IT’S NO SECRET that the way customers buy from us is changing, big time. The internet has forever transformed the way buyers research, find, evaluate, and connect with sellers. It’s all part of the disruptive transition from the old analog economy to the new digital one.
As I watch this transformation, I’m reminded of the classic character Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s iconic play, “Death of a Salesman.” Loman was an old-school shoe salesman who hit the road with a suitcase full of samples and brought orders back to his company. But the market changed and the buyers no longer responded the way they used to. The play ends tragically with Loman committing suicide because he couldn’t adapt to the changes.
Not to be overly dramatic, but the situation we’re facing today is much the same. The old ways of finding a buyer, pitching the features and benefits of what we do, and then closing the deal are gone. Today, we face a new kind of buyer, one who has used the internet their entire life and who considers potential vendors in a completely different way.
In the old sales model, buyers would find our ad in a newspaper, trade magazine, the Yellow Pages, or at a tradeshow. They might even send in a coupon for a brochure. They would glean what they could from these sources before reaching out to a salesperson for more information.
This discovery phase amounted to only about 15 percent of the entire sales process. The following 65 to 70 percent was a protracted courtship between the salesperson and the buyer. Relationships had to be developed. The salesperson would continually offer “trial balloon” closes where they would test the buyer for receptiveness.
Finally, the process would reach the close phase, the final 15 to 20 percent. Basically, the buyer was bullied into placing an order by the salesperson. Buyers hated it, and still do.Advertisement
They hated it so much that it led to something called buyer’s remorse, a post-sale phase where the buyer regrets their decision and tries to cancel the deal. The resentment grew so bad that now there is an official three-day cooling off period, giving the buyer three days to change their mind or get a full refund.
In the digital economy, the buying process is much different. According to Google (2015), 89 percent of buyers now start their discovery process with an online search. They quickly gather huge amounts of information about competitors, prices, features, benefits – the whole enchilada. But interestingly, the world of vendors open to buyers on the web hasn’t eroded loyalty to local sources. In the end, according to InsideSales.com, 72 percent prefer to buy from someone nearby if the local vendor can match what they found on the internet.
This self-driven research comprises 85 to 90 percent of the sales cycle for today’s buyer. The bad news is, buyers are closer to making a decision by the time they reach out to potential sellers, and if you do get the call, you have one shot to close or you’ll lose them forever. Even worse, such buyers are totally focused on the commodity aspects of the sale like the lowest price, free shipping, and so on.
Into that environment came a group of internet-based disruptors that developed new ways to lead buyers to them. Companies like Amazon and Custom Ink have built and optimized their sales platforms specifically for the internet. In the process, they have effectively changed the way buyers expect to purchase.
It started with search engine optimization (SEO), which evolved to search engine marketing (SEM). Now it involves comprehensive omnichannel strategies that include SEO, SEM, social media, email marketing, and content marketing.
Here’s the key: The online platforms aren’t selling features and benefits. They’re selling experiences that result from buying through them. This makes it very hard for companies that take a more passive approach to compete. In the process I described earlier, companies are basically using their websites and any social ads they may be running to fish for prospects. Those who respond are searching for something they know they need, more or less immediately. The buyer finds you and everyone else, and selects the vendor who raised their hand higher and waved it more aggressively.Advertisement
Aim for the Target
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The trick is to get in front of the buyer in a more targeted and efficient way.
Think of how you’re going to find and connect with your buyer in much the same way a hunter would go about finding a target. If you’re hunting deer, you wouldn’t look in the same spots as if you were hunting ducks. You have to identify your target and go where they hang out.
For us, the process is pretty simple in concept. It begins by clearly identifying three to five specific niche markets, a very important step. In order to stand out, you have to know everything there is to know about your niches and the behavior of the prospects in that segment. Schools, for example, will have a very different profile than buyers in the festival or events market. Be specific. You want to target groups you can consistently serve.
Next comes a deeper investigation of the buyer profile. Keep in mind that new generations of buyers are entering the market. The millennials and the centennials who will follow are replacing the Gen Xers and baby boomers. These new groups have grown up in an entirely digital experience. They prefer to avoid face-to-face and even phone conversations. Their motivators are based not so much on price, but experience, and this is your opportunity.
In order to differentiate yourself and connect with these new buyers, your approach has to be all about them. It may have always been this way, but never more so than today. Your success depends on understanding how your products and services fit into the buyer’s overall experience.
For example, let’s say a prospective buyer approaches you for shirts for a 10K or half marathon. Your success will hinge on the complete experience you deliver. From working with race organizers, you know they’re going to need a lot more than shirts – they’ll require sponsor signage, event banners, window posters to promote the event, course markers, goodie bags, bib numbers, and so on. You know that active people aren’t looking for the cheapest cotton T-shirt any longer; today, they’re interested in technical performance fabrics. They’re more expensive and not everyone can print them well.Advertisement
When you expand your knowledge of the buyer to multiple dimensions like this, you immediately differentiate yourself. You’re no longer a commodity and you connect with them on a much deeper level. You can talk their talk; you know the lingo associated with their niche. You also know what they like to do before, during, and after the event.
All this positions you as someone the buyers can trust. When you back this perception up with social media reviews on sites like Yelp and Manta, you lock yourself into the prime vendor position and virtually eliminate your competition.
Specialize to Get Ahead
One thing I’ve learned over the years: Not all business is good. The old-school model was all about taking every order opportunity that presented itself. This approach led to tremendous frustration, PITA customers, unreasonable demands, huge amounts of wasted time, and relationships that just weren’t a match.
When you search out new buyers who have similar interests as you, your ability to connect is much better. Taking the time to learn and understand what they want moves you from being a commodity producer to being a specialist within a well-defined market.
Once you’ve established a working model in that niche, leverage the power of peer-to-peer referrals to validate and recommend you. Seek out influencers in that field and work with them. The best way is to engage in the forums and social media groups around your niche. Having a social presence where you provide insights, solutions, and advice establishes you as an expert.
Social media is not the place to pitch your products or services. Instead, develop case studies about clients you’ve worked with. Tag your clients in those posts. If you’ve done a great job, I guarantee you will start to generate engagement and validation without ever having to pitch anything.
Of course, your objective is to generate likes and shares. Use those to build expanded Custom and Lookalike Audiences that exactly match the profile of your best, most enthusiastic fans. This is a very effective way to leverage the changing behavior of the new buyer.
Hopefully, this gives you a snapshot of how the new buyer is different and what you can do to connect with them in a positive way. There is more opportunity now than ever before. To capitalize on it, you only have to raise your level of awareness, be perceptive, do a little homework, and start to develop a connection with the niche communities you have identified as your best markets.
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