Today, through prior digital and social media research, organisational buyers approach their vendor sales teams much more informed. Hence, it is indispensable for B2B sales to focus on becoming a valued and trusted partner early in their customer’s decision journey. Such could be achieved through six strategic steps, which the authors elaborate on in this article.
Long gone are the days of information asymmetry where the sales person had more information than the customer. In that bygone era, potential customers came to sales seeking information – or the sales person contacted the buyer through cold calling or canvassing.
Today, through prior digital and social media research, organisational buyers approach their vendor sales teams much more informed. In fact, a Consumer Executive Board survey found that B2B buyers make their way through 57% to 70% of the decision-making process before even contacting potential suppliers.1 And, recent Forrester Research indicates that 74% of buyers now conduct more than half of their research online before making an offline purchase.2
Since these B2B buyers already know about features, specs, competitors, pricing, reviews and more before even engaging with their vendors, organisations must reconsider their B2B sales process and take steps to align it with this new reality. To be heard and help guide the buying decision, companies must figure out new ways of engaging the customer during the early stages of the buying cycle.3
Gartner Research of global enterprise buyers found that only 32% of the buying time is spent interacting with providers. Of the remaining 68% of the time, 18% was spent on internal company evaluations, 9% on social networks with peers, 12% on other interactions with peers, 13% on third party interactions, and 15% on reviewing independent information. Most of this time is spent interacting with others to understand and interpret the vendor information.4 Why? Gartner analyst Hank Barnes observes that it’s because there’s a lack of trust with sales organisations. It is not only important for sales to have more contact with potential customers in the early stages of the buyer’s journey, but those interactions must deliver value. Each interaction represents an opportunity to raise trust by emphasising advising over closing.5
This Spring outbound sales is set to become even less effective. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes full effect in May 2018, giving consumers even greater control over the information marketers can access about them and how they can use it. GDPR can limit marketing’s ability to distribute outbound marketing to potential customers, hindering their lead generation capabilities.
GDPR’s reach is far and wide will full compliance required by any company offering services to EU citizens regardless of where the citizens reside. There are many important aspects to the regulation, but much of it is focused on trust and transparency and moves company policies and practices to the perspective of full privacy by design and default.
Requirements include “unambiguous” permission versus soft opt-ins, requiring that companies tell consumers how their data will be used and making it easier for them to remove their data. As a result, marketing targeting capabilities will be limited while consumer’s powers to remove unhelpful messages will increase.6
How should sales organisations adjust to all of these developments? As prospects spend more time searching for solutions on their own and are now empowered to limit access to their data, B2B sales should focus on becoming a valued and trusted partner early in the decision journey, shifting from a strategy of buying audiences and distributing their marketing messages through outbound channels for lead generation to one of providing valuable information that can be found during initial searches. In other words, you need to end being the hunter and make it easier to become the hunted.
Here are six steps to help you become the hunted:
1. Ensure your salespeople align with buyer expectations. According to HubSpot’s sales perception survey, buyers want someone who listens to their needs (69%), is not pushy (61%), and provides relevant information (61%).7 Robert Cialdini in Pre-suasion points out that the first goal for salespeople shouldn’t be to try and get the prospect to like you; rather, it is to convince the prospect that you like them. Cialdini even cites the old adage “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”8 Similarly, Lisa McLeod in Selling with Noble Purpose shows that salespeople who genuinely understand how they can make a difference for the customer outsell more quota-driven peers.9
2. Integrate sales and marketing teams. When the buyer’s journey is disrupted, it also disrupts the conventional roles these teams have played. Traditionally marketing bought lists and media and sent messages to prospects, generating awareness, which fed leads to sales, who’d close the deal. But marketing can no longer win by distributing lead generation messages and sales can no longer win by supplying the follow up information.
Working together, sales can provide valuable insights into customer issues, trends and brand perceptions. Marketing can take those insights and develop valuable pieces of content to help sales intersect prospects guiding the decision journey. Marketing can train sales in using social media and provide content they need for the new buyer’s journey value exchange. Integrating systems and improving communication between marketing and sales increases the value of these efforts. A Marketo study found that when sales and marketing work together, businesses are 67% better at closing deals.10
3. Migrate to a multi-touch marketing attribution model. Single touch attribution models – first or last – are good for simple buying situations, but not for complex ones typical of B2B situations, because they only give credit for the sale to the content right before they close or the one that initially captured the lead not accounting for the entire customer journey. The first touch could be a banner ad, social message, or a video found through search, but it would ignore the influence of, say, an eBook, LinkedIn post, or blog article had in turning the initial interest into a sales contact despite the fact that the more content you get into the initial stage, the more influence you’ll have in getting into the consideration and contact set. Likewise, if you use a last touch attribution model, you will miss crediting all of the content that moved B2B buyers along their respective journeys. Unfortunately, 55% of B2B marketers are only using single-touch attribution models, even though CRM tools can help automate multi-touch attribution.11,12
4. You need to become GDPR compliant, which requires that marketers get consent before sending digital communications to prospects. What’s more, the communications must be related to that consent and the purpose for which it was collected.
As a result, marketing’s ability to hunt prospects for leads through outbound efforts is severely limited. Third party lists can’t simply be bought with opt-in assumed. Consent must be explicit and records must be maintained. What’s more, since consumers will most likely be hit with more explicit and frequent consent notifications, opt-outs could increase.
The penalty for noncompliance is up to 4% of annual global turnover or 20 Million Euro whichever is greater. So, while marketing will still play a role, salespeople will now have a greater need to pull in their own leads, which inbound strategies can enable.13,14,15,16
5. You should end cold calling or, at least, de-emphasise it to focus on social selling. The traditional sales process, which is based on the salesperson’s perspective, not the customer’s, consists of prospecting, pre-approach, approach, presentation, close, and follow up, much of which has an online corollary that better reflects today’s reality.
In the new model, prospecting and the pre-approach becomes SEO, social engagement, and a media buying strategy that ensures valuable, relevant content is found by appropriate prospects. In addition, presentations can be replaced with infographics, online videos, webinars and other informative content that proves value, establishes expertise, plus demonstrates features and benefits. This moves the sales function out of an “always closing” mentality and into a “trusted advisor” role.17
6. Finally, policies and processes for real-time answers need to be created especially in social media. Buyers now reach out to sales representative when they’re ready to buy, or need detailed or customised information – and quick and robust answers are expected.
Vodafone is a global company that has succeeded with an inbound B2B sales strategy. The company realised that its B2B customers were changing the way they buy and were seeking service providers who have a strategic understanding of their business, offer practical advice, and deliver value with the sales conversation. Sales and marketing worked together to identify content pieces that would help contribute to the conversation.
The result was marketing and sales alignment in a strategy based on sales insight and messaging that resonated with the audience supporting a consultative approach. Content was created in easy to share social media posts and training was provided on the best ways to share with prospects. Marketing learned from sales about customer perspectives, sales teams became a valuable content marketing channel, and business was generated as a result.18,19
IBM was seeking new ways to find B2B customers for their cloud computing and data security products. Telemarketing and email weren’t producing the results they wanted. IBM launched an inbound effort. By monitoring social media, marketing helped uncover user’s discussions about cloud computing trends, issues, and other hot-button topics. Then sales reps checked an RSS feed, found content that fit the discussions, and shared it on their social media and on their IBM website profile pages. Product orders were reportedly four times higher during the first quarter of the inbound strategy than the same quarter the year before.20
Some question to ask for your future B2B sales efforts:
- Does your sales process need some improvements to reflect this new reality?
- Have you prepared for the marketing implications of GDPR?
- Are you working more closely with marketing to improve inbound efforts?
According to Cialdini in Pre-suasion, if you want to persuade someone that something is truly important, you need to be sure that the audience’s attention is focused in the right direction when you present your appeal. What better way to focus them than by having them approach you and ask for the information!
NOTE: This article is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Brands should consult their own company’s general counsel to ensure legal compliance.
About the Authors
Laurence Minsky is Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a co-author of both The Activation Imperative: How to Build Brand and Business by Inspiring Action and Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand.
Keith A. Quesenberry is Assistant Professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. An expert in social media and digital marketing he’s the author of Social Media Strategy: Marketing and Advertising in the Consumer Revolution.
Special thanks to Joseph Carson, CISSP, Chief Security Scientist, Thycotic to ensure accuracy with GDPR regulations.
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17. Laurence Minsky and Keith A. Quesenberry, “How B2B Sales Can Benefit from Social Selling,” Harvard Business Review (blog), November 8, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/11/84-of-b2b-sales-start-with-a-referral-not-a-salesperson
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