The Informed Customer

Black phoneThe US consumer is far more informed today than any time in the past. And this goes double for businesses. When somebody goes to sell something as complex as the triple play mix of products, one has to assume that most customers will have already done some research on the web to find out what they can about your company and your products.

In the past one of the first steps of the consultative process of selling telecom services was to inform the customer about all of the options. And so salespeople were equipped with slide shows and handouts that would explain what their products can do. But from what I hear it is getting to be the rare event when a business customer doesn’t already have a pretty good idea of what they want to buy. They will have done their web researched, read reviews, and talked to peers before they are going to accept a sales visit from you.  They are already fairly well-informed before the first sales knock on their door.

This has changed the sales process because often it’s then just a matter of talking price and logistics. Where it used to take multiple visits to sell a business customer, many of them can be sold in one or two visits. This leads me to talk a bit about how telecom companies portray their products on the web. I have browsed through hundreds of telco and cable websites looking at how they portray products and prices and more often than not I am surprised by what I find.

A lot of companies spend time on their web site talking about who they are, but very little time talking about what they sell. In fact, there are a significant number of telecom companies that don’t even list their products on the web. Even among those that do, very few companies list their pricing. This is an interesting trend, because back when the web was new companies routinely had their product list on the web. But over the years the information about product and pricing has shrunk rather than grown.

And I think this is a mistake. This is not being responsive to the way that customers want to shop and buy today. Individuals and companies are used to completing sales transactions on the web without talking to anybody. They are used to now doing their own research and deciding what products are right for them on their own.

I hear a number of different reasons why companies don’t have full disclosure on their products and prices. Here are some of the most common ones:

I don’t want my competitors to know what I am doing. Really? Can you possibly think that any competitor of your does not already have a big pile of your bills that they have gathered from your customers? Do you really want to make it harder for customers to do business with you because you are afraid of your competitors? Customers are going to welcome your openness, candor and ease of use if you make it easier for them to shop with you.

I don’t want to make it easy for customers to disconnect. This is one of the dumbest excuses I have ever heard. Can you really think that a customer is not going to drop services because they have to call you? Just the opposite is true, and the customer that goes to the web to easily drop a service they don’t use today is just as likely to come back and add a different feature six months from now. Your customers will love that you have made it easy to shop with you.

I sell in packages and I don’t want to quote prices on the web. Then say this. Describe your process for how you sell to a customer so that they know exactly what to expect from you. It is far more likely that a customer won’t call you if you have no product information on the web than if you instead tell them about what to expect from you.

A New Model for B2B Sales

Earlier this year the team of Google and CEB published a report that shows that over the last decade that business customers have drastically changed the way they work with vendors. Historically there was a very classic sales model that defined how vendors sold things to businesses, but with the Internet the entire sales process has changed.

Historically sales have been done by the book, and there literally shelves full of books about sales that laid forth the classic sales process. These books preached that the sales process involved the following steps:

  • Identifying the sales opportunity
  • Qualifying the opportunity
  • Making a proposal
  • Closing the sale
  • Post sale implementation and follow-up

But the Google and CEB report says that businesses, on average, are already 57% through the historic sales cycle before they first talk to a vendor today. And this is all due to the Internet. A customer is able to do now fully research the products and solutions they are interested in. They can read reviews from other similar companies who have already bought what they are looking for. They can compare prices and service from alternate vendors without talking to any salespeople. And by the time they contact a vendor they are mentally much of the way through the sales process and generally are ready to make a choice.

So how does this change the way that companies sell telecom services? I would suggest it means some of the following.

  • Listen to Your Customers. First, it means that your salespeople need to become adept at listening, something that is not always a salesperson strength. If a potential customer has already done their research then they want to discuss the nuances of the products they are interested in and they want to ask questions. They do not want to start at the beginning of the above sales process. So ask your customers how much they already know about what you are selling to save you both time.
  • It’s Harder to Sell on Price Alone. Customers who have done their research are already going to have a price in mind, and this makes it hard to sell on price. So instead you need to be able to define the value proposition of why a customer should buy from you and not one of your competitors. Telecom companies are famous on selling by price alone since we inherited a world with many services greatly overpriced by the incumbents. But web research is beginning to kill price as a differentiator and so you better have other reasons why a customer should pick you.
  • Be Knowledgeable. If customers are doing their homework then your salespeople need to really understand the products. Again, this is another reason you can’t just send out salespeople who are just going to offer a discount from the current monthly telecom bill. It means sending out somebody who really understands the nuances of what you are selling.
  • Master Consultative Selling. The most effective sales technique to use with a knowledgeable customer is consultative sales. This means that you are not there to sell them a product, but instead there to find them the solution that best fits their telecom needs. This is the one advantage that a good salesperson can have with a customer who has done their homework. Such a customer will understand only so much about telecom products and is usually going to be willing to listen to creative solutions that might be different from what they thought they needed.

To sell in a consultative way rather than on price alone means you are going to need a well-trained sales staff, and probably are going to have to pay them more than the traditional salesperson. But the upside is that customers become very loyal to a vendor who helps them solve problems. For many telecom firms, that kind of loyalty is going to be a refreshing change.