B2B must evolve to meet clients’ changing needs
[author]Client work for B2B and B2C organizations has me reviewing thousands of conversations in social venues every month, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that much of Sales and Marketing as we know them is significantly out of alignment with B2B clients. They are much smarter now and want a new style of relationship with their business partners (erstwhile “vendors,” “providers”). Social business is permeating client networks throughout the economy and changing client behavior and expectations.
This has created a rare opportunity for B2B sales and marketing people who understand and respond ahead of the market. Here I’ll do a deeper dive into how legacy Sales and Marketing functions will evolve, using social business as a lever.
Reexamining B2B Sales and Marketing
Two examples of misalignment: One of Marketing’s underlying assumptions is that it is not economically feasible to have large-scale one-on-one client conversations, so marketing must achieve scale through secondary research (and remain isolated from the client). One of Sales’ key assumptions is that it must rely on primary one-on-one prospect/client/customer communications to drive value. Both of these are increasingly false, so I’ll drill down on them before offering practical recommendations for how Sales And Marketing can explore social business at a new level.
As head of marketing for several B2B firms with direct sales forces since the 1980s, I have worked with my fellow execs in Sales, Operations, Finance & IT to drive the top line. As a management consultant, I have advised clients in adopting numerous disruptive technologies that have confronted enterprise functions with change. These experiences lead me to believe that social business will transform B2B Sales And Marketing during the next 5-10 years. Moreover, organizations that begin the transformation process earlier will profit at the expense of laggards because social business will improve enterprises’ communications and collaborations with clients by an order of magnitude.
B2B Marketing usually refers to several practices that vary with the type of business, but the end game is to define/control message and produce leads that are worked by Sales:
- Defining the firm’s brand, strategy, value proposition and “message”; this includes managing how various brand elements are used (elevator pitches, logos, colors)
- Designing and running outbound “campaigns” via email marketing, snailmail
- Attracting/capturing inbound leads via rich media, SEO, SEM, thought leadership
- Conducting database management (CRM..)
- Producing “collateral” (websites, brochures, templates for use by Sales)
- Managing the firm’s participation in conferences and trade shows
- (often) Managing the firm’s channel and strategic alliances
- All of these practices are grounded in scaled group communications; i.e. Marketing communicates with researched demographics, not individuals because they usually have no relationships with individual prospects.
B2B Sales/Business Development is a contact sport that usually refers to a direct sales force, which is sometimes supported by indirect or inside sales:
- Identifying leads via face to face, telephone or email interactions with their individual professional networks; often salespeople are hired for their career-accumulated networks
- Working leads sourced from Marketing and their individual work according to a gated pipeline or funnel along which leads approach conversion
- Conducting (telephone) calling and email campaigns
- Getting and conducting meetings with prospects
- Working conferences and trade shows under Marketing’s direction
- Entertaining clients and prospects (golf, opera, sports, other events)
- Collaborating with channel partners’ representatives to exchange and work leads
- Closing deals and handing off to “delivery” teams (or, in the case of professional services, managing delivery)
- All of these practices are based on communications with individual prospects.
In summary, Marketing has served as the firm’s research and scalable communications arm while Sales has been responsible for doing the deals. Marketing’s value proposition has been researched intelligence, strategy and scaled communications. Salespeople would develop intelligence based on direct feedback with their own networks.
How B2B Sales and Marketing can evolve with social business
Marketing’s biggest mental roadblock is the habit of being isolated from the client/customer. “But I don’t touch the client, that’s Sales.” No, Marketing has to evolve its approach. Marketers that realign themselves will unleash value that they could only dream about before. Here are a few specific ideas to get your evolution thinking started:
- Marketing makes most decisions in isolation from real clients (research and focus groups are too artificial because they rarely focus on client-to-client interactions, which are an order of magnitude more enlightening). Marketing can start infusing marketing research with direct communication with prospects and clients.
- Conferences and trade shows can be fantastic opportunities to connect with differentiated prospects, but few firms even come close to realizing the ROI. The opportunity here is to reimagine events as connection opportunities that happen to have a geographical/time dimension to them. Marketing currently spends most of its attention on physical event logistics. What if they used the event as an excuse to involve prospects in discussions leading up to the event? Onsite, they capture the most relevant client/prospect conversations on video, which can enable other prospects to get engaged. They design programming that engages attendees and non-attendees in what happened “after” the event. But “the event” is no longer bounded by the physical event.
- Transform the channel by organizing online collaboration spaces that connect various channel partners in ways that are meaningful to them. Most parts of the channel have information that is useful to others, but it’s almost impossible to get someone on the phone. Email is very inefficient. And people need guidance for how to interact in transparent social venues.
- Here’s how many-to-many communications in social venues have different economics: Research has consistently showed that, in most online social venues, about 10% of participants are interacting while 90% are observing. And they can go back to it. Moreover, anyone interested in that topic can find it. Now. Email is a closed system that has no leverage in comparison. High-quality, relevant digital conversations are almost always superior to any “content” that any company can create because the prospect is involved. It’s more relevant, it’s more individualized.
Sales needs to come out of its shell. Many salespeople are actually shy in front of large audiences they don’t know personally (how many times does the sales team gab among themselves at the trade show booth?). So, it’s a stretch for many salespeople to converse with “strangers” in social venues. Many of them are afraid of writing (they’re talkers). Here are specific examples for Sales:
- Although many people have learned this, I’ll repeat just in case: In general, writing questions and responses in public is held to a fairly low standard grammar-wise. Most people aren’t going to attack you if your sentence structure is horrid. You can spell-check words. Get over this fear if you harbor it. (Rare exceptions apply.)
- Like Marketing, Sales need no longer accept assumptions about “market conditions,” or prospects’ needs. Find and interact with people in social venues who are talking about things your clients care about. Observe what they think, and ask them questions.
- Think about yourself compared to people in your firm and outside. What knowledge or interest do you have that you have related to the product/service that lets you add unique value? Experiment with search: create keyword combinations that find these conversations, and observe them for a while. Then jump in and add your perspective. Remember, these conversations are your thoughts immortalized. Even better, you can bookmark the best ones and share with prospects later. In the LinkedIn forum, the prospect will see you offering value-added information and guidance; when people thank you, your credibility goes way up. In forums, other prospects are setting the table for you to help them and gain huge, immortal visibility.
Disruption always serves to elevate threats and opportunities. I hope you can see that “traditional” sales and marketing practices developed in an era in which B2B clients had relatively little opportunity to find information independently or to connect with other people with similar challenges. Social business has changed the game, and early movers have the opportunity to profit to the detriment of their competitors.