This article originally appeard on the Axial Forum on December 11, 2014.
B2B sales doesn't happen by accident. That's not particularly insightful, obviously, but it's a simple truism many companies overlook.
Applying traditional approaches with increased vigor doesn't address the primary challenge to most B2B sales efforts today - markets, buyer expectations and purchaisng behaviors have changed. Therefore a fundamental reengineering of revenue growth processes is indicated. Here's why.
In a recent article, I explored the importance of consistent, managed top-line growth. It’s important for any company intent on viability and vitality, but particularly so for companies preparing for a financing/liquidity event.
The fact is that it’s rare, precisely because it’s difficult. Astute managers armed with spreadsheets can financially engineer any enterprise using industry agnostic techniques. They can boost or reduce ratios and improve profits. Some results may endure, but many are often fleeting.
True, predictable, profitable revenue growth, however, requires business engineering. It is a long term process which is iterative and adaptable. It challenges cherished assumptions about ideal customers, profitable products, marketing & sales staffing and resources, and target markets. And it must be increasingly integrated with corporate strategy, as trends such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) and “the internet of things” shape the landscape upon which revenue will be grown in the near future.
At it’s core, though, the process of predictable revenue growth is built on a model that aligns sales & marketing with buying behaviors.
Helping buyers buy
This discussion is founded on extensive research and statistics – two of which are foundational.
- 93% of all B2B buying originates with an internet search
- buyers are 70% of the way through their buying journey before they’ll speak to a sales rep
“Yes, but…” is the reflexive rejoinder many business executives offer at this point in the conversation. “My product is different”; “nobody shops for this online”; “this isn’t like buying a pair of sneakers”; and “that’s not the way this industry works” are all common rationale offered by ‘traditional’ businesses.
And yet they are mistaken. After all, what business decision is more complex, nuanced and significant than a corporate finance event? And here you are reading articles related to that topic. You don’t throw a dart at the yellow pages to hire an investment banker, and you even research and vet firms suggested by your other professional advisors. It’s the vision upon which Axial’s Forum is built; it’s what your prospects do; and it’s what you need to prepare.
Today’s buying journey is non-linear, lengthy and largely self service. And the internet is the medium by which the vast majority of buying research is conducted. In other words your sales process is now largely virtual – prospects will decide anonymously whether they believe you bring enough authority and understanding of their challenges to merit a discussion. And if they decide no, you’ll never know.
For most that’s a distasteful prospect. And the question is how to prevent that.
Structure & Methodology
What’s required is a synthesized, strategic approach that too often is inadequately defined as one of the tactical elements. The objective is to replicate the traditional sales rep interaction with prospects who are determined to avoid it. So identifying good prospects and establishing contact, forging a relationship, building credibility & authority, helping them sell internally to their colleagues and creating project momentum through a series of small and sequential ‘yeses’ are all steps you must replicate virtually. It’s a daunting task in the abstract, but one which can be distilled into a series of guidelines.
- Attract - Buyers today avoid cold calls and ignore most advertising. They research solutions to their challenges and select possible suppliers from among those who provide insight. Simply put your company’s expertise must be found when 93% of buyers search. And you must be found on the first page or two of results. That used to be a simple “SEO” (search engine optimization) challenge – but today is a very complex process built around volumes of thought leadership content.
- Convert - Simply being found, getting clicked, and being appreciated isn’t enough. Website traffic is a “vanity” metric with limited business relevance. What’s critical is to quickly engage visitors with thoughtful and helpful information, and to offer more in depth information in exchange for a quick registration form. A few fields (name, company, email) in exchange for an eBook, whitepaper, a calculator or other substantive offer are an innocuous way to both filter inappropriate leads and begin to connect with good ones.
- Nurture - Today’s buying journey is long and convoluted. Prospects don’t want to speak to a rep. In fact they often don’t even search for a product, and don’t know if they want to buy something. They search for help, ideas and solutions – products and services are incidental until much later. So early prospects are all inherently ‘unqualified’ and both prospect and sales reps will be left unfulfilled by premature contact. Instead you need to begin a very deliberate and personalized program to automatically nurture prospects into leads. Doing so requires credible, authoritative insight specific to the prospect and their progress through their buying journey. A CFO comparing details of ERP options will expect different types of information than an HR manager searching for possible solutions to a problem. To replicate a direct sales rep, you must intuit which type of information prospects need and provide it at the right time. And that process must be automated that so that reps’ time isn’t squandered and prospects aren’t annoyed. This involves a comprehensive business perspective which traditional marketing resources lack.
- Close - Along the way prospects become leads and later leads identify themselves as potential customers. For most B2B transactions that final step still requires a sales rep – and a great sales rep still distinguishes themselves from the average.
Tactics & Skepticism
This is a largely internet driven and digital process. That means that many of the tools and tactics will have familiar names, and often evoke strong emotion among traditional sales and executive teams who are skeptical that prospects in their industry use those tools, or who have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of measurable results from previous investment in such approaches. Blogging, social media, PR, email, SEO, content marketing and website optimization are examples.
Individually they each offer little value – but integrated around a strategy which is founded on business goals, they are the fuel for revenue growth in today’s markets.
Measure, Analyze and Manage
The payoff for today’s analytical managers is substantial and extends beyond top line growth. These approaches solve the traditional budgeting dilemma facing executives who instinctively understand that a large percentage of marketing spending is wasted, but who are unable to identify which portion to eliminate.
Suddenly every activity can be evaluated against intermediate goals, and directly tied to resultant revenue – both immediate, and eventually, lifetime. And pipeline, close rates and revenue can be predicted. A clear correlation between certain activities and the resulting revenue informs growth planning and substantially limits the uncertainty and risk of investment.
Every action can be A/B tested; every result compared against norms. Essentially real-time results provide managers actionable information in the area which has traditionally been most opaque. That insight has organizational implications beyond continuous improvement of a business function which has traditionally boasted of “impressions” and “creative.”
As buyers increasingly control their buying process and rely on the internet and digital resources to educate themselves and research options, the traditional PR, marketing and sales organizational structure and resource allocation must be realigned. A small PR and marketing communications/lead generation effort typically supported a large and costly direct sales force – a model which mapped directly against buyer expectations. Today, however, the attract/convert/nurture responsibility constitutes roughly ¾ of the process, and the direct sales team’s responsibility, while still critical, is reduced.
That shift requires resource adjustments, and the rich analytics which digital tools generate provide management with the business intelligence to optimize resource allocation.
Getting Credit for Being a Great Business
You’ve created real business value for customers and improved their businesses accordingly. Packaged in case studies that expertise will reassure prospects wondering how you can help.
But it no longer creates prospects. Revenue growth today is built on a scientific approach to digital tools and thought leadership.
Your company is great. It’s time to get full credit and benefit!