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Think you’ve got the sales cycle down pat? That may be so, but what about the buying process? You see, the way a prospective buyer approaches an issue doesn’t neatly align with the way companies think of the buying process. In fact, many marketers are missing out on a prime opportunity to engage with prospects.

sailingWhere Are You at the “A-ha!” Moment?

According to Steve Rankel of Product 180, before prospects even consider your company and its offerings, they ask themselves

two key questions:

1. Do I really have a problem or pain?

2. How do I make a good decision and solve this problem?

 

ITSMA coins this as the “Epiphany phase,” the phase when prospects “come to the realization of an important business need.” One way to engage with prospects during this stage is by feeding their hunger for educational information. You can achieve this with white papers that are focused on helping prospects recognize and articulate the need to address an issue.

A White Paper for the Epiphany Stage

So what exactly should this white paper look like? According to Chris Koch of ITSMA, it should focus “on revealing future trends and articulating the business challenges and opportunities that will likely result from those trends.”

Trends. This section can help establish the drivers behind the need for a solution such as yours (without mentioning your offering). For example, if the focus is the need for online conferencing, your paper might cite statistics showing the reduction in business travel budgets as a result of the economic downturn. By including references from respected third-party sources – such as analyst firms, business publications, or a recognized thought leader – you help the reader gain a broader perspective on the issue.

Challenges. Here you should discuss the potential challenges associated with this trend. Be sure to consider a variety of angles and discuss the possible impacts on the reader’s company. This ties in with what Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin, and Geoffrey Moore refer to as provocation-based selling in a March 2009 Harvard Business Review article. Specifically, they state: “…provocation-based selling helps customers see their competitive challenges in a new light that makes addressing specific painful problems unmistakably urgent.”

In this case, the prospect might be forced to cancel user conferences and business meetings due to customer and partner budget cuts. A loss of face-to-face interaction could weaken important relationships and harm the company’s ability to increase sales. This point should catch the attention of someone who is facing aggressive sales quotas — especially if her main competitor has a strong presence in a variety of locations while her company operates out of only a handful of sites.

Opportunities. Once you’ve explored a range of challenges, share ideas about how the reader can overcome these challenges. To continue with the theme, you can suggest online conferencing as a solution and illustrate all the ways that it helps the prospect address her issues. One effective way to help the reader visualize the possibilities is by walking her through a typical day before and after an online conferencing solution is in place. You can even point out the advantages of online conferencing over in-person meetings. In this way, you help the reader see her situation as an opportunity rather than just a problem to be addressed.

Resist all temptation to talk up your product or service. Remember – the prospect is just exploring the possibilities and identifying a need or opportunity. Hitting her with information about your capabilities will likely be a turnoff.

Gain a Foothold Early in the Buying Process

By following this formula, you can connect with prospects early on in the buying process. As ITSMA points out, you’ll help your sales team and company seize a golden opportunity to engage with prospective buyers, an opportunity that your competitors are likely overlooking. And because you’ve served as a valuable source of information, those prospects are more likely to include you on their consideration list once they decide to pursue a solution.