We know the importance of the marketing and sales process. It provides us a structured, disciplined approach to engaging our buyers. In theory, it should help us help the customer in navigating their buying process.

Sounds good, what could be simpler–start at the beginning, go step by step through each stage, reach the end when the customer does, get an order, move on.

The problem is, the customer buying process is not a structured, linear process. In fact, it could be described as chaotic.

All of a sudden, something doesn’t make sense. We can start to see the disconnect between how we engage the customer and the the way they buy.

Marketers and sellers always assume our customers go through a fairly straightforward process: Identify a problem or need to change, determine requirements, and priorities, determine needs, assess alternative solutions, select a solution, implement.

As a result, we’ve designed our marketing and selling processes to align with the “straightforward” buying process. And it isn’t working, because this isn’t the way our customer buy!

What’s this mean for marketing and sales, what’s this mean in how we engage our customers?

Some thoughts:

1. Buying is much more difficult than buyers or we have ever understood. Which explains why so many buying initiatives end in no decision made.

2. Applying a straightforward, “linear” engagement process is actually very ineffective and inefficient in “helping” the buyer. The steps we go through in our marketing and selling processes are likely to be out of alignment with where the customer actually is today, and where they are likely to be tomorrow. Where we are trying to be “helpful,” we may not actually be being helpful.

3. We need to look at the information we provide, how we provide it, when we provide it, and the format/context in a different way. We have to leverage multiple channels of consuming information in a consistent manner–customers will be leveraging online, traditional, partner, and sales channels through their buying process. We need to provide information access across all the channels, so the customer can choose whatever is most appropriate.

4. The concepts of “just in time,” or “on-demand” become more important in providing information than ever in the past. Providing the right information and engagement, wherever the customer is in their process, is important.

5. There are profound implications for how marketing and sales work together, through the entire process. I’ve always talked about the requirement for marketing and sales processes to be interleaved through the entire buying process, rather than the “we catch ’em, you skin ’em” approach used by most organizations. Not only do we have to think about the content, but our organizational structures, role definitions, metrics need to be changed to better align with being able to respond to customer “chaotic” buying processes.

6. Nimbleness, agility, lean become watchwords with how we work with and engage our customers. We must refocus sales and marketing to become much more nimble and agile, in reality not in lip service.

7. Having said all of this, helping provide greater clarity for the customer–wherever they are in the buying process, helping them more effectively simplify their buying process–reducing the chaos is critical. It may become the most critical role salespeople play. Skills of project management, resource management, critical thinking, problem-solving will become critical in helping the customer “make sense” of what they are doing.

With the last point, I’ve taken a great departure from a lot of the current writing about the chaotic buying process. Many think the role of the salesperson becomes that of an information source, providing the right information at the right time as the customer navigates their process. It is based on a flawed assumption that this process is what it is and will not be improved.

Just because the process is chaotic, doesn’t mean that’s what the customer likes or wants. A part of this chaos is they don’t know how to buy. Part is their worlds are very dynamic and constantly changing–priorities are shifting, roles change. Requirements are constantly shifting, they may be trying to pin down requirements/processes on shifting grounds (the equivalent of changing a tire on a race car while it is still traveling on the race course.)

Recognizing what “is” with the customer doesn’t mean it’s good for the customer and it’s what they want. Providing clarity, structure, and simplification, helping reduce the chaos is, perhaps, the greatest value salespeople can provide.

But first, we have to recognize this ourselves, realizing that our current linear/structured ways of engaging the customer aren’t helpful–wasting customer time/resources, as well as ours. We have to realign our organizations and work efforts, enabling our people to more effectively help our customers reduce the chaos and simplify their processes. We have to give our people the skills, tools, programs, and resources that enable them to execute in this chaotic environment.

This is a huge challenge for all of us, but if we are to drive value and engagement with our customers, we have to re-assess everything they do and what we do with them.