The Press, July 2005

The market for MP3 music players is crowded and competitive. There are over 60 different brands including names like Sony and Philips, and you can buy a simple version for around $150. But Apple is absolutely dominating this market with their iPod. 16 million units have been sold worldwide, representing around three quarters of the total market. One of the key reasons for this is that Apple understand that success comes not from simply selling their "white icons", but helping people to buy them.

Companies often look at sales as an event not as an important part of a bigger buying process. They put all their effort into the sales transaction without looking at what happens before the sale takes place. Taking this wider view can help accelerate how many products go out your door each day.

Customers can be seen as sitting on a continuum, which starts at having never heard of your brand through to being a passionately loyal supporter of it. The actual sale transaction takes place somewhere along this.

Right along the buying continuum people need information. They want data on all the alternatives, the benefits, the possible ways to purchase, other users, support options. They want to build up a rational list of information but also a 'gut feel' - more of an emotional gauge of the alternatives. As Maurice Levy, chairman of the world's largest advertising group says "Consumers who make decisions based purely on facts represent a very small minority of the world's population."

Once a customer has enough information they can move along the continuum far enough to buy.

For example, you might become aware of a need to own a new TV. All your friends now have a plasma screen and you saw an interesting magazine article on them. The first step is traversing all the possible options - should I get a projector or a plasma screen, could I actually spend this money on something of more benefit to me. You mentally consider many options.

Next you might start refining your options. What kind of TV, what brands, what models. You search the internet, ask a few friends, see what's on display at the mall, read all the mailers that jam up your mailbox. This process may take weeks or months.

Then comes the big day. You walk into the shop with a fair idea of what you are looking for and eventually a sales person comes up to you. They listen to what you are thinking of, give you some more information, talk prices. You buy it. The sales transaction might last 20 minutes, but your entire buying process spanned months.

Unless your brand is being considered along the buying process - at that broad ideas stage, at the time your customers refine their options, at the time they are ready to purchase - your chance of being successful when the time for the sales transaction comes is much slimmer. That's one of the reasons the iPod has been so successful, their strong brand means as soon as anyone considers buying an MP3 music player, the iPod is high on their list.

This concept is just as important in business to business sales. The only difference is that the buying process is a lot more complex. Unless your customers are considering your brand all the way along their buying process your chances of success are reduced.

So how do you become a buying assistant rather than a sales person?

If you only have 10 companies in your target market then the answer is easy - go and see them more often, understand their business and become part of it.

If your market consists of hundreds of companies then you may want to use a suitable mix of indirect market communications (publicity, direct mail, advertising, tradeshows) to get information to market, ensuring that information is available to the consumer right through their buying process.

What are some of the initial steps to injecting yourself into the customer's buying process?

    Identify and assemble a list of all targets in your market which is as specific as possible. If it is a consumer market then you need to understand a lot about the types of people being targeted. As Peter Drucker said, "The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself."
    A story around your brand that meets both the rational and emotional needs of your customers along the buying process is critical.
    When you have a list and a story, you can work out the best ways (e.g. direct marketing, online advertising, trade shows) to reach your customers, from the time they first consider a need related to your product right through to purchase.

As Apple's legendary CEO Steve Jobs realises, selling is not just about completing the transaction on the day. It's about addressing the needs of the buyer a long way before they open their wallet. It's about recognising that your best sales person is often not a person at all, but the strength of your brand in the market.

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