For those of you who know me beyond my business pursuits, you will know that – like 100,000 other Australians – one of my passions is Australian Rules Football (to my American friends: no, this is not rugby) and one club in particular: The mighty Tigers – the Richmond football club. In our history, we’ve produced many great champions but probably the greatest of all is the legendary Captain Blood himself, Jack Dyer.

Dyer was renowned for being one of the toughest men ever to play the game. Why Captain Blood, you ask? Well I answer you with this, from the archives: “In the 1930s, Jack Dyer turned the brutal mentality into an art form. Dyer used a lethal shirt front to break the collar bones of 64 opponents. With a procession of broken players laying in his wake, Dyer was bestowed the title ‘Captain Blood’”.

A man accustomed to letting his actions speak louder than words, he could also turn a phrase. One such saying – that later became the title of a Jack Dyer biography – was, “Don’t be where the ball ain’t”.

Other than being somewhat of a blood sport at times, you may be wondering how does this all relate to sales and marketing? Well, here’s the connection: in modern B2B sales and marketing, just like in the world of elite sports, you need to be where your buyers are. Running around the boundary, yelling for someone to kick to you might be fun – it might even look like you’re engaged – but it’s unlikely to lead to team success.

So, this blog is about the proven steps to get connected to where your buyers are right now, what to do when you get connected and how to transition this to achieve mutual reward (and note: the pursuit of broken bones will be actively discouraged!). Follow these proven steps and it might be your picture being immortalised in the future.

The buyer’s world is changing

Firstly, let’s understand the dynamics of your buyer’s world:

Even before the impact of Covid-19, buyers’ attitudes and behaviours were changing. There’s a mountain of research on the impact of the internet and social platforms on buyer behaviours, as well as on the commoditising of the role of sellers within the buying process. Sirius Decisions is quoted as saying that “67% of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally, meaning when the buyer does engage, it’s to ask specific questions and process the order”. 

Meanwhile, CSO Insights takes this one step further to claim that 70% of buyers fully define their needs on their own before engaging with a sales representative – and 44% identify specific solutions before reaching out to a seller.

The impact of this change in buyer behaviour is that sellers are facing unprecedented challenges in sustaining their relevance to buyers beyond feature, function and price shootouts. Further analysis shows that the steps these buyers take are becoming more complex, too:

  • Buying cycles are extending;
  • The number of buying influences involved has grown to six or more; and
  • Buyers are “inherently sceptical of a sales rep trying to sell them something. This scepticism results in customers being almost half as likely to buy” (Brent Adamson, VP Gartner Group).

The B2B sales and marketing game has become far more challenging – and that’s not going to change any time soon. If anything, COVID-19 just made things even harder as the internet airwaves became all the more clogged with content and competition for mindshare.

Gartner, Sirius Decisions and CSO Insights all note an increasing number of stakeholders involved in B2B decisions. While numbers range from six to 12 individuals, the trend is clear: the days of being single contact focused are well and truly behind us.

It’s not all doom and gloom

If that’s our reality, where do we go next? The good news is that even in this environment, buyers are still looking for sellers to play a more active role (in certain circumstances). Further research from CSO Insights in their landmark 2018 Buyer Seller Study confirmed that 90% of buyers would engage sellers early; especially where there were one or more of these attributes at play:

  • The issue was new to the buyer (34.1%);
  • It was perceived as risky for the organisation (21.1%);
  • It was perceived as risky for the buyer themselves (19.1%); and/or
  • It was complex in its nature – e.g., impacted several departments (16.2%).

The ‘risk-taker buyer’ – perhaps a proxy for what Geoffrey Moore (author of Crossing the Chasm) would have described as an ‘early adopter’ – is 57% more likely to engage sellers early.

Armed with this knowledge, how then do you play a more active role earlier in the customer’s buying process and in a way that helps them to progress their initiative more effectively? For this, you need to consider both your inbound and outbound sales and marketing tactics.

Inbound tactics

When asked where they ranked sales executives as a trusted source of information, only 23% of respondents in the CSO Buyer Seller Study included salespeople as their top go-to resource to solve business problems. It is a sad and confronting reality that our content must speak for us first in many instances.

As your buyers navigate their buying process, they look for different types of content at each stage. In the initial interest and problem identification phase, content that shines a light on possible business issues and ways they might mitigate risk is more likely to cut through. Whereas, at the need validation and/or solution preferences phases, content around the completeness of offerings, proof points or clear steps around the transition from deployment to outcome are more likely to connect.

Consider the content you’re sharing – whether it’s socially, via your partners, at industry events, syndicated through partners and/or as input to industry research – and assess how much of this is relevant to the early stages of your buyer’s journey. Our natural tendency is to want to talk about all that we do, but your buyers don’t care about this until later in their process. Provide a different perspective around opportunity and risk and you’ll earn the right for an earlier conversation.

Outbound tactics

Have you ever taken the time to look at your customers and prospects to assess who among them are likely to be early adopters or risk-takers? Some businesses are more likely to be innovators in their category and, by default, more inclined to accept well-crafted and unsolicited requests to engage.

But you need to invest time to ensure these messages cut through. I once spent nearly two days writing a hand-crafted message to the local CEO of one of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies. The client, the message and the process all earned us the right to a conversation and, some months later, we won a substantial piece of business that way.

While you may not be able to do this for your entire contact base, review your top 5% of customers and review the behaviours and buying patterns of the key contacts you have. Review LinkedIn profiles, posts, presentations. Do any of these indicate that that individual is more likely to be the risk-taker executive in the firm?

LinkedIn provides a wealth of knowledge and opportunity to engage with these individuals. Align.me are running connection campaigns for business leaders and sales executives from a range of our SME and enterprise-level clients – both here and abroad – engaging in B2B selling and learning lots as we go. In the early phases of one of these campaigns (a company focused on selling technology solutions to private schools), our connection efforts were more than 25% below our baseline connection rate benchmark. Despite our best efforts at delivering compelling content and a high level of targeting, nothing seemed to shift the dial.

So, we went back to the very start of the process and looked at the LinkedIn profile to consider it from the perspective of the buyer. Did we look like someone who understood the technology issues faced by a private school principal or were we positioning as one of many companies delivering generic IT solutions?

Small changes had a massive impact. We added school client logos, school-focused case study content and a school-aligned background and saw connection jump from a below-industry-average of 14% to a world-class rate of 53% in just a matter of weeks.

So, take a close look at your own LinkedIn profile. Are you presenting yourself as a seller who’s likely to offer insight and perspective to the target buyers you’re looking to engage? Is your profile picture up to date? Are you validating your profile with content and comment aligned to your buyers? Does your profile description describe the problem you solve for your target buyers? Sometimes, a simple change can have a massive impact.

You’ve managed to get engaged. Now what?

The B2B buyer’s journey can be a long and tortuous path, with lots of twists and turns. Not all the buyers you’re engaging will choose to go the distance and, if they do, not all will ask you to come along. If you want to improve your odds, there are some fundamentals to follow:

  1. Understand that when organisations make decisions, there are many roles involved. Some will be looking at the ROI, some at the impact of the work environment and some at the match to core specifications. When you are asking questions, sharing insights or providing perspective, ensure that the questions you ask and the content you provide align to the roles being played.
  2. Each buyer is going through their journey at their own velocity. Find out where they are, recognise that it’s going to take time and think about the support you can provide for them to take the next step. Forget selling, position yourself as a resource to the buyer in their buying journey and start to think about how you help your buyer to make better buying decisions.
  3. When you get the opportunity to engage, don’t drop the ball:Buyers are looking for an experience, not just an interaction. Today, the customer expectation is that every call is crisp, compelling, and concise. Every interaction must be worth the time. This covers the basics such as active listening and advanced questioning, but also includes negotiating, virtual presentations, storytelling, business case/ROI analysis, providing perspective and social selling techniques.” – CSO Insights study.

And this leads me to the final and probably most important step: mutual reward. Unfortunately, the scepticism among buyers has made this more difficult than in years gone by and, as a result, you need to maintain an unwavering focus on solving your buyer’s problems and bringing your A-game to every interaction.

Achieving sale immortality

The immortal Captain Blood from Richmond was more than a great footballer, he was a great human being. Ferocious on the field but gentle and forgiving to friends and foe when the game was done.

At his eulogy in 2003, other personalities and sporting greats said of him:

“Jack was a very humble man: you always felt comfortable in his presence. He was warm and sincere; he wasn’t one of those guys who spoke to you for the sake of getting rid of you.”

If you want to achieve immortality in sport, in life or in sales, be fearless in your pursuit of delivering outcomes for your buyers. On occasion, this will mean having to confront and share the brutal truths of what is working and what is not.

Be focused. Everything you do should be about helping your buyers to navigate their buying journey, in a repeatable and predictable way.

Be humble. In my view, whether it’s in sport, in business or in life, you can never achieve immortality without humility and dedication to serving others.