Why people assume all influence is now online

There are markets where almost all influence is now online. Face-to-face conversations, peer advice and group meetings rarely happen. But these markets are few and far between. Even the influence of particular YouTube channels and personalities is not all online. Plenty of direct teen to teen conversations take place offline to encourage each other to follow certain personalities. And the culmination of following these ‘celebrities’ – is a very offline public ‘meet-up’.

So why do the media continue to promote this image of all communication now being conducted online and through social? One answer has to be because the media themselves are so entrenched in it. They get their news leads through Twitter, their research through the web and increasingly, their output is exclusively online too. The media says they’re reflecting society but they’re actually only reflecting their view of society.

Their job is to focus on what’s new, what’s changed, so they lap up the latest fashions, trends, gadgets, platforms and more. They might write of how millions are tiring of and moving away from Twitter, when the truth is that the vast majority of the population has yet to even move onto it. I walk down my local shopping street and I’m struck by how few stores are embedded in social. A handful of them may have a Twitter feed and the majority could tick the box saying their business ‘is online’ – but that’s not where even a significant minority of their income originates.

The same goes for most businesses. They’ll do social outreach, they’ll do Adwords, they might even maintain a company blog – but none of these are likely to drive the majority of their sales.That majority is driven the way it’s always been driven – by dedicated sales teams effectively cold-calling prospects and reacting to RFPs.

In my Influencer50 role I talk extensively with many individuals from marketing depts. and sales depts. In conversations with marketing folks the subject of social is always there. The success (or not) of their social outreach campaigns, the prominence of particular individuals on Twitter, sentiment monitoring trends and more. Every marketer lives and breathes social.

For every conversation I have with Marketing heads, I have an equal number with heads of Sales. And it’s a very different conversation. Social is only rarely mentioned. Buyer behavior, prospect entry points, initial messaging, check-signing hierarchies, customer pain-points, customer politics – these are standard topics. But social? Almost never, and only fleeting if then. Why is social so much lower on their radar?

Important stages of the B2B buying process have moved online – no-one can doubt that – but the vast majority of those stages, and the most crucial elements of almost every stage, are resolutely offline. At least for now.

That may not be a media-friendly message but there’s no doubting with B2B it’s still the truth.

B2B buyers supposedly refer to LinkedIn when buying. But to do what?

thebuyersidejourney.comWhenever I question the use of social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, when I analyze the B2B buyer decision process, I’m always careful to make an exception of LinkedIn. Much as it gets nowhere near the same degree of media attention and general buzz as Twitter and FB, I don’t doubt its importance. It’s the one social platform that generates widespread acceptance whenever I mention it at any client’s offices. It’s almost unanimously used, it’s respected, and it’s still considered to be a growth platform. But what I’m less convinced about is how it’s being used by buyers.

Move to one side for a minute its role for recruitment – we all get that. And many of the best and most successful salespeople live by it – what’s beginning to be a core strand of ‘inside sales’. I understand the whole prospecting, data mining, validating, social proximity side to LinkedIn. It’s invaluable there.

But I’m talking here about buyers not sellers. How are buyers using it? Are they deciding what products & services they’re interested in, then searching for who they’re connected to from those providers? I don’t think so – I’ve not heard of that anecdotally and it seems a long shot approach anyway.

Are they going to LinkedIn to read the Company Profiles of possible vendors? – Surely not. There are far better places to get that info – like the vendors’ own websites.

Are they searching for peer connections to ask those people directly for their views on particular purchases? Doubtful – that would be broadcasting a lot of potentially commercially sensitive info to people you don’t know directly.

So we must be left with discussions within the LinkedIn groups. This must be where the action is, but as a member of some of these LI groups I find the chances of getting original detailed feedback to questions placed in the groups still a longshot. For every 500 members of any LI Group you’ll get 480 passive watchers and just twenty who post or respond to anyone. I see questions being asked, but little in the way of answers.

Without doubt peer recommendations are some of the most influential referrals a prospective buyer can receive. As a source of influence it’s almost unbeatable. At the low-ticket end of the market just think of the persuasiveness of book reviews on Amazon. But LinkedIn Groups aren’t great as a source of peer recommendations because out of the 5% willing to respond to anyone’s question, the chance of those individuals having purchased the same product or service and going into detail about their experience is unlikely. So maybe the recommendation is just a thumbs up / thumbs down on a particular supplier, most likely based around their customer support. I can see this happening – but it’s pretty broad brush and unfocused. It doesn’t feel an effective approach.

I still don’t think I understand how buyers are really using LinkedIn. And the more I continue being unconvinced, the more I think that when clients tell me about their support for LinkedIn, what they’re really meaning is they know their salespeople like it, so they’re imagining the buyers must be using it too. Buyers clearly are using it – but I haven’t seen any evidence it’s for buying. Have you?

The time it takes to make a buying decision

I was lucky enough to be part of a client sales meeting a few weeks back. 40 or 50 salespeople in the room and a handful, maybe seven or eight, corporate customers. I was a small part of the agenda but I was fortunate to be able to ask questions about the sales process. I handed each of the customers a sheet with five short questions to be completed without showing any of the salespeople in the room. One of the questions asked them how long various stages of the buying process typically took.

buy_now_ecommerceFirst off I asked how long from first agreeing internally that a new external purchase was required until first contacting potential suppliers. At the level of a $10-25k expected purchase that period typically varied from two to five months depending largely on the degree of pain experienced and the company bureaucracy.
Secondly I asked how long it generally took them to get down to a preferred two or three suppliers once they’d finally made contact with each candidate supplier. They all agreed less than two hours, though it may take up to two weeks to invest that two hours.
And the third question on timescales, how much time it took them to get back with a “thanks but no thanks” message. They all agreed that only those shortlisted would be contacted “expediently”, that for the majority it may take an additional two weeks and to those who were seen to have made only a poor attempt then there may not be a proactive attempt to contact at all. Those suppliers would only find their fate once they’d bothered to follow-up.
After the customers had left I asked the same questions publicly to the salespeople.
To question 1 they averaged four weeks to three months. So buyers knew they had a problem for much longer than expected before contacting suppliers.
To question 2 the salespeople rarely thought shortlisting occurred inside two weeks, and four to six weeks was more likely. So buyer decisions were actually being made much more spontaneously than expected.
To question 3 it was clear that any supplier considered a ‘no-hoper’ would still be thinking themselves in the frame until they proactively called the prospect. Clearly many salespeople for prospective suppliers are still listing the prospect as ‘in the pipeline’ when in fact they have long since been discarded. They just don’t know it. Just think of the wasted effort cost here.
Question 1 really got me thinking. There’s a clear opportunity for salespeople to articulate a problem the buyer may be having, even before the buyer may have formalized the issue and taken it public. Since getting in early gives the salesperson first-mover advantage why do vendors place so little effort on articulating the initial problem?
I hear that this can be an advantage of ‘social selling’, that salespeople trawling through Tweetdeck or the like each day could have eavesdropped on the early-stage problem. I can see the possibility of this, though the hit-rate I imagine is low.
I just don’t recall much marketing that leads with ‘The first five early warning signs that you have a problem with …’. There’s a big difference between “Call us when your car breaks down” compared to “When one of these three things happen your car’s about to break down. You’ll need our number.”
I wonder if most salespeople in your company intrinsically know what those early signs would look like? I bet your marketing people don’t.

How the Field Sales to Inside Sales transition reflects & impacts the decision-making process.

Josiane Chriqui Feigon, Influencer50, The Buyer-side JourneyFollowing last week’s reblog about Josiane Chriqui Feigon’s ’10 Reasons why Inside Sales will displace Field Sales teams by 2015′ I wanted to review how that impacts our understanding of the major B2B sales influencers.

She says that 57% of the B2B buying process is now completed before ever connecting with a salesperson. As an addition to this point, she says we have 20m salespeople apparently ( I assume this is U.S. data only) – and that number is predicted to be reduced to 8m by 2020 – largely because of this ‘reduced’ role.

Now that’s clearly not a message any salesperson would want to accept – that they’re there to navigate the prospect through only the final 40% or so of the process. It means the salesperson has less opportunity to redirect that choice than ever before. I don’t have data but I wouldn’t mind betting ten years ago much less than 40% of the sales process was completed before the salesperson typically entered the fray, leaving them plenty of time to persuade any would-be buyer.

So now the salesperson is correcting impressions already made about their brand rather than initially setting them. And if there’s one complaint I’ve heard more than almost any other from salespeople it’s that they get to hear of opportunities too late in the day, where they’re having to respond to an already shaped RFP (Request for Proposal), they’re invited in only alongside multiple ‘less worthy’ alternatives or they’re having to force-fit their offering in to a less than ideal already-in-place framework.

I often say that assuming a salesperson manages to get in to a one hour meeting with his/her prospect per month then that’s the one hour of the month I’m least interested in, because only the salesperson is relevant for that hour. I’m interested in the 21 days six hours each month when the prospect is hearing from everyone else but the salesperson. And if the salesperson feels they’re now facing a reduction in influence as a result, well that just makes those influencing during those 21 days six hours even more important. And even less feasible for marketing depts. to ignore.

This brings me to a second point Josiane makes. The rising number of strong influencers in any B2B decision – varying from 5 to 21 according to her – allied to the fact that telecommuting means many of these will work away from the central office – means that scheduling an on-site meeting with the committee of decision-makers will be almost impossible. 85% of buyer-seller interactions will therefore happen online through social media and video. Most salespeople today will dread this thought since they base much of their confidence in their persuasiveness to their in-person face-to-face skills. Skills that are far harder to convey on a Skype call.

Yes of course there will have to be a very different type of salesperson required (a subject I’m sure I’ll write about soon) but an undeniable conclusion to this dramatic sales shift is that the role of ‘behind-the-scenes’ influencers will only increase.

Reblog: 10 Reasons why Inside Sales will displace Field Sales Teams by 2015

Influencer50, Buyer-side Journey

A great post I’ve just seen from a few months back by Josiane Chriqui Feigon. Hat-tip to her.