Is your website causing you to lose customers? Great design, on-target messaging, compelling calls-to-action, and valuable content are just the baseline for engaging your market online. But can your customers make a buying decision solely using content from your site? Too often websites address only the discovery phase of a buying process.

Even the most creative, pithy, or in-depth description of what you do for whom and why you're the best is not enough. Your prospects must be able to evaluate your offering, believe your claims are credible, and understand what you're like to work with—all from within your site. Leaving these key purchase criteria questions unanswered interrupts prospect attraction, creating a barrier to buying.

At Great-to-Market Labs, my executive consulting firm in San Francisco, we hit that decision-wall with a vendor last year and ended up buying from a competitor.  We were in the market for an e-mail-marketing tool and were partial to My Emma.  Its website clearly identified our problem and explained how it presented a solution. 

The hitch? We couldn't see the product.  There were no pictures, videos, or free trials. Instead, the site asked us to call and talk to a representative for product details. Yes, we were curious enough to call (although I would argue that most prospects won't).  We asked why they wanted us to call before we could see the product, and they said they wanted to qualify prospects because they were wary of spammers.

There are plenty of excuses for not giving potential customers exactly what they want to see on your website.  Here are some. We can't:

  • List pricing on the Web because then the competition will just beat it.
  • Put demos online because sales people need to personalize the experience.
  • Describe the implementation process because each customer is unique.
  • Develop FAQs because that will point out unnecessary concerns.

Face it: It's time to let these go.  In the age of Google, Yelp, and Groupon, customers are in the sales process driver's seat, and they're happy to be there.  Your customers want immediate access to information to help them buy. The solution is logical: Put it all on your site.  You've got to answer their questions, address their objections, differentiate yourself and do it all credibly. Withholding information might feel safer, but you risk alienating buyers—they'll think your claims are suspect—and injecting unnecessary friction that extends sales cycles.

So, how do you know what information your prospects need to complete a buying decision?

Start by interviewing your best salesperson to build a map of your sales process in action.   Ask her or him to write down their view of the sales process from the first contact to final contract. Check out all of the materials your sales team members use during the sales dialogue (links to the website, presentations, demos) and at what point of the process they employ them. Finally, ask them to comprehensively note questions that the customers ask and the most effective responses to those questions (objections, comparisons).

Now, step into the role of your most promising prospect. Attempt to look at your website with fresh eyes, and try to make a decision to buy your product or service from your website.  If you can't be objective, then ask a contemporary or mentor outside your company to be your prospective customer. Follow this path:

1.     Do a Google search to get to your site (it never hurts to check up on the effectiveness of your keywords).

2.     Can you easily identify with the problem being presented and the solution being offered enough to want to continue?  If not, then you need to work on your targeting and messaging. For example, a provider of healthcare services sold to employers, but used by employees, would separate content specific to each audience, emphasizing competitive evaluation for the employers (the buyer in this case), while focusing on service benefits for employees (the users). You can see here where Castlight Health separates its value proposition into employer and employee categories, minimizing confusion and speaking clearly to each audience.

3.     Look at the sales process created by your sales rep.  Does your site enable prospects to easily find information while in each stage? 

For instance, while in courting prospects in discovery, you need to establish credibility. Great sites establish credibility by offering third-party validation (product or service reviews, awards won), customer testimonials (short video clips are effective), and lists of customers (think logo walls).  For example, HubSpot is a relatively new vendor to the lead generation space, so it knows that advertising how and which companies are using HubSpot will create credibility. With that in mind, the company actually uses one of the six precious tabs on its home page for 'Who Uses HubSpot.'

While in evaluation, the prospect is looking for you to differentiate yourself.  Show photos, screenshots or video tours so prospects can experience your product or service. Demonstrate thought leadership by offering education content for free. Provide frequently updated, valuable insight via your blog and social media feeds. Offer contact information for domain experts within your company. For example, check out how 37Signals uses tours to demo its products.

Customers also want to know exactly what happens after a purchase (implementation, adoption). Have you posted case studies of successful customer experiences? Make sure you describe how you will deliver your product and service as well as what buyers should do for post-sale support. You can see how, one of the pioneers of self-service, has a section of its website dedicated to explaining how to implement.  In addition to aiding the sales process, this is also an effective way to reduce implementation costs and increase user adoption.

4.     Is all of the information that the sales rep is using in the sales process available on the site?  Is it easy to find?  Be careful not to hide information that feels uncomfortable to you just because you haven't created your answer.  Pricing is a great example of this.  We talk to a lot of clients who don't want to post it because they aren't sure they have it right.  Resist the urge to withhold.  By putting it out there, you'll find out if it's right or not.  And, you'll once again move the sales process along for your promising prospects.  See here how Vertical Response makes pricing very clear.

5.     Do your FAQs answer the tough questions provided to you by the sales rep or is your prospect going to get the real truth when they start calling around or Googling you?

This can be an extremely effective test of the effectiveness of your e-selling (or rather e-buying from your customer's perspective).  When I became the VP of Sales for Vindicia, an online billing SaaS vendor, several years ago, I informally went through this process and found that the customer had to call to talk to a sales rep for nearly everything.  And here we were selling online billing to e-merchants!  It wasn't that the executive team was opposed to exposing information; rather, it was that the material just hadn't been created.

Salespeople are still critical to business models, but communicating effectively to prospects online can generate efficiency far more valuable than the risk of exposing too much information, even in wildly competitive markets. Use your website to bring prospects as close to a buying decision as possible and focus your sales teams on consultative, strategic selling, which is really what we pay them to do anyway.

While it seems counterintuitive to lessons of the past several decades, self-service of the buying process will create a positive relationship with your customer.  It is not only what they expect, but also what they need in order to feel comfortable with you as a vendor.  They will view you as current, transparent, and confident about your products and services.  And that will win you more deals.

Debbie Ellisen is a sales strategy expert and principal of Great-to-Market Labs, a San Francisco-based growth catalyzer.