Our Buyers Aren't Ourselves! Empathy, Perspective & Reality in Industrial Marketing & Sales

Ed Marsh | Jun 5, 2018

Walking in someone else's shoes

Recently I was pondering a challenging meeting when I discovered this video after hearing Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking) on Shane Parish's Knowledge Project podcast.

Take a few minutes to watch the video, then let's reconnect below.

Have you ever had that sort of experience? Seeing complete strangers and wondering what their story is? I'm fortunate to have not spent much time in hospitals, but often walking through airports I find myself wondering.

Obviously business and vacation seem trivial next to the concerns of many shown in the Cleveland Clinic video. But each of us is a product of our experiences and biases. Seth Godin puts it simply that "No one is unreasonable"...from their perspective.

What if our perspective prevents us from intuiting what's in the bubbles over someone's head? Or worse, simply causes us to virtually shout them down with our own bubbles?

Sounds like most of the public discourse today....but this blog isn't about politics and society; it's about business. So what's the business lesson to take?

"That's not buying journey. That's just research."

So on to my head scratching meeting.....

Chatting with an entrepreneur in the B2B industrial manufacturing space he made a number of contradictory statements including:

  1. He was well informed about inbound and digital marketing and completely bought into the premise and wants to spend more on digital marketing
  2. When he had done marketing in the past (including digital) he hadn't seen any results, and in fact as soon as economic cycles declined he routinely cut those costs (although continuing to invest in R&D)
  3. The only consistent periods of growth that he'd experienced were during "rising tides" of general economic cycles
  4. His buyers don't use the internet to search for products and are often woefully uninformed about what options they have
  5. Buyers use the internet to find a product when they know what they need
  6. B2B buying is based on personal meetings and relationships - and therefore investing in sales channel training is a high return investment 
  7. He agreed with one of four key stats (that 74% of the time buyers select the vendor that first provided value in their search) but was dubious of three (only 3% of buyers for any given product/service are in the market at any given time; 93% of all B2B purchases start with internet search; buyers are 70% through buying journey before they want to speak to a rep)
  8. Buyer persona research is necessary because in reality buyers don't use the internet and don't search issues - his buyer persona research is function of his interactions with buyers (and directly contradicts independent research to the contrary)

So how to unpack all this? Like many engineers, particularly those who have realized some entrepreneurial success, he has "thought through" these issues and is pretty convinced he's got it decoded. Does he?

I'm certain he was being straightforward and if Seth's right than the many irreconcilable contradictions in his positions aren't unreasonable from his perspective.

So what's the rub?

I found a clue in an exchange around buying journey and research. When he told me that by the time people search for something they know what they want, I asked "Well how do they arrive at the point that they know what they want?"

His answer was simple - that'a a product of professional experience and in shockingly few cases, research. In other words a process distinct from the buying journey. He challenged me repeatedly on my assertion that people are asking questions of the internet. Despite statistics demonstrating specific search behaviors, search engine auto suggest confirming those, IHS Global spec research into technical buyer use of internet and social media, etc., he was adamant that answering the kinds of questions buyers ask at different stages of the buying journey was folly.

What a discouraging way to approach work every day! Imagine setting out from home in the morning believing that you'll only sell if you happen to have a F2F meeting, set up by a line-card distributing rep, with a buyer at precisely the time they have decided they're going to buy your product? (Although it's a brilliant use case for Buyer Intent Data!)

Is it possible to change this kind of thinking?

Maybe. But is it worth it? 

There's a reason why companies stagnate. And sometimes success is just a function of a fortuitous combination of time, place and solution. It's easy to assume that there's more than that. (Of course there's a lot that has to go right from an execution perspective, for sure.) But often companies assume that their success is a result of their routine practices. That's a dangerous cognitive bias - and the risk becomes clear as market circumstances change while they continue to do more of the same - and stagnation then decline result.

So it would be possible to present data showing questions being asked, revenue results for similar companies, etc. Whether that gets agreement is questionable - whether it earns buy-in is doubtful.

Overwriting your buyers' bubbles demands real buyer empathy

Henry Ford is famous for saying if he'd given buyers what they thought they wanted he would have made faster horses. Instead he focused on the what Clayton Christensen calls the "jobs buyers want done." Similarly The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation explores how to productively help buyers reframe what they're buying - often from a product or service, to something in the context of bigger personal and professional objectives.

This requires capable sales people and carefully crafted digital marketing and sales enablement. It also requires a deep understanding of your prospects and buyers. And often that's the missing ingredient.

Mission statements chock full of "customer" language are plastered on conference room walls around the country. And down the hall are PR, marketing, sales and customer service silos. Physically and functionally separated according to org charts and resource allocations that are artifacts of a different buying and selling era, these departments focus on internal metrics. What's best for the buyer is rarely discussed except in the context of boosting NPS (net promoter scores.)

Make the customer visible

Think about your marketing, sales and customer service meetings. Would you be willing to record and publish them on YouTube? Probably not. In some cases you'll be discussing proprietary or privileged information. That's a good reason to keep the meeting contents confidential.

In most cases, however, that hesitance will come from the embarrassed awareness that while talking about prospects and customers, the real motivation is selfish. 

successful industrial marketing requires a strong buyer focusThere's an easy, albeit cheesy fix to this problem. Put the customer at the conference table for every discussion; and do it physically. Find a mannequin or even a large stuffed animal that represents your prospects and customers, and put them in a seat near the head of the table. Provide them a name tent card boldly identifying them as a customer. Appoint someone as their steward in the meeting to raise their hand and challenge discussion from their perspective.

Otherwise your team will blow through meetings ignorant of the buyer perspective just as though they're wandering the halls of Cleveland Clinic with their head down looking at their phones and missing the hopes, dreams, fears and pain of those around them.

Put your buyers beside you at the table in your meetings....or just continue to produce corporate speak marketing babble about the importance of customers and carry on as usual.

Your choice! Make it carefully.

buyer intent data for powerful sales leads