Maybe it's time to stop “closing” sales.
Taken together, a number of trends and data points suggest that marketing communications is experiencing a fundamental transformation. Today's b-to-b prospects are less concerned about the virtues of a product—they can easily discover those by themselves—and more concerned about what will happen after the sale.
“Today's buyers have an interesting point of view, in that the economy has been Darwinian: If you're still standing, you must have a good product,” said Ernan Roman, president of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing Group.
So if product differentiation is not top-of-mind among prospects, what is? As part of its voice of the customer research, Roman's company has conducted 10,000 hours of in-depth interviews with senior-level executives to answer that question.
“Their expectation increasingly has been on the value companies are providing and the relationship with customers after the sale,” Roman said
It's not hard to identify the factors driving this change in customer focus: prospects who increasingly self-educate and only talk to a salesperson near the end of the buying cycle; difficult economic conditions that have weeded out companies with weaker products; the increasing complexity of enterprise-level software and technical products; and the steady movement toward a subscription, cloud-based model for many software products.
The trick for marketers is figuring out how to master this new language, said Joel York, CMO at Meltwater, a public relations company that offers social media management and media monitoring services. He thinks the post-sale marketing relationship comes down to two things.
“First is usage. Is the customer using the product?” he said. “The second is upselling. If you want to do it right and be unobtrusive, the smart way is to understand the customer's usage patterns, know what to offer and then make the right offer at the right time.”
From a marketer's perspective, managing a post-sale relationship can be easier than dealing with a prospect, York said.
“Online-subscription customers in particular are connected to you through the product, so you can communicate through the product itself,” he said.
But too few companies have really adjusted their marketing programs to anticipate and plan for the post-sale relationship, Roman said. Most of the focus is on simply landing the sale, not what happens afterward.
“We're hearing that the term 'close' is damaging because it signifies you're only in it for the kill,” Roman said of the voice of the customer research. “One thing almost all companies are missing is an onboarding process for bringing customers in after the sale. During the prospect phase, companies should be asking themselves about the prospect's needs after the sale.”
The payoff to a well-planned onboarding process, Roman said, can be enhanced customer lifetime value, including greater potential for up- and cross-selling.
“Onboarding is a huge help in additional conversion rates,” he said. “Companies who use it have seen a 20% increase in new response rate-to-offers and a 20% increase in average orders.”