As the chief ad technology evaluator for a digital agency from 2007 to 2011, I reviewed and purchased just about every category on the Lumascape, including ad servers, web analytics, SEM bid managers, DSPs, DMPs, attribution tools, reporting platforms, landing page optimizers, etc. A major part of my job was simply staying abreast of the newest and latest tools so that I could brainstorm with brand clients and my agency colleagues on how we could solve key marketing challenges with technology.
Needless to say, I must have seen more than 500 product demos in my career.
Having now been on the technology vendor side for five years, I better understand both sides of the coin and how the complex the buying/selling process can be. I spend my days now training and arming sales executives to sell to customers at agencies and brands using what I learned when I was on the other side of the desk.
Not being on the same page creates issues
One major thing I've learned is how misaligned buyers and sellers can be and how this misalignment slows down and creates unneeded complexity in the sales process.
As a buyer, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to keep vendors at arm's length as some sales reps become obsessive and can be like sharks with blood in the water and borderline harass you. You also know that you may end up at the negotiating table with this partner so the less they know about your evaluation criteria, the better deal you might be able to broker. You've also been burned before by tech providers whose products don't live up to expectations, and choosing the wrong partner could mean a ton of headaches later.
As a seller, it's very common to be anxious and frustrated as you attempt to sell to buyers who don't necessarily understand the market and technology well enough to evaluate your offering. Buyers can also cancel a meeting at a moment's notice, waste your time, and expect you to agree with everything they say. In many cases, buyers have a zillion choices on how to spend their money so they have a lot of power to drop prices, ask for freebies, and expect royal treatment with dinners and other perks. And if you do spend months building a strong relationship with a buyer, they could end up moving on from that role, leaving you to start all over again with someone new.
Of course, the majority of buyers do treat sellers like true partners, and many sellers do look to create real value for marketers and are not just concerned with their own quarterly number. But because there's been so much friction in the past, buyers tend to be overly-guarded, and sellers sometimes can be a bit too aggressive.
Advice for both sides to overcome stumbling blocks in the ad tech buying process
Take a look at the following advice to both buyers and sellers on how they can best handle each of these steps to make for a smoother, more efficient, and true win-win experience.
Step No. 1: Reviewing the landscape
The buying process begins when a marketer recognizes that he or she has a gap that needs to be fulfilled. Whether it's replacing an existing solution or bringing a new piece to the marketing technology stack, the first step is to figure out which vendors might be interesting to bring in for more discussion.
Advice for buyers
Get as much input as you can from as many people within your organization who will touch (or be impacted by) the tool. This way, you have a very strong handle on what exactly your need is so that you don't get derailed in the process later. Also, don't discount any vendor that seems somewhat likely to solve your gap. It can be difficult to truly understand what a tech solution does until you actually meet with the vendor and dig deeper. My rule of thumb is to stay open-minded and not cut out candidates until the next step in the process.
Advice for sellers
The best ad tech sales people I know check in on a regular (but not pushy) basis and provide value to marketers in the role of a domain expert and trusted advisor. If a buyer has begun a search on a different category than your solution, help them by identifying potential vendors to chat with and even make introductions if possible. This demonstrates to them what a business relationship with you might be like when your product category does come up for review.
As a buyer, I discovered that some of my best intel came from sellers. They have to be very savvy and follow the industry closely to do their job well. They also talk to buyers every day and hear all kinds of useful feedback.
Step No. 2: Initial round of vendor chats
At this point, the buyer has now identified a set of vendors that might be able to help them and it is time to set up some calls or in-person visits to figure out which vendors should be invited back for the next round. A request-for-proposal (RFP) with your most pressing questions could be issued at this time or you could wait for the next round once you know the landscape better.
Advice for buyers
Set the right expectations early with the vendors. It's best to be very clear that you're just in the initial stages of this process and you're trying to figure out which vendors to invite to deeper discussions to help you figure out what you need. Don't require the vendor to come to your office at this stage, but it's worth making the time to meet in person if you have the opportunity to do so.
Resist the urge to buy at this stage. Even if the first vendor you meet seems to have the perfect solution, you owe it to yourself, your team, and your organization (or your client if you're an agency) to do your due diligence. You will learn a lot about this product category through your first rounds of discussion. Wait until you've really had some strong conversations to figure out what your criteria should be.
Advice for sellers
Don't try to fit your square peg in a buyer's round hole. Just because the buyer is looking for a solution, it doesn't mean you're going to be the right fit. Being invited to chat is not an invitation to bypass their expressed needs so you can pitch your entire suite to them. That being said, if you get the feeling that the marketer doesn't truly know what they want yet, then it's fine to change the conversation and see if they are willing to reframe their expectation on what they may need. You may actually help them see things differently and in your favor.
However, if you realize immediately that you are not a good fit, the best thing you can do is help the prospect understand what it is your company actually solves. You will impress them because they are used to sales folks who are willing to waste their time simply to keep pitching their adjacent solution. It's definitely appropriate to cut the meeting short and ask them if they would like to hear more, even if it's not why they originally wanted to chat with you. It's also fine to ask them if they could identify others in their organization or agency that might be interested in what you are selling.
Step No. 3: Choosing finalists
After meeting with a handful of vendors (I'd recommend 6 to 10, depending on the category), it's now time to narrow the field for the next round.
Advice for buyers
It will be very difficult to go deep with more than two to four companies, and it also can needlessly waste their time. Remember, if you invite a vendor into a deep discussion, they will spend the time, effort, and money to travel to you and give you as much attention as they can spare. Use your first round of chats to get the info you need so that you pick the right group for this round. This is one of the biggest pet peeves I hear from sales teams about buyers. They know that they're not going to be the final choice, but because the buyer keeps them in the process, they must continue to service them as if they had a chance.
Although you may think a vendor who is on the fringe of your criteria would still like to participate -- and you may like that vendor and want to "reward them" by letting them get to the next round -- the truth is that the best thing you can do for a vendor that you're probably not going to choose is let them go now. Free up their time so that they can chase a better fit and have a chance to win some other buyer's business versus having to put on a dog and pony show for you.
Advice for sellers
Don't crowd the buyers while they are narrowing down their list. It's okay to check in every now and then, but the deeper discussions are coming up, so don't feel the need to push the hard sell right now. If the initial chat was productive, then they know who you are and what you can offer. If you're a good fit, they will bring you back for the next round.
Buyers also can get sidetracked by life and other things happening at their organization. They may need to put down this evaluation for a weeks or months while they take care of business elsewhere. This happens all of the time. Don't be deterred. Just be very patient and understanding. As long as the communication continues to flow (they may tell you every month for half a year that this purchase is on hold and then come back and buy from you), then trust the process. They'll remember the vendors that didn't get pushy or try to go over their heads. That being said, if the communication does stop, then you have every right to try other contacts and inroads to pitch the business.
Stay tuned for part 2 on 11/21.