By David H. Martin

Today’s considered-purchase cycle: Today’s, 35-percent of purchasers take up to 90 days to make a decision. Twenty-eight percent buy between three and six months. Nineteen-percent wait up to 12 months before buying. Advertising Research Foundation study


You hear this question wherever you go in business: “With  all the electronic access to information today, why is the customer taking longer to buy? We know they’re going to buy, we just don’t know when.” Today’s extended buying cycle is frustrating for marketers who don’t know how to adjust to and deal with it. Go the extra mile to help them decide. Although sales closing skills can always be improved, the problem persists. People are taking longer to buy. While its tempting to blame it on your sales force’s lack of determination or inadequate closing techniques, the fact remains that the decision-making process seems to be getting longer and longer. Perhaps because of today’s easy access to product information, people are able to consider more options and are becoming more thorough in exploring them. Thanks to far greater available information on products and prices, today’s customers are more in charge of the sale than the salesperson. Today the customer sets the agenda. The secret is to be ‘top of mind’ when they are
finally ready to buy.

Marketing in a world of delayed buying decisions
Since you don’t know exactly when consumers will buy, it is more important than ever to stay in front of them without irritating them. A weekly phone call or email blitz wouldn’t be prudent, but a carefully orchestrated campaign of regular contact through a variety of venues might be the best bet. The good news today: there is a larger number of low-cost marketing tools at your disposal:

  • Voice mail
  • Fax and email messages

When you factor in normal advertising, direct mail and home-show participation, you have a rich mix of inexpensive ways to keep in touch without being obnoxious.

The changing consumer buying cycle Through the years, traditional water improvement dealers sold primarily to consumers through a three-step process:

  • Create interest
  • Set in-home appointments
  • Close sales

Ideally, the customer would purchase a product on the initial sales call (with a one-step close). In this scenario, the consumer had far less opportunity to do his or her homework in advance and depended largely on the visiting dealer to educate as he sold—all in the same visit. Unless the prospects had already received one or more competitive quotes, the dealer had perhaps a 50-percent chance of closing the sale on the initial appointment. The salesperson was in control.

Today, the consumer is in charge. For one thing, he/she has more likely been exposed to information on equipment similar to your own through competitors’ reach-out messages, including those showing specific pricing. For another, consumers search the Internet for product information that formerly was not as accessible. Finally, better-informed consumers are more aware of specific contaminants and may want to have their water lab-tested before they make a product-purchase decision. While this may be perceived as a stall by some quick-close salespersons, it may also be perceived as an opportunity to demonstrate professionalism by selling a lab test and closing the sale on a subsequent visit. This takes patience and a better understanding of homeowners’ needs and concerns. Dealers who sell lab tests report they are rewarded by a better than 50-percent closing ratio on the second visit when they come armed with test results that let them expertly match equipment with the customers’ perceived
water problems.

Should you give up on ‘advancing the buying decision’ as a strategy?
No experienced salesperson would dare ignore opportunities to close the sale. Just as he must employ a variety of trial closes to advance the buying decision, your marketing efforts should constantly include different offers or incentives to buy now:

  • Free hardness test
  • Free gallon of RO water
  • Free filter changes for the first year
  • Free salt offer

By arming your sales force with these extra promotional closing tools, you will be helping them close sales.

Do your homework before you sell
There’s nothing more dangerous than a customer who appears to know more than you or your salesperson. Do your homework. Develop a broad-spectrum knowledge of competitive products and prices. In today’s world, you can no longer assume you aren’t selling against another product that’s available from another dealer, a retailer or perhaps an on-line catalog. Be perceived as a key part of the customer’s educational process. Be prepared to share information about community water concerns. Stress the truth: water improvement problems and solutions are often as local as the pipes leading into the home. Carry the water utility’s latest consumer confidence report. Consult with customers, expanding on each contaminant listed. Where else can they get this inside information on water quality in their neighborhood but from a recognized water treatment specialist? Even if you don’t go away with a sale that day, you will have left a strong impression they should buy from you when they’re ready.

Key differences in buying cycles
Both consumers and commercial water improvement customers are taking longer to buy. But, while consumer buying cycles can be shortened by skills of persuasion, education and sales-closing tools that add urgency, business-to-business selling requires more patience and intuition on the part of the salesperson. Although shortening the buying cycle of consumers is still both possible and desirable, the same strategy can be dangerous when applied to commercial customers. Knowledgeable business-to-business salespeople know that it’s possible to get ahead of competition by using the extended buying cycle to good advantage.

Dealing with the commercial customer’s buying cycle
Visualize each customer’s buying cycle. Don’t waste time trying to read the commercial prospect’s body language or concerning yourself with trial closes. That only distracts from the more important task of looking for clues to the process the customer is using to make this purchase. Take a picture of this customer as a buyer to help plan your sales strategy. The more you know about how he thinks and acts, the better.

Be prepared for the long haul. Most salesmen quit too soon when they sense the customer isn’t about to make a quick decision. After a second or third contact, they are off looking for a new hot prospect. These salespersons lose sales because they are not around when the customer is ready to buy. Use phone, fax, email or postcards to keep in touch over time. Better still, use a combination of these.

Become an indispensable resource. This involves more than simply staying in touch. Provide your commercial customers with a flow of information. Drop off a new product sheet. Send a copy of an article relating to their business or your service. The objective is to make the customer feel supported, not threatened.

Plan each sale well in advance. Plan to be at the customer’s side when the deal is closed, no matter how long it takes. Be prepared to cultivate prospects for a year or more. Your goal is to know who will eventually become a customer and plan to be there when the customer is ready to buy.

Take customers away from competitors. Plant seeds by contacting competitors’ customers. With today’s longer buying cycle, customers can feel neglected between purchases, providing a perfect opportunity for another salesman to move in. The longer the buying cycle, the more vulnerable someone else’s customer (or yours) can be to new, exciting ideas. Your goal is to be perceived as a knowledgeable, interested advisor who is always on the cutting edge.

Conclusion
Both consumer and commercial buying cycles are becoming longer as people use better access to product information in advance of purchases. Become their best-informed advisor, the attentive water treatment professional with all the answers. Use multiple marketing techniques to stay in touch with prospects. Recognize the differences between residential customers and commercial buyers and what it takes to be there when they are ready to buy.

About the author
David H. Martin is President of Lenzi Martin Marketing, Oak Park, IL, a firm specializing in water improvement and environmental marketing that integrates old and new media. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404 or by email at dmartin@lenzimartin.

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