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Sales representatives’ quota attainment has been on the decline for several years now, and failure to change alongside B2B buyers’ shifting preferences may be a key culprit, according to the 2018 Buyer Preferences Study [download page] from CSO Insights, the research division of Miller Heiman Group. Here are 5 takeaways from the report, which delved into buyers’ interactions with sales reps.

1. Buyers’ View of Salespeople is Fairly Neutral

Overall, buyers have a generally positive view of the value of working with sellers. Almost two-thirds (65%) describe their discussions as positive, while about one-third (32%) are neutral on the topic, seeing some as useful and some as a waste of time.

That’s supported by recent research from ValueSelling Associates, in which a strong majority of buyers surveyed agree that point-of-sale vendors are helpful throughout the buying process and provide relevant business information for buying decisions.

However, separate results suggest that buyers’ perceptions of sellers isn’t quite as rosy: respondents were twice as likely to say that the majority of salespeople meet their expectations (62%) than to say they exceed them (32%).

With just 6% saying that sellers fall short of expectations, the results don’t seem too negative. But as the analysts point out, on a customer experience basis, neutrality (with most saying that sellers only meet their expectations) is unlikely to abate defections from seller relationships.

2. Buyers Look to Others Beyond Just Salespeople

One ramification of buyer apathy with salespeople is that they have a tendency to look elsewhere when business problems arise.

As part of the study, buyers were presented with a list of 10 information resources and asked which 3 they would consult in order to solve a business problem. Vendor salespeople came in 9th, cited by fewer than one-quarter (23%) of respondents. (See the above chart.)

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for vendors to play. More than one-third (36%) of buyers said they would rely on past experience with a vendor to solve their problem (2nd-ranked resource), while almost as many (35%) said they would visit vendor websites (3rd-ranked resource). The trouble for sellers is that those options don’t tend to further relationships, particularly when buyers are looking for relationships, not just transactions.

Meanwhile, the most-cited resource for solving a problem is a subject matter expert from industry or third parties (43%). Industry events/trade shows/conferences, along with peers/colleagues, online communities and trade media are also useful resources for some.

3. Do Sellers Differentiate?

B2B vendors are always looking to differentiate themselves from the pack, whether it’s through the customer experience they offer or innovation in products and services. But they may not always have the opportunity to do so, per the CSO Insights report, and they seldom do in buyers’ eyes.

It’s true that only about one-tenth of buyers feel that all vendors are equal. But the majority (58%) believe that when it comes to differentiation, one vendor is typically a little better than the others. That leaves slightly fewer than 1 in 3 buyers (32%) saying that one vendor typically outshines the rest.

Part of the trouble is that many buyers wait until late in the process to engage representatives: almost half (44%) engage salespeople after they’ve already identified solutions, and only 3 in 10 engage salespeople at the start of the process, when they are identifying and clarifying their needs.

As the analysts note, “with less time and possibly less creative space to work with, all sellers start to look alike in the eyes of the buyer.”

This creates an “apathy loop”: sellers are seen as simply meeting expectations, which leads to buyers not engaging them to solve business problems, which then leads to buyers not engaging sellers until they’ve already learned about a specific solution, which in turn leads them to see little difference between sellers. And when buyers see little differentiation they’re more likely to again see vendors as having simply met the needs they identified by assisting with the purchase, rather than having exceeded expectations.

4. 90% Will Engage Sellers Earlier. Why?

In an age of technological advances in artificial intelligence and the emergence of e-commerce players such as Amazon and Alibaba, there’s a threat of salespeople being excluded from the buying process altogether.

The positive news from the report is that virtually all buyers (90%) are open to engaging with sellers earlier in the buying process. This tendency has been seen in various pieces of research this year (see here, here and here), combating the notion that buyers only want to engage with salespeople towards the end of the process.

So under what circumstances do buyers want to engage earlier? The report details greater interest in early engagement when a business challenge is:

  • New for the buyer (34%);
  • Perceived as risky for the organization (21%);
  • Perceived as risky for the buyer themselves (19%); and
  • Complex, for example, by impacting several departments (16%).

Separately, buyers who describe their style as “risk-takers” were much more likely than those who identified as “skeptics” to prefer engaging a seller early.

These results suggest that when a purchase is new, complex and risky, the risk-taking buyers who are in charge of the purchase are more willing to engage with sellers early in the process, giving them more space to differentiate their solutions. (This may be due to their understanding that there’s a lot at stake with a wrong purchase decision.)

5. What Buyers Want: Understanding and Communication

Finally, what will it take to exceed buyers’ expectations? The report outlines four critical items that buyers are asking for. The following details each of the four, along with a comment from a respondent and a supporting piece of research.

1. “Understand my business. Know me.”

Respondent comment: “Well, I’d certainly appreciate a seller who did all necessary research into our industry needs beforehand, and did not ask unnecessary questions!”

Supporting research: A MarketingCharts report on B2B digital marketing revealed that buyers feel salespeople are most likely to earn their trust by demonstrating high levels of knowledge about their products and services (74%) and the buyer’s organization (52%).

2. “Demonstrate excellent communication skills.”

Respondent comment: “Many times their strength is in talking, not listening, so a good listener is refreshing!”

Supporting research: A Merkle survey asked 200 B2B buyers in North America and Europe to choose from a list their greatest challenges during the process of searching for, identifying and considering which business products and services to buy. By far the most common complaint related to vendors being unwilling to listen.

3. “Focus on Post-Sale.”

Respondent comment: “It isn’t enough to just sell a company a product. There has to be a continued interest in its success.”

Supporting research: A study from TrustRadius found that vendors considered “very influential” were more likely to have taken a range of actions as part of their buyer engagement than less influential vendors. One of the biggest gaps was for vendors being consultative and helping the buyer strategize the best approach for their use case.

4. “Give me insights and perspective.”

Respondent comment: “Propose an additional alternative solution that brings value, even if not fully in the initial scope.”

Supporting research: A report from the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research revealed that one of the key reasons buyers connect with vendors is for insight on the use of products or services to solve business problems.

The full report from CSO Insights is available to download here.

About the Data: The results are based on a global survey of 500 B2B buyers working for companies with at least $250 million in revenues, all of whom make purchases of at least $10k. Buyers are defined as business professionals making business purchases, and are not limited to procurement professionals. Respondents came from 25 industries and 21 countries, with the North American (50%) and EMEA regions (30%) the most heavily represented.

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