The idea of the customer ecosystem is a strong one, and I believe we’ll be hearing about it for the foreseeable future. The customer ecosystem is only one half of the story, in my opinion. The other half is something I call the “sales web,” and the two fit together rather neatly if you know how to look. It’s sort of like cutting out maps of South America and Africa and fitting them together. The best example in my mind comes by way of metaphor from the world of biology.
It has been long accepted in biological circles that predator and prey exert real, though unintentional, selective pressures on each other. In a study from a few decades ago, for example, researchers showed a link between snow hares and arctic foxes. The hares evolved to be speedy enough to evade the foxes most of the time, thus ensuring their survival. But the foxes also evolved to be fast enough to catch their prey often enough to ensure their own survival.
If either species were to get too far ahead of the mutually beneficial symbiosis, bad things could happen — foxes could starve and the species go into decline. Or, unimpeded, hares might overbreed and starve when they overburden their food sources, and starvation is not a good thing for survival.
Finding the Right Balance
My point is that the customer ecosystem is coming to be balanced by a vendor ecosystem. Just as with the arctic foxes and hares, it would be a bad thing if either side should get ahead of the other.
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In this case, customers have evolved to a point where they have changed the way many markets work. About a hundred years ago, mass markets were created, and fifty years ago, roughly, mass marketing came into use. As Shoshana Zuboff has pointed out, today’s customers are richer, better educated, and taught to consider themselves and their needs as unique — moreso than any generation of consumers in history.
That uniqueness has caused marketers to slowly abandon mass market approaches because they no longer work. In their place, we are striving to find ways to address today’s markets. In a pure evolutionary sense, change begets change.
The current idea of a customer ecosystem or systems drives vendors to find tools and ideas to help them operate in this changed landscape. So, for example, where we once saw selling as a process largely contained by sales force automation, we now see a larger process and more tools. That process is better described as the “lead-to-cash” process, and tools that aid it can be found along a process continuum that includes four parts: identify, qualify, sell and close.
That may not sound a lot different from what you might recall about the process, but look at the categories that are evolving for each discrete part. Under identification, there are categories for sales intelligence, data cleansing, demand generation and events management, to name a few.
E-mail marketing, market research and marketing analytics are some tools used for modern qualification and lead nurturing. While SFA will always be the glue that holds everything together, sales tools have proliferated to include sales analytics, next-generation methodologies, compliance tools, and quoting and ordering technologies. Finally, perhaps the newest area contributing to the sales web might be closing tools, which include sales operations technologies and compensation management.
There’s no doubt that most sales organizations will not need to employ all of these technologies, but — depending on their products and the ways they sell — you can expect that in the future, most will rely on something more than SFA to track leads and opportunities.
Some of the traditional challenges companies in this position face include building a reputation in the market (getting oxygen), identifying latent pain in prospective customers that they can convert into an active need, and identifying buyers and budgets. Frequently, new category companies need to sell to a C-level officer or someone very high in the organization because their products do not fit a defined business need or, most importantly, a line item in a budget.
Without a champion who believes in the solution and who can find money in the budget, there will be no sale — and even a champion will likely have other people to convince within the organization.
Making an Idea a Reality
This sales process is highly consultative because, frequently, emerging companies in new categories rely on early adopter customers to help them turn a good idea into a marketable product. In this case, there is a great deal of back and forth between the vendor and customer, and the product resembles more of a tool kit for a particular problem than a specific solution.
Once the problem is identified, communication becomes vital to a successful close; there is little need to manage the compensation angle, since each sales representative will work with a relatively small pipeline extending a lot of services to each prospect.
To be successful in this sort of process requires a sales web that is front-end loaded, meaning that most of the automation assistance needs to come in identifying opportunities and, within opportunities, the likely champions. Some tools that can help in this type of process:
- Events Management (EM): Trade shows or other industry gatherings are an important way of meeting decision makers. Also, EM can be very useful when introducing a new product or a product line extension to a captive customer base, which happens on Main Street all the time.
- Sales intelligence will help identify specific companies — and sometimes specific executives — with business problems that emerging category companies can uniquely solve.
- Sales methodology is important in helping sales representatives in early markets to methodically approach and sell to early adopter customers, which tend to be large corporations with multiple layers of management.
- Market intelligence is similar to sales intelligence in that it can help the emerging vendor identify and concentrate on evolving trends.
- SFA will, for the foreseeable future, be the glue that holds everything together — at least from the perspective that the SFA database should contain the superset of all information a company tracks about its customers and prospects.
Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at email@example.com