Today all over the world a large number of companies in the cleantech sector see much slower than expected sales, after they have successfully developed new innovative technologies. The large majority of cleantech companies bring their products or services on B2B markets, where their principle audience is industrial companies, utilities, government, and public sector agencies. And despite of the fact that this audience, generally, sounds favorable and motivated for clean technologies, the buyers take months (even years) to say yes, or often don’t sign a purchase order at all. As the result, there are a lot of interesting cleantech solutions that have failed to grow revenues, because of inefficient customer acquisition or/and low sales and marketing performance. In this context, I would like to give seven tips that could help cleantech companies to increase customer engagement and make more efficient their sales performance.
It is crucial to demonstrate a high level of expertise in all interactions with multiple B2B audience
The decision making in business-to-business markets is highly complex. In larger organizations there are multiple individuals with separate motivations involved in the buying process. Buyers seek a good financial deal, engineers want high throughput, quality and easy integration, safety managers want low risk, etc. Each of these persons is a specialist in his or her own field, which he or she, generally, considers as the most important. Faced with a multifaceted and knowledgeable buyer, B2B salespeople have to be fully informed about the product or service being sold. In order to convince financial, production, technical and other decision makers, the sales team have to be composed of specialists with not only deep product knowledge, but also capable to provide specific factual information related to each aspects of the product lifecycle. It is important for B2B companies to have the right people on the team – industry and product specialists who can perform at different levels depending on the customer’s needs. In startups, founders can initially take the role of sales managers, as they have an entire vision of the product and understand all its intricate components.
Provide B2B customers with dedicated value-added services
In most purchasing contexts, price and terms of payment play a key role in buyers’ decision-making. At the same time, non-price factors, such as quality of product, technical service, logistics, and on-time delivery often account for 60-70% of the customer decision. B2B customers are generally long-term buyers that require service back-up from their suppliers. In order to influence buyer’s decision-making, companies not only have to meet, but also exceed customers’ requirements, enriching their products with a variety of value-added services. For that companies need to identify which services could provide high value to their specific customers, and if the buyer will be willing to pay extra price for them. The important concern here is to ensure that service-related investments will create true value for customers, which in turn will also result in competitive advantage and additional profitability for companies.
When managers think about services, they shouldn’t focus only on traditional technical services (such as basic installation and training). Rather, after-sale services could comprise a wide variety of activities, such as enhanced technical services (retrofits, upgrades, removes and recycling, third-party services) or business services (consulting, financial services, and outsourcing). By introducing new services that contributes to the customer’s own success, companies could attract new clients, improve relationships with the existing ones and gain significant financial rewards.
Companies should better know their customers’ business
Companies might be able to gain competitive advantage, focusing on their customers’ business needs. They have to put themselves in their customers’ shoes and think about how to help them reach their own customers. For example, Cummins Engines, a US manufacturer of engines for tractor trailer trucks, pleasure boats, and mobile homes, gets close to customers by sending out cross-functional teams for seven-day customer “walks” (scripted on-site interviews) to bring back the information the whole company needs to deliver superior customer value. (T. Baumgartner, A. Bührer, P. Kobus, H. Riesenbeck, H. Ude, F. Weber (2000). ‘’Business-to-Business Marketing: a cornerstone of profitable growth’’, McKinsey & Company, Inc.). Taking this approach, Cummins Engines has increased its bargaining power vis-à-vis its direct customers, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), by deliberately learning more about the consumers – the people who actually drive the tractor trailer trucks, boats, and motor homes – than the OEMs do.
Look for influencers across the buyer’s decision-makers
As already mentioned, B2B sellers have to deal with many stakeholders and decision processes. In most B2B industries, salespersons are focusing on the target group of stakeholders directly involved in the buying decision (such as buyers, engineers, quality and safety managers, etc.). At the same time, in some cases it could be indirect influencers who can affect purchase decision-making. By questioning conventional definitions of who can and should be the target customer and decision-makers, companies could see fundamentally new ways to create values and find new previously overlooked influencers.
For example, North American division of Philips Electronics re-created its industrial lighting business by shifting downstream from purchasers to influencers. Traditionally, the industry focused on corporate purchasing managers who bought on the basis of how much the lightbulbs cost and how long they lasted. Everyone in the industry competed head-to-head along those two dimensions. By focusing on influencers, including CFOs and public relations people, Philips came to understand that the price and life of bulbs did not account for the full cost of lighting. Because lamps contained environmentally toxic mercury, companies faced high disposal costs at the end of a lamp’s life. The purchasing department never saw those costs, but CFOs did. So, Philips introduced the Alto, an environmentally friendly bulb that it promotes to CFOs and to public relations people, using those influencers to drive sales. The Alto reduced customers’ overall costs and garnered companies positive press for promoting environmental concerns. The new market Alto created has superior margins and is growing rapidly; the product has replaced more than 25% of traditional T-12 fluorescent lamps used in stores, schools, and office buildings in the United States. (W. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne (1999). ‘’ Creating New Market Space’’, Harvard Business Review ).
Use digital tools for delivering sales messages and amplifying their impact
Just as e-commerce has transformed B2C-oriented businesses, the digital revolution is now altering the B2B marketplace. Today surveys show that business customers, like individual consumers, are readily turning to their personal networks and publicly available information—increasingly via digital and social media channels—to self-diagnose their problems and form opinions about solutions. For example, CEB’s Marketing Leadership Council survey revealed that the average B2B customer had completed more than one-half of the purchase decision-making process prior to engaging a supplier sales representative directly. At the upper limit, that number ran as high as 70%. According to Boston Consulting Group, in 2010, almost $100 billion of B2B purchases in China were researched online before being bought offline.
Historically viewed as a minor aspect of B2B marketing and sales campaigns, the demand for high-quality content has drastically increased in recent years. The most notable factors driving this growth include the rise of lead nurturing programs, blogging and social media, search optimization, and emphasis on providing richer user experiences. Companies that fail to “show up strong” in this context are underserving potential customers and risk to lose mindshare and, ultimately, sales opportunities. In order to shape customer’s decision making, companies need to deliver high-quality content into the customers buying process. Sales professionals have to engage customers well before their needs are identified—increasingly via social media channels—and guide customer consumption of key content and messages to launch the further sales process. For example, just using LinkedIn, sales professionals could qualify leads, extend connections network, talk to corresponding prospects, follow target companies, promote events, conferences and webinars in groups.
Move from selling to consulting
An important distinguishing feature of business-to-business markets is the importance of the trustful relationship, particularly in emerging markets. No B2B buyer wants to risk his or her livelihood or reputation buying an unreliable product and service. Moreover, even largest business-to-business companies usually don’t have more than 100 customers that really make a difference to sales. In this situation maintaining a healthy and profitable relationship is vital. Sales performance thus depends on the ability to retain customers’ loyalty and to expand the customer relationship.
To create deeper partnerships, a B2B company must help its customers improve their performance. For that B2B sales peoples have to migrate from ‘’selling’’ to ‘’consulting’’, and start to think and act more like business consultants. Rather than pitching the features, advantages and benefits of a product or service, a consultative sales person aims at solving customer’s problems or improving their efficiency. Acting as a customer adviser rather than a stereotypical salesperson, enables sales professionals to create long-term relationships with customers, which are based on trust. This kind of relationships is the most likely to transform in the long-term partnerships, offering benefits for both parties.
Marketing must play a larger role in B2B sales process
Unlike B2C companies, where marketing has always been an important core competence, B2B companies have historically focused more on achieving product-based differentiation. At the same time the success of business-to-business sales can be largely dependent on the abilities to transmit the values to the audience. Knowing how to position, value, price, and brand B2B products or services is becoming one of the key factors for success. To increase their sales performance, B2B companies have to develop excellent insights into customer needs, adjust its marketing approach, and position its brand as superior to that of competitors. Setting a marketing strategy for a B2B company can involve the following actions:
- Understanding customers and market
Companies should study customers and market to know what products and services will create economic value. Because they are over-focused on developing proprietary technological breakthroughs as a source of growth, many industrial companies grow blind to what customers really want. Classic symptoms of this are over-engineered products, muddled sales arguments, and idle capacity. The best way to correct this situation is a steady stream of information from the market. Three most important methods of getting the market information are: discussions with individual customers about existing products and their strengths and weaknesses, customer focus groups led by a neutral third party, and statistically reliable research and analysis.
- Developing a good segmentation
Segmentation reflects customers’ economic attractiveness for your company. The strategic value of a good segmentation is that it makes it easier to tailor company’s approach and thus “monopolize” customers in a selected segment. With this approach and a good understanding of the market, a company can influence industry trends in favor of its own profitable expansion, even in highly competitive markets. A good segmentation assumes that customers are classified by buying behaviors and the profile of each group suggests a practical course of action for satisfying its requirements. Moreover, a good segmentation contains more than one segment offering a sizeable profit potential and at least one segment offering a good chance to build a competitive advantage, because its requirements can be met by a capability that a company already has (or can realistically attain).
- Defining a distinctive value proposition for each segment
An exact understanding of customer needs and, building on that, a well segmentation gives B2B companies the raw material to formulate a distinctive value proposition. Customers do not buy simply on price; they buy on value, which is the perceived benefits that a product provides (such as product quality, features, performance, design, technical service and support, sales staff competence) minus the perceived price. Coming up with a distinctive value proposition requires drawing firm boundaries between its product offering and competitors’ one in ways that give company a distinct profile and thus a natural advantage.
After a company has defined the value proposition for its products, it can use different marketing channels both traditional (such as tradeshows, industry events and professional magazines) and digital (such as corporate website, online content and social medias) to deliver its values to the target audience, as well as receive new feedback for better customer and market understanding.
The biggest difficulty of practically all cleantech companies, is while bringing their innovative technologies from laboratories to the market, they come up against a brick wall that is market acceptance of these technologies. No matter how great, fast or green the technology is, without appropriate marketing and sales strategy, any of its commercial advantages will evaporate. That’s why, together with technological development, companies have to correctly design their sales procedures, build deep customer engagement and create and cultivate a strong brand.