The process begins with interviewing and observing all the participants in a sales decision — including salespeople, customers, and prospective customers — to map customer decisions. This may include having the sales force sitting in on sales meetings to see how top performers do their jobs, and soliciting their thoughts and observations in individual interviews. Next, marketers should meet with clients (and prospects), who are ultimately the end-users of the sales communications, in their homes or businesses. The methods employed should be scientific — studying the environment in which the customer works, observing the physical limitations of the office or cubicle, and noting how individuals process and store information.
Although this data-gathering phase can seem daunting at first, it takes only a few interviews to identify trends among decision makers, many of whom are happy to talk about how they make choices and to suggest ways to make the sales support communications more useful and relevant.
To see how the information gathered during this step can revamp a company’s approach, consider the example of a financial institution that created elaborate materials for its sales force to use to sell its product line to stockbrokers. The full-color printed materials emphasized the prestige and reputation of the institution. Yet despite the money spent and the effort expended, the sales force and customers found the materials irrelevant.
Through ethnographic research, we discovered that the target customers, who were stockbrokers, perceived themselves to be in competition with the financial institution in other areas of their business, and wished only to present the institution to their clients in the narrowest product-oriented light possible. Furthermore, the stockbrokers preferred electronic information and were more likely to pass along electronic media such as e-mails, PowerPoint documents, and PDFs to their own clients. The glossy printed materials were a waste.
As a result of this research, the financial institution completely transformed its selling system, converting almost all of its sales materials from print to electronic formats, and shifting the emphasis from an institutional sell to a product orientation. The new system proved much more cost-efficient and nimble, letting marketers change their sales support messages as business conditions fluctuated. More important, it gave the sales teams materials that would support — not impede — sales efforts.
The Need for Clear Maps
After gathering data, the next step is to map the decision-making process. First, identify the key players involved in the decision. Describe and document exactly who each of the decision makers is and what triggers a response from each of them. You’ll often find that for more complex, high-stakes decisions, the buyer isn’t a single person — it’s a group of individuals with different roles and unique needs. Although identifying the members of this group complicates the analysis and the corresponding recommendations, it’s also a critical step in building targeted sales materials.
Second, note when and how information flows through decision makers, and whether it’s via e-mail, over the phone, or in person. The research will reveal whether all decision makers need the same information or different perspectives require different approaches. Using these interviews and research, develop a decision map that shows the progression through the classic stages of the buying process, from interest and intent to purchase, transaction, and reaffirmation. For example, while applying this approach at one insurance company, we learned that the marketers needed to modulate their messages and communications to influence two distinct audiences with different needs: directors of human resources at large corporations and independent brokers who sell products from a variety of insurance companies.
In the final step, using the decision map and the accumulated understanding of the needs and preferences of each decision maker, companies can then filter out extraneous information and hone communications to deliver precisely what the customer wants to know, in the right form, at the right time. The result is highly efficient sales communications tailored specifically in form and function to match the needs of their targets.