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SAP’s SVP Marketing on How Customers Are Redefining Brand & Buying

Vivek Bapat is SVP of Global Marketing Strategy and Thought Leadership at SAP. He recently sat down with us to discuss the changing buyer’s journey and rise of customer voice in enterprise.

Tell us about your role at SAP.

I am the head of global marketing strategy for SAP, and I also run our thought leadership program under the banner of The Digitalist. So understanding our customer’s voice and how it rolls up into market and customer insights is critical. Good marketers know that a brand is all about the perception a customer has about you in their hearts and minds. And for a long time, businesses have tried to create that by communicating the essence of their value proposition using multiple channels such as print, TV and social media. But increasingly, brand isn’t just about what you are telling them, but rather it is becoming about what your customers are telling others about you. That puts your customer, and more specifically the end user and their voice, at the very epicenter of your brand messaging and value proposition.

Why do you think customer voice is so important for today’s enterprise brands?

From my perspective, this is the big thing most brands need to work on, both in B2C and B2B because I don’t see a distinction between the two anymore. It’s not about one-way communication, and it’s not even about just listening to the conversation — it’s about enabling the third conversation that is happening between your customers and their peers. Just like in the classical B2C world, business-to-business has become peer-to-peer, and we see that happening in enterprise technology.

Traditionally, the B2B buying cycle has been pretty complex and involved selling predominantly at the business and technology executive level. But more and more, with cloud and subscription technologies, the end user is taking a position of strategic influence — in some cases, even center stage in that process. Ultimately, we must shift from an over-reliance on a single set of buyers that made software decisions for the entire company to address the needs of the entire team of influencers and decision makers, both inside and outside the company, who are impacting an investment.

Companies also need to figure out whether they’re in the business of selling licenses, or the business of subscriptions and renewals, or a combination of the two. There is a big shift in mindset depending on your model. Both require listening to your customers, but if you’re in renewals business, fundamentally you need to think of engagement in a different way.

Adoption and customer service has always been important, but now end users now have the opportunity to share their experiences with the product in a way that wasn’t possible before. Communities of end users are becoming very powerful, not just because of the external clout they have with vendors, but also due to the impact they have in buying situations. In my view, the end users were always very important. What has changed is it’s become much easier for them to gain influence internally and externally that they might not have had before because of these platforms. That in turn is changing the nature of how enterprise technology is being sold and consumed.

It goes without saying that you can draw parallels between the classic consumer use of technology versus the enterprise use of technology as well. The expectations that end users have, whether consumer or enterprise technology, is becoming similar — they want better and simpler experiences, they want the sizzle and the steak. So the focus on ease of use, the focus on rapid adoption, the focus on rapid learning, all must exist within the enterprises as well.

In what ways have you seen buying behavior change in response to this shift?

The enterprise buying process itself has become more complicated. A recent McKinsey study showed that there are typically between five to seven roles involved in an executive buying decision for enterprise technology. Because the stakes of deploying enterprise technology have actually become even higher, I wouldn’t be surprised to see those roles and the nature of their influence grow even more.

So the complexity of purchasing decisions has increased, which means the rigors in terms of how the analysis is done has also increased. In the past, the IT department would probably make a decision for the rest of the company. Now it’s many different points of view making that purchasing decision, all with their own unique perspective and their own research.

It is industry-wide trend that buyers are doing more independent research. The question has become, who has credibility and who is the trusted source for that research? A handful of analyst firms fit into that category due to the quality of their research. But increasingly, you’ve got end users who are playing that role, opining on a daily basis about their experience with your product. Those sources — existing users, their communities and traditional analysts — are the big ones we’ve seen our customers turning to.

Has this impacted your marketing strategy and how you use customer voice at SAP?

Absolutely. I think traditional customer references, provided by the company to prospective buyers, can still be useful. But the word “traditional” is what I really want to stress. These references are usually articulated as, “I used this product, which directly or indirectly contributed to glowing success.” However in many cases, the story of business outcomes or a particular customer experience aren’t fully communicated with that format.

Buyers want the complete scope of the journey that a customer went through. What were the high points? What were some of the challenges? What pitfalls should I watch out for? What unique lessons were learned? That authenticity needs to come through, which is why traditional packaged customer references, while necessary, aren’t fully sufficient.

If a company can become an unbiased facilitator for customers talking about their experiences — good or bad — that’s when you establish credibility. This goes back to what I said early about creating a peer-to-peer experience. The company needs to step out of the way and enable that conversation to happen, and it should not force the discussion or steer the discussion in any particular way. When brands enable the fluidity of these conversations, they earn credibility in the market as a trusted source.

Platforms like TrustRadius are providing forums that make it easy and beneficial for users to deliver their story, in their voice, with independence and authenticity. That external voice has a great amount of value for technology buyers and users, which is why it is critical this isn’t a pay-to-play model where the system can be gamed by either side. Because reviews go beyond brand reputation — as enterprise buying continues to evolve, I believe the independent voice of the customer will become one of the biggest drivers in the purchasing decision. 

Do you have any advice for other marketing leaders who are adapting to this new paradigm?

Reimagine your value stack. Today, the need and the opportunity to expand your value stack is much more critical than it was in the past. Traditionally, marketing and sales has been primed to sell the value based on the needs of the economic buyer. But now, the value conversation has to expand to the needs of the end user. Yes, it is still very important to communicate some of the financial metrics and ROI for the economic buyer. But as we construct the new value stack, it is also necessary to communicate ease of use, services, support, community resources and personal growth opportunities while clearly demonstrating how your product solves a very specific problem for the end user.

Additionally, it is important to identify the five or seven or more people involved in the buying decision. Then, think about the original content or research that could play a key role in that decision for each person. That’s what I mean by expanding the scope of the value stack, and then making elements of that value stack easily consumable for the different personas who come together as part of the buying process.

For a long time, the sales model has revolved around the economic buyer’s needs, maybe to a certain extent the influencer’s needs. They mostly focused on the person who is signing the purchase order. But you need to move beyond that to be successful in this buying environment.

We are now developing messages to all the personas with the same intensity that we previously applied to the economic buyers. We are making sure marketing and salespeople have what they need to include that in the selling motion and throughout the scope of the relationship. I actually think the most successful marketers and salespeople have always tried to present this type of holistic picture. The trick is to be able to do this at scale, in a way that everybody can embrace the expanded model.

For original research on the changing buyer’s journey and what vendors can do to adapt, download our report on The B2B Buying Disconnect.

Julie Neumann

Julie Neumann is the Director of Content Marketing at TrustRadius, where she focuses on educating and engaging our vendors. A journalist turned tech marketer, she has built programs at Yahoo!, MapMyFitness, Bigcommerce, Clearhead and more. Julie has an MA in journalism from the University of Texas and a BA in English and Economics from Vanderbilt University.

  • According to several market studies, the two key changes in B2B IT procurement during 2017 were more participants in ‘buyer committees’, and the influential role of ‘Line of Business’ leaders driving new requirements. That said, I anticipate that buying-cycle complexity will continue to increase for major IT purchases.