By Thomas Barrieau
Director, Sales Enablement Practice
In my last post, I painted a pretty dire picture for today’s sales professionals. Self-educating buyers who delay engagement with sales; smaller selling windows, giving salespeople less time to learn about buyers; a profusion of incoming leads, but little understanding of what’s driving their consideration; and, most alarmingly, buyers who no longer view sales as playing a strategic role in their purchase process—especially line-of-business buyers who now control most of the IT budget.
This grim state of affairs is largely due to the changing nature of how buyers acquire the knowledge that informs their purchase decision. The advent of digital marketing has given today’s buyer’s a degree of independence that removes vendor salespeople from much of their journey. Consequently, the traditional conception of the funnel no longer applies to the customer-creation process. Leads do not make first contact with sales as raw prospects, waiting to be escorted through a selling process that simultaneously educates potential buyers while separating good from bad in a systematic manner.
Instead, today’s buyers traverse much of their journey in relative stealth. Their interaction with vendors is through the digital dialog of web-based marketing and lead nurturing, depriving salespeople the opportunity to gain an understanding of what’s driving their purchase decisions. While these processes have allowed vendors to educate buyers with much greater efficiency, it has left a knowledge gap wherein buyers know much more about sellers and their offerings than sellers know about buyers’ needs and preferences.
If the funnel no longer operates as it used to, with the old, bilateral information exchange no longer taking place, how are we to provide salespeople with the knowledge they need to meaningfully engage buyers in conversations they will find relevant? If sellers gain much of the understanding that informs their purchasing process without sales involvement, how are we to restore the strategic value of sales to that process? In short, how can we restore the information parity that underpins successful selling interactions?
There are several ways to do this, as shown in the graphic below:
I’ll go through each of these areas in turn, but I’d first like to point out that all these techniques for restoring information parity should be in the wheelhouse of sales enablement professionals. For some, it will require expanding traditional conceptions of sales enablement in two ways:
- Sales enablement as liaison between marketing and sales. The notion of sales enablement acting as an interconnect between marketing and sales is not new. What may be an expansion of this thinking for some, is just how deep this advocacy work must go. Most of today’s marketing professionals put a great deal of effort into mapping content to the buyer’s journey; far fewer put as much thought into mapping content to the seller’s journey. Similarly, buyer interest data is gathered to inform lead nurturing strategy—rarely is this data passed along to sales in a manner than can inform selling strategy. Changing these situations is the job of sales-enablement professionals.
- A third leg for the sales training stool. When we think of the “sales training” component of sales enablement, we typically think of two things: product training and sales methodology training. To properly train salespeople for today’s buyer-driven landscape, we also need to add market and buyer intelligence to the training curriculum.
With this context set, let’s turn our attention to the different means of re-establishing buyer/seller information parity noted in the graphic above.
First, we’ll discuss ways that vendors can expand their capacity to gather rich buyer information. The goal here is to restore the buyer knowledge that used to be gained through the sales cycle, when selling windows covered a much larger portion of the buyer’s journey. The more insight a seller can gain into the buyers to whom they speak and how the markets within which they operate affect their purchase considerations, the more they can tune their messaging so that it will be found relevant and compelling.
Marketing-Sourced Market and Buyer Intelligence
Marketing organizations gather information about target markets and buyer preferences from a variety of sources. Most importantly for sales, one source is the buyers themselves. For companies that have employed modern marketing automation systems, buyer behavior data is gathered every time a prospect responds to an email, clicks on a link, downloads a document, or registers for an event. Marketing uses this data to develop buyer interest profiles for each prospect. These profiles then inform lead nurturing programs, allowing them to deliver messaging that is increasingly tuned to the preferences of individual prospects.
This capacity to gather buyer intelligence can be increased by employing more active data gathering techniques. Buyers are often reluctant to reveal personal or company information online. They are much more willing to reveal that data, however, if it is traded for something they find valuable. This can be accomplished using online surveys to provide information that aids the purchase decision process in exchange for buyer- or company-specific data. For example, providing a technical maturity assessment that benchmarks a company’s technology environment against peers in the same industry can often entice buyers to reveal information about a company’s technology infrastructure that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. This kind of information can be gold for salespeople, greatly helping to inform their selling strategy.
Independently-Sourced Market and Buyer Intelligence
Market and buyer intelligence can also be sourced externally. Market intelligence, important for understanding the purchase decision drivers for buyers within those markets, can be either horizontally focused (e.g., IT professionals who regularly buy server technology) or vertically focused (e.g., line-of-business buyers seeking software solutions specific to their industry). Marketing professionals typically obtain this knowledge from market research firms that specialize in this type of intelligence gathering. Those same sources of content can also provide sales training and asset content, as long as that content is adapted so that it is appropriate for sales audiences. A 40-page marketing brief might be fine for a marketing manager seeking as much detail as possible about a target market, but inappropriate for an account manager seeking just the knowledge needed to speak intelligently to prospects within that market.
Research firms can also be a source of buyer intelligence, if their research coverage extends to that level of specificity. Typically, this would include data on buyer personas, including what drives purchase considerations based on job role. In addition, several sales enablement vendors also offer buyer intelligence, typically on a subscription basis. These databases of buyer information typically source from publicly available data sets, but can save sales people a great deal of time when they’re trying to gain an understanding of who the players are within a targeted account.
Next, we’ll turn our attention to how vendors can expand information sharing between marketing and sales. Given the extent to which the customer creation process is something split across these two departments, this sharing is vital if the digital dialog in which marketing engages buyers is to inform and be consistent with the interpersonal dialog sales has with them. Helping to make this sharing as fluid and rich as possible, yet timely and focused so as to be of greatest value to sales is where the liaison work of sales enablement can have its greatest impact.
Cleaning Up the Pipeline
Just as salespeople manage opportunity pipelines, marketing professionals manage lead pipelines. Leads are typically transferred from marketing to sales when their lead score, calculated as part of the lead nurturing process, reaches a certain threshold that indicates a high level of interest. The buyer behavior criteria used to score leads and determine handoff thresholds should be something that evolves constantly based on input from sales. By asking to be a part of this process, sales enablement professionals can gain insights on how lead nurturing campaigns operate and how best to provide input to this tuning process. Understanding the messaging delivered through lead nurturing campaigns can also help inform how and where salespeople need to pick up the conversation when a lead is transferred. This collaboration with marketing can both help to clean up the pipeline—producing higher quality leads for sales—and improve sales’ capacity to successfully turn those leads into opportunities likely to close.
Sharing Buyer Insights During Lead Handoff
The buyer interest data that is gathered during the lead nurturing process can and should inform how salespeople pick up the conversation when those leads are transferred. Unfortunately, altogether too often this data is not transferred with the lead. When it is, it’s often in the form of a raw data dump: information about what files were downloaded, which links were clicked, etc. To make sense of this, salespeople have to go and look at those files and web pages, wasting valuable time and/or reducing the likelihood that sales will do the work of understanding what messaging has already been consumed by the prospect. A much better way to operate would be for marketing to translate this raw data into insight-level statements about what is of interest to the buyer. Paired with sales enablement content assets that inform how and where sales should pick up the conversation, these insights can greatly improve lead handoff, and enrich buyer/seller conversations.
Increased Buyer Knowledge Improves the Flexibility and Scalability of the Handoff Process
Because the nature of information exchange between vendors and buyers has changed, lead handoff processes must also change. Instead of a fixed point at which this handoff takes place, a more flexible approach that performs the handoff at whatever point best meets the needs of the buyer will improve the buyer’s experience—and their likelihood to buy. Creating a more flexible handoff process requires ratcheting up knowledge about the buyer. Data indicating a high-velocity purchase process (e.g., high levels of activity from multiple people within a company) should drive an earlier handoff. Similarly, providing high-quality, insight-level buyer knowledge as part of the lead handoff allows the sales rep to leverage their expertise (e.g., account specific knowledge) to determine how best to approach the prospect—or, whether to approach them at all. Other activity within an account that indicates a lead might be on a buying team with whom they are already working, might prompt a rep to defer contact until a later point in the sales process.
Summary: Market and Buyer Knowledge Allow Sales to Bring Value to the Buyer’s Journey
With buyers being able to inform much of their purchase decision without the assistance of sales, today’s reps need assistance from sales enablement more than ever. The information we deliver, however, needs to change. It must now include market and buyer insights that can be used to up-level the conversations salespeople have with prospects. Sales training that helps reps understand the markets into which they are selling—every bit as well as they understand what they are selling—is the first step. Content assets that provide insights buyers will find both relevant and compelling can further help salespeople prepare for customer engagement. Both of these should be based upon a solid understanding of the buyers to whom sales will be speaking and what’s driving their purchase consideration. Where that understanding can be derived internally, leverage that knowledge; where not, seek it externally.
The richness of information needed here can only be achieved by moving beyond sales and marketing alignment, once a lofty goal in its own right, to genuine sales and marketing collaboration. Sales enablement leaders must partner with marketing leaders to ensure that valuable buyer knowledge is being gathered during the early stages of the customer creation process so that it can inform the later stages that sales owns. The hyper-educated buyers who now exert much more control over the purchase process must be understood, respected, and accommodated. This means helping sales to better understand them and performing lead handoff when it’s most appropriate for the buyer.
For the most part, B-to-B buyers still value salespeople and see them as an important part of their purchase process. That said, how much this is the case and how much influence they have over that process depends on the value of the information they bring to the table. Industry insights, respected third-party content, industry- or role-specific business value information—these are the revelations buyers seek. Making them available through our sales enablement efforts is the key to helping sales deliver the value today’s buyer’s want.