By Bridget McCrea
Your customers are looking for a different buying experience in 2016. It’s time to get out in front of these changes and adapt to their changing needs, wants, and perceptions.
Whether you’ve noticed or not, your customers’ preferences, needs, and perceptions are changing. Even if the electrical contractors you’ve been selling to for the last 10 years are purchasing the same products and relying on you for the same technical support and expertise, something is inherently different about they way they transacted with you in 2006 versus how they do it now. The changes are taking place across the board—from how they do their initial research, to how they communicate with you, to how they expect issues like returns and warranties to be handled. Just how your company reacts and adapts to these changing needs and perceptions is up to you, but one thing is certain: Burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away isn’t the answer.
Consumer-focused businesses may have been the first to feel the impact of changing customer preferences and habits, but it didn’t take long for these shifts to make their way into the business-to-business (B2B) world that most electrical distributors operate in. “Today’s business buyer is more connected, informed, and in control of the buying process than ever before. In order to thrive, B2B marketers must focus their resources on meeting the needs and expectations of these newly empowered B2B customers,” Siteworx states in B2B Marketing in 2015: It’s All About the Customer. Forrester Research Inc. refers to this new era of the connected buyer as the “Age of the Customer,” wherein successful companies will consistently rethink and rework their approach in order to systematically anticipate and respond to customer needs.
Research firm McKinsey & Co., has also studied this trend. In, Do you really understand how your business customers buy?, the company discusses the “explosion of communication vehicles and interaction channels” that has ratcheted up the expectations of business purchasers. Many more influencers and decision makers are now involved in the purchasing process, and business buyers too have been shaped by their consumer shopping experience. As a result, their behavior has become more consumer-like. There is no longer such a thing as a simple cold call: customers expect a sales rep to be extremely knowledgeable about their business and perhaps even their own individual profile—at least if the purchaser is a millennial who has grown up sharing his or her life online. In other respects, as well, the purchasing process is becoming more fluid.”
Changing the Blueprint
As the B2B sales process has become more “fluid,” companies across the board have had to change the way they sell to, interact with, and do business with one another. Some distributorships have adapted to the changes while others have struggled under the pressure of having to alter the way they sell to existing, past, and prospective customers in the current environment. “A lot of firms have been doing things a certain way for a long time, and all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t working as well anymore,” says Doug Dobie, CEO and founder of growth strategy consultancy Delvantage, Inc., in Long Beach, Calif. For example, customers are no longer waiting for outside or inside sales reps to “call on them” and put them in touch with new products and opportunities. Now, those buyers are going out and finding the information on their own, researching online, and reading reviews. That, in turn, has changed the buying criteria and forced companies to rethink the way they manage their sales channels.
“As this point, the sales channel is a ‘marketing’ arm, with all of the content and knowledge management being delivered via marketing interactions with customers (i.e., those that take place online),” says Dobie. “The salesperson is then pulled midstream into the buyer’s journey and therefore has to be prepared to reinforce all of that marketing, tie it into product demos, and use interactive presentations to effectively close the sale. Outside reps aren’t used to this.”
So how can a distributor change the blueprint and adapt to these and other shifts in customer preferences and habits? It starts by recognizing the changes and gaining a better understanding of the way your customers want to buy. If, for example, an electrical contractor is sitting at home at midnight researching products and pricing for an upcoming project, then the electrical distributorship needs to have the right amount of marketing materials, product specifications, and even pricing information online 24/7/365 for that customer—who isn’t going to wait until 8AM the next morning (or, for an in-person sales call) to make his purchasing decisions.
Be Their Champion
Dobie says distributors should also think beyond just “here are the products that we offer,” and look more carefully at how customers are engaging with those products. Then, use that intelligence to hone your product line, sell deeper into specific customer accounts, and develop new value-added offerings. “Figure out your customers’ identities and voices, and look carefully at what’s changed about both over the last five years,” says Dobie, who tells distributors to ask their customers questions like:
- What are you looking for now that you didn’t want or need five years ago?
- What’s different for you today?
- Why are you buying this way today compared to five years ago?
- What do you need now going forward from us that we’re not providing you?
“The answers that you get may be eye opening,” says Dobie. “In some cases, you may have had no idea what your customers were thinking, and what kind of transformations were taking place. If you’re not talking to your customers and getting out in front of what they want to buy and how they want to buy it, they may go elsewhere.”
John Dinsmore, assistant professor of marketing at Wright State University’s Raj Soin College of Business in Dayton, Oh., concurs and says everything from your online presence to your physical store to your marketing materials has to reflect these new realities. “Because B2B sales are very relationship focused, distributors have the chance to get a lot of valuable information from your customers,” says Dinsmore. “Simply listening to them—and responding accordingly—gives you the chance to solve their problems and be their champion.”
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
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