Tl;dr - Many interpret the significant portion of buying journeys that now happen virtually to mean that buyers don't want to engage with sales. That's incorrect. Buyers want to engage when and how they want, without being bombarded or harassed as a consequence. Digital capabilities can facilitate that, even creating conversational dialog reminiscent of face-to-face discussions. Conversational sales originated in enterprise SaaS but has applicability to industrial sales and capital equipment.
What is Conversational Sales?
Conversational sales is the digital analog to traditional face-to-face and telephone sales. It's a real-time (or nearly real-time) dialog between prospects or customers, and your marketing/sales/success folks. It incorporates various digital tools including chat, sales video, and personalized email to foster dialog, and eliminate friction to improve the buyer's experience.
The concept of conversational sales often creates a dissonance for manufacturing company executives and industrial sales reps. On the one hand, they lament the loss of personal sales connection, in-person conversation, and relationships that characterized their traditional sales tactics. On the other hand, the idea of digital-first communications evokes strong reactions - often some form of "our buyers are different, that won't work for them."
The key to navigating those conflicting ideas is to recognize that our most important sales job is to help the buyer feel comfortable and in control of their buying journey. Conversational sales go a long way to achieving that by helping sales communicate promptly with visitors, prospects and customers, honoring their preference for communication channel, and reflecting their stage in the buying journey.
Conversational sales is an adjunct to conversational marketing, and the term was originally coined by Drift1 as part of their revenue acceleration approach to evolving digital sales.
Turning Sequential Sales into Contemporaneous Conversations
Content and inbound methodologies changed manufacturing marketing. Companies that embraced the inbound marketing methodology created content that answered buyers' questions and was presented in SEO optimized ways to help Google understand which content/answers to serve up for which search queries to deliver the best research experience.
Great content drove search rankings which resulted in clicks that drove visitors and ideally converted leads.
There are a lot of steps in this sequence that can break down, but let's roll with it - the content marketing effort drives visitors to a site. What happens then?
Early in the evolution of inbound marketing we'd set a cookie when a visitor hit the site, record their behavior, and ask them to submit lengthy forms to gain access to substantive content.
Forms have become a friction point as visitors hesitate to incur the onslaught of sales harassment that often results, and to invest time to complete lengthy forms. Vigorous debates persist regarding whether to gate content behind a form or to make it all publicly available, or how onerous to make the form completion task (number of fields, required vs. voluntary, etc.)
As websites have grown they are harder to navigate and often frustrate visitors trying to find specific information. That's created additional friction.
So visit to lead conversion rates (form fills) have fallen for most companies at the same time that lead to meeting conversion rates (sales connecting with a prospect who filled a form) have also fallen.
The latter is perhaps more concerning.
Improving the CX, A/B testing forms and landing pages and other best practices will consistently improve the visitor to lead conversion rate. But once someone submits a form, gets their content, and wanders off to be waylaid by their next crisis, actually connecting with them to schedule a meeting is devilishly hard.
First, it takes an average of 7.2 attempts (and most salespeople quit after 3 or 4.) Second, by the time you do connect they've often forgotten what was on their mind, connected with competitors and sometimes even solved their problem. That's a wasted lead, resulting directly from that inefficient, sequential sales process.
So one of the biggest benefits to companies that adopt conversational sales is the ability to bridge the visit to lead and lead to meeting steps. In many cases engagement that begins with a chatbot can be taken quickly live, establish credibility, and culminate in a scheduled meeting - all while the visitor is on the site, in real-time.
That improves the buyer's experience - no clunky form, no delays, better vendor experience, less wasted time, fewer sales interruptions. And it improves the company's digital results.
Beyond Improved Conversion Rates
Chatbots and live chat are important tools in the conventional sales toolkit because they are simple, efficient and convenient for visitors. Effective use requires careful design, often specific bots for specific pages, thoughtful conversation trees, and increasingly, AI augmentation. But those aren't the only easy-to-use and effective conversational sales tools. A complete conversational sales framework 👉 (click for a larger version) helps to visualize the right tools for each situation.
Sales video can be really effective. Brief, concise, personal videos (think 15-60 seconds) which are often recorded with a specific screen background can foster personal connection when asynchronous tools like email are necessary. Examples of use cases would be outbound prospecting or interacting with a prospect after a website visit - reflecting on the pages/content they consumed and providing additional insights.
Most sales video tools provide alerts to let you know when someone is watching the video, and metrics on how many times and how completely they watched. This helps to gauge interest and intent. Drift's tool lets you chat, real-time, with someone watching and makes it easy to schedule a meeting and/or answer questions as they're focused on you and your message.
In a perfect world, you can take a chatbot to live chat and then directly to a Zoom online meeting all in one continuous engagement.
The goal is to move a visitor/prospect quickly through steps that create frustration and don't add value - to the conversation that most people really prefer.
Adapting Conversational Sales to Industrial Sales and Capital Equipment
Now, you may be saying to yourself "That makes sense for a software company, but not for us. We sell complex, custom capital equipment and our buyers aren't hipster millennials that will use these tools."
Not so fast.
My experience with durable good and capital equipment clients who have skeptically followed my advice indicates otherwise.
First, remember that many of your traditional technical buyers are retiring and gradually being replaced by digital natives. Just because it's not your preference doesn't justify projecting that onto your buyers.
Second, the power of marketing automation and integrated CRM is that we can easily quantify the impact in terms of leads converted via chat, projects influenced by conversational sales, and revenue attributable to both.
Frequently industrial manufacturers are astounded to measure and observe both the volume of aggregate chat activity and the effectiveness of converting ideal buyers (job titles like Global Director of Engineering for a multinational CPG company for instance) quickly from visitor to lead to meeting - and eventually to attributable revenue.
Along the way though you need to plan for several implementation challenges.
Implementing Conversational Sales in Traditional Sales Organizations
You should anticipate three key challenges. These include:
- Planning and building
- Sales training and mindset
Planning - Take a look at the framework above. There are a lot of scenarios to consider. You don't have to start with all of them, but you should plan to build toward that, and focus on 5-10 high payoff opportunities initially. That will take resources for planning and implementation. This is especially true when we consider the need to help people find answers to their questions, and access appropriate content and resources quickly.
Staffing - If someone asked you how you'd prepare for an increase in prospect phone calls, you'd respond with some combination of more phone lines, improved phone system and increased staffing. Oddly though, many companies respond to the same prospect of chats with some plan to throttle the volume. Why!!?? You'll need to have various folks from various departments trained and connected to support your effort. Sure, we can build it for sales, but current customers looking for AR and technical support, and other visitors, will look to use the tools to reach the right folks efficiently.
Sales training - Some of your veteran sales team will scoff at this. (Don't be too critical. Remember that you may have yourself....) That's going to take time, leadership, management, training and some quick wins to overcome.
The point is that it won't necessarily be quick or easy. But it will be effective. Which is more important?
Conversational Sales is the Sales Experience Buyers Want
Why did you build a website? Because you thought it would be a fun exercise? Of course not. You built it in response to buyer expectations. Along the way, hopefully, you've incorporated features to improve their experience and provide value to your business.
Think of conversational sales the same way. It's something that buyers expect. It may feel new to you, but it's routine for them.
The good news is that, when it's done properly, it can provide a significant return on your investment.