There are many different interpretations of the buying journey, but most of them always begin with awareness: the point when customers discover a company, product, or service, or identify a need that they want to fulfill.
But using awareness as a starting point is getting way ahead of customers—there’s an important part of the journey that comes before that. It has nothing to do with brands or products or services, and most buyers can’t articulate a need for any of those things. Yet in many cases, it is still the most important part of the entire buying journey.
Businesspeople are (or should be) on a constant quest to keep themselves and their companies up to date and competitive. They pore over the daily business section of their favorite newspapers and websites, read newsletters from trade publications that cover their industry or functional area, and try to keep up with relevant influencers on social media. They attend conferences to network with peers and listen to the pundits hawking their latest books.
At this point, your customers aren’t thinking about buying anything. They’re not even sure what they’re looking for. But they are constantly scanning for trends and patterns that have meaning and that could spark ideas for improving the business.
Engaging early brings competitive advantage
Businesses that engage with customers and prospects during this ruminative phase and help them make sense of emerging trends and patterns have a tremendous advantage. By helping customers translate patterns and trends into concrete ideas, providers can build trust – and perhaps become the preferred partner before the traditional buying process even begins. With this invaluable head-start on competitors, the company can move toward closing the sale without depending on their product or service to lead the way.
One way to take advantage of this phase is traditional thought leadership. Creating big ideas that are published in journals that businesspeople worship, such as the Harvard Business Review, is the stock and trade of professional services firms such as McKinsey and Bain. They then try to sell their methodologies that (inevitably) exist behind those big ideas.
Indeed, services providers have an advantage in this stage of the buying process because they sell ideas, not products. And the consultants who come up with these concepts are often the ones who are selling and performing the work. It’s like having product development, sales, and marketing all rolled up into one.
How product companies can compete on ideas
Yet businesses that sell products can still compete effectively at this point. Using their experience in working across different clients and industries, product providers can emphasize research and gain the upper hand by delivering deep, thoughtful trend analysis that can spark big ideas. Product companies can also take advantage of their research and development efforts to offer a view into the future for an industry or segment. And they can compete with consulting firms directly by establishing think tanks and hiring creative, inventive talent with deep industry or functional knowledge.
Competing successfully in this early stage of the buying process requires a mindset that takes creating ideas as seriously as creating products. Consulting firms have already baked idea creation into their cultures. To get ahead, consultants know that they need to come up with ideas that will help customers make sense of emerging patterns. As customers increasingly depend on all key providers to help navigate the way forward, product companies will need to make idea creation part of their cultures, too.