There is only one truly objective measure of a company’s success, how much does it sell.
There are thousands of things that must work well for a company to be able to sell its “product.” These fit into several key buckets:
- The company must be solvent and funded.
- The product must be fit for the purpose for which it was designed.
- There must be people who need or want your product.
- There must be people who sell your product.
- There must be people who bring the prospects and the sellers together.
It sounds so easy on the surface, but as they say “the devil is in the detail”
Many companies have been founded around an idea that the originators were passionate about, but that had a significant flaw that made it inappropriate for the expected audience. We can all think of products that had an incredible kernel of an idea, that were just not completed well, making them commercial disasters. And it doesn’t matter what the product is, it can be a service, a crop, software, technology, words on a page, anything. It has to be more attractive or useful to someone who will actually want it, than the money it costs them, otherwise it just won’t happen.
My focus is on companies that plan to market and sell products or services to businesses, a specific segment of commerce called Business to Business, or B2B (although the principles apply to the sale of most products that solve a complex problem).
There are three basic questions, the answers to which can quickly explain if a company has a chance at success:
- What problem do they solve?
- Who exactly has this problem?
- How to these people actually want to solve this problem?
Of course the most brilliant ideas are to solve problems that no one else has thought of, solved yet, or solved completely. And that can take vision, and vision needs creativity to share. Investors must believe in the potential for an idea, and a market must be taken through a journey to see the benefits of a new idea. And this takes creativity, time and effort.
And the process by which all business people make decisions to purchase anything must be understood. There are no shortcuts.
The process is always this:
- A prospect always starts off being untroubled by the problem you solve and unaware of the ways it can be solved.
- At some point a prospect will become interested in the dynamics of the problem.
- And at some point they will acknowledge that this is a problem they need to solve.
- And at some point they will make solving the problem a goal for a person or group of people in the company and will actively look for ways to solve the problem.
- And at some point the prospect will make and evaluate in detail a short list of solutions to the problem.
- And at some point they will agree to become a customer of a solution.
Spending money to solve a problem is never anyone’s first choice. If an issue doesn’t quite rise to the level of a problem that must be solved (or solved now), it likely will be tabled for future consideration. If a problem can be solved by changing an internal process or using existing resources this will always be preferable to making a purchase. Why add more complexity or cost to a business if it can be avoided?
The challenge of every vendor is to find ways to insert themselves in to the thoughts and internal conversation of the prospective customer, and do to this without annoying the prospect. And this is not easy, especially in an era where advertising is considered interruptive and intrusive.
The common denominator in the above process is learning, first about the problem (or trends associated with the problem) and then about the options to solve it. While every business and business buyer wants and needs to learn new things, they will each choose the “what,” the “when” and their own way of doing so. Some people read industry publications, attend conferences or participate in local or national special interest groups. While others rely on the training programs offered by their company or the advice of external consultants. And others network with their peers and share best practices. And still others are open to explore new sources of information that they may find on social media, Wikipedia, or via Google search.
Knowing how each prospect wishes to learn is a key to success for any company that is looking to market and sell new things. You cannot assume that everyone wants to learn in the same way. For example, I like short, explanatory videos when I’m researching a new trend or problem, while my business partner prefers printing out articles and papers that he can mark up as he reads them.
The most successful B2B marketers provide the information in many forms across multiple mediums (events, websites, blogs, video, in print, etc.), and they provide the information in the most valuable ways they can devise.
Marketing delivered in ways that prospects can choose to engage with, always work best. No one wants to be blanket bombed with adverts, emails or direct mail. In fact, the best B2B marketing campaigns never email anyone anything that wasn’t first asked for or where genuine interest wasn’t confirmed; email is best when it is used as a way of delivering a response to a request, and not as an introduction.
Ask yourself this question, “Where does my prospect go to find information?” and then work out how to be where they go.
What publications do they use? How can I build a relationship with those publications? And can that relationship be more than advertising? If the editorial content is why they go there, consider how to become part of that editorial.
The process of building a brand message that is considered when a prospect wants to solve a specific problem is a challenge in B2B marketing; one that takes both research and specific B2B skills to resolve.
The deeper a company understands their targeted prospects and how well they then provide them with information of value, the more likely the company will be considered when a problem needs to be solved. The “how” is important here as in the early stages of learning about a problem, people often do not want 2-way interaction. Registration for a white paper that immediately leads to a call from an inside sales rep rarely elicits the desired result. If the paper is designed well for the right audience, then the reader will be interested in finding out more and will self-select what form that “more” will take. I think it’s safe to say that every business buyer can figure out how to find a company’s website or make a sales inquiry if they have genuine interest.
For example, the purpose of a business topic white paper should be to have the right people read it, learn something of value, assign some value or good will the organization that wrote it, and have them want to find out more about how that organization can help them. This help may (and most likely will) not be an immediate decision to buy something.
Visiting websites, downloading content, or attending online or physical events are often an indication that the prospect is thinking about the problem that you may be able to solve. It is not an indication that the prospect is ready to engage with sales or wants a tele-sales person calling them every day between 5:00pm and 6:30pm until they pick up. Make it very easy for the prospect to say if they are ready to engage with sales, absolutely! But don’t force the issue; instead respect the prospect, their process, and their time.
The best marketing staff and sales people don’t try and sell at every interaction, they listen, learn, and provide support by offering additional content to answer the questions a prospect has as they move through their decision making process.
And the best marketing people ensure that their sales counterparts have a repository and flow of excellent content designed for the right audience to provide a continual flow of value and to move the conversation on.
A shared goal of B2B marketing and sales is to be considered or “short-listed.” Through the process the sales person will learn how and when the prospect will make their decision. The best relationships take time to build, and sales’ biggest new deals are typically with prospects whom your marketing team engaged months or even years ago with when they were untroubled about the problem at the time and unaware your company was a solver of that problems.
As a prospective buyer moves through their decision making journey (buyer’s journey), the seller should be looking to learn who will make the decisions and who they look to for advice (influencers), when they expect to make a decision, and gain some understanding of what type of budget will be available to solve this problem. These pieces of critical sales information should be the measures of a “lead.” When all of these things are known, then the prospect is really ready to become a customer of someone, and that is when sales should fully engage. That is the time when the prospect will truly value the engagement of sales.
A qualified lead contains a lot of information, and the most critical elements are always:
- What business problem does this prospect need to solve?
- Who in the prospect company has been asked to solve this problem?
- Who in the prospect company will influence the solving of this problem?
- When do they plan to make a decision to solve this problem?
- What do we know about their budget process and budget for solving this problem?
- What do they already know about our company?
- Who else do we know they are considering on their “short list?”
That may seem like a lot of information, and it is. Marketing should never wait until everything is in place before sharing a lead (or providing transparency on it) with sales, but without all of that information, sales should know it will be taking on a “lead” that is only partially complete. Marketing and sales can work a lead together to learn more and fill in the gaps. In fact, the best sales and marketing teams always work together at the later stages of the buyer’s journey to do just that, while others work as silos or adversaries to their detriment.
In the best marketing and sales relationships, it’s not the volume of leads passed to sales metric that matters, it’s the volume of deals that get to the “short list” and are closed, and the value of those deals to the business.
The best sales leaders and marketing leaders ensure that they have a joint forecast of how many fully qualified leads can be expected to be worked by sales in any given period of time and a detailed projection of how many will be coming in every future period. And any healthy forecast should show that sales have enough pipeline to exceed their sales targets (based on projected win/loss %, etc.). Marketing should be considering how many targeted contacts or “business cards” are needed to ensure that enough people are actively engaging in the buyer’s journey to ensure enough qualified leads are being created to ensure that sales have enough active opportunities underway to ensure that enough close for enough money to achieve the sales goals.
And both groups need to understand that the time it takes for different types of prospects to move through the entire buyer’s journey could be hours, days, weeks, months or years, depending on the type of problem being solved and the type of business the prospect is in. communicating with and managing the flow of prospects through the journey while not annoying them by over-communicating (or trying to skip steps by having a sales guy call unsolicited), is critical. It’s much easier to alienate a prospect than to create a valuable long term knowledge transfer-based partnership that will one day become a commercial relationship. It can often be one strike and you’re out.
The basic law of B2B marketing that leads to true sales success is this:
- Know what problems you solve, who has those problems, and how they want to learn about and solve them.
- Understand your market and prospects as deeply as possible and respect their time and decision-making process.
- Understand the buyer’s journey stages and what your prospect wants at each stage and make sure everything you do is designed to help the right prospects move through that journey towards your sales people. Don’t skip steps, and don’t try and automate things you don’t truly understand. Also accept that prospects move at their pace, not yours.
- Ensure that the relationship between sales and marketing is open, deep and honest.
B2B Marketing and B2B Sales working together as one team with a shared view of their goals only happens through professional discipline, experience and commitment. It is hard work, takes times and it can feel very repetitive (and unnatural for many). Generally, when you are sick of doing the same thing, and saying the same thing for months at a time, only then is it starting to resonate with your target audience. If the objective measure of your company’s success is how much you sell, and not just self-delusion and ego massage, then this is what it takes!