Though it started with consumer products, today, even organizations looking to buy complex B2B products and services have the means to evaluate prospective vendors on their own, with no need to contact a sales rep. Even with a growing number of decision-makers, on average, involved in the buying decision, each is doing independent research and evaluating options based on their own qualifiers. In this age of the enlightened B2B buyer, the salesperson runs a high risk of mattering very little.

Nowhere was this profound shift better illustrated than in a landmark study published in 2013 by the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner Research), and Google. It found that the average B2B consumer has completed 57 percent of the sales process before ever contacting a company rep. Consumers have taken control of the qualifying process. They are qualifying companies, not the other way around. And it’s safe to assume this percentage has gone up since this research was published.

The study also determined that the optimal time for a sales rep to get involved is at 37 percent of the journey. Decision-makers are likely to be located in different business functions within the company and have varying challenges and expectations for the solution. CEB expanded on these points in a 2015 update:

“Not only are customers likely to be more than half the way through the purchase process when they speak to a supplier, but the point where the buying group at a customer company are most in conflict with one another – and where a skilled rep could help most in framing the problem and explaining the supplier’s solutions – is only 37% of the way through.

What makes this even harder is that this buying group (upon whom the purchase decision rests) has grown rapidly in the past decade. The average group is now 5.4 people, and often composed of those who barely know each other from widely different parts of the business and parts of the world too.”

 Even if you’re lucky enough to find a prospect early in the purchase process, any contact from a sales rep is likely to be rejected. After all, the enlightened buyer believes they already have access to all the information they need to make a smart decision.

Forward-thinking companies are responding to this shift by finding ways to put thought-leadership content in front of buyers while they are still evaluating options. Often referred to as content marketing, this approach takes the focus off the company and its products – our solution set’s feeds and speeds, our box is better than their box – and puts it on providing prospects with valuable, actionable information on how to tackle their business challenges.

The automotive retail giant CarMax provides an excellent example of what this looks like in practice. In the past few months senior executives at the company have been in the media talking about overcoming business challenges – NOT overtly pitching CarMax as the best place to buy your next used vehicle.

In Forbes magazine, CarMax CMO Jim Lyski bylined an article talking about how important a positive attitude is today to succeed in marketing. He gives suggestions for things HR can look for when evaluating potential hires, and one of them is looking for visual cues during interviews.

Lyski was also recently featured in an article by CMO magazine, this time sharing the spotlight with CarMax CIO Shamim Mohammad. The article talks about how the two internal function leaders are working together to embrace emerging digital technologies to launch innovation new services and keep CarMax ahead of its rivals. A key part of this was “breaking down the walls” between their respective business groups and fostering more collaboration.

Of course, having these subject matter experts is only half the battle. Turning great ideas like the ones shared by Lyski, packaging them up, and getting them placed where prospects are going to look for information about solutions like yours is equal parts data science and art.

Marketers must continually experiment with different content mediums (especially video), media placement (including owned, earned, and paid), and consistent collaboration with IT to ensure the marketing tech stack that drives the highest efficiencies and ROI.

Media placements like the ones cited above don’t happen by accident. They are the result of a concerted effort to use content marketing as a way to establish thought-leadership and differentiate from the competition. If the product or service being sold is expensive and the sales cycle long, this is the path for success in a customer driven world.

Vendors looking to succeed in the transformed world of B2B sales would be wise to follow the example of companies like CarMax.