Product marketers should help the sales team sell. Research says that the buying experience now drives B2B customer loyalty much more than product features, price or vendor brand reputation. So, is there more that product marketers can be doing to help sales create experiences that really connect? Yes, and it’s called “experiential segmentation.”
Your perfectly rational segmentation model may be your biggest obstacle
There was a time when traditional sales “levers” (price, features and brand reputation) were enough to differentiate products. But that’s all changing, as the importance of the buying experience increases.
Product marketers are responsible for providing buyer insight, often in the form of personas that helps sales create these buying experiences. Yet, according to our own research, the customer segmentation models of 70% of B2B enterprises are not meaningfully different from those of competitors. And that poses a problem.
…the customer segmentation models of 70% of B2B enterprises are not meaningfully different from those of competitors.
A persona, like any other form of “target” definition, pre-supposes an underlying segmentation perspective. Let me explain: Are your personas differentiated, one from the other, by means of some categorical framework? Job title, for instance? Or company size? Or industry vertical? Each of these categories is a segmentation perspective. Each encodes a theory that says, in effect, “this system of differences between people explains and predicts differences in how they behave.”
These category-driven theories, we must presume, have some basis in fact. But they also suffer from two liabilities that must be considered.
First, as noted above, for 70% of B2B marketers these theories are not proprietary. In other words, the segmentation perspective—meant to be the differences that make a difference™—embedded in your personas is the same as the segmentation perspective of your competitor. So, even if you have done an excellent job in every other respect with your personas, the utility that sales can extract from personas for the purpose of differentiating the buyer’s experience has been limited from the outset.
Letting this situation persist hinders an experience-led and marketing strategy where customer insight is a source of competitive advantage for creating experiences that connect differently and better.
Second, even where they may be differentiating, these categorical segmentation perspectives are proving to be weak theories. They rest on assumptions that are crumbling under the weight of evidence and changing circumstances. Let’s take the commonplace (some might even say “best practice”) of using organizational titles as the foundational categorization scheme for personas.
Job titles may feel meaningful but…
In my recent interview with CEB’s Pat Spenner (on YouTube), Pat underscores how CEB’s research on the consensus-driven nature of B2B purchases reveals that both job title and organizational rank don’t tell us much about an individual’s influence on the purchase decision.
…job title and organizational rank don’t tell us much about an individual’s influence on the purchase decision.
Both of these categories (title and rank) are weakly correlated with the propensity of an individual to drive the purchase decision. Just because people are high-up in the org chart doesn’t mean they’ll stick their neck out to lead the consensus buying group to consolidate their understanding of a problem, establish the criteria for a solution, select a vendor and seal the deal for a quality solution. In fact, according to that research, a personal attribute, “mobilization,” ( not job title or rank) is “the difference that makes a difference.”
Moreover, these top-down categorizations of customers (role, organizational size, industry vertical) rest on a body of 18 th century rationalistic economic and psychological theory that assumes human beings behave in the marketplace as “rational actors.” The last few decades of research in behavioral economics, prospect theory, neuroscience, organizational behavior and cognitive linguistics converge in a way that contradicts the “rational actor” notion.
Now, chances are, you have a somewhat change-averse colleague. Let’s call him Larry. Larry will argue, “well, maybe our segmentation model is the same as our competitor’s for a good reason; maybe that is just what reality looks like.” For Larry, the fact that your segmentation model is the same as a competitor actually feels reassuring—an independent source of validation. And, Larry might also assert that while job titles are a weak predictor of “mobilization,” they still seem indispensable to operationalizing B2B demand-gen tactics.
And here’s where you as a product manager need to make a choice. You could defer to Larry. You could spend a bunch of time trying to argue with him. Or you could take the lead in creating and implementing an alternative that is better aligned with our contemporary understanding of how buyers buy, how humans behave and how experience-driven sales and marketing works. In short, you could embark on the development of an “experiential segmentation.”
When curiosity leads, new insights can follow
What might that process look like? It starts with setting in brackets the current categorical assumptions about the differences between customers that make a difference. It involves a curiosity-driven exploration of your customer’s broader context—not just what your customer thinks about your brand or your category of products. It involves a recognition that the complexity in people’s motivations and the contradictions discovered in their self-stories are not noise to be discarded but instead are foundational assets for building proprietary customer insights.
…the complexity in people’s motivations…are foundational assets for building proprietary customer insights.
And it also involves a certain amount of change management leadership to get your colleagues aligned around an insight-rich view of the customer that is proprietary and custom-tailored to creating differentiating experiences for your customers—both in digital demand-generation channels and in face-to-face selling. You can learn more about this in our eBook “Beyond the Pale.”
It’s not necessarily easy. Partly because some reassuringly familiar things must be abandoned. Simple categories and tidy, “rational actor” assumptions about B2B purchase decisions need to give way to a more nuanced multi-dimensional viewpoint on buyer’s motivations. And, (something that may make Larry nervous) you’ll have fewer “best practice” examples you can point to for reference until you actually get there.
Simple categories…need to give way to a more nuanced multi-dimensional viewpoint on buyer’s motivations.
But what are your options? Buyer experience is increasingly driving sales. If you take seriously your responsibility to provide sales with buyer insight, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that segmentation, as it is widely practiced, undermines experience-based differentiation.
There is more that product marketers can be doing to help sales create experiences that really connect. It’s called “experiential segmentation.” And it will separate you from your competitors.