Why Selling No Longer Works – and What B2B Brands Must Do Instead


“What we really need is a mindset shift that will make us relevant to today’s consumers, a mindset shift from “telling & selling” to building relationships.”

— Jim Stengel, Former Global Marketing Officer, Procter and Gamble 

Relationships are the Alpha, Omega, and lifeblood of business growth, but how to build these relationships? That’s the million-dollar question. 

There’s been no shortage of answers, with many having considerable merit. And those most commonly offered — trust, empathy, honesty, agility, etc. — all play an indisputably important role. 

The challenge is that these answers fail to provide an actionable framework for identifying — much less understanding and navigating — the confusing and often confounding nature of the modern B2B buyer and purchase journey. 

In undertaking our own research to provide such a framework, we learned that B2B buyers are characterized by four paradoxes that pose both potential peril and great promise for the business relations of B2B brands. 

For reasons we will make clear, B2B brands that are naive to these paradoxes are essentially missing one half of their customer equation. For this reason, they often find themselves unwittingly at odds with their own business objectives and at risk for derailing the purchase journey.   

But by understanding the paradoxes of B2B connected consumers and the competing needs these paradoxes reveal, B2B brands can effectively reconcile these needs and map them to concrete business objectives to successfully scale. 

Most importantly, this framework provides B2B brands with practical insights and concrete tools for making the shift from “telling and selling” to building authentic relationships that inspire loyalty and advocacy and bring buyers happily home to their brand, again and again.    

Paradox 1: Modern B2B buyers are independent, yet interconnected

When we consider the role that social media plays in B2B purchasing, it’s clear that buyers are exhibiting the same interconnectivity as their B2C counterparts

In fact, this interconnectivity is even more pronounced in the B2B sphere. Not only are buyers using social media to research vendors, but they’re also reaching out to peers for recommendations at an extremely high rate. 

As cited in a recent report by LinkedIn, The New Formula for Connecting with B2B Buyers, 72% of buyers in a Demand Gen survey looked to peers for relevant content when researching their B2B purchasing decisions. In addition, the same survey found a 57 percent increase in the number of buyers who connected with potential B2B vendors using social media. 

B2B buyers, many of whom are Millennials and even older Gen Zers, are therefore using the same methods for learning about vendors that they use in every other area of their lives. This in itself isn’t (or shouldn’t be) surprising, as B2B buyers are, after all, making their own personal purchases and connecting with brands they love off the clock. 

It also stands to reason that the power of peer recommendations, or word-of-mouth, continues to have the same degree of significance it’s always had in B2B buying. 69 percent of buyers, in fact, are more likely to choose a vendor if the salesperson works for a company that has a strong professional brand. 

In other words, reputation has always been critical for B2B companies, which rely on long-term relationships to remain sustainable. That is even more true today, when reputations can be damaged, or even destroyed, online by a single tone-deaf tweet or a poorly thought-out marketing campaign. 

That explains the interconnectivity. Let’s look at the “independent” element of this equation.

Independence, when it comes to B2B buyers, can be seen most clearly in the way that buyers are interacting with sales representatives. 

So many buyers are beginning their purchasing journey by researching a vendor or firm on social media, that it’s normal for a buyer to be 57 percent of the way through that journey before they actively engage with your sales department. 

This is why cold calling and cold emailing are offering increasingly lower returns. In fact, a LinkedIn survey found that only 4 percent of B2B buyers had a favorable impression of salespeople who reached out cold. 87 percent, on the other hand, had a favorable impression of salespeople who were introduced to them through another member of their professional network. 

Just like their B2C counterparts, B2B buyers want to be in control of their purchasing journey. Just like Nicole, our connected consumer who searched for online reviews and Top 10 lists when searching for an armchair, B2B buyers want to do their own research and draw their own conclusions before listening to what a sales representative has to say. 

Hacking the Gap

Provide digitally available content for each step of the purchasing journey

In order to help B2B buyers form a favorable impression of your brand during their research process, ensure that you have informative, valuable content available for each step of the purchase journey. 

When buyers can find what they need on their own, they’re much more likely to move to the next phase of the journey—which in turn, makes it far more likely that they’ll reach out to you for more information, instead of turning to one of your competitors to meet their needs. 

Paradox 2: Modern b2b buyers are idealistic, yet discriminating

Just like B2C customers, B2B buyers expect the brands they engage with to “walk their talk.” 

In today’s digital marketplace, where a buyer can find multiple brands providing the same product or service within a matter of minutes, loyalty is earned—not given. 

While many of the same rules apply for B2B brands as for B2C, in terms of brands living out their values and living up to their reputations, one thing that B2B brands must pay special attention to is the way they engage with their customers. 

Just as cold calling is being seen in a more and more negative light, so too are sales pitches or even simple contacts that are off target or irrelevant to a buyer’s needs. Karen, our connected consumer who was in search of a laptop, spent some time browsing in one of Best Buy’s physical locations—however, she didn’t like dealing with the salespeople, which is what led her to leave and continue her search online. 

B2B buyers exhibit similar tendencies. Even when a buyer has already reached out to a brand and established that connection, if they are greeted with information that is not in line with their needs, they’re likely to go cold. 

Statistics back this up: 77 percent of B2B buyers are more likely to choose a vendor if the salesperson who engages with them is informed about their needs (LinkedIn, A New Formula for Connecting with B2B Buyers).

Hacking the Gap

Use data to track customers’ purchase journeys and discover their needs

Just as the right content at the right time is critical to keep buyers moving along on their purchasing journey, providing the right content in the right way can give B2B brands the data they need to discern who’s reading what, and what those readers’ needs are. 

Consider this potential path. 

A customer signs up with their email address to access a report that you have on your website. 

Because they’ve agreed to accept emails from your brand, you send them a defined series of emails mapped to your typical customer’s purchasing journey (which is, as we know, far from a straight line but wanders forward, backward, and even sideways at times). 

Customers will likely click on at least one of those emails if they’re interested in your brand at all. By using that email click-through data, you can determine where your customers are on their journey, what services or products they’re interested in, and what information they’re finding more valuable. 

With this data in hand, your salespeople can approach the right customers, with the right message, at the right time. That’s what B2B selling in the digital era requires. 

Paradox 3: Modern B2B buyers are digitally native, yet highly hands-on

B2B buying isn’t “hands-on” in the same way that B2C shopping is. 

Most B2B brands don’t have physical space where buyers can come test their products, for example, or speak in person with a sales representative. (Although some forward-thinking brands like Chase are starting to incorporate these sorts of physical spaces with campaigns like the Chase for Business BizMobile. We’ll explore this point further below.)

For most B2B buyers, the “hands-on” element of purchasing is more akin to their need to conduct the majority of their research independently and online by seeking out the precise information they want or need when they want or need it. 

Knowledge libraries, social posts, how-tos, video tutorials, webinars, reports, whitepapers—these are the elements of a well-rounded B2B content collection. 

While not every format will be right for every B2B brand, brands do need to consider all of these options when deciding which types of content to invest in. Where do your customers go when they need basic information on your product or service? Where do returning customers go when they’re considering their second purchase with you? Where do they go when they want to learn about your brand and its values? 

At the same time, some brands are taking notes from the B2C space and branching out into physical spaces, fueled by this precise mix of needs for both digital and hands-on experiences. 

Take Chase for Business, the global financial services’ arm that offers financial products for businesses large and small (and a Zen Media client). 

Chase for Business wanted to position itself as the financial “wingman” for small business owners across the United States. They were already hosting Chase for Business conferences that offered advice, resources, and information to small business owners—but they wanted to go even further. 

To do this, they engaged our firm to create an out-of-the-box opportunity specifically to help this group of customers. Together, we developed a business-advice center on wheels: the Chase BizMobile. Small business owners and entrepreneurs in each city the BizMobile visits are able to sign up for short, free consultations with marketing experts to get their specific marketing questions answered. While there, they can also browse some of Chase’s financial offerings—independently on tablets, of course!—and speak to Chase representatives if they need or want more information. 

This is the kind of hands-on approach that B2B brands should be considering.

Hacking the Gap

Keep a “hands-on” approach in mind as you develop your digital content materials, but also look for ways to expand into the physical realm 

Customers want to know the brand they’re patronizing—and that’s true whether that customer is making a B2C or B2B purchase. 

High-quality, varied content is one effective way to build that relationship and establish that trust. For some B2B brands, this will be a “good enough” approach.  

But if you can create opportunities for customers to get truly hands-on with your brand, whether through a brand activation at a public event, an experiential campaign at a trade show, or a chance to volunteer alongside your leadership, you’ll see your reputation, trust, and business grow much more quickly.

Paradox 4: Modern B2B buyers are gods, yet all too human

B2B buyers, like their B2C counterparts, have almost god-like powers of choice when it comes to which brands to engage with. They can learn more about a brand in an hour, totally on their own, by perusing their website, social profiles, and content, than they could in three phone conversations with a salesperson, pre-digital age. 

Yet with great power, we see, comes great uncertainty—at least when it comes to marketing to the B2B connected consumer. 

These buyers are inundated with information. They’re receiving hundreds of emails a day, and with a simple Google search, they can access as many brands offering similar services as they have the patience to sift through. 

This is why it is so critical to create content that is valuable, mapped to specific points on the buyer’s purchasing journey, and that answers the exact questions buyers have at those specific points. If a buyer finds that they need to search for the information they need, it’s all too likely that they’ll move on to the next vendor—one that does know how to anticipate their questions.

In addition to content, tools like chatbots and other versatile customer service options can make the purchase journey smoother for customers. 

Fast response times are important here—just like B2C customers, B2B buyers expect a brand to answer their question or respond to their inquiry within what might be a surprisingly short amount of time. 

In fact, 80 percent of B2B buyers expect brands to interact with them in real time (via chatbot or social), while a vast majority of buyers expect a response either immediately or within one hour—regardless of platform. 

Hacking the Gap

Focus on that 57 percent of the purchase journey that’s already completed by the time a buyer reaches out to you

Giving customers targeted, focused content and tools to smooth their purchase journey are essential steps for B2B brands today. Customers want to be guided, but along the route of their choosing. 

High-quality content and customer service tools like chatbots and dedicated customer support teams will allow B2B buyers to direct their own purchase journey free of the clutter and information inundation that they find so overwhelming. 

Ready to get to work? Contact us to see how we can help.


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