Debunking the Myth that Buyers are 67% Through the Buying Process Before Engaging Salespeople

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For the better part of a year I’ve been waging a battle to protect salespeople from a bogus straw man statistic that is the “go-to” argument from many of todays sales “experts.” These nouveau “experts” have been telling anyone who will listen that today’s buyers are 67% of the way through their buying process before engaging with a salesperson, and that it’s fruitless to cold call and proactively pursue prospects because that doesn’t work anymore.

What’s infuriating, aside from the fact that it’s not true, is that this nonsense is exactly what the reactive, passive, struggling salesperson wants to be told. Can you just hear the underperformer declaring, “Oh, goodie. I don’t need to hunt for new business because that doesn’t work, anyway. Let me just spend my time on LinkedIn and Twitter or following up on the wonderful leads our inbound marketing effort is generating.”

It didn’t matter how many sources the social selling Kool-Aid pushers quoted to back up the stat, those of us in the trenches helping real companies and real salespeople drive new business knew the truth. The only time buyers get that far down the path without engaging a salesperson is when the seller is sitting on his or her butt waiting for the prospect to raise their hand!

I’m working with several companies in various industries that are experiencing record sales performance. The main driver of that success? Salespeople are strategically targeting and proactively pursuing potential clients before they’re a lead, before they’re shopping. My clients’ salespeople are getting to the opportunity early, often before their reactive competitors would even consider it an “opportunity.”

That’s crucial, because getting there early puts you in position A, where you can start a relationship, be perceived as the expert advisor, and earn the opportunity to not only bring value but also shape your prospect’s buying criteria.

Officially Debunked Thanks to SiriusDecisions

Today I am celebrating as SiriusDecisions publicly and authoritatively debunked that silly myth and oft-quoted statistic at their annual #SDSummit. It turns out, according to their own exhaustive research, that buyers are, in fact, engaging with sellers from the very beginning through the end of their buying journey (through the three stages SiriusDecisions calls “Education,” “Solution,” and “Selection”). In fact, the highest level of reported buyer/seller interaction actually occurred early on, during the education phase.

 

sales rep interactions stat

Why is this important and more than just an argument between competing sales theories? Because there are so many individuals and entire sales teams failing to develop enough new business today. They’re living in a fantasy world under the false belief that social selling and inbound marketing alone will produce enough leads to keep their pipelines full. And they’ve fallen victim to the lie that prospecting died way back in the 1990s.

Not only are these reactive sellers suffering from a lack of qualified leads to work, but when they do finally get involved in a potential deal, they also find themselves in a weak position because they’re late (or even last) to the opportunity. It’s no fun playing catch-up to a buyer who’s way down the path, or worse, eating the dust of your proactive competitor who wasn’t sitting around waiting to be the third quote on someone’s spreadsheet.

I beg you: Please take SiriusDecision’s information seriously. This is great news for those who are willing to listen and act on it. Stop waiting for leads and start creating your own!

Photo by: plantronicsgermany

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  • Michael McGowan

    Great post and very timely. Not sure the marketing automation industry is going to agree!

  • Donald Maciver

    Pretty old school and the truth is somewhere in the middle – it can’t all be inbound and it can’t all be sales lead. My view is that content of value is far wider reaching in the awareness phase but no doubt it needs backed up with a first engagement utilising skilled and professional sales. I agree that strategic targets is more aligned to the authors view.

  • James Hale

    Thanks Mike – and the 67% article is EXACTLY what I have been telling my sessions – “it’s only true if you are waiting for them to call you. If they call you, they have made a decision to buy, and now they are shopping. If you want to get out of always selling on price, you need to proactively be out there creating opportunities, where you can sell your ViO (Value = the Impact of improving your clients business Outcomes”.

    Nice to have some other voices in the crowd!

    • david landreth

      Spot on! First in had the best chance to win more deals as long as their reach is relevant and timely.
      Clearly sales and marketing need to reach “them” early when a prospect is developing brand intimacy and open to education.
      One observation would be that there is a need for better insights to how/ when prospects should be engaged. Mass marketing (emailing, direct, etc) doesn’t work well (just look at opt out rates) while arguably you might be reaching an opportunity that is INmarket for your product.
      How do we understand where someone is in their process so that the first, second, third,…. touches are relevant and timely?

  • Great article – rather than a counsel of despair.

    Bottom line:
    Can you nurture new leads and relationships with targets that matter ?
    – Yes
    Will they walk up to our door unaided if you do not?
    – Maybe ( but probably not)

    Conclusion better to try and fail than fail to try

    So
    1) Identify a target
    2) Have some good arguments ready (There is a reason why they should be interested isn’t there? )
    3) Figure out possible objections and how to overcome them.
    4) Find the person – Ideally face-to-face, or call, or comment on their blog meet their friends or whatever.

    Alternative is too easy – curl up and die !

  • Ed Marsh

    @MindGenius:disqus nails it. As long as the discussion is “where does marketing end and sales begin” you’ll waste time and opportunities. The change is that education, solution & selection are now fluid. Buyers seek resources that will help them define their challenge, provide possible solutions, etc. They’ll use resources available in various forms – whether a whitepaper, insightful sales rep or article.

    Great sales people have always provided one on one thought leadership. Average marketing has always failed, as have average sales people.

    But there’s no longer a delineation between the sales & marketing – rather there’s an education process. So a cold call, that happens to catch an exec when (s)he’s not in a meeting, and happens to catch them when they’re thoughtful about a topic, can work. On the other hand a sales rep presenting to a business group on a big topic will engage, directly and personally, with some as they first come to understand their challenge. And an optimized series of articles offering an eBook on a topic will work on Saturday morning when the exec is searching LinkedIn using their tablet with a cup of coffee.

    The either / or sales & marketing is the problem – not the precise identification of where buyers cross the rep rubicon.

  • SiriusDecisions has been trying to dispel this myth for several years, see this 2013 post by Sirius VP Megan Heuer https://www.siriusdecisions.com/Blog/2013/Jul/Three-Myths-of-the-67-Percent-Statistic.aspx. I applaud their efforts.

    But like so many myths, this one refuses to die. Why? Because the truth doesn’t fit within the worldview of inbound marketing which more or less promises that if you turn your marketing dept into a publisher of content, Google will find you, index your content and send troves of qualified buyers to your site, thus reducing reliance on human interaction (aka, the sales team).

  • Victor Antonio

    You’re both right and wrong. How far a buyer is into the buying process is a function of COMPLEXITY; the independent variable here! When I visit Amazon to buy an mp3 player, preference formation has already taken place. If I go to Best Buy to get it, I pretty much know what I want (i.e., I’m 50% or more into the buying process). Now, if I need to decide on a Cellular Tower Network Interface Device to tie into a fiber optic OC-48 ring, I need help given the array of options (i.e., complexity); which means I’m less than 50% into the buying process. So let’s end this “generalization argument” that really has no set answer! The only REAL answer is, “It depends who (buyer) you’re talking to.” (p.s., The 67% OR whatever number was never intended as an excuse to stop cold calling but as a call-to-action that salespeople need to be more prepared when dealing with an informed buyer)

  • Mike Weinberg

    Love the dialogue here. Let me add three points to clarify why I’m so extreme when it comes to this argument. Remember, I’m a sales consultant and new business development expert, not a marketer. I consult executives and sales leaders and coach sales team on sales success – not marketing.

    1) This is not a question of “or.” It’s “and.” Nowhere am I, or anyone else who considers it a badge of honor to be called “old school,” proclaiming that inbound marketing or social selling or whatever ends up being next year’s new hot sales idea are bad or wrong. They’re wonderful tools and methods, and by all means we should use them to hang out where the prospects are and connect with them early. The more leads the better! However, what I am emphatically stating is that inbound and social are great supplements to, not replacements for, traditional prospecting efforts. We should be using these new methods AND old school methods.

    2) The real issue is not the stupid straw man statistic that buyer are two-thirds through the process before engaging salespeople. It’s the charlatans today preaching the deadly information that is exactly what the non-proactive, non-prospecting salesperson wants to hear. Telling salespeople that prospecting does not work because of that stat is the problem and the crime. It does work, and I’d be happy to walk you in to many of my clients in businesses ranging from SaaS providers, consulting firms, equipment manufacturers, banks, distributors or even a global defense contractor to prove that to you. Proactive targeting of strategic accounts that are not yet “leads” works when done well. I am not delusional or living in an alternate universe. The “experts” preaching that prospecting is dead are lying to you regardless of what studies they offer as proof.

    3) Here’s the real rub: What do you tell the struggling salesperson (or sales force) whose company’s marketing efforts and whose own social selling efforts are not producing enough leads to work? Since the “experts” are convinced that proactively pursuing prospects doesn’t work, what should these salespeople with insufficient leads do? Are they supposed to sit on their butts just hoping a prospect approaches them? Let’s get real. We all love beautiful, warm, qualified leads. I’ll take every one marketing and social and networking and referral selling produce! Bring them on. But when there are not sufficient leads to pursue and the pipeline isn’t full, should the sales team just sit in the fetal position and whine, or should they act like salespeople and go on the hunt looking to create opportunities?

    That’s why I am celebrating the info release by SiriusDecisions. Go forth and sell.

    • You do exactly what Hubspot (one of the most prolific supporters of inbound marketing) does, you hire a lot of sales reps and do a lot of outbound selling. Their reps are certainly not waiting for marketing to deliver sales-ready leads, and as you say, Mike, are out hunting, looking to create opportunities.

    • Mike Weinberg

      John – that’s brilliant. Dinner on me! Tell me what city you live in and I’m sending a gift card. Two years ago I learned that HubSpot had read and was using my book (New Sales. Simplified.) to improve their outbound calling efforts. I almost fell out of my chair. Could there be better proof that we need to be proactive? When the “king of inbound” has people making outbound calls, that says a lot, doesn’t it?

      • Mike, don’t forget that several years ago Hubspot created its own trade show for Inbound Marketing!

  • Lucky Pierre

    It’s safe to say that certain kinds of sales transactions still require sales people — and may arguably require sales people in some form for as long as customers see value in them… But, I’m sorry to inform you that the number of “traditional” transactions is shrinking everyday, thanks mainly to changing customer habits and preferences, as much as it is the technology itself…

    Your competition is only becoming more adept at deploying all kinds of products and services with easy-to-use SaaS-like models where revenue (and profits) are derived algorithmically.

    Consider how today’s “lean” companies — Facebook, LinkedIn, Uber, AirBnB — all grew rapidly with a fraction of the sales footprint of more traditional companies.

    In short, technology is getting faster-cheaper-better to the point where we find ourselves today where ore traditional transactional sales models are largely becoming obsolete, like the fax machine.

    This is why Forrester Research recently predicted that 1 million b2b sales positions will be eliminated within the next 5 years — which is about 25 percent of the estimated total number of those employed in this role today.

    I have long watched this trend and while initially disturbed and fearful, I now hold the belief that this couldn’t be better news for sales… The future of sales might look very much more value-driven — where things like customer loyalty, retention, longevity, referencability, and relationships could be measured as the success criteria for a sales rep, rather than mere monthly quotas of volume of transactions.

  • The notion that buyers are 60% +/- thru the buying process before they contact you is a steaming stinking pile of horse manure. Mostly they are somewhat thru the product research end of their due diligence. For simple products that can be purchased without human intervention, maybe 67% is right. For complex sales and things that require various levels of due diligence, facilitated decision process, and where the decisions have company, career, and real personal impacts (risk/reward), this 67% stat is way off.

    One material change as a function of info glut is the NoDecision Rate has gone up by the 10% to the detriment of the Win/Loss columns. So the fact that people have the information needed to make Product level decisions has not improved their individual or group decision criterion at all. Statistically it is worse.

    When one talks about the 67% bogus number, not it is an undifferentiated number that never proclaims too be an average of anything. So if its true for simplistic sole decision maker Product selections of little consequence, what are the numbers for ‘stuff’ that affects company or system wide Process, and that have implications for company or system wide corporate Performance.

    Like most free content and urban legends, it is offered up context free, and impaired by a lack of critical thinking.

    It really is a stupid number.

  • Hey Mike,

    Thanks for brining a dose of reality to the conversation.

    I spoke at the SiriusDecisions conference on Tuesday and shared how leveraging good old fashion press releases can be 36X more effective than LinkedIn’s saved search feature – that lets you know when decision makers change jobs.

    Here are some of LinkedIn the stats:
    – False positives: 53.8%
    – Work email address: 34.7%
    – Days since new job: 140.6%
    – Work email address and less than 45 days in job: 2.8%

    The average number of days after an executive joins that a press release goes out 18.1!

    That combined with some of the ways to get email address 100% of the time and the knowledge that a change in one executive triggers a change in another executive or a change in that executives ways makes all the difference in being proactive an reaching out.

    Thanks again and have a GREAT week!

    Craig

  • davidlocke

    During the recession, a time when sales reps can’t sell, sales demanded that marketing do more, so they did. This is where the myth, as you call it came from. You can work in a sales-driven company, a marketing-driven company, or a company that does both together. Quit the blame game. But, here we are with another blame game, typical of sales.

  • We’ve all heard cold calling aka “interruptive marketing” is dead and proactively pursuing prospects doesn’t work anymore. I would suggest solely cold calling 1980’s style as I did both on telephone and knocking on doors in my territory when I started my sales career at Xerox (which was how I spent the majority of my day as a new rep to generate leads) is dead. Like any good marketing it’s a mix of inbound marketing tactics and focused strategic account selling which includes social selling today.

    I personally believe the buying process has changed. Prospects are far more educated and don’t want to be interrupted (when did they? God knows how many times I’ve been hung up on or thrown out of an office building) but that doesn’t mean sales reps shouldn’t still proactively prospect as part of their fundamental responsibility.

    Glad to see the study by SiriusDecsions shows buyers are engaging with sellers from the very beginning of the buyers journey. Thanks for sharing Mike!

  • Zak Pines

    Mike, agree 100% this was a much needed clarification as the interpretation of the 67% stat had shifted in meaning over the years. This was empowering to B2B sales people and the demand gen marketers who partner with them. How you sell & market continues to be a significant business differentatior.
    I was also in attendance and this was my real time reaction – same day post on the topic
    http://www.moneyballmarketer.com/blog/2015/5/14/sdsummit-2015-takeaway-siriusdecisions-clarifies-a-misunderstood-statistic-and-opens-up-a-whole-world-of-possibilities-for-integrated-digital-demand-generation

  • lieflarson

    With customers beginning their pre-purchase due diligence online, salespeople need to swim upstream in the customer engagement process and meet customers online, instantly. Getting their personality and personal selling skills in front of the customer as early as possible is where it’s at. It’s now possible to go beyond phone and email and connect in real-time with customers (see http://engage.co). Great salespeople are still as relevant as ever, it’s just that they’ve been underequipped with technology to be represented where today’s customer lives, on the web.

  • Franklin

    It’s a customer empowered world today! Why does it seem that many in B2B sales — especially sales managers — fail to comprehend this new reality? Why can’t the sales professional embody this change in his/her own practices?

    Look, after being given the option to either work with a sales rep or do their own research and navigate to what they need and find useful online, if customers now choose to do it themselves, isn’t this a good thing?

    I’m a 20-year B2B sales veteran, so I’m afraid I know the answer… as long as sales departments and those who manage them rely solely on the yardstick of volume of transactions and total dollars closed per month, this trend will never be properly understood or embraced by the typical sales department.

    If, on the other hand, sales reps are empowered to work more closely with customers, to spend less time trying to maximize the number of transactions and more time cultivating customer loyalty, longevity, retention, value, satisfaction, and happiness, then there’s hope, IMHO.

    • Mike Weinberg

      Franklin, I understand your perspective, but feel like you are changing the topic. I’m not ignoring that buyers have tons of info available to them and that if sellers don’t deliver value that they’re not needed. I’m with you on that. But let’s not confuse that with the fact that so many underperforming salespeople are struggling because they live in reactive mode waiting for a prospect to call them. If you want to talk about yardsticks and measuring sales performance, how about looking at lost deals and lower margins from being last to an opportunity because the salesperson was sitting around waiting to be summoned by the customer? The reason I’m celebrating this study (just did it again here: http://www.newsalescoach.com/2015/05/so-prospecting-aint-dead-yet-and-this-old-phone-still-works/) is because that statistic has been a fabrication from day one propagated by people with an agenda. The truth is that pursuing potential clients and deals before they’re “leads” still works quite well. Those selling the Kool-Aid that prospecting is dead have done significant damage. And as I predicted on this very site last year, their bubble is thankfully bursting – http://labs.openviewpartners.com/social-selling-myths/.

      • Franklin

        Mike,

        Good points… and as a long-time sales guy, we root for the same side…

        But I’m afraid many sales professionals are underperforming today not because they are “waiting for a prospect to call them,” but because most B2B sales transactions don’t involve sales reps anymore.

        Studies show a majority now (more than half) of all business buying – for everything from routers to servers to commercial office space — is fulfilled with the buyer never interacting with a sales rep. This is thanks mostly to the web, but it’s also as much about changes in customers’ own preferences, habits, experiences, and expectations too….

        This movement started out very slowly with the advent of SaaS about a decade or so ago, and is now spreading to virtually every conceivable product or service… consider how Facebook or Twitter reached 50 million users within their first year of existence, well ahead of any B2B sales effort in place.

        In theory at least, this is good news for us sales guys: instead of “chasing orders,” we might actually work toward building better relationships with customers, offering ourselves as trusted advisors, listening and responding to changing needs, creating more value and loyalty and recurring revenue, and serving as better “voices of the customer” inside our own organizations to help improve the products and services we represent.

        But for this to happen, sales professionals need to be liberated from the shackles of monthly sales quotas and other transactional measures of “success”… recurring revenue models might evolve where sales reps spend more time cultivating needs throughout a longer lifecycle with the customer, well beyond an initial onboarding sale In such a scenario, sales reps could be better incentivized to increase the loyalty and longevity of the customers they work with.

        Meanwhile, the pace of automation is unstoppable and will only command ever more of the transactional pie of sales, until someday soon when sales people (at least the transactional types) discover they have no more transactions to chase.

  • Kevin Hurley

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for putting this together, it’s certainly a great takeaway from SD Summit and I’ll be including this post in the Nudge Social Selling Roundup via http://www.neednudge.com/socialsellingblog – keep the great content coming!

  • Great post, as usual, Mike. And always good data from my friends at SiriusDecisions.

    Some thoughts, and a clarification on the data points:

    To be clear, the original data from the CEB suggested that buyers were 57% through their buying process before engaging with suppliers, on average. It was SiriusDecisions who published the 67% stat originally, and that was related to the amount of buying research done digitally, and was not related to a percentage of the buying process completed. Seems like a lot of people are confused about the difference between these two stats. I see them misquoted all the time.

    From a research standpoint, there are a lot of factors at play here that muddy the waters. Without knowing all the research protocols, the demographics of the audience studied, the questions asked, how buying phases were defined, and how the data was analyzed and interpreted, it’s all a little squishy. People have a tendency to pick up these data points without understanding the context of the study, or having any understanding of statistics, and start tossing stats around as if they’re facts. No single study defines the entire U.S. or global marketplace.

    As just one example, based on whether I named buying stages (such as “Education, Solution, Selection”) or whether I estimated the time spent in each stage (which could vary – it’s not likely 33,3% each), I could manipulate the data to represent the point at which buyers engaged sellers, differently.

    From a personal perspective, I’m one of those pesky buyers, in a Fortune 10 corporation today, and have been a sales rep, a sales manager, and involved in the sales performance improvement profession for 25+ years. I consulted for a bit, but most of my experience is internal with an employer, leading sales training, sales effectiveness and sales enablement functions. In those roles, I have also been a B2B buyer for 25+ years as well, often in Fortune 500 corporations. It’s been interesting to view this from both sides of the table.

    I don’t know what percentages I’d assign, exactly, but years ago, I certainly engaged suppliers far earlier in my problem-solving/research and buying cycle than I do today. I had to contact them to get any information about them and their offerings, often based on ads I’d see in trade mags or experience at trade shows. That’s what’s changed. But even that’s variable, depending on the problem I’m trying to solve, who else in involved, how much expertise or experience I have in the area I’m researching, what I already know about the vendors, etc. Today, based on the information I can glean from a variety of sources but especially the Internet, sometimes I reach out early, and sometimes, I don’t. (It’s a Mounds vs. Almond Joy thing.)

    There have been a few cases (but very few), where a vendor rep caught my attention early and created an opportunity. I’m a self-admitted buyer from Hell, though, based on how many sales approaches I get a week, and I rarely meet with reps now unless I’m trying to solve a problem and I schedule the meeting.

    On the flip side, there have been cases where I practically made a decision without consulting suppliers until the very end, to validate a few things or have a quick bake-off. Most cases have been in the middle, so I’d have to say that I’m probably somewhere between 33-66% of the way through my process, by the time I reach out to engage someone externally. While most of the organizations I’ve worked for have had a “buying process” or sorts defined, and some level of procurement and supplier sourcing management, a lot of the buying process is contextual and variable.

    For this reason, I think we need to take ALL the research, especially any conducted by surveys, as a snapshot in time, based on the protocols of the study. It’s the difference between a map and the territory. On a map, the difference between point A and B looks like a 10 minute walk. But if the terrain is a mountain range vs. a city sidewalk, the experience on the ground is going to be a lot different.

    • Mike Weinberg

      Classic Kunkle: Thorough and thoughtful. Mike, I like your Almond Joy vs. Mounds metaphor almost as much as I like how my British client says, “That’s like chalk and cheese.”

  • marc zazeela

    This is something that I have been suspicious of since the first time I heard it. Most of the people I call on are not necessarily looking for anything, much less having spent time researching my services.

    The statistics are probably true of buyers who CALL YOU first. Something that top sales professionals do not rely on.

  • Dave Waller

    Interesting post and perspective. Prospecting and cold calling are still critical to any sales organization, but prospecting without understanding how buyers gather information leads to activity over achievement.

    I’d bet that the 67% statistic is after something stimulates a buyer to do some level of research and come to conclusions themselves. But it needs to start by someone saying “I have something that can help you”

    Think about HOW your clients are educated today. Today there is a wealth of information on the internet. Before the widespread usage of the internet, buyers had to interact with sales reps to become educated. A cold call or e-mail can lead a buyer to be intrigued, but there will be a perception created by a simple google search.

    So, what this means is that organizations need to think about how they educate buyers on their web sites. Give your web visitors enough information to intrigue them to learn more (and that’s via a sales rep). Track their actions so the rep has an idea of what they are interested instead so the conversation can be contextual.

    Reps can then hone in on the potential interest and prospect the heck out of them. Some technologies I’ve used that are really helpful here is e-mail tracking software that give me insight into what emails are opened and forwarded.

  • Perry

    According to research by Forrester and others, more than half of all B2B sales transactions today are entirely digitized — to such an extent that the buyer never interacts with someone in sales.

    This is true for sales of products and services in a surprisingly wide (and growing) range of business verticals — from office supplies to commercial real estate. Virtually every business need can be fulfilled online today. With the Internet of today, we essentially have the “Amazon-ization” of every conceivable business need or want!

    Not only is the sale itself largely automated now — thus disrupting the jobs of millions of sales reps — but ever larger parts the customer experience is increasingly supported by online portals, digital processes, analytics, and UX design. This effectively gives more control to customers, and eliminates the need for sales reps, customer service people, technical writers, middle managers, and even many marketers.

    Companies using lean, agile, and design-centered approaches to product and service development — with a growing emphasis on big data analytics — are relying more on this digital nature of the sales transaction and business decision-making today. They are less likely to choose traditional sales approaches when deciding how to market and sell their products.

    • Bean Town

      Perry, it seems that you’ve missed his point completely, or done understand what type of sales transactions he’s he’s talking about.

  • Steve Hall

    Spot on, MIke, I’ve been saying that this is bull for two years.

    A good sales person working at executive level can initiate a buying process (although strictly speaking the realisation that a business problem is painful enough to prioritise is the starting point).

    If your business problem is “we need to sell more” there are dozens of ways to address is – hire sales people, fire sales people, focus on existing customers, drive hard to win new customers, buy a CRM, hire a lead generation partner and so on.

    If you sell CRMs or leads generation services and wait for them to come to you 80% or more never will because they will choose a different path.

    And the other 20% will be working with a proactive sales person who understands their core business issue and has helped guide them towards the best solution.

    So those who sit and wait do get prospects who are well into the buyers journey, but they miss out on many more and often they are only there to make up the numbers.

    Great post, I’ll share via LinkedIn & Twitter

    Cheers Steve

    PS 67% of statistics are inaccurate, 17.5% are made up and the other 42% don’t add up..