Is Buying A Car The New Gold Standard For Understanding The Modern Buyer’s Journey? An Interview with Jim Keenan

Jim Keenan, Senior Partner of A Sales Guy Consulting, and Conrad Bayer, CEO of Tellwise, recently discussed how sales representatives need to tailor their sales process to their buyer’s specific needs. As more and more buyers are doing their own research and are often 50 percent of the way through the buying cycle before they ever contact the company, sales teams have to adapt their sales strategy. Jim and Conrad offered some tips to mastering personalized, persona-based selling from their own deep sales and technology experience.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Conrad Bayer: How do you see the buyer’s journey changing in today’s market?

Jim Keenan: I don’t think the buyer’s journey is any more complex. It’s just for the first time we’re actually focused on it. We actually understand the fact that our clients have their own buying process and the better we align to it, the better we understand it, the better we can sell to it, right?

It always existed, we just never incorporated it into our selling process or embedded it into our approach.

Conrad Bayer: Is this greater understanding a function of more attention, better tools and technology to monitor those different phases?

Jim Keenan: I think somewhere along that line, somebody said, “Wait a minute. Wait. Our customers aren’t calling us anymore until they’ve done this research. They clearly have a way they buy, so maybe we should pay attention to that.” Right?

I think there’s a lot more information available to us today; whether it be through the Internet, social media, or whatever. The industry has just taken it and run with it.

Conrad Bayer: How do the different channels and buyers influence this decision?

Jim Keenan: It will be interesting to see now, as the economy is coming back, if this changes. But as the economy hit the tank, nobody could make a decision by themselves. You had so many more buyers and so many more decision-makers and influencers in any type of sales process than you traditionally had.

I think that, in conjunction with the Internet and social media, this really created a more convoluted buying process. There are a lot of people who can say no, but not a lot of people who can say yes.

Conrad Bayer: How can companies move away from this idea that every buyer goes through the same buyer’s journey and start creating their own niche buyer’s journey for their clients?

Jim Keenan: You’ve got to go out and ask your customers how they buy. You need to go out and do the work and ask them how they buy. If it’s a brand new opportunity, you’ve got to build that into the sales process, and preferably, the first and for sure no later than the second stage of your sales process.

Salespeople need to ask: “Could you tell me about how you buy?” “What are your decision criteria?” “Who’s involved in the buying process?” “What do check off?” “What are your checkboxes?” That goes back to the decision criteria.

You’ve got to know it before you go to stage three, four, five or six in your own sales process. You’ve got to understand how the buyer buys.

Every company buys differently. There can be a lot of overlap, particularly if everybody is buying the same thing. An example I love to use is buying a car. It’s the best example in the world of how a buyer’s journey affects the sale.

When it comes to buying a car, the most prevalent step in the buyer’s journey is what?

Conrad Bayer: Taking a test drive.

Jim Keenan: Yes. No matter what I do beforehand, how I evaluate the car, whether I go to the car lot or not, whether I look online, almost everybody tests drives the car before buying it. They almost all test drive at the end of the buyer’s journey, not in the beginning, right?

We could do it differently, but there’s almost always a handful of things that every serious buyer does. This gives you a high level of confidence of where they are in the buying process and whether or not they’re going to buy.

Conrad Bayer: If we tie that back to a technology sale, it could be: do a demo, identify your problem set, present it to a committee.

Jim Keenan: Yes, but you have to ask. You can’t assume that those are the steps for your buyer. A good indicator might be an introduction to the CEO or an introduction to the CIO, right? What it says is, “At the end of the day, the CIO is the final decision maker or he’ll let his team say, ‘yes,’ but he could say ‘no.'” If they give you that introduction and give you access to him or her, then that’s a very good sign that they’re getting serious.

Conrad Bayer: Once you’ve got your buying process mapped out, how do sales reps use this information? How do they pair a certain action, such as sending over a demo video, to each stage?

Jim Keenan: The salesperson’s deal strategy has to take into consideration the unique buyer’s journey. What’s my strategy to close this deal? That’s all going to be incumbent upon who’s involved. Let’s say it’s the CIO and someone from marketing and someone from manufacturing, great. So I need to understand what’s important to them. How do I get in touch with them? What information do I want to give them? Do I understand each of their individual decision criteria? Do I understand what their key expectations or expected deliverables are? Are they different? Are they the same?

When I understand all of that, then I have to build my deal strategy around that.

Conrad Bayer: So the next part of the strategy is sit down, figure out what they need and then address their concerns. If they need more data, send them research. If they need more talking points, send them a deck. If they need another call with a CEO, set that up. It’s really diagnose and address whatever comes up in the sales process.

Jim Keenan: Yes. All in the context of delivering value. A lot of people get stuck in talking about the product and talking about the features and benefits; but at the end of the day, you buy something based on what you perceive you’re going to get in the end.

It’s my job, as a salesperson, to help you recognize that if you choose my solution, my product; me as a person, whatever; that you actually believe you will get that.

That’s why it’s so custom, right? That’s why salespeople mess up sometimes. They start talking about all the bells and whistles and the solution can do this and can do that for you, but they’re not aligned with what the CIO is trying to get done in their organization. Are they trying to reduce support times to less than 15 seconds? Are they trying to reduce truck rolls?

It’s not always a one-to-one. It’s not always the same value. We say, oh, they want a car. So that means they just want to get from A to B. No, not necessarily. This person wants a safe car. This one wants to haul stuff. This one wants to look cool. This person wants to go fast.

Conrad Bayer: So how do you build this niche buyer’s journey into your sales organization? What questions do you ask and what are you trying to understand? How do you map it to your existing sales process?

Jim Keenan: Using the car example – we know that a test drive isn’t the end. It doesn’t mean they’re going to buy, but we know when someone starts test driving cars, that they’re in one of the last two stages. We can’t advance until they test drive. Anything other than that is artificially accelerating the sales cycle.

Conrad Bayer: So how do you identify these key steps?

Jim Keenan: You’ve got to go to the customer and say, “Tell me a little bit about your buying process. Who is involved? What does the process look like? What are the decision criteria?” You’ve got to really dig in.

Conrad Bayer: What about who is involved in the process and at what point they get involved? When does the CIO get involved? When does the CEO get involved?

Jim Keenan: Not just the people, but what’s your valuation process? Is a demo required? Is a demo not required? Where does the demo happen? Is that from the front end or the back end?

You really just have to get in and have the conversation with your customer. Over time, if you’re selling the same product to the same type of company, you begin to see certain commonalities. Those are the commonalities you want to pull out and put into the sales process.

Conrad Bayer: You’ve also got this delicate task of almost doing two things at once. You’re selling and learning about their organization, trying to figure out how you’re going to add value for them; and then this parallel activity of figuring out how they are ultimately going to buy if they decide that there’s a good fit here.

It feels like there’s two separate tasks that you’re trying to manage in parallel. Are there challenges with that?

Jim Keenan: Yes. You get the customer to commit or to agree that there is value in the conversations, so an opportunity is started. Yeah, that is interesting. I would like to talk to you about that. Yes, we would like to see more on that.

So here’s the basic framework to follow: Once that opportunity has started, then a good salesperson embeds that conversation into the selling process. In order to make this beneficial to you, tell me a little bit about how you go about this. Who needs to be involved? You almost look like you’re doing them a favor. But, yes, the answer is it is two things; how the salesperson sets it up improves the probability of success.

Conrad Bayer: So after you’ve mapped out the steps your buyer takes, how can technology help create a standardized process all salespeople follow and how can it help you close more deals?

Jim Keenan: When your sales go bad or when they don’t close, a lot of times it’s because you’ve missed one of these steps. By standardizing it and documenting it in CRM, you’re going to improve your close rate.

Conrad Bayer: You’re not only going to improve your close rate, you’re going to improve your institutional knowledge, right? In the cases where you do lose, you’ll have better data on why. In the cases where you win, you have better data on why you win. That’s the organization that is going to get smarter. If you let everybody be random, you don’t get any smarter.

And if you’re tracking all these steps in CRM, then you actually do have the data to run analytics on. How many demos were given? That kind of thing. How far did your deals progress? Where did they most often break down?

Conrad Bayer: So what are the key things that sales managers need to do to keep their teams on track?

Jim Keenan: It’s incumbent upon the sales manager to hold the salesperson accountable and make sure that they’re going through the appropriate stages to make sure that they’re selling to their specific buyer’s journey. To make sure they’re responding to the needs of the customer in the order and in the way the customer needs them to so they can accelerate the close.

If you try to force someone to take a test drive before they’ve researched the car or before they understand pricing, you’re out of whack.

You have to stay consistent. You can’t get out of whack here. That’s the job of the sales manager or the person responsible for account reviews.

Conrad Bayer: There may be a conscious decision to do something different because of the situation, but it should be a decision. You should know that you’re deviating from a known process that you want to use.

You don’t improve your close rates on a single customer basis. It’s a marathon, right? You follow your sales process based on your specific buyer’s journey, and learn from each one. Each one, in isolation, only gives you a little piece of data.

Jim Keenan: You have to stick to a plan, and create a feedback loop on the data that plan produces, so you’re getting smarter the next time. That’s how I think about improving my close rates because there’s no magic bullet. What’s the incremental plan for us to get smarter?


Want to learn more about creating a can’t-miss sales strategy? Register for Tellwise’s webinar, “Turning The Buyer’s Journey Into An Expressway: 3 Ways to Improve Your Close Rates,” featuring Jim Keenan, Senior Partner of A Sales Guy Consulting, and Conrad Bayer, CEO of Tellwise, at 10 a.m. PST on Thursday, March 13.

Register Now!

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