The 2010 Winter Olympics begin tonight in Vancouver, and I'm sure that I will watch at least a few minutes of the curling competition at this year's Games. I'm not really sure why I'll watch because curling is definitely not an exciting sport. If you're not familiar with curling, it's a little like shuffleboard (true curling fans, please forgive me). The big difference is that curling is played on a rectangular sheet of ice and involves sliding a large, polished granite stone weighing about 40 lbs toward a target painted on the ice. The playing surface is prepared by spraying water droplets (called "pebble") onto the ice. Because of friction between the stone and the pebble, the moving stone will turn or "curl" to one side or the other.
After one team member "throws" the stone toward the target, two other team members accompany the stone as it moves down the ice and guide it toward the desired position on the target. The catch is, these players are not allowed to actually touch the moving stone. Instead, they use long-handle brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone. Sweeping temporarily melts the top of the ice and thus reduces the friction between the stone and the ice. By reducing the friction, sweeping changes both the speed and the direction of the stone. Knowing when and how much to sweep is a critical skill in curling.
In some ways, curling provides a good metaphor for describing the job faced by today's B2B marketers and salespeople, particularly those involved in selling complex products or services (such as, for example, marketing services). As I've written before, B2B buyers are now firmly in control of the purchasing process. They determine when and how they will research purchasing decisions and when and how they will interact with potential suppliers. They also decide how quickly they will move through the buying process. In these circumstances, the most important job for the seller (whether a marketer or a salesperson) is to provide prospective buyers with the information they need when they need it.
Like the sweepers in a curling match, your main job is to reduce the friction that slows prospects down and causes them to veer off course. You would like to be able to directly lead your prospects through the buying process. That would be the equivalent in curling of touching the stone, and that's against the rules. In today's B2B buying environment, attempting to push your prospects through the buying process toward your desired objective on your schedule just doesn't work - at least not very often.
You can't dictate what buying decisions your prospects will ultimately make, and you can't completely eliminate friction from the buying process. But if you consistently provide information that is useful and valuable to your prospects and appropriate to where they are in the buying process, you can help them move more easily through the process and, even more importantly, make better buying decisions. This also means, by the way, that you're likely to win more sales.