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The 4 steps to a B2B sale: rational meets irrational

My old boss Steve Trygg (a great copywriter) used to talk about the role of marketing in business decision-making by breaking down every purchase decision into four steps — the four things buyers do before they buy:

1) Identify a need
This is mostly a rational process and largely buyer-initiated. The FD knows when she needs new accounting software and she knows why.

2) Draw up a shortlist
This is usually an irrational process. People draw up a list of vendors to investigate by asking around, thinking of past experiences, following a gut feel. Google may have changed this somewhat, but it’s still largely an intuitive exercise.

3) Evaluate proposals
Mostly rational again. Buyers look at price, terms, delivery and specs. They compare competitors side-by-side. Marketing is present here, but at this point, it’s largely down to the offer (product + price).

4) Buy
Weirdly, this last step has a big irrational component. Buyers often do not choose the vendor that wins on paper. They choose the one they feel best about. The one they trust. The one they feel will get them to the goal in the least stressful way. If there’s a salesperson involved, this is their moment.

Where does marketing fit in with all this?
If you think of B2B marketing as the delivery of pure business information, its role is mainly influential during stages 1 and 3. Helping buyers identify a need and helping them evaluate options.

If you think of marketing as creating a brand, the job focuses on steps 2 and 4 — the largely irrational steps — drawing up a shortlist and making the final decision.

Let’s look at the four steps again with this in mind:

1) Identify a need
Marketing can help here by showing someone that the way they do things now is flawed (‘selling the problem’). Or by convincing them that one of their perennial problems can now be taken away. Or showing them that their competitors are jumping ahead of them in some way.

All this falls under a banner they used to call ‘creating a need’. In reality, marketing can’t create needs. It can only address them. Doing this is all about getting noticed, then making a rational case for change. The ‘business information’ side of the B2B marketing equation.

2) Draw up a shortlist
Good marketing shines here. It gets companies on shortlists by raising awareness and by associating the vendor with the critical issues that relate to the problem (positioning and thought leadership).

On the warm, fuzzy side, marketing works here by building a brand that people feel good about. Engineers tease us about this part but it may be the single most important thing we do. As our client Anil Raj likes to say, there’s no such thing as business-to-business, there’s only person-to-person.

Clearly, the salesperson is the most important element here. But a great brand works with the salesperson to tip the scales. People like working with companies they feel good about. They feel good about companies that demonstrate they understand their problems, speak frankly and intelligently about them and show conviction, confidence and passion in everything they do.

3) Evaluate proposals
The salesperson’s work is the main agent here. But the ‘business information’ side of B2B marketing can contribute enormously by providing the information the buyer needs to make the decision (and convince others); as well as by helping frame the issues in a way that tilts the decision the right way.

4) Buy
It’s down to two or three credible products and vendors. All look like they can do the job or they wouldn’t have made it this far. Now, the ‘brand’ side of B2B marketing kicks in again. Buyers will choose the company they feel best about. The one they want to spend more time with. The one they respect and trust.

A great salesperson will overcome all but the worst marketing in stages 2 and 4. But great marketing will give your company the best possible chance of walking right up the four steps, contract in hand.

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