The Era of the Self-Directed Buyer Is the Era of Sales Enablement

We, marketers, have heard it a thousand times. “It’s the era of the self-directed buyer. In the digital age, buyers are educating themselves, and we must adapt!” But how?

The key lies in good sales enablement. To process the information that they’re consuming, modern buyers need to have conversations. They need to bounce ideas off other people, and your salespeople are best equipped to have those conversations.

Indeed, the era of the self-directed buyer is the era of sales enablement. Let’s take a look at why that is.

How Content Marketing Is Often Portrayed

Before we can dive into the question of sales enablement, we have to rethink our mental model of content marketing. This is how many people envision content’s impact:

In an ideal world, content would affect our buyers in a linear fashion. Marketing would create and curate content. Customers would read it. Boom! Customers would glean insight from our content, and they would suddenly be filled with the irresistible urge to buy our products.

Unfortunately, in a world of self-directed learning, reaching insights is a lot messier.

How Content Marketing Really Looks

Here’s a slightly more realistic vision of what happens. (Though, it’s still somewhat simplified.)

According to the Corporate Executive Board, the average B2B customer consults nearly a dozen sources of information, spread across all varieties of touch points on the path to purchase. Only half of that information comes from the suppliers, in total.

To add insult to injury, only 12% of that information comes from your organization.

With all that information at customers’ fingertips, it’s no wonder that the path to insight is so difficult. Buyers are hearing competing messages from numerous sources.

So, how do we ensure that our 12% makes an impact? We need to understand how self-directed learning happens.

How Self-Directed Learning Takes Place

Our future customers are diagnosing their own problems and driving their own learning. In essence, they are engaging in what educational researchers would call “self-directed learning.”

Researchers Liyan Song and Janette R. Hill created the following framework for understanding self-directed learning online.

Click here to enlarge the image.

Although the researchers are discussing formal classroom settings, we can note parallels between online self-directed courses and the modern buyer’s journey. Like self-directed learners, modern buyers need:

  1. Access to resources (read: content)
  2. Structure surrounding those resources
  3. Opportunities for conversations and feedback

Implicitly, we, marketers, understand this information. We know that we need to supply ample content to buyers so that they can learn. We know that we need to structure the dissemination of that content in a logical manner.

Where marketers often fall short is on the last part – giving future customers ample opportunities to talk through their problems. In part, that’s because lead nurturing, the modern marketer’s crutch, doesn’t facilitate conversations.

The Shortcomings of Lead Nurturing Tactics

It’s never fun to deal with this:

To stay top of mind and to bring order to the messy buyer’s journey, marketers have turned to lead nurturing tactics like email drip nurture campaigns or remarketing. Though both tactics certainly have their benefits, they’re missing one key component: the ability to facilitate conversations.

Sure, a potential customer may respond to a nurture e-mail here or there, but generally speaking, drip nurture campaigns and remarketing are one-way streets. They enable marketers to send content, but they don’t spark conversations with buyers.

And that’s a big problem. As the researchers Leatrice Turlis Phares and Lucy Madsen Guglielmino have noted, conversations are “a primary means of learning” in self-directed learning contexts. Talking through ideas helps learners assimilate new information and change their way of thinking.

So, how do you elicit conversations with modern buyers?

Enabling Sales to Be Conversationalists

To spark invaluable conversations with customers, forward-thinking companies are investing in sales enablement.

But note: Those companies aren’t investing in sales enablement in the traditional sense. That is, top companies are not simply teaching their sales teams how to position products and services. Rather, they are teaching their sales teams to start conversations and to be teachers throughout the entire buyer’s journey.

Sales enablement today means instructing salespeople on the best ways to…

  • Start conversations with buyers
  • Discuss content that customers are reading
  • Suggest further content for customers to consume
  • Challenge customers on their preconceived notions about the best ways to solve their problems
  • Coach customers when they get stuck at a stage in the buying process

To put it in the words of Jill Rowley, sales enablement means teaching salespeople to be “information concierges” and “content connoisseurs.”

What Does This Mean for Marketers?

Should marketers abandon marketing automation and lead nurturing strategies?

No way! That’s not the point of this article. Lead nurturing is a useful tactic. We just have to recognize its limitations. Marketing automation is not a stand-in for a strong sales team. Only your sales team can provide buyers with what they really need: good conversations that push customers to think differently.

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