Simplify customer buying process

Buying cycles of a product (especially B2B) takes really long, long buying cycles are really exhaustive. There are certain areas of the buying stages that could be optimized to reduce the overall time taken to conclude the buying cycle. I have summarized 10 such tips that could be optimized to shorten the buying cycles. Much of what was explained below might be exclusively applicable for B2B products.

  1. Simplify buying process
  2. Talk about solutions, not the product
  3. Know the decision maker
  4. Be available at the right time at the right place
  5. How are you different from others
  6. Well planned trail – To articulate the product value
  7. Communicate the RoI
  8. Innovative or Flexible pricing
  9. Inventory management – Eliminate the lead time
  10. Lastly, be honest

This blog is the last part in the series of blog posts on ‘Why to comprehend customer buying processes

In my earlier blogs, i have extensively spoke about what customers look for in a product, what parameters do they consider while making decisions during each stage of the buying process or rather what information need to be provided to customers to facilitate them to make right buying decisions.

Stages of customer buying process

Facilitating customers to make right buying decisions

Importance of perception

Simplify buying process

In case of B2B and B2C products, much of the delay is caused by inability to pick a right product due to plethora of products that are almost similar. Simplifying the buying process by making customers choices easier and facilitating customers to make the right buying decision could shorten the buying cycles.

I have already talked about in detail on how to understand the customer needs and just provide those details on how product can address their details in my earlier blog posts. If there are multiple SKUs, then help them make their choices easier. What often happens is that under the pretext of providing more details and more choices, Product Manager would end-up with more SKUs and tons of information about each of those SKUs. Searching for relevant information on which of those SKUs are perfect for the needs of the customer would be tantamount to searching for a needle in hay. Information overload pushes the customer away from the product.

 

Let me provide a small snippet on how to simplify the buying process:

Canon Camera Finder

Above is the product finder for Canon compact cameras. It is not too great, but at least better than nothing. The product finder lists certain product functionalities and help to filter the available products. In a way, it makes search easier. Instead of looking at the feature set of each product, prospective customers can just use the product finder to narrow the search down to handful of cameras. Nevertheless for a camera, the amount of memory and available auto options are also important and I would probably wish to list them in product finder to further simplify the buying process.

My worst nightmare is while picking a DSLR. Nowadays there are more novice photo enthusiasts and it is surprising that none of the DLSR manufacturers have buying guide in their respective sites to guide the beginners. I don’t want to be critique here rather the objective is to highlight the need to ease the buying process. If it is not easy to choose a product, customers just pick the easy route. They look out for referrers and it might probably work for certain well established brands with a loyal customer base. Worst case, the customers can be misled too. Somewhere down the line, the company is being a cause to push customers away.

To build an effective product finder page, identify the critical attributes that customer use to evaluate the product. In case of camera, the possible attributes could be (i) stylish, (ii) zoom length, (iii) price, (iv) auto/manual and (v) memory. Pick such attributes and determine the values under each of those attributes for customers to choose. Depending on the choices made by the customer, provide a list of matching product with an option to compare them.

Product

Talk about solutions, not the product

When the Product Manager is solution focused, (s)he is willing to take a giant leap to understand the customer environment, their needs and their pain points. Being solution focused, Product Manager does not restrict himself/herself to merely selling the product by highlighting its capabilities but will take a step further to elaborate how the product can fit into customer environment seamlessly integrating with other products to address their needs and pain points. Providing such clarity can help customers to shorten the time taken to understand how product perfectly fits to address their needs thereby making their buying process simpler and quicker. Solution focus is more important in case of B2B product.

Know the decision maker

It is a classic case of determining USER vs BUYER. If the USER and BUYER are two different entities, identify the respective entities early in the buying cycle. Invariably USER and BUYER both have different objectives. USER is concerned about how the product should be used to address the business problem more than how the product addresses the business problems or needs. BUYER would be more concerned about how the product addresses the business problems or needs and at what price points. Product Manager cannot talk to both the entities at the same length as their purposes vary. Identifying both the entities early in the buying cycle, will help Product Manager to address their concerns and convince the efficacy of the product to both of them in parallel. Doing so will eventually reduce the duration of the buying cycle.

Be available at the right time at the right place

When the need arises, customers start looking for products that can help them address their needs. Customer might visit a store or look online or seek opinion of experts/friends to identify available products capable of addressing their needs. Whatever be the case, identify all possibilities of where the customer could start looking or searching for products matching their needs. Make sure you have the engagement point in each of those possibilities to connect with prospective customers and create awareness about the product.

How are you different from others

My take on new deals of both existing and new customers is to understand both explicit and implicit needs. Later present those needs holistically back to the customers and highlight how best the product is addressing them. There should also be emphasis on emergent needs and how the product would evolve to address those needs. Invariably, every customer would then ask how you are better than competitors. So in most cases, it is required to highlight how the product address the needs better than the competition. Having competitive analysis handy would make the job easier.

Respect competition. Never bully competitors before your customers. Customers might not always favor chest thumping attitude. While being gracious, always highlight which attributes make you stand out in the crowd. Hmmm…. How does it matter to customer? Here again, don’t just blindly pick the attributes that make the product stand out, instead pick those set of attributes that matter most to customer. If a product does a specific functionality better than the rest and if it is of no use to customer, then it hardly matters to customer how well the product performs that functionality.

Use this principle even while responding to RFPs in case of a B2B product. Every product does well in certain aspects and not so well on others. While responding to RFP, what matters is that whether the product is better on aspects that are mattered most to customers and highlight the same as part of the RFP response. Doing so would help customers convinced about their choice of product without any further deliberations.

Well planned trial – To articulate the product value

Instead of treating trial as an overhead in the buying process, treat it as an opportunity to showcase the value of the product. In most cases, products from multiple vendors look similar on paper in such cases trial go a long way in demonstrating the tangible value and product differentiators. Even though the trial would be conducted independently by the customer, Product Manager should at least be part of the process to know what functionality is being tested, identify whether customer understanding of the product is aligned with the product’s actual behavior and capabilities. Even if the agenda for trial is set by the customers, Product Manager has to educate customers on the list of product capabilities that would matter most to their environment. Ideally trial delays the buying process, but it brings transparency to the buying process. If planned well and appropriate support is rendered to the customers, it would be possible to complete the trial quickly scoring few brownie points with customer to close the deal successfully.

Communicate the RoI

Is the product worth the price? It would be last question on the minds of every customer after they have zeroed in on the product. Product Manager efforts to convince customers on how the product could address the needs of customers better than any other competition can definitely help customers chose the product. However until customers are convinced whether product is worth the price, they would not go past the last phase of the buying process (ie Adoption stage). Every product (mostly B2B) need to have a RoI tool that can outline both tangible and non-tangible benefits of purchasing the product. Customers should get convinced that value derived from the product outweighs the price. Providing relevant RoI data would only hasten the buying process.

Innovative or flexible pricing

Pricing in case of B2B products might not always be rigid. Depending on the strategic importance of the customer, and volumes etc., different pricing options could be put forth before the customer depending on how they want to structure the CAPEX and OPEX. Certain customers have budget for HIGHER CAPEX but want considerably LOWER OPEX, few other customers want to follow OPEX model with relatively LOWER CAPEX. Understand the customer preferences and their budget constraints. Accordingly figure out the possibilities for any change in pricing. Since the approvals might take longer, Product Manager has to undergo this task in-parallel while the product is being evaluated. Remember the topic surrounding BUYER vs USER, the discussions with BUYER should happen earlier in the buying cycle along with the USER to understand the expectations of BUYER in terms of RoI, pricing etc and accordingly formulate the pricing strategy within the permissible scope.

Inventory management – Eliminate the lead time

This section might not be relevant if there is a conscious decision to create an impression of exclusivity of products by maintaining a constant inventory level leading to long wait times. Otherwise, Product Manager has to figure out how to reduce the waiting time. In case of B2C, this would be applicable for products like Cars. In case of B2B, with HW products there would always be a lead time. It would be the responsibility of the Product Manager to anticipate the future sales and pro-actively maintain the inventory. If there is big ongoing deal, in accordance with the probability of deal closure, Product Manager can alert manufacturing team to maintain appropriate inventory levels. Long lead times can have negative impact on the deal and it can also further extend the duration of buying cycle.

Lastly, be honest

Always be honest with your customers. If the product does not fit their requirements, be honest with them to indicate that the product might not be a best fit. Selling the product to a wrong customer is always worse than not selling. Product Manager might have made revenue, but there will be definitive long term implications. Customer would later realize that the product does not fit them well possibly jeopardizing all future businesses from the customer. The negative feedback from the customer might also have implications on other customers as well.

Being honest helps Product Manager to build a long lasting relationship with customers that might probably facilitates more sales in future. How someone could possibly explain why B2C customers would always buy product from a specific store or brand, why B2B customers directly raise a purchase order to procure products from a specific vendor without any RFP or evaluating any competitors. The only answer that I could anticipate is the TRUST towards the BRAND and the PRODUCT.

 

Requirements has to be understood, not queried

In the current economic climate when the markets are not growing and customers are becoming cost conscious to beat the recession, selling definitely gets tougher. In order to ensure success of the product under such harsh conditions, product managers have to pack the product with features that maximize the revenue. It equally implies that the product should be filled with features that are required by majority of the customers. So the difference between success and failure lies in our ability to understand the customer requirements. But many of us become so engrossed with the term ‘Understanding the customer requirements’, we literally remain at customer’s door steps asking them what they need. Please be cautious, I have only emphasized about understanding the requirements and not gathering the requirements. Understanding the requirements is tantamount to gaining deeper knowledge of why customers need something and not just asking what they need.

So thumb rule for understanding the requirements are ‘Never ask any customer WHAT THEY NEED, instead ask WHY THEY NEED’.

As product managers our territory is the product and we understand the capabilities and abilities of our product better than any else, similarly customer has a better knowledge of their business environment, objectives and issues. Asking customers what they want is synonymous to asking them to gain an understanding of the product and translate their business objectives into product requirements, more often they pathetically go wrong. Ideally we have to take the responsibility of jumping the fence and understanding the business requirements of our customers. Asking WHY is so powerful that you can engage in enriching discussions with customers without nagging them and still obtain powerful insights about their business. Such insights will help us to draft solution/feature requirements that perfectly align to the business objectives of the customer, develop/ design products that amaze our customers and create a WOW feeling in them. Only problem in this approach is that customers might be worried about their immediate business objectives, so we should not lose focus on their long term business objectives. Doing so, will not only facilitate us to understand the requirements better but also facilitate us to build a strong roadmap.

My thoughts on structuring effective product presentations

I often do act as a sales enabler to ensure success of bigger deals. As a sales enabler, I introduce the customer to my products and its features. Oops, did I say features. Here comes my biggest concern, do I had to talk about product features to my prospective or current customers. Does it really make sense? Before you get fuzzy about what I talking about, let me illustrate something very simple. When I went to buy a car, the sales man was so enthusiastic to talk about all the security features such as ABS, EBD etc. I was puzzled about all those jargons, but I am very happy that car was providing some key features that would definitely ensure the safety of all the people travelling in the car. On the contrary, how nice it would have been if the salesperson has explained the benefits derived out of those features.

So taking a cue out of this instance, I normally hate talking about features unless the listener has thorough understanding of the product. I would rather talk about solutions built/ conceptualized on top of those features. Customer can directly relate to solutions as they are conceptualized on the basis of deeper understanding of customer pain points or overall market requirements. Product is definitely a black box to customer and he could not even fathom how the box would help him to address his business issues/ objectives, so talking about features is inundating the customer with technical jargons. On the contrary if we talk about solutions customer would easily understand the direct value derived out of buying the product. By selling solutions, I am clearly communicating the value or benefits derived out of using the product.
For instance, check which point makes more sense to the customer

  • Product X supports multiple IPs per subscriber or
  • Product X support multi-device plans or group plans

1st statement is typically based on features and 2nd statement is typically based on solution thinking. Now any idea with which statement would customers relate easily or connect easily. In addition solutions approach clearly articulate the capabilities of the products and it perceived benefits, so selling becomes far more easier.

Aligning with idea of selling solutions, I structure my presentation in 4 sections

  • What is product X (talk about specifications),
  • What are the customer/market pain points,
  • Why product X (wrt to alternate products and it is not about competition) and
  • How product X can address those pain points

It is more like a story telling with a proper sequence and flow, start with some static information about the product X and the organization Y (just talk for less than 5 minutes). Later talk about the pain points of the market in general. For instance, in case of DPI market, I can talk about the declining ARPU and increasing costs of SPs (for 10 – 15 minutes). Next talk about how product X can address those challenges effectively by outlining few solutions that might of interest to customers. For the success of the presentation, I also do a little research on the company and how they are performing. If possible, I would request my account team to have an informal chat with the customer to know about the primary business concerns/issues that they are looking forward to address using product X.
There can also be 5th section with respect to competition and highlight a comparison sheet. But I normally avoid as it is too early in the deal process to talk about competition, I might essentially do the same after responding to the RFx.

This methodology was working out for me until now, probably I have to solicit the opinion of experienced sales guy and rework the structure of my presentation accordingly.

I follow similar strategy while explaining the contents of latest release. I hardly talk about features introduced in the latest release unless the customer has thorough knowledge of the internals of the product. I would rather communicate the solutions that can be accomplished by the new set of features available in the latest release. Even while collating the requirements, I never ask customers for the list of features that they would require in forthcoming releases, I would rather ask for the list of pain points or business requirements that has to be accomplished by the product. Based on those inputs, I conceptualize solutions with help of solution architects and later convert those solutions into features and indicate the same in the PRD. My long pending blog post on ‘Requirements has to understood, not queried’ will touch upon the topic of collating the requirements and I assure all my blog readers that it will be my next blog post.