Competitive Intelligence Must Adapt – B2B Sales and Marketing in 2015: B2B Market Research podcast

Sean Campbell
Authored bySean Campbell

Episode 84: – Competitive Intelligence Must Adapt – B2B Sales and Marketing in 2015 – An Interview with Brent Adamson of CEB – Episode #84 of the B2B Market Research podcast.

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We cover:

  • How B2B companies are buying differently.
  • Why 57% of the buyers journey is inherently digital.
  • Is win/loss the right thing to consider anymore?
  • Why, in today’s world, it’s even more important to understand the customers’ journey.
  • Why you may need to “unteach” your customers.
  • How your competition is your customers current view of themselves.

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Modified Transcript:


Welcome to another episode of The B2B Market Research podcast. In this episode, we’re going to be talking to Brent Adamson, a managing director at CEB, and we’re going to be talking to him about the way sales and marketing has evolved over X time frame, X being importantly, the last five years or so.

Brent put together a book called The Challenger Sale, which I’ve read and highly recommend, even if you’re not in sales, per se, and you’re just trying to understand how B2B customers are interacting with sales teams and what they’re looking for. Given how much competitive intelligence teams look at things like win/loss process, and just understanding their own customers and competitor customers, I thought it would make sense to have Brent on the show.

A couple brief programming notes. If you want to find past episodes of this podcast beyond the last ten or so that we have on iTunes regularly, you can go to our site. If you want to not miss out on any podcasts, or webinars, or presentations, or blog posts we put up, feel free to subscribe to our newsletter.

With that, let me go ahead and introduce Brent.


Hi Sean. How are you? It’s great to join you today and be part of the conversation. Just very briefly, just so everyone has a little bit of background on where our work comes from, I work with an organization called CEB, formerly known as the Corporate Executive Board. You can kind of think of us a research and consulting organization, I suppose.

Specifically, I sit in the sales and marketing program at CEB. What that simply means is we work with the heads of sales and the heads of marketing in B2B organizations all over the world to try to understand what does world class sales and marketing look like. We do that through a lot of quantitative and qualitative research, which then turns into meetings and stories and things like that.

I’ll tell you Sean. As much as we spend all of our time trying to understand “what does world class sales and marketing look like” as best as we possibly can,  in many ways, the story that we’ve been focused on for the last, probably two or three years, isn’t really a story of selling or marketing at all. The single biggest story that we’re finding in the world of sales and marketing today is not how we’re selling differently, it’s how customers are buying differently.

Much of our work of late has actually been focused on changing customer buying behavior in the B2B world, and understanding what happens when you take sort of the old world of selling and run it into the new world of buying and watching things fall apart in some pretty dramatic ways. Then, finding solutions to that problem as we go forward.


To that point, I think there’s a number that shows up in your work a lot. I’ve even, with proper attribution, made mention of it in talks that I’ve given, which is this number – 57%. Just to tee it up for the audience a little bit, I’ve got a question there for you.




From a CI standpoint, one of the things that I know our audience does a lot, is I know they do win/loss studies. They get either asked to do those on an episodic basis, or they get asked to do those from a marketing/sales team, or even sometimes by a product engineering team that wants to understand customer behavior better.

Traditionally, win-loss studies are primarily done via a lot of human intelligence work, interviewing said customers. One of the things, I think, that comes out of your work, and almost leaps out of it in a way, is that a sales cycle today is highly digital. I think a lot of people, when they hear that, they quickly nod their head. I don’t think they really think about what that means for understanding the customer buying journey. And what that means for win-loss studies.

You guys talk about the fact that 57% of that journey is inherently digital. All along the way, customers are carving off the vendors and suppliers that they don’t want to deal with. In some ways, the win/loss study has to include a lot of that dynamic in it if you really want to see the customer’s journey from when they first started thinking of you as a potential supplier, to the point at which they either selected you to participate in the sales cycle or didn’t. Talk to me a little bit about that 57%. How did you guys get to that number? What kind of reaction have you seen from people when they’ve heard about it? How has it been working in that regard?


Sure. Absolutely Sean. In fact, I’ll tell you what. Let me back up just a little bit and take you on the journey of that number in some interesting ways. I think, particularly in your audience, it’s going to land us in this really counter-intuitive place, as it often does for heads of sales and marketing, as well. It’s just so completely fascinating to us in terms of what this change in customer buying behavior does to what we’ve all assumed for many, many years to be a right answer, and all the work that we all do as suppliers.

I’m just going to take a running start at this. Let me back up in time just a little bit and think about the last, I don’t know, five, ten, fifteen years in B2B selling and marketing. The journey that we’ve essentially all been on as suppliers. We’ve all, in some fashion or another, have gone on this journey from selling individual products to selling bigger, broader, more complex, more customized, more critical value ad solutions. The whole idea that we have to move to more of a solutions posture to avoid the easy replicability, the easy commoditization of individual products, which, by the way makes a ton of sense. Today’s not the day I’m going to be on the podcast saying, that was dumb, what were we thinking?

Nonetheless, what’s really interesting if you play this out. The almost inescapable logic is really fascinating. As you move down this continuum of selling greater, bigger, more complex solutions that are specifically designed to “solve a customer’s need”, it stands to reason that if you’re going to do a better job than ever before at “solving a customer need”, then what do you have to understand better than you have in the past. You have to understand what those customers truly need.

As we have entered into this part of this process, the world of, sort of, customer-centricity. You hear the term “customer focused”, “customer-centric sales organizations”, “customer-centric suppliers” where the customer comes first. The customer’s at the center of everything we do.  “Where the customer is always right” has become sort of a mantra for virtually all of us in sales and marketing over the last five, ten, fifteen years.

That’s where I think, in a lot of ways, where competitive intelligence comes in as well. To be able to differentiate yourself as a supplier by delivering that world class experience to your customers, because we can go out and … this manifests in all sorts of different ways. On sales sides, it’s your better discovery techniques, asking your customers what do you need, what are you working on, what’s keeping you up at night?

On the marketing side, it’s better surveys and better tools, and SAT scores and MPS and loyalty scores, and all the other. The voice of the customer. All the different tools that we use to do better analysis, customers understand what they need. The whole idea, the principal play here is if we can just understand what those customers need, then not only can we make sure we can meet those needs, ideally we can make sure we can exceed those needs and let’s delight our customers in the process.

Again, that’s the story that we’ve been tracking for the better part of the last 15 years. Much of our research, up until about 2008, was all designed specifically to help our customers, that is heads of sales and marketing, get better at that very thing.

Then, Sean, to transition to the 57%, essentially what happened is … something happened. It’s really interesting what’s happened, because what’s happened is not so much a change in that strategy, and how we sell, but a change in how customers go about buying. One of the things we found, I guess about four years ago originally, and this is continuing research for us, is we’ve gotten very deep, as I mentioned earlier, and to try to understand as deeply as we possibly can is how do customers actually buy in the world that we live in today. One of the things that we’ve done … again, it’s a large amount of survey data, quantitative analysis of thousands and thousands of customers, stakeholders, all involved in the B2B purchase, all over the world in every major industry, go to market model, geography, high tech among them, of course. You name it.

One of the very simple questions we ask in the surveys that we run, and we’ve been doing this a couple of years now, is to simply ask all of these individuals, customer stakeholders involved in a purchase, if you were to think about a typical purchase process on a continuum from the very beginning of due diligence to the actual purchase decision itself, at what point in that typical purchase process do you typically pick up the phone, fire up the email, and proactively reach out to a supplier to get their direct input on whatever it is that you’re doing? That number came back at 57%. Customers on average are 57% of the way through a typical purchase process before proactively reaching out to a supplier to get their input on whatever it is they’re doing.

By the way, for those that are interested, people in your audience might find this interesting, what’s interesting about that data point, that 57%, is one, is the distribution around that 57% was very tight. It didn’t run from 25 to 85 with an average of 57. It was a very tight distribution from about mid 40s to mid 60s, with an average of 57. The other thing that’s interesting about it is when we cut it by deal complexity, we found something incredibly counter-intuitive, which is the more complex the deal, the later your customers contact you. I think that’s largely because they want to do more research on their own before reach out to the supplier and somehow accidentally get tricked into buying something that they didn’t fully understand or appreciate. We’ve got to do all that due diligence up front.


Just to highlight a couple things, you mentioned. One, when you think about a CI team, if you’ve been doing competitive intelligence and you’ve been doing analysis about win/loss, and you’re looking at complex deals that % (57%) might be even be higher.




In other words, if you’re trying to determine things like dead no decisions, like when you never seem to get called in as one of the final two vendors. Some of that answer might lie in what marketing’s doing. Right? The answer may not necessarily lie on the sales side of the engagement because the customer may never have been meaningfully engaged with in a way.

At some point, they may elect to never engage in the sales process. I don’t know what you call that, other than a loss, right? It’s a bit of, I think, understanding when you say win/loss in 2015, what portion of the customer journey are you really looking at and how much are you looking at, right? I think it had a lot to do with the inputs you use, which seems to be what you’re saying, because if you don’t include some of the digital component, you’re inherently not looking at the whole journey, which may or may not be bad. It’s just a matter of being authentic about how much of the journey you’re actually looking at.


You know, in many ways, it’s even more complicated than that. One of the things we’re talking to our members right now is whether or not wins are even the right metric to be used, the right metric that we should be using at all. The thing we focus on in our research these days is actually what we call quality wins. One of the things you hear from heads of sales all the time is even when we win, we don’t win at the margins we were hoping to or in the deal sites, or in the amount of time we thought it would take.

Just making it to the table is another problem. Even if I get invited to respond to the RFP, you know what you’re doing? You’re responding to an RFP. You’re competing on nothing but price. We actually call that the one of three problem, which is companies will tell us. We make it to the table every single time because we have a world class solution that far outperforms everyone else’s. Every time we make it to the table, we wind up competing on nothing but price anyway.

It’s a really interesting question about whether win/loss is even the right thing to look at. Nonetheless, you’re absolutely right. What got us here is what your customers were doing in that first 57%. Essentially out learning on their own and determining what they think is right. Whether or not they’ve got it right across that 57% journey is a totally different question all together. One way or another, they’ve come to the table with a very well conceived idea of what they think is important, how they think they’re going to get out after it, who they think the companies are that can help them the best, and which ones, essentially, how much they cost comparably in terms of price. They can put all that in an RFP, put that out into the bake sale, and every one winds up competing on now who is the best, but who’s good enough. It’s just killing everybody’s margins around the world. Much of this is brought on by essentially, this capability that your customers now have that they didn’t have before to learn on their own in that time, prior to that 57%.


Basically, sales before was kind of the information disseminator and they played a game based on information scarcity. Anybody who bought a car ten years ago would know what that was like. And I’m sure some people, like in all markets, buy like they used to buy, because they’re like the laggards and they don’t leverage the assets they have in front of them. But if you truly you go through a modern car buying experience, you can chat with suppliers, look at every rating, every review, way beyond Kelley Blue Book at this point – all on the Internet. All of a sudden you’re armed with all this information. I know when I got my last car, I was able to nail everything down before I even sat in the lot. I think there’s an interesting change afoot about that relationship customers have with the organizations they’re looking to get services from. That inherently means, like you said, if you want to understand their journey, there’s other data points you have to look at.

Let me ask you this. What kind of tools or techniques do you guys suggest organizations should use to peer into that 57%? Obviously, they’re not interacting with your sales team, so the traditional, “I talked to my sellers, and I reviewed my win/loss data, and to do that I merely did interviews,” is going to work as well as it once did. Sure, that gets you that back half, the 43% of the data you need at that point, but what do you do to mine that first 57?


A couple thoughts on that. By the way, let me ask you a real quick question. When you did all that research on the car deal, why did you do it? Why did you go in equipped with all that information prior to ever sitting down with the sales team at that car dealership?


I would think it’s somewhat generalizable? On one hand, and I think it echos a little bit of what you said a minute ago. You’re filtering out various key buying criteria and deciding who can best meet your needs, not that I was thinking about it in this formalized of a sense. I’m filtering out key buying criteria. I’m looking at the market to see what it can give me at a given price point, and I’m kind of structuring out a bid in somewhat of a mental model. Again, not quite that logical. I didn’t go in with a spreadsheet with prices next to it. I’m also doing a little bit of lightweight qualitative assessment of how these vendors feel.

You go to one site and you’re like, seems like the car dealer of old. I don’t know if my experience is going to be great there. You know what I mean? You go to another place and it’s a little bit different an experience about how it’s about. You look at inventory levels. They have five of the car I’m looking for. Only they only have two. On top of that, I was able to do a fair amount of interaction with email, webchat, and almost kind of play suppliers off against another, to be frank, and say like, it’s the same car on two different lots basically. It’s 5K miles difference. I’m just going to see which guy is going to give me the better price. My criteria map is kind of already nailed out. In the old days, almost from the weariness of going to so many dealers, you might give up after some point, in terms of colleciting data. I think this gets to the weariness of X number of sales calls, and meeting with suppliers, that some customers might have had in the past where you would just kind of stop at four. Conceivably, I could have had way more suppliers competing for my car buying experience than I ever would have had 10 years ago. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s kind of how it went through, I guess.


Absolutely. I can simplify all that down to a very simple phrase that captures all. You know why you did all that? Because you can. You’re absolutely right. I think it’s really instructive exactly what you just walked it through is that entire process of what you did. What you were doing along that process is you were learning. You were learning through a multitude of different resources, and sources of information. Some are perhaps more credible than others. You were weighing the viability and value of each of them. To come to a decision around your point, essentially what we often call a mental model of what you think right answer is and you did it all simply because you can. That’s the world that we live in today, is your customers can do things today that they simply couldn’t do before.

I absolutely want to circle back and answer your question about how to peer into that 57%. Before I do, there’s one thought that’s kind of bringing this whole circle back to that counter-intuitive conclusion. I think it’s good to get on the table. If you think about the implication of this 57% number and this world where customers can learn on their own, there’s something very, very important about this implication that changes much of what I think sales and marketing teams broadly speaking, need to be doing.

If I were to ask anyone on the call today, there’s a really interesting thought experiment. If I were to ask anyone who’s listening to this podcast to think about their top two or three competitors. The two or three companies that they compete with head to head, every single day, whether they’re driving them crazy or they’re always beating. It doesn’t matter. Think of your top two or three competitors and ask the very simple question. Where are they on that same continuum relative to the 57%? Where do customers proactively call those companies? What’s interesting, I have no idea which companies anyone’s think about right now, but I bet I can nonetheless guess the answer. I bet the answer is still 57%.

We know this because we talk to companies all the time, all day long, who often times compete directly with one another. I’ll be on the phone with heads of sales at 9:00 in the morning. They’ll say, Brent, we’re at the tip of that arrow. You keep talking about that 57%. We’re getting shut out. We’ve got to crack open that arrow. We’ve got to get in earlier. You’ve got to help me figure out how to do that. We’re going to commoditize as a result. We’ll have that conversation. Two hours later, I’ll be on the phone with a direct competitor. You know what they’re saying, Sean? They’re saying, Brent, we’re at the tip of that blue arrow. We’re at the 57%. We’re getting commoditized. We’ve got to crack that open.

The reason I mention that is really interesting. What happens in this world is, that armed with all this information, your customers aren’t just shutting out your sales reps, they’re shutting out all sales reps. Because they can. That raises a really interesting, and kind of scary point. In many ways, you know I just asked everyone to think of their top two or three competitors, but in the world of the 57%, in many ways, your top competitor today isn’t so much the competition and their ability to sell, it’s your own customer and their ability to learn on their own. If you kind of juxtapose that to the world of the customer-centric organization, where you have the customer comes first and the customer’s always right. We just landed in a world where the customer’s always right. We’re actually in big trouble.

Now, let’s bring it full circle to competitive intelligence. I think what’s so interesting for this particular audience is there’s no question you have to do competitive intelligence. You have to have a deep understanding of what’s going on. That hasn’t changed. I think what has changed is an understanding of who that competitor is in the first place. That’s a really interesting thing to think about. In many ways, we’ve just moved from a world of, I have to have competitive intelligence to understand the marketplace, and understand the competition, and what they’re doing and how they’re offers are resonating or not resonating with their customers. Now, we’ve got to understand the customers themselves, because in many ways, that’s our single biggest bogie, is understanding, to your point, what exactly is happening in that 57%. Do we have visibility into where they’re learning? By the way, the answer can’t be the Internet.


Let me stop you there. It’s interesting. It’s a little dynamic that … everybody enters markets at different states of their evolution. I had a company we grew and sold into the tech consultancy. We entered CI after launching this company in 2006. Obviously, CI had been running around as a business model before we entered the fray per se. What I find interesting is when you enter into an established market, having owned a consulting business for, now, 14 years, you enter with your notions and you try to disrupt the market a little bit and do things differently. We didn’t have the baggage necessarily of somebody doing CI for 20 or 30 years before us.

We would run into these projects where people would say, I want a competitor profile.  We, I think, started in a place just because we entered this without some of the baggage. We did a lot of projects that we started. We even gave a name for them. We call them key buying criteria projects. What we noticed is, they didn’t really want a win/loss. They didn’t really want a competitor profile. They didn’t want a generic set of data about the competitors growth or whatever. What they wanted to really richly understand was buyer profiles and customer journeys.

To your point, it wasn’t as simple as saying, they looked on the Internet. It was like, well what influenced them on the Internet and where did they go and, to use your guys’ lingo in a way, how did they learn? What tools did they use to learn? What influenced them along the way? Even influence is a tough one, because I think when most people hear that word, they have a very clear picture in their mind of influencers, and it’s much more diffused than that. It’s not just your peer who used to work with the supplier. I think there’s a really interesting dynamic afoot as people really have to look at that whole journey.

I just find it interesting because one of the more popular projects we do is what we just ended up calling key buying criteria research. It wasn’t quite win/loss, because it was looking at it broader than just the sales teams interactions. At the same time, it wasn’t like some static, let’s go profile the competitor. It was very, very much about understanding the whole buyer’s journey. I’d like to say that somehow we did it all based on your guys’ data. But we didn’t. We just based it, a little bit on instinct and what people were asking. I think they tie together. In other words, our clients are asking for that kind of research in some ways, because they are seeing the challenges you’re laying out.


Completely. We think about what this means. It’s so interesting because in a world where customers learn on their own, and essentially our biggest competitor is our own customer and their ability to learn on their own. We actually made up a word for this. What it tells us is how do we win in that world? What does it mean to even compete against your customer and their learning ability is that it essentially you have to unteach them. That’s the word we made up. It’s where all the challenger work comes from is you have to challenge their thinking, or unteach them, essentially demonstrate to your customer that somewhere along the way in that 57% that they somehow missed something materially important to their business. A new way to make money, or save money, mitigate risk, go after potential opportunity that they haven’t fully appreciated on their own.

This is the heart and soul of all of the work we’ve done under the name of the challenger sale, is essentially challenging customer’s thinking, helping them understand there’s a better way to think. Not about you, but about themselves.

When I think about this in terms of competitive intelligence and we just … by the way, we just buttoned up the full manuscript of book number two and it just went off to the publisher this week and it’ll be out in the fall. We’re super excited about it. It gets really deep into this very question, among other things.

One of the things at a high level that I can tell you that you’re going to see, just really beating the drum hard in this book is this idea that what you really have to understand as you’re doing competitive intelligence in this world, and this really matters, if what you’re going to truly do is unteach your customers or demonstrate to your customers that they missed something materially important to their business. The thing you’ve got to understand more than anything else is not how they see you, it’s how they see themselves. What is their understanding of how they view their company? What are they trying to accomplish because that’s the thing that you ultimately have to challenge.

What marketers and sales professionals broadly speak and lack right now, not because they’re doing it wrong, or badly, it’s because it wasn’t necessarily nearly as important as in the past as it is today. It’s having a very deep understanding not of how your customers see you, but how your customers see themselves. If you’re going to go mining for one thing, that’s what I’d go mining for. What channels you do to do that in, where you go to find that stuff out, who you talk to, that, I think, a lot of it, in some ways, is kind of TBD because it’s a continually changing story.

It’s not so much the where or the how, it’s the why that we think is so interesting. What you’re trying to do is trying to understand how customers view themselves and if you can come up with that through your competitive intelligence, that’s what you got. That’s your competition. Your competition is your customers current view of themselves. That’s ultimately what you have to change to get them to buy your solution. The only way you’re going to get them to buy your solution is to get them to change their behavior. The only reason they’re going to change their behavior is if they believe what they’re doing right now is insufficient someway. The only way to get them to believe that is if you have an understanding of what that current belief is in the first place.

We walk through this in a huge amount of detail in book number two. That sort of the thumbnail version, a sketch of what challenger really is all about, is breaking down customer’s current conceptions of what they’re already doing and why in order to help them realize that an alternate view is actually better. Our friends at ADP have a great phrase for this. They say, “I’ve got to teach my customers that the pain of same is greater than the pain of change.” I’ve got to teach my customers that the pain of same is greater then the pain of change.


That’s a good one. I’ve seen that in one of the talks you gave, too. I think that’s a really good quote. I think, one last theory to probe here, before we wrap. I think if you summarize for our audience, if sales, if the relationship between customers and sales teams is changing this dramatically, it fundamentally has to change the way you research that dynamic, which is how I would summarize a lot of what we talked about. It involves deeper understanding of their journey. It involves looking at digital signature about their journey and all those things.

I guess, where, and maybe this is a little bit of a tough question, so I’ll give you a little bit of an out. How far do you think that number’s going to move? Right now, it’s at 57%. Are there reasons why you think it won’t move much farther than it is right now, will always be left somewhere in that 40% to 60% range like you mentioned before.


It’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t know. I think at some point … by the way, there’s a party of any companies, many companies, business is super transactional. It could probably be put on the web and sold without a sales force all together, very much like certain retail outlets, where that 57 might go all the way to 97, or even 100.

I think a bigger, more complex solution at some point or another, customers will always have to bring in a sales rep and have a conversation. What we’re also finding, as I mentioned earlier, customers are more inclined to get their ducks in a row, and their due diligence done before they make that happen.

Whether that 57 ultimately migrates to 77 then stops, or goes to 67, TBD. I think at the very least, it’s probably not going to go backwards, if we just do nothing. The question we always get is in respect to where the tip of that arrow, as we like to call it, that 57% is. The question we always get from heads of sales and marketing, is how do I get in earlier than wherever it is? How do I crack open that arrow and be part of that earlier conversation? That’s ultimately where we focus much of our time and thinking is trying to figure that out.


That’s fair. I would agree there’s a correlation between how transactional your business is and how high you can scale that number, then what it means for when you analyze a competitor, in essence. If they’re a little more transactionally oriented than you, there may be more significance in the digital component to their kind of customer journey than somebody who’s not nearly as transactional and much more consultative. That makes sense.


The one thought I’ll leave everyone with is just a really basic question, which is, who is your competitor? That’s just something to kind of ponder. It’s something interesting to think about in the world of 57%.


Absolutely. Absolutely. I want to thank you for joining, and to the folks that are listening, thanks for being along with us today on the podcast, and hope to have you along on future chats as well. Thanks for listening.

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