Most sales people think they are in control and they move prospects through the various steps toward a sale. I’m suggesting that you think backwards – and look at the process from the buyer’s side. The buyer goes through 4 stages – sometimes with your help, sometimes without it, and sometimes in spite of what you do. These will make more sense if you consider a recent purchase you have made: something large-ish and non-routine like a new car or maybe a new cell phone or computer. Have you got that purchase in mind? Good. I believe all purchases are made by going through these same 4 stages, however in something small, like an impulse buy at the cash register they happen so quickly you don’t even realize it. So thinking about something bigger will be more helpful for this exercise.
I don’t mean stupid. Just that buyers at this stage don’t have your company or your product on their radar screen. If your purchase is a car, and like most people you go years between buying one, then you spend most of your life not thinking about new cars at all.
At some point it becomes time to consider a new car. You’re not ready to buy but you’re starting to pay attention. Maybe this stage was initiated by your car making some strange noise for the umpteenth time. Maybe you’ve had a couple kids since you bought your last vehicle and the car seats are starting to be annoying in your two-seater. Maybe some car company finally made something you’d like to buy and some ad really jumped out at you. But for some reason you’re now curious. Starting to look at models, features, prices etc.
Buyers at this stage have a budget and a time frame in mind. They’re in deal making mode, looking for the right place to purchase. Still doing some research but a different kind of research than those at stage 2. In the car scenario, you’ve narrowed down the type of car, the approximate price range, you know if you’re going for new or used and you’re starting to look for the place to buy it. Your research is helping you decide on what features, what make and model and maybe even what color. This stage carries on through the negotiation till you reach …
You’ve now plunked down your money and driven your vehicle off the lot. Congratulations. You’re now clueless about cars again, not to mention tires, service centers, and oil change locations. But you’ll go through the stages for those items soon enough.
A company needs sales to survive. If your company is alive, it has. Congratulations. But at some point as the company grows, you realize you need repeatable sales. An actual process. Something you can use to train and manage sales people and to increase sales. That’s where these 4 stages come in handy.
Realize that every prospect is at one and only one stage at a time. The stages are mutually exclusive but progress is not always linear – it can loop. So learn what people do differently at each stage. There will be things they say (or don’t say) things they do or don’t do at each stage that are different enough you can identify them. The details vary with each industry, product and even type of customer. So this exercise must be quite customized to be helpful. For example, if I’m at the clueless stage about cars, the only thing I’m doing is looking at some commercials on TV that I can’t get away from and maybe I’ll think about some environmental breakthrough I’ve read about if it applies to cars.
But when I’m curious, when a new purchase in 6 months or so away, I’m starting to be more active in my research. I’m talking to my wife about it. I’m looking up things on the web. I’m paying more attention to ads on TV and other places.
At stage three, serious, now I’ve narrowed down the price and if not the exact make/model. I know if I’m going for a compact SUV or a mini-van. I’m looking at what feature are just nice and which ones I really need. I’m searching for a dealer or looking on-line for a seller.
Whatever you sell there are things customers do that differ for each stage. This is complicated by the fact that there may be different types of customers for your product (who do different things at each stage) and if you have a complex B2B sale there are people in different positions who may act differently from each other at the same stage. This makes the process of identifying the stages more complicated but not impossible. In fact, the more complicated it is, the more important it might be so you don’t waste your time and money.
It may be that you can’t tell by strictly being passive, but a certain set of questions (what’s your budget, what’s your time frame, who else are you talking to) will let you know the prospect’s stage.
Once you know how to determine what stage the prospect is at, you need to determine the best thing for you to do at each stage. There are certain questions you ask at the beginning and others you only ask at stage 3. There may be informational or entertaining things you send my way if I’m just curious, but negotiations you do when I’m serious. You need to know what to do differently based on what stage I’m at.
If you do the wrong thing at the wrong stage, things will not go well. You may turn me off when I’m ready to buy. Or you may annoy me when I’m doing research and I’ll never come back. Or you may not close the deal when I’m ready to make a purchase. The point is that what you do at each stage is different. And my response to your actions will show you if I’ve moved to the next stage or not. If I haven’t then you can’t either.
In general, the things you do for a buyer at the start of the journey (Clueless and Curious) tend to be marketing activities and the things you do at the end (Curious, Serious, Sold) tend to be sales activities. Where the line is actually drawn differs by industry, product etc. But Marketing and Sales should work together as different parts of the same journey. This is why I like the position I’ve heard about recently: Chief Revenue Officer. Marketing AND Sales report to the CRO.
These are tools, but they don’t change the buyer’s journey. Just like a well-placed item at a supermarket checkout can make me go from clueless to sold in seconds, so can a website or even a tweet. Well maybe a tweet. But in any case only if it’s done for the right product, to the right customer, in the right context. In a more protracted sale, building a relationship with me when I’m clueless might be cost effective with a blog or facebook page in ways it never was in print. Then when I become curious or serious we already know each other. But just like any tool, it’s there to do a job. In this case it doesn’t change the nature of the buyer’s journey, but it may help you understand your prospects and react to them better.