Sy Syms, a pioneer of off-price designer labels, won cult fame in the 1970s and `80s with a snappy advertising slogan: “An educated consumer is our best customer.”
But for sellers of technology solutions who once enjoyed privileged access to information, the democratization of data confronts them with a potentially troubling scenario.
To borrow a common marketing phrase, “the buyer’s journey” once centered around a salesperson who possessed a privileged store of product information. Customers didn’t have enough information or expertise to solve their own problems or independently judge the price and performance of new technology products. So they relied on the salesperson for knowledge and direction.
That’s no longer necessarily true. Thanks to the internet, customers can access any number of detailed technology reviews or sift through first-hand testimony from other users to learn everything they need to know.
In fact, customers possess as much—and sometimes more—information than salespeople. They know about speeds and feeds and pricing alternatives and can define technology solutions by themselves. In other words, they come to the table already knowing most of what needs to go into an RFP required for a solution.
All of which raises the question “what role will be left for the channel to play in the future other than shipping and handling, and monitoring and management?”
If Information is Power
It’s not just speculation. Both Gartner and Forrester predict that by the close of the decade about 80 percent of the buying process will occur without any direct human-to-human interaction.
If resellers are to remain relevant, they’re going to have to readjust to this new world. It also means that they need to make sure informed buyers will think of them as their friends, not their foes. But this has been a sometimes fraught—and asymmetrical relationship—in which buyers have been the weaker party and technology salespeople tightly controlled the information as part of the priesthood.
“And if they had to deal with the sales pitch, that was the price you had to pay,” said Chris Kenton, the founder and CEO of SocialRep, a social sales enablement and marketing platform serving global enterprise companies since 2008.
For decades, in fact, salespeople used that information advantage to tip the negotiating balance in their favor. Then came the Internet. With it, tightly controlled information was just a click away.
Chris Kenton, SocialRep
“Sales has been doing this for so many generations that nobody trusts what comes out of their mouth,” according to Kenton. “You can't just BS people and tell them stuff only to tip the balance in your favor. People are going to figure that out. Now, anyone who has a moment to check Google can see whether or not can they’re spending money wisely—and they can go anywhere to find what they’re searching for.”
Get Prospects to Tune In, Not Tune Out
In the digital era, customers now know your selling points. They know your weaknesses. They know your competition. The last thing they want to hear is one-sided marketing spiel. If they’re turning to you to get better informed, don’t waste time offering them a sales pitch.
The challenge to solutions providers is to become part of the buyer's circle earlier in the sales cycle. With the advent of the cloud and the Internet of Things, buyers have more need than ever for objective information that helps them make smarter buying decisions. Taking on the role of trusted advisor in the buying process and offering useful advice and fielding questions can build trust and nurture prospects.
Buyers respond to experts who can offer alternative solutions presented in a way that is objective, not predatory. Touting how much better your organization is will backfire if a prospect views it as yet another sales pitch.
Also recognize that the growing cohorts of millennial buyers in the workforce don’t respond to the traditional transactional, hard-sell approach. They are more technically savvy and can use the latest tech tools to find information they need. If you try to snow them, they will tune you out.
Kenton believes that the channel can deploy social tools to great advantage by sharing insights that demonstrate expertise and inform. Here’s more what he has to say:
“If you bombard people with email, they are going to turn on their spam filters. If you pester them on the phone, they’ll add you to the ‘Do Not Call’ list. Don’t treat social tools as megaphones where the intent is all about trying to amplify your brand instead of offering anything of real value to the buyer. Help them instead with white papers, webinars, events, and blog posts. Basically, it’s the difference between fostering a transactional and solutions mindset.
As solution sellers, you want to build up your reputation, if not as subject matter experts, then at least as someone who has their finger on the pulse of what’s going on. You need to be on top of what’s driving market dialogue and what’s keeping customers up at night.
If you modify your approach and spend 80 percent of your time on social media reflecting to your followers what’s going on in the marketplace—not only retweeting, but actually reflecting what specifically is in an article that you find interesting or important for customers to know, they’ll see you as someone who’s thinking about what they’re sharing. At that point, you’ll see that the number of people following you will go up measurably.
If you’re a VAR selling security, don’t come across saying, `Everyone needs security. Well, we sell security. How much do you need? Let’s talk’. Take a different approach, when, for example, when you share a report on LinkedIn about a security breach, you raise the question how much would be the cost to an organization if you were the focus of a security breach headline. And then the discussion is how to make sure that the company is covered and what types of things it would need to do to protect itself. Later on you may have a security conversation with a client about security and you can say, `Hey we were talking about this last week. Take look at this article.’
People aren’t just looking for information. They want viewpoints to help them get a better handle. Instead of blindly sharing posts, your value-add is the ability to help them understand solutions and get a deeper view, maybe on the experiences that other people have had using these products—as well as the pitfalls. A well-informed solutions salesperson should add their insight and put filters on the firehose of information that these IT guys see every day.