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Can an 'Expert Buyer' Control the Sales Conversation?
Maybe - Maybe Not

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

If your products and marketplace have on-going changes due to technology and other issues - there's no reason that the professional salesforce, which is the tip of the spear, can't maintain an informational advantage and re-engineer the buyer's vison. Admittedly, not as easy as it once was.
But neither is it impossible.

Much has been written lately of how the Internet has forever changed selling and that sales forces are encountering 'the expert buyer' - who already has all the answers and controls the sales dialogue.

Perhaps so in some industries. Moreso with commodities or frequently purchased items. But with rapidly changing technology affecting many industries and the sales force being on the cutting edge of the competitive equation - it is doubtful that many customers can obtain that much information, or more importantly, operational insights - compared to a well-trained expert sales person.

Here are a few examples:

Several years ago, the concept of 'Very Light Jets' was in vogue. These would be small business jets that were going to revolutionize air travel - jet taxis, so to speak. Production numbers were tossed around that has air traffic experts concerned about extreme congestion.

I was very skeptical of the possibility for success of the VLJ concept, as a general aviation pilot/flight instructor who had been flying for many years, and who was aware of the regulatory and operational issues involved (and many previously-failed business models).

During the height of the buzz, I met with a well-known technology writer (who had no aviation credentials) who had written a major story on VLJs for a prominent technology publication who appeared to have drunk the Kool-Aid for the VLJ manufacturers' sales projections. During our meeting, I walked him through all the operational problems with attaining the sales numbers that were being batted around - there were projections by just one manufacturer of 1,500 jets per year, when the entire sales of all business jets were only 500 units annually. I then walked him through all the operational and regulatory obstacles that these air-taxi users would face, and pointed out that it was simply impossible, for starters, to have that many qualified pilots in that short a time, based on FAA regulations. I also pointed out the severe weight (useful load) limitations for the jets - if there were four adults on board - the amount of fuel that could be carried was severely limited, as was the range. With a shortened range, a jet loses much of its high-performance advantage. Not for nothing are regional airlines going back to turboprops.

I got a blank look. He had no idea of the structural obstacles to the VLJ pie-in- the-sky (or jet-in-the-sky) projections. He was not an 'expert buyer' of course - but a lot of people who were laying down the deposits on those $1 (or $2) million-plus VLJs would have probably met the common definition.

So what was the problem?

The manufacturers were concentrating on manufacturing issues - supposedly reducing first costs and operational costs - and did not look at the other operational and industry structural issues involved in meeting their own projections. These people (CEOs) were not stupid - one was a former Microsoft executive and licensed pilot, another a well-known manufacturing consultant to IBM. But apparently they failed to 'stress test' their dream - by taking a hard look at the many failed attempts for regional, helicopter and air taxi services - just as did the people who put down some serious deposit money.

So if you were a sales professional for the conventional business jets - should have been very easy to walk prospective clients through the same scenario - creating FUD (fear, uncertainly, doubt) as to the viability of their deposit. In the end, those jet salesmen probably wound up with the orders anyway. The VLJ manufacturers went bankrupt, and few survived reorganization.

Have you heard of the 'flying car concept'? Many of the same issues prevail - that are unknown to the uninitiated. But that price tag is only $250K.

The same situation (and 'expert buyer') issues exist for another technology product - the high-end, professional digital video cameras.

Each of the manufacturers (Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon) implement digital technology slightly differently. I once sat though a presentation on the Sony large sensor design (which is key to getting image quality and characteristics similar to 35mm movie film) where the techno-babble would make your eyes glaze over unless you were a video professional or trained as an engineer (which I am.) Shortly thereafter, I sat through a Panasonic presentation at a trade show, where their representative made an equally eloquent presentation for their large-format sensor. The manufacturers also implement the CODECs (CODe-DECode video encoding algorithms) slightly differently, and even use different storage cards. In the end, user preferences are usually subjective in nature.

Ironically - I spoke to an independent expert on Sony cameras - who remarked that many of the professional users don't want to master all the functions, but simply set these professional, cinema-quality cameras on automatic and just shoot. The industry expression is: "We'll fix it in post(production)."

So 'expert buyers' for the networks or other professional users could do all kinds of research, look at specifications and cross-tabulate features, but in the end - it usually comes down to individual preference - a case could be made for any one of several camera vendors.

So how can professional sales forces deal with the supposed 'expert buyers'?

It depends, as was stated in the beginning of the article, if you are in an industry where there isn't that much differentiation due to technological (or other) changes. If that's the case, you're probably stuck with the buyer controlling the sales conversation. Unless, of course, your lead generation specializes in finding 'latent pain' - before the buying search has begun.

But if there is constant technology change, and operational issues that affect the use and application of your products - you should have superior information that will help you re-engineer the vision of a solution and gain competitive advantage.

If you are a buyer, and fancy yourself an 'expert buyer' - here are some questions to consider as you collect Internet and user information, and before assuming you have superior information:

So has the Internet changed the selling profession? No doubt.

Does it mean that professional sales forces are now at a disadvantage? Depends on the product or service, and who has the 'information edge'.

If your products and marketplace have on-going changes due to technology and other issues - there's no reason that the professional salesforce, which is the tip of the spear, can't maintain an informational advantage and re-engineer the buyer's vison. Admittedly, not as easy as it once was. But neither is it impossible.

Jeffrey Geibel, APR, LEED-AP, CFII is the principal of Geibel Marketing, a consultancy specializing in sales diagnostics for marketing, marketing messaging and content development across print, web and video. He is the creator of the Sales AutopsySM methodology, accredited in public relations, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional, Certificated Flight Instructor-Instrument and video producer (technical director) for an award-winning cablecast show on people with disabilities.

© 2012, Jeffrey Geibel - All Rights Reserved

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