It’s a statistic that’s been widely quoted and even more widely misunderstood – the idea that the typical modern B2B buying decision process is “57% complete” before the customer even talks to the supplier.

57_percentOr you may have seen it quoted as “65%” or “two thirds”. It doesn’t matter, because all the figures are precisely wrong.

I think the original statistic came from a CEB* study but it has been naively interpreted and driven many thoughtless conclusions. You see, like many statistics, it’s simply a headline-grabbing average that hides a wide variation in actual behaviour.

Subsequent studies by other organisations – including one by IDC – have revealed subtleties that any B2B sales and marketing organisation need to take into consideration before they decide to make far-reaching changes to their go-to-market strategy…

An unhelpful average

In fact, the worse possible thing that any smart B2B organisation could do is take the 57% statistic too literally, or to assume that late-stage engagement has somehow become the inevitable norm. We need to put the statistic into a broader context.

First, let’s acknowledge that the stage at which the customer will feel the need to engage in a sales conversation will vary dramatically according to the complexity of their need.

You can’t ignore complexity

If they have a clear sense of what they want to buy – for example if it is a simple or relatively inexpensive transactional purchase or the re-ordering of the same or similar solutions, then it’s hardly surprising that the prospect may conduct most of the buying process online.

But if the problem is poorly defined, and the solution less than obvious, or if it involves a high-value complex buying decision process with multiple stakeholders, then the prospect is much more likely to be open to early engagement with potential vendors.

Of course, at this earlier stage of consideration, they are expecting to be educated, rather than subjected to the hard sell – and will react very badly if exposed to the blunt instrument of a dinosaur sales person who has been schooled in the “always be closing” style of selling.

When “selling value” only adds to cost

Simple, generic or inexpensive products where the primary differentiation is price and delivery are increasingly becoming the preserve of on-line purchasing. In this environment, attempts to “sell value” are likely to simply increase the costs of losing the sale.

For these sort of low-friction transactional purchases, most buyers simply want the experience to be as simple as possible, and if the sales person cannot make a real contribution to their thinking process, they had better step out of the way.

For considered purchases, you need to engage early

But for the sort of high-value, considered purchases that most of the clients I work for are familiar with, early sales involvement is absolutely critical to improving the chances of sales success. As one of my customers is fond of saying, you need to engage while the cement is still wet.

In these complex deals, the concept of value has multiple dimensions. In many cases – where the prospect’s need may have to be created or at the very least redefined at an early stage of the buying journey, the sales person will probably have to “sell” the need for change – and the need to change now, rather than later – before they can sell their solution.

You can’t wait for BANT before engaging

The idea that this sort of influence can be most effectively exerted when a decision process is more than half-way complete is risible. In complex sales environments, this sort of sales conversation needs to start early. And it certainly needs to start way before the opportunity can be called “BANT qualified”.

In this sort of situation, if sales people (or their managers) insist on opportunities being BANT qualified before they are prepared to engage, they are simply sleepwalking towards a revenue precipice.

Learning from top performers

Top sales performers have always understood the value of engaging in the sales conversation at the earliest possible stage in the prospect’s decision-making cycle – and they have balanced this with an uncanny ability to sniff out opportunities, and to qualify bad deals out early.

But what about the rest? What about the vast majority of the sales population? What can we do to enable them to engage the prospect more effectively, early in the process?

Marketing must take the lead

The answer must start with marketing. Marketing needs to communicate with the market in a provocative and differentiated way, stimulating the prospect to think differently and carefully structuring their “thought leadership” pieces so as to make the prospect want to learn more – and be prepared to engage in conversation – sooner, rather than later.

Weak, wishy-washy campaigns and collateral that simply serve to reinforce what the prospect already knows or believes simply won’t work – they do nothing to persuade the reader to engage.

But even creating provocative, edgy, tell-me-more content will ultimately fail unless at the same time you prepare and coach your sales people to have interesting, provocative and stimulating conversations that make their prospect want to continue the dialogue.

You need to prepare your sales people

This absolutely requires that every marketing campaign is accompanied by a sales briefing process that includes talking pieces, intelligent insights, though-provoking questions and relevant customer anecdotes.

I’ve become increasingly hard-line about this, to the point where I believe that if you’re not prepared to invest in doing this right, then you might as well not waste the effort in creating the campaign in the first place.

But do this well, and you can shatter the 57% myth. Your sales people can engage early, qualify effectively, and help shape the agenda. Or would they prefer to keep arriving late to the party, and be forever breathing someone else’s exhaust?

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