Boost Customer Confidence, Strengthen Sales Relationships in Distribution

Customers are engaging in purchasing behavior contrary to their own decision confidence, but distribution sales reps can help.
Tompkins new VP of sales
  • Customers increasingly want a rep-free buying experience, but satisfaction levels drop when they go it alone.
  • Sales reps play a role in increased customer confidence, and related buying satisfaction, by accurately diagnosing problems and providing technical expertise.
  • To create a compelling online experience, first develop a thorough understanding of the customer’s buying journey.

Do distributors’ customers know what’s best for them when it comes to long-term satisfaction in their purchasing decisions? Not always, according to Maria Boulden, vice president, executive partner, sales, at Gartner.

Research by Gartner indicates that more than half of millennial buyers (54%) say they prefer to go it alone when buying from distributors. Gen X is not far behind at 43%, with 29% of baby boomers wanting that rep-free experience, according to survey data shared by Boulden at MDM’s recent Sales GPS Conference. However, that preference — understandable in today’s increasingly digital age — is not without consequence: 23% of customers who engage in complex, long-term, rep-free sales cycles express higher purchase regret, Boulden noted.

Even so, the market continues to shift to a rep-free experience. Before the pandemic, 33% of buyers wanted a rep-free buying experience, growing to 43% this year. Boulden expects the percentage to rise further over the coming years. “There’s a strong connection between customers preferring to go it alone on the one hand, and then ultimately regretting what they bought on the other,” Boulden said.

It creates a losing cycle where distributors get fewer opportunities to increase customer stickiness with upsells and interpersonal interaction, and customers are “far more likely” to regret their purchases, she said.  At the same time, Gartner research finds the single biggest driver for purchasing regret is lack of confidence by customers in the buying process, what Boulden calls the “currency of modern B2B commerce.”

Customer confidence isn’t about customers’ confidence in their distribution partners, but rather confidence in themselves. Driven by a lack of faith in digital sales and fewer face-to-face customer calls due to the pandemic, customers are purposefully engaging in purchasing behavior contrary to their own decision confidence, according to Boulden.

What can distributors do to change the dynamic?

Distribution salespeople have a crucial role to play by understanding how customers are making buying decisions so that they can support them. According to Boulden, customer confidence increases when customers feel they have:

  • Asked the right questions
  • Identified the best information
  • Aligned at key decision points
  • Feel the purchase will positively impact their business

Distributor websites that successfully meet the goal of helping customers through the buying process in the way customers want to be served come from a foundation of understanding the customer buying journey. This means the distributor knows elements such as:

  • What the customer is buying
  • How the customer learns about them
  • Where they learn about competitors
  • Where the customer gets stuck in the purchasing process

“If you have not asked a customer about their buying journey in the past 18 months, that has to be where you begin,” Boulden said.

How to provide a better buying experience

Knowing there’s a one-in-four chance customers will regret their rep-free online purchases, well-informed sales reps can feel empowered to guide customers through better buying habits that will increase their purchasing confidence. For example, Boulden said, sales reps who help customers accurately diagnose problems can increase customer confidence by 5%. Helping customers understand the technical aspects of an offering is associated with another 5.6% increase in customer confidence. “Reps that do these two things dramatically boost buyers’ confidence and lower their regret at the same time,” she said.

Sales reps who know the intricacies of their company’s website can also help the buying process along by enabling customers to go deeper into the distributor’s online experience than they may have on their own. This helps to distinguish a distributor’s digital offerings from the competition — a current source of weakness. According to a Gartner survey of more than 1,000 B2B customers, 64% of respondents couldn’t tell the difference between most brands’ digital experiences.

“… [B]uyers who are trying to go rep free are going to be really hard pressed to find subtle differences between one supplier’s solution and another,” said Boulden.

Rather than a direct handoff from digital to human, think of it as a complementary symbiosis between the two, Boulden said. A key driver of increasing confidence happens when salespeople build consensus across the moments that matter the most in their customers’ buying processes. As distributors work to build the right digital experiences for customers, salespeople are the sherpas who guide customers through the digital buying journey, she said.

Available now: Listen to Boulden’s entire two-hour Sales GPS Conference keynote on demand and access the rest of the conference sessions. 

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