Prospecting Is Still Part of B2B Complex Sales - even in an internet world

Ed Marsh | May 15, 2018

It's someone else's job

Who's supposed to prospect these days?

Executive management will tell you "Sales & Marketing"

Marketing will tell you sales...and then they'll tell you that since only 3% of buyers are in the market at any given time, they've invested in inbound marketing which is all the company will need to harvest volumes of leads. (Although statistically even the hotshots are only collecting 1.5-2% of the important leads!)

Sales management will tell you marketing and their field sales reps.

Field sales will tell you their indirect channel sales partners.

Channel sales will kind of look at you cross eyed!

Everyone knows the balls in the air, but nobody calls it! (Image MLB)

in B2B complex sales nobody's calling the prospecting ball in the air

Guess what...it's simply not happening in many cases. B2B complex sales teams are practicing some version of waiting for the phone to ring.

The excuses are legion. Everyone's too busy. Nobody answers the phone or responds to cold emails. Markets have changed, etc, etc, etc.

Guess who doesn't buy that? Tech investors!

I work primarily with industrial companies, but also with a variety of technology. It's interesting to see how industrial companies largely eschew prospecting (sure, many say they do it, but the fact that nobody tracks activity or results demonstrates indifference.) 

Technology stands in stark contrast. The very people who often create the tools to connect with buyers passively vs. through proactive outreach - tend to be among the most consistent outbound prospectors.

I can't tell you why with certainty, but my speculation is because traditional industrial companies have traditional, conservative owners who expect incremental growth and can afford to (at least in good times) accept excuses. In contrast, technology companies have impatient, demanding and often unreasonable investors.

Investors don't care that it's unpleasant, marginally effective, not as easy as it used to be, etc. They expect results. And technology folks deliver.

But it no longer fits where it used to

Prospecting used to be an important part of what B2B sales people did. Networking and cold calling were basic elements of complex sales work.

B2B sales people would often drive around to the back of a building and work their way from the shipping dock to the desired contacts.

Today that rarely happens, and the channels through which most early prospect contacts find us (website and related digital properties) are controlled by marketing. But marketing has traditionally thought of themselves as branding, some demand generation, competitive tracking, communications, PR and a bit of product planning. Lead gen (sure, there were trade shows and bingo cards) was largely up to sales reps.

Special skills and special tools

So, not only does nobody "own" the responsibility today, but in many companies the specific skills and tools have not evolved to meet changing market conditions. For instance BDRs (business development reps) or their step sibling SDRs (sales development reps) are compensated and trained specifically for this purpose. Yet one finds very few middle market industrial manufacturers which have any BDRs on staff.

Similarly, true inside sales (location shouldn't be equated with lessor experience) who can handle the first touch and nurturing of leads isn't part of the team either.

When those functions are effective, however, they free field sales and marketing to concentrate on channel, territory, account and project management - and demand and lead gen respectively.

Tools that support these activities include:

  • CRM - when used correctly, not just for contact management
  • Marketing automation
  • VOIP calling features
  • "Sequences" which launch packaged sets of scheduled calls and emails
  • Even technology enabled dialing services like MonsterConnect that put your outbound prospectors on the line with prospects rather than dial tone

Creating scripts for outbound calls and writing templates for cold emails are distinct skills. Jill Konrath is known for the former and Aaron Ross the latter.

In fact the premise of Aaron Ross' book Predictable Revenue, built around the model he refined as he helped to grow SalesForce.com, is that the skill sets, responsibilities and economics of a revenue growth department demand an engineered Sales Team structure. (Read the short version in this article.)

This reinforces my position that the silos of marketing and sales are today poorly suited for markets. Companies are much better served by merging functions, from PR through service, into a customer facing revenue growth continuum that allows for modules like the teams Ross describes.

Not just technology

Both Konrath and Ross made their names in technology sales where higher margins are often invested in more extravagent sales and marketing infrastructrue than one finds in industrial manufacturers.

So you might say "Makes sense...but..."

Fair enough. How do you hire, manage and optimize a staff of one or two, particularly when the the skills, tools and best practices on which success hinges are continuously evolving and outside your area of expertise? And simply throwing money at sales headcount likely won't be fruitful - nor comfortable in industries where "marketing" budget is measured in trade show participation. But that doesn't mean you can't participate...or even experiment! (In an upcoming SignalsFromTheOP episode I explain why you need to experiment - to hedge risk but speculate on disruption!) 

Two proven outsourcing models can help you pilot outbound prospecting using a crowd-sharing/fractional model.

Ross' Predictable Revenue will build and execute email campaigns to set meetings for your sales team. Ricardo Garcia-Amayo's Y combinator launched VOIQ will do the same for telephone prospecting. Both use sophisticated analytics and process to learn, refine and improve. Both can tie in with CRM & marketing automation platforms.

Why would you hire one or two internal BDRs when you could have continuously improving best in class resources for less money? Working both major outbound channels simultaneously on behalf of your high price sales reps....

Juice it up with Buyer Intent Data

Of course any channel you use from the new fangled (ABM) to traditional (like phone and email prospecting) will work more effectively if you're focused on the right folks.

That's the role of buyer intent data - by understanding who in the market is actively researching your product or service, you can target resources on focused prospects as opposed to simple random names.

Imagine how your prospecting success rates could improve if calls and emails were going primarily to people who are thinking about buying stuff like yours!!??

Complex sales business development and prospecting bottom line

  1. Prospecting needs to happen - but typically doesn't
  2. Field sales people are valuable assets to focus on closing - and in many cases they're simply refusing to prospect anyway
  3. Marketing isn't really getting it done - good teams are successful in demand gen and lead gen, and nurturing early stage leads, but still missing large swathes of the market
  4. There's a new set of skills and tools that are required for outbound prospecting and inbound lead management - you're likely not going to do it well in house
  5. The sharing/gig economy rides to the rescue again, in the form of fractional outbound prospecting services for phone & email - less hassle, lower cost, better results
  6. Buyer intent data is the secret sauce that can make all of this more effective by focusing your internal ABM and complex sales teams, as well as outsource BDRs on prospects that are actively searching

Business isn't binary

Sales is dead.

Inbound marketing is the answer.

etc.

etc.

You've heard all the prognostications (and embarrassingly, some of them echoed at times on this blog) that predict a wholesale change in some fundamental aspect of revenue growth.

The reality is always nuanced.

But change is real. The honest state of your company's prospecting (not what's on your call sheets, but the real activity and success) will confirm that. How are you adapting?