultimate stages of finalization of product purchase on their own without letting the marketer enter the picture at all, any opportunity the marketer gets to talk straight to the senior-most management hierarchies of the customer side must be wholeheartedly welcomed.

One of the best things for marketers is that while customers don’t need the marketer to influence their purchase process, they do want the marketer to influence their own bosses for them. As a marketer, you have to take what you get, and run away with it!

I have a very interesting quote to share with you …

It’s from Lori Wizdo in the Forrester blog which shows one more way in which marketers may themselves be complicating issues for the customer … by building “campaigns”!

    Stop thinking about campaigns and start thinking engagement. Marketers who continue to build campaigns, and make offers, around products and product features will be perceived as “tone deaf” to the multichannel customer. Customers will engage with marketers who meet their needs – their changing needs – for different information and options during the buying journey. Marketers who continue to “go to customer” with product-centric campaigns and offers risk becoming irrelevant.

 Forrester's New Purchase Funnel

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do leave your comments below.


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