Sunday, June 17, 2018

B2B Buyers Prefer to "Do-It-Themselves" - Except When They Don't


One of the major themes in B2B marketing and sales over the past decade has been the emergence of empowered and independent buyers. Numerous research studies have shown that business buyers are using the wealth of easily-accessible information to perform their own research regarding potential purchases.

Some research has also shown that many B2B buyers are delaying conversations with vendor sales reps until later in the buying process. Several years ago, for example, SiriusDecisions said that 67% of the B2B buying journey was being done digitally, and CEB reported that a typical B2B buyer was 57% through the purchasing process before he or she engaged with a potential supplier's sales rep.

The idea that B2B buyers prefer a "do-it-yourself" approach has become part of the conventional wisdom of B2B demand generation, but it has not gone unchallenged. For example, in the Altify Buyer/Seller Value Index 2016, two-thirds of surveyed buyers (67%) reported that they sought input from potential suppliers before they began evaluating solutions.

The latest insight on this issue is provided by CSO Insights' 2018 Buyer Preference Study. This study was a global survey of B2B buyers in 25 industries who are responsible for making purchases of $10,000 or more at companies with revenue of at least $250 million.

In this study, 70.2% of the survey respondents said they prefer to have a clear understanding of their needs before they talk with a sales rep. Almost half of the respondents (44.2%) said they also prefer to identify possible solutions before they engage with a sales rep. So CSO Insights did find that many B2B buyers have a strong preference for self-education in the early stages of the buying process.

This study also revealed, however, that buyers' behaviors are more nuanced than some pundits have suggested. For example, CSO Insights found that buyers are open to engaging with sales reps early in the buying process under certain circumstances. There is more interest in early engagement when a business challenge is:

  • New and unfamiliar to the buyer
  • Perceived as risky for the buyer's company
  • Perceived as risky for the individual buyer
  • Complex
These findings are consistent with the results of a recent survey of business buyers by McKinsey & Company. In the McKinsey survey, 76% of respondents said it was helpful to speak with a salesperson when they are researching a new product or service. That figure drops to 52% for repeat purchases of products with new or different specifications. And only 15% of respondents found it helpful to speak with a salesperson when they are repurchasing the exact same product or service.
So what should we glean from these research studies? One important point is that B2B buying is a complex phenomenon that cannot be adequately described by a few high-level survey statistics. As humans, we have an inherent tendency to seek simple answers to complex issues, and this often causes us to reach oversimplified and inaccurate conclusions. As Albert Einstein once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
The most appropriate watchword for B2B buying might well be "diverse" or "varied." For one thing, not all B2B purchases have the same attributes. Some are far more complex, require significantly higher investments, and entail substantially more risks than others. It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that a rational buyer doesn't use the same process for every purchase that he or she participates in.
In addition, not all B2B buyers are alike. They have different personalities and decision making styles, and these differences affect how they prefer to learn about business issues and possible solutions. The CSO Insights research revealed that buyers with certain decision making styles are far more likely than others to prefer engaging with a sales rep early in the buying process.
The belief that B2B buyers are self-educating and delaying conversations with sales reps has driven several profound changes in the practice of B2B demand generation. It has provided the impetus for the use of content marketing, led many companies to expand the role of marketing in the demand generation process, and been the catalyst for establishing or expanding ecommerce capabilities. Overall, these responses have been appropriate and beneficial.
But this model of buyer behavior is an oversimplified representation of reality. It is not (and never was) universally true or completely accurate. This means that B2B marketers must be prepared to help sales reps have meaningful interactions with buyers early in the buying process.

Image courtesy of Meaghan O'Malley via Flickr CC.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

New Insights on Personalization - Usage, Value, and Challenges


A few weeks ago, I published a post discussing the major findings of a survey by Dynamic Yield regarding the current state of personalization in marketing. A new study by Researchscape International (in association with Evergage) provides more valuable insights about marketers' attitudes regarding personalizaion and current personalization challenges and practices.

The 2018 Trends in Personalization study consisted of a survey of 300 marketers and other business professionals representing nineteen industries. Ninety-three percent of the respondents held marketing related positions. Most of the respondents (93%) were located in the United States, and they represented a wide range of company sizes. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents were affiliated with pure B2B or hybrid B2B/B2C organizations.

Like several other research studies, the Researchscape survey found a widespread belief in the importance of personalization. For example, 88% of the respondents believe their prospects and customers expect a personalized experience, and 74% believe that personalization has a strong or extreme impact on advancing customer relationships.

Researchscape also found that the use of personalization is widespread. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they are using personalization in some form. About three out of four respondents (77%) are personalizing emails, and about half (52%) are personalizing websites.

Most of the marketers in this survey said their company has received value from personalization. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents reported a measurable lift from personalization, and more than half (53%) said they had experienced a lift of more than 10%.

Despite the relatively widespread use of personalization and recognition of its value, many of the marketers in this study see significant room for improvement in their personalization efforts. For example:

  • While 70% of they study respondents were slightly or moderately satisfied with their level of personalization, only 12% were very or extremely satisfied, and 18% were not satisfied at all.
  • Nearly half of the respondents (46%) gave themselves a grade of "C" on their personalization efforts.
  • Over half of the respondents (52%) rated their personalization maturity level as limited, and another 33% rated their maturity level as moderate.
Having the right data is essential for effective personalization, and many of the marketers in this study see data-related issues as a major challenge. For example, more than half of the respondents (55%) do not believe they have sufficient data and insights to personalize content and messaging. 
Marketers at B2B and hybrid B2B/B2C companies appear to face greater data challenges. Fifty-eight percent of surveyed marketers in B2B companies, and 60% in hybrid B2B/B2C companies don't believe they have sufficient data and insights, compared to only 39% of respondents in pure B2C companies.
The problem is not the complete absence of data, but the lack of centralized data. Nearly half of the respondents (48%) said they store their customer and prospect data in four or more systems. This fragmentation of data may help explain why many marketers find true omnichannel personalization to be challenging. In this survey, only 27% of respondents reported having half or more of their marketing channels connected. Forty-six percent of the respondents said they have "a few" of their channels connected.
Finally, Researchscape found that B2B and hybrid B2B/B2C companies are less aggressive than pure B2C companies at adopting new personalization technologies. For example, among those respondents not currently using machine learning to support personalization, 26% of B2B respondents, and 49% of hybrid B2B/B2C respondents said they would begin using machine learning in the coming year, compared to 55% of B2C respondents.

Illustration courtesy of John Bonham via Flickr CC.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Decoding the Vital Attributes of Great Customer Experiences


Most senior business leaders understand the strategic importance of customer experience (CX). They recognize that providing great experiences has become a key means of differentiation and a primary driver of competitive advantage.

To provide great customer experiences, marketers and CX leaders must understand what specific aspects of experience their customers value most. The results of a recent study by PwC provide several valuable insights on this critical issue.

PwC's Future of Customer Experience study consisted of an online survey and in-field interviews of a representative sample of 15,000 people. Four thousand of the respondents were from the United States, and the remaining 11,000 were from 11 other countries around the globe.

The results of the PwC study are not particularly surprising. The research revealed that customers highly value speed, convenience, knowledgeable and helpful employees, and friendly service. Almost 80% of the U.S. respondents rated these factors as the most vital aspects of a great customer experience.

What I found most interesting in the PwC study is that customers still place high value on the human aspects of customer experience. Overall, 75% of the study respondents indicated they would want to interact more with a real human being as technology improves. It's not that customers don't use technology to interact with companies. They clearly do. But today's customers expect technology to work, and they don't typically notice CX technology tools unless they malfunction or otherwise disrupt the customer experience.

Providing poor human interactions is also an easy way to lose customers. PwC asked its study participants what would cause them to stop doing business with a company. The top four factors selected by respondents are listed below. Three of these factors are directly related to the quality of human interactions.

  1. Bad employee attitudes
  2. Unfriendly service
  3. Untrusted company
  4. Unknowledgeable employees
The PwC study focused on consumers, but research by other firms has shown that B2B customers share many of the same attitudes and preferences.
For example, a 2017 survey of CX leaders and influencers by Walker Information found the personalization, ease, and speed are the three core dimensions of B2B customer experience. Walker's research found that B2B customer experience professionals believe customer expectations have risen across all three of these dimensions and will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.
In this survey, Walker asked participants to rate the level of customer expectations for personalization, ease, and speed at three points in time - in 2013, in 2017, and in 2020. The following table shows the percentage of respondents who said customer expectations were/will be high:










A 2017 study by KPMG Nunwood Consulting (B2B Customer Experience:  Winning in the Moments that Matter) provides more evidence regarding the importance of the human touch in B2B customer experience. This study consisted of a survey of 2,974 members of decision making units in B2B companies.
One objective of this research was to identify what "relationship management model" survey participants preferred. The clear winner was the model in which a relationship manager owns the customer relationship, and serves as the customer's primary, if not exclusive, contact.
The survey report states "[customers] frequently prefer to have one person to deal with and have them acting as their ambassador - the one person in the organisation that champions their interests and ensures that the services are provided to them in the highest standard."
Collectively, these research studies make two important points. First, many of the aspects of experience that customers value most are utilitarian - e.g.speed, ease, and convenience. And second, great B2B customer experiences still require a deft human touch

Illustration courtesy of Jeff Djevdet (speedpropertybuyers.co.uk) via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

It's Time to Think Differently About Content Marketing


Content marketing has been an integral part of marketing at most B2B companies for most of the past decade. In every annual survey conducted by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs (beginning in 2010), about nine out of ten surveyed B2B marketers have reported their company was using content marketing in some form.

Given the widespread popularity and near universal adoption of content marketing, you may be surprised to hear that some marketing industry analysts and thought leaders are contending that it's time to think about content marketing differently.

For example, Gartner has suggested that the term "content marketing" will soon become obsolete. In the 2018 Magic Quadrant for Content Marketing Platforms, Gartner writes, "By 2021, the term 'content marketing' will be defunct as all marketing content rises to high-quality expectations of attention-limited audiences."

In an October 2017 article at Forbes, John Ellett argued that it's time to stop treating content marketing as a distinct marketing discipline. He wrote, "For the past several years, content marketing has been all the rage and has been viewed as a discrete discipline within marketing. With no disrespect to the great folks at Content Marketing Institute who have done amazing work in helping marketers better understand the value of content, it's time to quit developing content marketing strategies and start developing plans for how content supports marketing strategies."

These views aren't intended to suggest that content marketing is no longer effective or valuable. Instead, they simply reflect the fact that content marketing is maturing in a normal fashion.

The Gartner hype cycle is often used to track the evolution of marketing techniques and practices. In the hype cycle framework, a new marketing practice usually receives a huge amount of hype when it first appears, which leads to the spread of inflated expectations for the practice. When a practice fails to live up to these unreasonable expectations, many people become disillusioned with it, and some abandon it completely. But in time, some marketers develop more realistic expectations for the practice and begin to use it productively.

We also frequently see a parallel pattern in the evolution of some marketing practices. When a new marketing practice begins to receive a significant amount of hype, a gaggle of "experts" soon appears to help companies adopt and use the practice. These experts usually describe the practice as a new and distinct marketing discipline. Some even argue that the new practice should replace other marketing methods, and that the "old" rules of marketing are no longer applicable. In time, however, astute marketers recognize that the fundamental objectives of marketing haven't changed, and they begin to view the new practice as a tool for achieving those objectives.

We can see this pattern in the evolution of content marketing. As its popularity and use have grown, we have come to view content marketing as a distinct marketing discipline. Overall, this has been good because it has supported the rapid development of a substantial body of knowledge about how to do content marketing effectively. The downside of this approach is that it makes it easy for us to view content marketing as an end unto itself.

The essence of content marketing is the use of informative or entertaining content to, as the Content Marketing Institute puts it, "attract and retain a clearly defined audience - and ultimately to drive profitable customer action." Such content is used to "fuel" marketing communications programs that are designed to achieve a variety of marketing objectives, many of which have remained largely unchanged for many years. Therefore, what we now call content marketing is really about using a distinctive kind of content to achieve long-standing marketing goals.

So, it's important to first define our marketing goals, and then determine how to use content to reach those goals. I believe that in time content marketing will cease to be viewed as a discrete type of marketing strategy or method. It will be assimilated into the fabric of marketing, and it will simply be the way marketing is done.

Illustration courtesy of The Wild Blogger via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Missing Pieces of the Sales-Marketing Alignment Puzzle


Research continues to show that marketing-sales alignment remains a significant challenge for many companies. Earlier this year, for example, InsideView published The State of Sales & Marketing Alignment in 2018, which was based on a survey of more than 500 sales and marketing professionals.

In this survey, 75% of marketing respondents, and 63% of sales respondents reported having a good or excellent relationship with their counterparts. However, respondents also rated the marketing-sales relationship as weak or very weak on several vital demand generation activities.

Many B2B companies have been trying to crack the code on sales-marketing alignment for more than a decade. So why has this task proven to be so difficult? Part of the reason success has been elusive is that most companies have focused on only one piece of the alignment puzzle.

Shared Understanding Isn't Enough

Many of the "best practices" for achieving sales-marketing alignment are intended to create a shared understanding among marketing and sales professionals regarding the critical components of the company's demand generation strategy and process, some of which include:

  • The definition of the target market, and the characteristics of the ideal customer (the "Ideal Customer Profile")
  • Core value propositions
  • Customer buying processes
  • Lead management processes (lead stage definitions, scoring criteria, etc.)
Clearly, marketing and sales can't be aligned if they aren't "on the same page" regarding these vital aspects of demand generation. But such shared understanding alone won't automatically create the level of alignment - or, more accurately, operational integration - that's necessary for high performance demand generation.
Even with such shared understanding, marketing and sales can easily continue to operate without the required level of ongoing collaboration and coordinated effort. So, what else is needed to produce the quality of alignment that most B2B company want?
The Other Pieces of the Alignment Puzzle
Marketing-sales alignment that is highly effective requires two things in addition to shared understanding. First, there must be a widespread recognition among marketing and sales professionals that the two functions are now deeply interdependent. In other words, marketers and sales professionals must recognize that they need each other, and that an integrated approach to demand generation is essential for success.
Second, effective alignment requires marketing and sales to work collaboratively on an ongoing basis. In organizations with a high level of sales-marketing alignment, this collaboration occurs naturally and spontaneously, whenever it is needed, and it takes place at all levels of both functions. In other words, working collaboratively becomes the normal way that things get done.
How Leaders Nurture Alignment
Achieving effective sales-marketing alignment is primarily the responsibility of the chief marketing officer and the chief sales officer. The CEO must be supportive, but the CMO and the CSO must lead the alignment effort on a day-to-day basis. In addition to implementing the mechanisms designed to develop shared understanding, CMO's and CSO's need to take three other steps.
Reinforce the Aligning Narrative - The CMO and the CSO must constantly communicate the importance of having marketing and sales work together seamlessly - that the company's demand generation efforts can't produce maximum results unless marketing and sales function as a cohesive team. In addition, CMO's and CSO's should communicate that informal, self-directed collaboration among marketing and sales professionals is not only acceptable, but expected. This aligning narrative needs to be reinforced every day in some way.
Conduct Regular Sales-Marketing Forums - CMO's and CSO's should conduct joint sales-marketing forums on a regular basis. The cadence of these forums is determined by individual company needs, but they probably should occur at least monthly in most companies. The primary objective of these forums is to provide a venue for marketing and sales personnel at all levels to interact, exchange information, and discuss problems and opportunities.
Leverage Cross-Functional Teams - The CMO and the CSO should always be looking for opportunities to use cross-functional teams to deal with meaningful problems, challenges, or opportunities. Whenever possible, these teams should be composed of individuals who wouldn't otherwise work together. Not only are cross-functional teams usually the best way to address major issues, they also foster the development of personal relationships that span functional and departmental boundaries.

The Bottom Line

Creating effective sales-marketing alignment is ultimately an exercise in team building. It's essential for marketing and sales professionals to have a shared understanding regarding the major components of demand generation strategy. But shared understanding alone isn't sufficient to create the level of alignment that's necessary for high performance demand generation. In addition, marketing and sales leaders must nurture a "culture of collaboration" that transforms marketing and sales into a true team of teams.



Illustration courtesy of Olga Berrios via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Six Ways to Gain Influence With B2B Buyers


In an earlier post, I discussed some of the major survey findings reported in The 2018 B2B Buying Disconnect by TrustRadius. This report is based on two surveys. One survey included 438 individuals who played a key role in a significant business technology purchase during the previous year, and the second was a survey of 240 individuals who worked for business technology vendors in a marketing or sales capacity.

One objective of this research was to identify what sources of information buyers are using to support purchase decisions, and what sources they deem to be influential and trustworthy. As I discussed in the earlier post, the sources of information that buyers think are most influential and trustworthy include their own prior experience with a product, free trials, product demos, and referrals from a friend, colleague, or peer. Surveyed buyers ranked all types of vendor-provided information (except product demos) as least influential and trustworthy.

TrustRadius also asked buyers about the overall influence that vendors have on their purchase decisions. Only 23% of the surveyed buyers said their vendors are very influential. TrustRadius then sought to identify what attributes and behaviors separated very influential vendors from less influential vendors in the eyes of buyers.

One of the most striking attributes of very influential vendors is that they are open and transparent about the limitations of their product or solution. Fifty-one percent of surveyed buyers who said their vendors are very influential also said their vendors are very forthcoming about product limitations. Only 31% of the buyers with less influential vendors said their vendors are open about product limitations.

In the survey of vendor marketing and sales professionals, 85% of the respondents said they "aim to be clear about where the product works well and where something else might be a better fit." So there is a significant gap between vendors and buyers on this aspect of transparency.

Buyers who said their vendors are very influential were also more likely than other buyers to say that their vendors:

  • Provided customer evidence like reviews and case studies
  • Connected them with customer references
  • Helped them strategize the best approach for their use case
  • Helped them understand potential ROI
  • Provided learning opportunities (events, workshops, etc.)
Collectively, these survey findings provide a clear picture of what buyers really want from their vendors. And these findings are consistent with research from other firms. For example, in a 2017 survey of B2B buyers by the Aberdeen Group, survey participants were asked to select two factors (from a list of nine) that play a role in their buying decisions. The three most frequently chosen factors were:
  • Total cost of ownership
  • How the vendor/solution supports our company's goals
  • Efficiency gains (ROI)
However, when survey participants were asked what other factors they consider when they make buying decisions, 68.2% of respondents said the vendor can help sharpen our competitive differentiation, and over half (55.7%) said the vendor can help me identify new possibilities and avenues for revenue.
Clearly, today's buyers are looking for vendors who are completely transparent about the capabilities and limitations of their solutions, and vendors who can help them improve business performance. That's not particularly surprising, but it's important to remember.

Illustration courtesy of Amtec Staffing via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Closing the Customer Experience Gap


Most senior business leaders now recognize the strategic importance of providing outstanding customer experiences. Customer experience has been one of the hottest topics in business and marketing circles for the past several years, and it's been the subject of numerous research studies.

A 2017 report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services provides an important perspective on the current state of customer experience management. This report was based on a global survey of 682 business leaders, 53% of whom were executives or senior managers. Survey respondents represented several industry verticals and included individuals from large, mid-size, and small companies.

The HBR report is particularly interesting because survey participants were drawn from a variety of job functions, including operations/product management, sales/business development, marketing, and HR. It's now clear that delivering outstanding customer experiences requires a cross-functional effort by many parts of a company. The HBR research is valuable because it captures the views of business leaders working in several business functions.

An overwhelming majority of the business leaders surveyed by HBR recognize the importance of providing outstanding customer experiences. Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents (73%) said that delivering a relevant and reliable customer experience is already critical to their company's overall business performance, and almost all respondents (93%) agreed that it would be critical two years from now.

The HBR research also revealed, however, that most companies have more work to do to provide great customer experiences. Only 15% of the survey respondents said their company is very effective at delivering relevant and reliable customer experiences. Fifty-three percent of the respondents said their company is somewhat effective, and nearly a third (32%) rated their company's performance as not very effective.

This research also revealed the breadth of the customer experience gap. HBR asked survey participants to rate the importance of nine factors in delivering relevant and reliable customer experiences and their company's effectiveness regarding the same factors. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who gave a high rating (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale) on the importance/effectiveness of each factor:






















As this table shows, there is widespread agreement regarding the importance of these nine factors, and the findings also show that less than half of these survey respondents believe their company is effective on any of the nine factors.

Like other studies, the HBR research identified the lack of a single, comprehensive source of customer intelligence as a major cause of the customer experience gap. Only 13% of survey respondents said they have a single source of customer data/intelligence across all products and activities, and the lack of unified customer intelligence is clearly having an impact. Only 23% of the survey respondents said they are able to act on all or most of the customer data they collect.

The HBR report discusses several other important topics related to customer experience management. If you're involved in improving the customer experiences that your company provides, the HBR report will be useful and valuable.

Top image courtesy of Richard Grant via Flickr CC.