The Web-Enabled Sales Process


I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! Things have got to change . 1976 movie NETWORK

Today, nearly every business to business (B2B) information technology company I talk to is mad that its attempts to increase new account sales have failed. This has grown into a huge problem—to the point where a significant number of companies have decided that they are not going to take it any more, and have totally abandoned new account growth strategies. However, by leveraging new technology, understanding the buy cycle value chain and enabling today's self-directed buyer, sales organizations can significantly increase revenue and reduce costs.

Since the tech bust that followed Y2K, technology companies have become more and more frustrated by their attempts to win new business. Sales departments across the industry have tried all the traditional sales strategies: improving the quality of the sales force by replacing non-performers with proven professionals; improving staff knowledge by conducting sales training programs; and reorganizing into specialized industry verticals. They have expanded market coverage through reseller programs; created dedicated telemarketing teams to generate more leads; and implemented customer relationship management (CRM) systems to improve relationships with prospects and customers. Yet with each initiative, the cost of sales has escalated, and with each quarter end new account revenue results have been more and more disappointing.

Consequently, sales management teams have been under intense pressure to keep their attention focused on the final act of closing the deal. The problem is that the sales department has spent too much time repairing the symptoms of the sales problem and has avoided dealing with its root cause: regaining the ability to influence the purchasing decision process. To effectively influence the purchasing process, sales must find new ways to identify buyers earlier; to collect buyer information; to gain buyer access; and to provide added value. Yet, this task is particularly daunting for business to business (B2B) enterprise system providers where decision processes span months. Sales tactics that worked well in the past to identify, access, and influence decision makers are no longer effective.

Early Access via the On-line Channel

In the past, salespeople controlled the sales cycle by managing the flow of information. Today the information available on the Internet has empowered buyers to structure their own buying cycle. This shift is comparable to the days when the automobile engine replaced the horse as our primary source of transportation power. The horse couldn't compete with the speed, convenience and low cost of the automobile. The same can be said for the Internet, which has given buyers shopping tools and conveniences that didn't exist a few years ago. The time has come to completely reengineer the go-to-market strategy to make it compatible with the buyer's preferred mode of communication. Buyers will always be attracted to the least risky, most convenient, and lowest cost information outlet. The Internet fits these criteria and has become the primary channel that buyers use to complete many of their early stage buying tasks, and it continues to be an important channel of influence throughout the entire process. As a result, yesterday's successful consultative salesperson is being excluded from much of today's buying process.

I'm not suggesting that the Internet will make the salesperson obsolete. Personal selling will always play a vital role in managing the overall enterprise relationship whether it is conducted via the mail, on the phone, in person or across the Internet. What I am suggesting is that sales department personnel should think twice before they dial the phone or pack their bags to visit a client, and instead should consider clicking a mouse to deliver more effective support to prospects evaluating solutions on-line.

The prominence of the Internet has grown exponentially in a few short years. According to the PEW Internet & American Life Project, between 1999 and 2000 the Web became the "new normal" way of life. Back then few of us realized how easy it would be to shop on-line. Now we can simply log-on, search a few ideas, review product features, compare prices, select a vendor, and have a product arrive at our door the next day. As we enter 2006 over 70 percent of us enjoy a rich media experience from our home, which is driving an on-line shopping growth rate of over 30 percent a year. Life in the on-demand world, as characterized by the iPod, allows us to tune-in to our interests and tune-out everything else. We have all learned to screen phone calls, to skip commercials, and to block spam so we can tune-in to exactly what we want, when we want it.

Each morning when we arrive at work we bring these newly acquired habits and expectations with us. Is buying big, complex enterprise level systems really that different from personal shopping? It can be compared to the process of buying a major capital item, such as a house or a car. There is an old auto industry adage that the busiest day of the week on a car dealer's lot was Sunday, the day the dealership was closed. Has the Internet become the modern equivalent of visiting the dealer's lot on Sunday? According to a ZDNet Research statistic "in 2003, 94% of US consumers shopping for a car went on-line to do research, get quotes from dealers and to order brochures. This compared to 67% who actually visited a dealership when making a decision on which car to buy." While eventually the buyer will go to the car lot to test drive and buy the car, the preliminary research to create a shortlist is being done on-line.

Buyers Avoid Sales Contact

It's human nature to avoid unsolicited sales contact. People are very uncomfortable with the emotional aspect of the buyer-salesperson relationship. It is not high-pressure sales tactics that are the source of this anxiety. The problem is that a person's sense of obligation grows as a personal relationship develops, and so to does the pending dread that all but one of these relationships will have to be broken. As the song goes, "breaking-up is hard to do", and we know that salespeople don't accept no easily. In the past, buyers sacrificed service and drove to the dealer's lot on Sunday to avoid these awkward situations. Today, buyers are avoiding the fear of relationships by simply going on-line, and are getting access to better information than what salespeople ever provided. In nearly a third of car buying situations the buyer's decision is already made before he or she arrives at the dealership. The same applies for decision-makers who are seeking enterprise level solutions. As a result, many salespeople will never get the opportunity to position their solution, and a lucky few will not get their opportunity until much later in the buying process.

So who's qualifying who these days? When salespeople get a lead, they instinctively make the qualifying phone call to determine the prospect's pain, power, vision, value, and control. Qualification is the first step in the old sales cycle because a time consuming and expensive discovery or needs assessment engagement is assumed to be next. However, today's buyers don't want a vendor's assistance at this early stage. With the help of on-line information sources, buyers would rather research and complete their own unbiased needs assessment study. The irony with the old qualifying call is that by the time a salesperson qualifies an opportunity, he or she will be too late to have a significant influence on the purchasing process. According to a 2004 lead qualification study by KnowledgeStorm, traditional qualification parameters are missing a significant market opportunity. The study estimated that 40 percent of early stage buyers were disqualified by sales because they hadn't determined the answers to the qualifying questions yet, and the study estimated that another 40 percent refused to answer these questions just to avoid sales contact. As a result, salespeople are missing the opportunity to influence 80 percent of today's buyers during the most impressionable stage of a project. Would salespeople dare consider the possibility that they can do more selling without being there? The eureka moment struck me, when I realized that the more a buyer can do without personal sales assistance the better.

The Buy Cycle Value Chain

Many marketing and sales departments think in terms of the "end game" of the value proposition of their solution. All too often they forget that the winner is always the team that scores the most points at each play of the game. A selling approach designed around the buyer's information consumption process keeps salespeople focused on earning value points throughout the buy cycle. For example, a buyer's end game problem may be solved by your supply chain optimization product, but right now, the buyer just needs to schedule a realistic project plan. If your competition has a better plan to offer than you do, then it just scored an influence point. As the saying goes, "it takes a lot more than a better mouse trap to win a deal". In other words, salespeople need to follow the buy cycle and fulfill the buyer's needs at each consumption point along the way.

The decision process for an enterprise level system is defined by the corporate project life cycle within which the purchase falls. As with any business initiative, these projects can germinate from a variety of sources, but once sponsored as an official project it follows a relatively predictable decision process. To stay focused on the customer's buy cycle we use the PURCHASE acronym to designate eight separate purchase decision-making stages. The following is a brief description of each stage along with a few appropriate value offers that sales can provide:

  1. Problem. In a pre-contemplation mode individuals search the Web to gain an awareness of the latest problem solving innovations, industry issues and business trends. These education seekers are willing to register an e-mail address to gain access to interesting on-line information. Marketing departments are currently doing a good job of providing business issue white papers, customer case studies, and product brochures. However, sales qualification resources are being wasted on the inquiry registrations that are generated from this segment. Automated follow-up offers should be sent to these inquiries to determine their interest level with an option to subscribe to a newsletter or register for preferred access to additional information.

  2. Understanding. In this contemplation mode, a group of individuals unite within an organization to understand a specific problem in an effort to propose a possible solution strategy. They continue to search and gather the information necessary to build the business case required to establish an official corporate initiative with executive sponsorship. The sales strategy for this stage is similar to the problem stage with an additional element. Data mining will analyze buyer web site activity by organization to identify suspect accounts with increased activity levels for sales to research and possibly target offline as a high probability suspect.

  3. Research. In a preparation mode a project team works to formalize a project structure to deliver a solution to the organization. The group's psychology immediately transitions to that of a more pragmatic early adopter mindset. The focus shifts from understanding the problem to creating the vision and charting a path to a solution. Since this is new ground for the organization, the team searches the Internet for project enablers such as evaluation roadmaps, third party reviews, budget calculators, needs assessment templates, and project plans. While today's self-directed buyer may be keeping the salesperson physically out of the process, they are happy to use their project-enabling resource downloads. Smart sales organizations are transferring their value propositions into the working documents of project teams in the form of needs assessment spread sheets, return on investment (ROI) calculators, and other project templates. High quality project enabling materials can provide a valid business opportunity to engage earlier than the competition to begin building a trusted personal relationship.

  4. Comparison. The project team transitions into the evaluation phase with a clear vision, and a shortlist of qualified vendor organizations. Salespeople are engaged to visit for the first time to continue selling where their on-line sales collateral ended. At this point the buying team knows exactly what they want to see to complete their final evaluation. The concept of a "non-disclosure level" evaluation portal should be introduced by the salesperson at this stage. Salespeople should empower the project team with access to a standard array of high quality e-collateral portal content (presentation, demonstration, and testimonials) designed to address the standard evaluation issues so they can focus on solving the prospect's higher value business problems. By creating a collaborative environment with an empowered project team, project members can become an inside sales force motivated to get the organization's buy-in for their project. By monitoring portal activity, sales can evaluate its competitive position based on each contact's individual activity level.

  5. Homework. Preparation for authorization is a very active internal stage when key project team members work to justify a recommended action plan and preferred solution. They prepare the detailed capital authorization documents, and begin planning the implementation. Often the salesperson is told he or she is one of two finalists, just to keep them honest through negotiation. But truth be known, there is a third alternative, a "no-decision." A delay or no-decision is the typical outcome when the project team submits a weak business case to management. By offering expert help with the use of the project enablers transferred in the Research stage, the sales team can earn the opportunity to collaborate on the internal business case.

  6. Authorization. This is an internal sales activity where the project team has to sell its business case to a very conservative, risk-adverse executive group that is emotionally disconnected from the project. Given the amount of senior management scrutiny, project team members are highly motivated to win approval for their project. While this phase may drag on longer that expected, sales organizations have three primary objectives; to monitor their competitive position, to maintain team member enthusiasm, and to defend against competitive attacks. By linking the business case to portal based e-collateral, sales can monitor approval activity levels. By offering pre-implementation e-learning materials an enthusiastic project team can get a head start on the next phase of the project which will also distract members from having the time to listen to competitive attaches.

  7. Signing. This stage begins as the buyer prepares to negotiate the deal and continues until the first payment is received. Pre-negotiation posturing has been going on for a while as buyers focus on mitigating risk issues and threaten sellers with the other viable alternative. Buyer information is invaluable at this stage. The project team members are instructed to be very vague as the buying negotiator "holds his cards very close to his chest". By maintaining engaging installation and pre-implementation content in the evaluation portal, sales can monitor buyer usage activity to determine their level of commitment. Nice words from the buyer that is not accompanied with corresponding activity is an early indication of a serious sales problem, while tough talk and a high activity level are indicators of a strong position.

  8. Expansion. Once the solution is successfully implemented the organization looks to leverage the solution's success across other areas of the business. At this point the new customer is transferred to a customer support portal which would include an evaluation capability for additional products and services.

Understanding the different stages of the buy cycle and finding the appropriate value offers is only half the job. The next challenge is getting access to the right people and collecting the right information to deliver the best value. Let's think about this for a minute. The people you want to access are those visiting your web site. They are right there registering for exactly what they want. The golden opportunity lies with the visitor on your web site: you have the access, they have the need, and they are willing to provide information, if you can deliver immediate value.

Tomorrow: A more detailed review of the early stages of a web-enabled sales process; new qualification metrics, give-to-get communication, and how to capitalize on each golden opportunity to influence the buying process.

2006 The Holt Group

About the Author

Emmett Holt founded The Holt Group as an interactive sales consulting collaborative based in Boston. The Holt Group advises enterprise technology clients on how to integrate an on-line and off-line sales strategy to improve business results by delivering superior customer focused experience at every point of contact. He has over twenty-five years of experience in the enterprise software industry as an executive responsible for both the sales and marketing performance. He can be reached at

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