As we've discussed in the past, buyer behavior has changed drastically in the last decade or so, and it's forcing channel sales programs to evolve in order to keep up. This was brought to light yet again in the 2016 Hubspot State of Inbound report that listed sales people as the least relied-upon source of information for making business purchasing decisions. This was true across both geographies and job titles.
In fact, the only source of information that rivaled sales staff for lack of trust and preference among B2B buyers were crowdsourced review sites! And that's undoubtedly because most buyers know it's incredibly easy to buy favorable reviews on most crowdsourced sites. Some have become downright infamous for being propaganda mills.
A key tenet of inbound marketing: stop selling and start helping. But that leaves the problem: How can you find and leverage the sources that your buyers do trust as they make their way through their self-guided buying journey? And for those selling through sales channels, how can you help your channel partners better utilize those sources?
Going To Where The Buyers Are: Leveraging Your Prospects' Preferred Information Sources
Well, if sales staff are one of the least-trusted sources of information, what's most trusted?
Word of mouth.
In this high-tech world, buyers are still turning to the oldest of information sources. Presumably this is due in part to information overload. With so many options available in most product markets, and so many choices in information to choose from, the easiest option is just to get a recommendation from someone they trust. If Exec A and Exec B are in similar industries with similar needs, what worked for one will likely work for the other.
Interestingly, “Customer References” were also highly-rated, and actually beat out “Media Articles” among most respondent groups. Apparently businesses trust their own best customers and clients as well, when it comes to gathering purchasing suggestions. This also suggests a certain baseline level of distrust in “The System” in general since, of course, it's not terribly hard to buy favorable media coverage either.
So, you and your sales partners should be doing everything possible to build favorable impressions and build word of mouth.
Creating A Reference-Friendly Ecosystem
What does it take to be a brand that sees a lot of favorable word-of-mouth and positive references?
Beyond anything else, it means having a consistent focus on customer needs and customer experience. You should encourage your sales partners to always present the best face to both leads and established customers. Having a reputation for going above-and-beyond will do a lot towards creating a perception of excellence.
Consistency of experience is another key trait. If there's one thread that connects all the elite brands of the world, it's that they have a vision for how every customer is treated, and then every customer does receive that treatment no matter when, where, or how they have contact with a company. This means having guidelines on customer experience, as well as having solid training programs in place to encourage your sales partners to follow through.
Customer satisfaction surveys that can be tracked on a partner-by-partner basis can also serve as a great way to help identify the partners that are meeting these expectations, making it easier to create that consistency of experience.
Of course, there are also more pragmatic and down-to-earth ways of leveraging word-of-mouth as well:
- Social media. Among B2B buyers, LinkedIn and Facebook are by far the most-trusted sources for purchasing information. Encouraging customers to post about a company on these sources will help build awareness.
- Google reviews. Google heavily weights their business search results based on customer reviews within their system, especially for local searches. Any business with a 4.5+ star rating in Google will see a significant boost in traffic (both real and virtual) so encourage buyers to leave positive reviews.
- Promotional events. Local partners who host promotional events where existing buyers are encouraged to attend (such as by having prizes\raffles) are creating a great opportunity for word-of-mouth to spread.
- Referral bonuses. It's tried and true, and it still works. A referral program is an effective way for good companies to leverage their happy customer base. Just keep in mind, this isn't a magic bullet – a sub-par company won't see much benefit, because the potential referrers would value their reputation more than a bonus.
A Final Word Of Warning
Based on these suggestions, some might be tempted to engage in what's known as “astroturfing.” That is, the creation of fake buyers online to push a brand by pretending to be happy customers. While it might seem like an effective shortcut, it's also an extremely risky move. Buyers - especially online - are getting increasingly good at spotting “planted” reviews and insincere endorsements. If a company is caught engaging in astroturfing, it can absolutely shred their reputation.
If you're interested in other areas to generate leads to help acccelerate channel sales, take a look at our Channel Program Blueprint Self-Assessment. Its a great way to help determine for yourself what's working and what's not.