I recently attended the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit where Brent Adamson, co-author of The Challenger Customer, presented some fascinating – and somewhat scary – new research on B2B selling and buying behavior. CEB research shows that salespeople generally believe that providing customers with more information and more options will help them make better decisions. However, customers typically claim to be overwhelmed – by too much information, too many options, and too many stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. When asked to choose one word to describe a typical, large B2B purchase process, one respondent coined a new one: landmine-ish. Faced with so much information and so many choices, it is easy to get paralyzed.
This resonated with me, as my family is undergoing its own major purchase decision: helping our daughter select a college. Talk about being overwhelmed by information! Our dining room table is awash with dozens of postcards and letters and glossy flyers, and more arrive in the mail every day, not to mention the emails and phone calls and the wealth of information available online. As parents, we want our daughter to take charge of her decision and to look broadly at her options, but at the same time, we recognize that the process is overwhelming, and at times she has seemed to be stuck.
Coincidentally, on the flight home from the CEB Summit I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, which includes his New Yorker article “Open Secrets” in which he makes a distinction between a puzzle and a mystery. A puzzle has one solution, and generally, when solving a puzzle, more information is better. In contrast, a mystery may have multiple solutions – or none – and when tackling a mystery, more information may not necessarily help.
Many of the thousands of colleges and universities available to our daughter would be able to provide her an excellent education. Finding her college fit is a mystery, not a puzzle, and realizing this has helped us as parents realize that setting limits (such as distance from home) that narrow her focus can be a blessing.
This was Brent Adamson’s advice to us as B2B marketers and sellers – to be prescriptive. Guiding our customers to the best choice can be better than presenting them with every option. Sometimes less information can be better than more. Today’s tough business problems are often more like a mystery than a puzzle, and as buyers, we should look for the experts who can guide us to the best solution.
Phil Harriman is a sales development manager at Skillsoft.