A famous parable tells us about six men in a dark room, each of whom has never seen an elephant before, touching one in the shadows. The first man feels its tusks and believes the animal is like a spear. The second, its trunk, believing it is like a snake. The third, its leg, believing it is like a tree. Once every man has felt the elephant, each of them leave with their own partially true, yet uniquely wrong belief about what the creature “was.”

Like the men in the story, we are all guilty of using limited information to make bold claims about the world around us – but nowhere in business does this have larger consequences than with customers and their buying journeys. As sales and marketing departments begin to feel out different parts of their customers’ buying process, they often feel more confident guessing about other aspects of buyer behavior.

However, similar to the elephant, there are almost always differences between the “buying journey” we can see, and the buying journey we can’t. Even the smallest assumption can lead to a disconnect between sales strategies and a market’s buying process. Wasted resources, lost deals, and missed forecasts have left many wondering what is happening in the hidden parts of the buying journey. Luckily, taking an Outside-In™ approach can help us turn the lights on and see the bigger picture.

The Elephant in the Room

If we want to know what we don’t know, a good place to start would be understanding how much of the “elephant” we are even touching. Our research shows that customers tend to contact sellers when they are 50% or more of the way through their buying journey. Additionally, sellers are typically involved in less than 10% of their customers’ buying activities across the end-to-end customer journey lifecycle.

These two statistics explain why so many organizations have such a skewed perception of how their customers buy and why they don’t; when taken together, it becomes apparent most businesses can only see a fraction of a fraction of the buying journey.

But how much does this matter? “Hidden” or not, an extraordinarily perceptive and experienced businessperson might be able to fill in the rest of an elephant based off only few details. Yet such minds are exceedingly rare. Studies show it is far more difficult than most imagine to “put themselves in their customers’ shoes” and make the necessary inferences. This is for three key reasons:

1. If we were our customers, our Buying Journey DNA would not be an accurate reflection of our actual offering’s market.

2. We are far more biased towards our own offering, and towards purchasing a solution in general, than the average buyer.

3. Even if we could separate ourselves from our experiences with our offerings, we would still be influenced by our own expectations about customer behavior. This includes oversimplifications surrounding the demands and priorities a prospect has to balance.

In short, attempting to understand the buying journey from an opaque, internal perspective will almost always result in inconsistencies between selling and buying. It’s only a matter of how big.

A sales team might deliver some genuinely great presentations, based on many value propositions they believe a rational prospect like themselves would care about. Then, after knocking it out of the park with their offering’s astounding ROI, be left stunned that the would-be-buyer has decided to do… nothing. Not purchase from you. Not purchase from a competitor. Do absolutely nothing.

Situations like these happen all the time: a salesperson has found their champion who seems very excited about an offering, and everything is going smoothly until a few internal meetings turn it all to dust. And while it may be tempting to re-explain the amazing features and cost saving benefits, there’s likely more happening with the “elephant,” or within the hidden buying journey, than a simple misunderstanding of value.

Turning on the Lights

At the aforementioned firm, there is friction the salesperson can’t completely make out. For example, adopting the offering may require digitizing part of a process that has been industry standard for decades to do by hand. Perhaps there is some ongoing politicking surrounding this issue, as a respected higher up believes going digital could create a security risk for clients. There also may be hesitance to acquire something so “innovative” for fear of low adoption at a company that likes doing things “the old fashion way.”

This is only a sliver of the real-world problems we’ve found when analyzing buying journeys.

The aforementioned champion may not know how to navigate the hurdles placed in front of them – how to calculate the time to convert the existing library of documents, how to do the necessary risk assessment to appease the higher up, how to create engaging end user training to make sure employees use the offering optimally. Before anyone knows it, the deal has run out of gas. To get everyone aligned, smooth over every objection, consider every alternative, implication, detail that may change… sometimes things turn out to be fine the way they are.

This is why taking an Outside-In™ approach and mapping the buying journey is so important. In the minds of too many salespeople, when the proposal is in, the deal is done – if they were the customer, there is no way things could go wrong! But in the prospect’s eyes, the real buying effort has just begun. That said, once the buying journey has been mapped, it becomes apparent that customers within a specific market buy in remarkably similar ways. When you truly understand the customer, you not only know every obstacle they will face along the way but can better help your prospects buy and adopt your offering.

Certainly easier than trying to feel your way around in the dark – wouldn’t you agree?

Written by Anthony Rocha
Posted April 1, 2022

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