This article is something of an essay on my current thinking about buyer-centric go-to-market strategy and has been shaped by a recent conversation with strategy luminary Geoffrey Moore.
Why buyer-centric go-to-market strategy? And why now?
As a high-school drop-out, I was in a customer service role from 1980 and earned my first sales role in 1983. I was lucky enough to start my career in sales at a company with a deep commitment to soft-skills training, and to work for managers committed to nurturing any skills they’d helped me acquire. I did very well. Not through any innate skill, but by doing what I was taught (when many of my peers were either too lazy or thought they knew better.)
Within a year I was the number two sales guy in the country.
We certainly respected buyers back then, but the selling process we’d been taught was about using the informational advantage that we had as the seller. Seller centric.
Since then, the balance of power has swung massively in favour of the buyer. While the informational advantage used to be with the seller, sellers now often find themselves dealing with buyers who know more about their products than they do.
How do we embrace this shift towards the buyer to create advantage for the buyer, but against our competitor?
Sycophancy or obfuscation aren’t good answers. Buyers can’t be allowed to dictate our strategy. And contrary to the adage, the customer isn’t always right.
B2B Content creation and distribution certainly feeds the appetite of our buyers for self-service of content, but is that it? Do we just out-publish the other guy? Is that what having a buyer-centric go-to-market strategy looks like?
What do we need to know about this buyer?
When I wrote The Leaky Funnel in 2003, my first draft was rejected by publishers as too ‘preachy’. So, I trashed it, started again, writing the whole thing as a novel in the style of The One Minute Manager. Some love that format, others less so (“…he thinks he’s Ernest f**ing Hemmingway…”). I don’t. I’m a workmanlike writer even when at my best. The central idea of the book was the need to do what we now call ‘nurturing’ for any prospects who are not in play. Not right now, anyway.
I was perhaps guilty of wanting to unload too much of my then-current thinking, but the book was primarily about the need to recycle prospects who had ‘leaked’ from the funnel. Along the way though, I needed to (or wanted to) explain the idea of buyer progression within the funnel. First, they think A, then B, then C. This progression of thought didn’t have a name, so I coined one. “The buyer’s journey” wasn’t an invention, but it was certainly a new term (at the time). It is now commonplace in marketing discourse. I have long since given up any idea of reclaiming ‘ownership’ of the term, but I was the first to use the term and have been one of those advocating for its use ever since.
The buyer’s journey was attempting to answer the “what’s this particular buyer thinking regarding this particular purchase and what thought should we try to get them to next?”
The buyer’s journey is sometimes confused with the customer journey, but I meant something a little different. The term customer’s journey is normally referring to progressions from being unknown, then a prospect, then an early customer, then a deeper customer, then an advocate. Terminology, of course, differs depending on the author but the idea is largely just that. In contrast, a buyer goes through some sort of journey for each purchase, and I was focused on that progression when I coined the term. The progression of thought for a buyer each time they buy.
As with everything I had done before 2003 and since, my focus is on the complex sale that is more typical in B2B. So that progression through the B2B buyer’s journey might take weeks, months or years.
Here is how we typically describe the buyer’s journey stages these days:
- New names found
- Positioned in category
- Interest established
- Gap acknowledged
- Need agreed
- Offer understood
- Preference formed
- Decision made
I’ll give you one tactical example now to explain why I considered it important to signpost and define these stages.
If you were to ask me to produce an eBook for you on a service you were marketing, I could optimise that eBook for multiple stages of the B2b buyer’s journey. For example:
- If optimising for the preference stage, I could argue in the eBook why your approach to services like that was better than others;
- If optimising for offer understood stage, I could go into quite some detail about how you do what you do;
- At the need stage, I could highlight what is needed, whether from you or someone else, for a buyer facing a given challenge; and
- At the gap stage, I’d focus on the challenges your prospect might be facing, including those they can’t see, and might even go on to argue why the challenges they think they have are not the ones to worry about.
So, I can’t write that eBook well for all stages and will ask you to nominate one stage to optimise it for, making sure you have other tactics for the adjacent stages. This approach is all about optimising tactics to help the buyer to move. To progress. Although, as you’ll see shortly, the journey has a surprising impact on strategy.
I recently had a chance for a decent chat with Geffrey Moore to explore how these two concepts interconnect. His about shaping your strategy according to what the overall market is ready for, and mine about shaping your tactics according to what each individual B2B buyer is ready for.
What do we need to know about all the buyers?
I’ve long been a fan of Geoffrey Moore’s work in two of his books, Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado. His core insight is that we need to shape our go-to-market strategy according to what the buyers are ready for. I’ll outline his premise a bit more throughout this article, but you can already see plenty of evidence of buyer-centric thinking in even that simple summary.
Moore argues that as a market matures, our strategy should change. Succinctly put, if most of the businesses that are ready to buy a product like yours are:
- Only the brave early adopters, then don’t overthink your product configuration and be willing to work closely with those early adopters to fashion a solution just for them. And don’t be afraid to charge for the value delivered.
- The early pragmatists, then focus narrowly on dominating a single use case. Be as complete for that use case as you can.
- The later pragmatists, who don’t really need to be convinced that this category is real, help them understand why your product or service is better. And because there are many more buyers at this rapid-growth stage, focus on broad distribution (find as many ways to get your product to the buyer as you can).
- The majority (main street) buyer, who understands the category well, be willing to unbundle your solution if that’s how they want it, and recognise that price will likely get much closer to cost than it had been earlier
There’s a lot more to Geoffrey Moore’s story, but for now, you can see why we need to know how mature the buyer is and to set our strategy accordingly. Here’s a twist that I learned from our discussion, though. I recalled from my first read of his books that the big question was “where’s the majority of the market?”. You know there are going to be outliers but where is most of your market? And, therefore, what should your strategy be (mostly)?
He corrected me. “To be fair, I tried to actually say that if it’s an outlier, then they’re ready for something else. You need to be ready to meet them where they are. The whole point it was meet your customer or prospect, where they are in the life cycle and adapt to them instead of forcing them to adapt to you.”
Diving more deeply into an individual buyer, we also need to understand this buyer’s ‘concept’, a term popularised by Bob Miller, of sales training powerhouse Miller Heiman (now owned by Korn Ferry). In the methodology ‘Conceptual Selling’, salespeople are taught to contemplate what they think the prospect’s current concept is, and what concept they could logically get to after this next meeting or interaction, then what information or questions needed to be explored to get the prospect from the first concept to the next.
Clearly, Conceptual Selling is very respectful of each individual buyer. Neil Rackham’s ‘SPIN Selling‘ also deals with buyer progression but teaches a more-programmatic approach. Perhaps this explains why SPIN was more widely adopted in markets with high velocity selling models and Conceptual Selling more popular for bigger deals.
The buyer’s journey is 100% aligned to both of these methodologies and is different only in that it maps out all of the steps, not just the next one, and not just for Sales (stages often owned by Marketing are included). Thinking about the full B2B buyer’s journey allows marketers to build information, tools and collateral for their own use, and for the sales force to use over and again.
So, we need to know both how mature each prospect is as a buyer of products or services in this category, and where they are up to in their journey for this particular buying decision.
Why company valuations are buyer-centric too
Maybe you didn’t see this next part of the discussion coming. I certainly didn’t.
This came from my discussion with Geoffrey rather than his books, although I am open to the possibility that I had just missed that from my earlier reading. The valuation of a company at sale time is influenced by two points:
- Power; and
- Performance (which I think of as ‘velocity’)
When you’re doing anything that is disruptive, you need to establish power with your market before you can generate performance. So, the whole seed incubation period and the whole venture trajectory is about becoming powerful.
That power is going to translate into future performance and, in the end, it’s going to translate into equity valuation. First, because the investor’s going to see the power and they will then project a high probability of future performance. So, they’ll pay up for your equity.
Early power, and a good time to get early investment, is when you get an established brand to be a glowing customer reference. Someone who went ‘all in’ with your vision and your product or service.
Bankable power, and a good time for further investment, comes from dominating a use case in a vertical market. This is a winning strategy when those who are buying the product or service are mainly the early pragmatists. The question at this stage is:
“Can we get five out of the top 10 before our closest competitor gets one or two?”
Performance, and a time for a deeper investment, perhaps via IPO, deep PE, VC or trade sale, comes when you have achieved this powerful position in multiple markets and the buyers no longer need to be convinced to buy but convinced to buy yours.
Setting sales and marketing objectives around maturity
Thinking about objectives is less impacted by buyer-centric thinking than other aspects of strategy but is not immune from its impact all together. Consider:
- Who is already established in the minds of the buyer and therefore what do you need to change? What is realistic?
- What will the market let you do?
- Moore reminds us that ultimately the tornado occurs when pragmatists start following the herd. It’s when there is genuine risk of buyers having FOMO (fear of missing out). And that’s the tornado, and that’s where all the money is made.
Buyer-centric go-to-market strategy
I’ve personally led maybe 400 go-to-market planning workshops with clients from 32 countries. Of course, I’ve learned a lot. But one of the lessons was deep and early. When I coined the term the buyer’s journey, I had in mind the impact on tactics and was arguing for it as a framework for choosing and shaping tactics. I learned that the buyer’s journey also has a huge impact on strategy.
One of those buyer’s journey stages is helping the buyer to shape their thinking about what problem(s) they have that ought to gain some attention. Some problems are more to your advantage and some problems are more to the advantage of your competitors. So, we need to consider which problems to focus on, not just have a list of “the eight pain points” which marketers often throw into a battle card they might develop for Sales.
And if that’s the case, then there are probably some markets more likely to have the problem you can solve and some markets likely to have the problem your competitor solves. So, you probably should be fishing in the right pond.
Then when we look at the solution offered, it becomes clear that perhaps my solution is solving only half of the problem. I had better go get the other half – partner up or build more of the solution out, or somehow get into offering the whole solution.
You can see that what began as a tactical conversation (right tactics, framed correctly) shifts to strategic conversation: what problem do I solve, for whom, and how?
What is most of the market ready for?
When we’re in planning workshops, especially with tech companies, they all think that vertical strategies are the right thing to do. If we think about the buyer rather than the seller though, it becomes clear that verticalisation is a really dumb idea, then a really good idea, then it’s a dumb idea again as the market matures.
I’ll explain. If only the very early adopters in our market are ready to buy, then they are not likely to be motivated by vertical specialisation. In fact, they’d rather be the only member of their industry who has bought. That’s because early adopters are only willing to try an untested idea if they can gain some advantage by doing so. By definition then, these early adopters don’t want me to be selling to their competitors.
But once we’ve run out of early adopters and start selling to early pragmatists, they really do. The proof that we were unable to provide to them earlier, and therefore could not attract them earlier, is now available and is key. So, now we need to be selling to that single use case and that single vertical to give them confidence that it’s ‘OK’ to buy. Vertical segmentation is smart, narrowly focusing on first one, then a couple more, then a few more.
And once the market is in tornado phase, it’s no longer important that we have a vertical strategy. What’s important is reaching the market.
So, vertical segmentation (by industry) is wrong, then right, then unnecessary.
And this same flip flop needs to occur with our product. If only the most-visionary of the early adopters is buying, then we need to flex to match their vision rather than to offer them a pre-completed product. The pragmatists though will insist on a complete product. At first only for the single niche we’re chasing, then for the whole market.
So, our product strategy goes from incomplete (plus lots of service) to complete for the niche, to complete for everyone, and then gets unbundled again when the market really matures.
What is this B2B buyer ready for?
Now I’m switching back to the buyer’s journey.
Marketers get this wrong all the time. They work hard to find a real point of difference for their market, build messaging and campaigns to take those messages to market. Sounds good, right? It is OK in a consumer/frequent purchase market. But most of us B2B types are selling into markets where at any point in time, maybe 1% of your market is looking for a solution. They are untroubled about the problem that you solve, unaware that you solve it, and they just don’t care. They don’t care about who you are, what you do, or how you are different. Mostly.
A buyer in a late stage of their journey will likely be very interested in your points of difference. But early on, the messaging should be designed to bring problems to the surface that have been overlooked. Instead of “here’s how we’re different” the messaging for this early-stage buyer ought to be “here’s our insight into a challenge facing many businesses like yours”.
That’s the messaging for those buyers not yet considering a change. Of course, we need to build messages, collateral, tools, and training for every stage in the B2B buyer’s journey.
I also learned from Geoffrey Moore that maturity is a factor for individual buyers, not just for whole markets.
While we get huge value from considering what the whole market is ready for, individual buyers will often behave in ways that surprise us and must be accommodated. If most of the market that is ready to buy a product or service like yours right now is at any one of those stages, you’ll still face buyers behaving differently. So, what do we do? Respect where this buyer is and sell to them the way they need to be sold to.
How buyers impact funnel velocity
Although Moore prefers the term ‘performance’, I’ve tended to think about velocity in all its granularity:
- How long do buyers take to move between one stage and the next?
- How many won’t progress at all, instead ‘leaking’ from the funnel at a particular stage?
- How long will it take us to get those leaked buyers back into the funnel? How many meetings will each stage take?
Buyer maturity might impact this velocity.
“Early adopters largely like to make decisions on their own recognizance, using their own thought process, and they frankly are not that interested in references because they kind of think they’re smarter frankly and a little further ahead than the herd.”
Pragmatists are just the opposite though. They’re going to say “look, this is not my specialty. I will do my best to make my own judgments, but honest to God, I need to see other people doing it”.
A market made up mostly of early adopters might cycle through the funnel quickly and leakage might be massive in the early funnel stages and quite modest in the later stages, while pragmatists might look for proof at multiple points in the journey and so take a little longer
I’ve already given an example of an eBook that can be written for any stage but should not be written for all the buyer’s journey stages. Choose one. Let me expand on this a bit. If I expect an eBook to take a B2B buyer through multiple stages in one sitting – stages that normally each take days or weeks and many conversations – I am kidding myself. It’s just too much to ask of the tactic.
So, we need to be clear about which progression we’re planning to use any given tactic for. We also need to think about what has occurred before the tactic. Using that eBook as an example, do I get to it from an ad? Possibly, but it is more likely that the ad will go to a landing page and the eBook will be either emailed to me after a form-fill on a landing page or perhaps available on a thank you page. Using this example, the flow for the buyer would be:
- Ad (click)
- Landing page (form fill)
- Thank you page
- EBook (download)
If 5% of those who see the ad respond (click), then we might consider the effort spent on the 95% who don’t click to be a waste. But it is not. The ad itself can serve to position the seller in the mind of the buyer. So, I might reframe this journey like this:
- Positioned in category – Ad
- Interest established – Landing page & Thank you page
- Gap acknowledged – eBook
With this flow a little clearer, we might tighten up our brief so that the person crafting the ad is asked to get 5% of those who see the ad to show interest, but also as many of the 95% who don’t to at least position us as a member of the category.
And the eBook writer and designer will be asked to not simply inform, but also to trouble. At least a bit. We want to write the eBook such that the reader is left a little troubled about the problem we want them worried about.
Certainly, we might need other tactics to get the prospect to fully acknowledge the gap. In complex sales like most B2B, at least one meeting will be required to really achieve this. So, our flow might evolve to:
- Position in category – Positioning ad (4 weeks) then demand ad (2 weeks)
- Interest established – Landing page + Thank you page + 2-3 emails about the eBook
- Gap acknowledged – eBook + follow up call + meeting to ask challenging questions + follow up email
I could go on, but you get the idea. When the centre of our thinking with tactics is about buyer progression, we realise that we need to define a complete journey from “hello” to “thank you”. It is not enough to consider a campaign that starts with an ad and ends with a form fill.
And how does Moore’s chasm theory impact tactics? Remember my earlier point about outliers – that much of the market might be buying in one way, but others might be showing signs of behaviour more typical earlier or later in the maturity of a market.
So, we need to think about the maturity of each buyer, and in many cases, have alternative paths we can take. Sort of ‘choose your own adventure’. If we can discern through a click or a response to a question that this particular buyer is likely to be an early adopter, then we take path A. And if they present as an early pragmatist, path B, and if a late pragmatist like we usually find in a tornado market, we take path C.
Too hard/don’t care? If you are in a super-buoyant market and are inundated with willing prospects, maybe you don’t need your tactics to work hard. For most of us though, this buyer-centric thinking might explain an under-performant funnel.
Build your own buyer-centric go-to-market strategy
The details already argued above, including market maturity, tactics aligned to progressions within the B2B buyer’s journey, and what being thoughtful about problem you solve, all matter. But if you remember just one idea from this essay, consider “what are they ready for?”
The broad process we recommend, and follow in our own planning is as follows:
- Get your team together. Sales and marketing alignment starts by being in the tent together. At least the heads of Sales, Pre-Sales, and Marketing, but try for Ops, Finance, CEO (or if you’re a larger company, director of your division).
- Agree how many sales you need and of what value.
- Identify one problem, the one that you most want to be the best in the world at solving.
- Debate and document what type of buyer most has that problem (business type, role, maturity) because that’s who your new target is.
- Identify what it would take to 100% solve the problem for that market, because that’s your new solution.
- Identify the sales channel who can best flush out that problem with that market, then earn the right to solve it, because that’s who your sales channel should be.
- Work at who else solves the problem and how it is that you solve the problem better/more fully.
- Identify how many buyers you need at each stage of the buyer’s journey every month for the next (say) three years.
- Identify and document the most effective tactics that can move buyers through their journey at that velocity.
- Distil it all to a one page go-to-market strategy.
And if you want a little help, let me know.
I want to add to this essay…
I plan on adding more inputs to this, perhaps shifting from an article to an essay. I’m especially keen to include inputs from Simon Sinek (Start with Why) and Neil Rackham (SPIN Selling) as I’ve already been well-influenced by their thinking and want to explicitly weave their contributions into what I hope will become a useful reference work.
Robert Cialdini (Influence: the psychology of persuasion) has likewise influenced my thinking on how buyer and seller get on the same page (even if that wasn’t Cialdini’s intention).
So, if you know any of these luminaries, please introduce me. Or if you know of another contributor to buyer-centric thinking who you feel I ought to acknowledge or meet, please let me know.