Business-to-business growth has long been a sales-led activity.
The alpha dog in any B2B organization was the top sales guy—and, yes, they were almost exclusively guys—and the primary objective was close, close, close.
Today, it’s a different world—one where marketing has grown in strategic importance to sit alongside the big brother that bullied it for so long.
This has, naturally, led to some resentment and resistance.
It’s tough for an organization, team, or individual who has risen to prominence in a sales-driven world to accept this sudden change. That’s not “how things work around here.”
Nevertheless, like it or not, things have changed. And by no small measure.
In this post, I’m going to make the case for B2B sales taking a sanguine view of the world, reconciling with its marketing cousin, and getting fully behind the new marketing-led approach.
What you’ll see as we take stock of the B2B buying and selling landscape is that the existential threat to salespeople comes not from zealous marketers but from the very people they are accustomed to dealing with: the B2B buyers.
Salespeople trade in three currencies: relationships, favors, and information.
Before the Information Age, anyone wanting to learn about solutions, make a good purchasing decision, and cut a great deal had to deal with a salesperson.
The salesperson held all the important cards.
They knew who was who, who was doing what, who was winning and losing, and who to call to make things happen.
Call them movers, shakers, schmoozers, wheelers, dealers, boondogglers, hunters, or farmers—salespeople were the connective tissue that brought opportunities and solutions together and made the money flow.
B2B buyers are in the driver's seat, with access to vast amounts of information
Today, B2B buyers are in the driver’s seat.
They have access to vast amounts of information, gathered and synthesized by increasingly helpful research tools and AI algorithms.
The most dramatic change in B2B buyer behavior is that they no longer need to engage with brands until they’re ready to make a purchase.
In an ideal world, they probably wouldn’t even engage then, preferring an end-to-end digital process that includes the purchase itself.
Salespeople need to accept this change for what it is: the boot is on the other foot now.
Buyers have ample information on which to evaluate vendors and solutions, and to form an initial judgement about which ones are a good fit for them.
Sales’ new role is to help buyers process that information efficiently, arrive at the best decision for their situation, and fill in any gaps with expediency.
The buyer’s journey has never been linear, but it has become more difficult to follow.
With buyers remaining invisible—researching and evaluating solutions in stealth mode—salespeople must work harder to understand where buyers are in their journey and what they are trying to accomplish at each stage.
Rather than waiting for a buyer to show up with questions, sellers must anticipate buyers’ needs and proactively generate and publish relevant information.
Success is measured by who can deliver the right information at the right place at the right time to capture mind share
Success is measured by who can deliver the right information at the right place at the right time to capture mind share, which can be parlayed into market share later in the journey.
The management consultancy firm Gartner uses a framework of six generic tasks to describe the buying process: problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building, supplier consideration, validation of capabilities, and consensus creation.
And while most B2B purchases move through the first four tasks in sequence, buyers often address tasks five and six throughout the entire buying process.
And with B2B transactions typically involving 7-10 stakeholders—a group we call the buying committee—it’s vital to publish information that satisfies each of their needs.
Sellers must determine what matters most to each stakeholder and customize their messaging appropriately.
As we’ve discussed, B2B buyers are increasingly likely to have completed most of their buyer’s journey before they engage openly with vendors.
By that point, vendors who haven’t made themselves visible online may be blocked from consideration and have lost the opportunity to win the business.
This is an existential threat.
Sellers need to get in front of buyers before it's too late, otherwise they risk competing for a rapidly shrinking slice of the pie while the rest is gobbled up by more digitally active competitors.
The days of turning up “sales ready” prospects—also known as sales qualified leads—are largely over.
By the time a prospect is ready to purchase they’ve almost certainly decided what they plan to buy and from whom
By the time a prospect is ready to purchase (how “sales ready” looks from their point of view) they’ve almost certainly decided what they plan to buy, and quite likely from whom as well.
To solve this problem, we must return to the concept of mind share.
As a prospect circulates through the awareness and evaluation phases, figuring out what problem they’re trying to solve and which solutions might be right for them, they build affinity for reliable, trustworthy sources of information.
Some of those sources will be independent and vendor-agnostic, such as research groups, trade associations, and academia (although even these can be susceptible to sponsorship bias).
However, most sources will be vendors themselves, providing relevant, helpful, and timely information via their websites, blogs, and other digital properties.
The stronger the affinity grows between a buyer and a source of information, the harder it becomes to displace that source from the prospect’s mind.
Research has shown that buyers typically hold 2 to 3 potential vendors in mind as they progress toward a buying decision. By the time they are ready to finalize a contract, it’s a negotiation with only those players.
The job of B2B marketing is to capture mind share on an ongoing basis, since it’s difficult to know exactly when a prospect will move “in market”, preparing to buy something.
The role of sales is to latch on to purchase-bound prospects once they make themselves known, build on the mind share that has been won, and help the prospect complete their selection process.
One of the keys to effective content marketing is providing consistent, helpful information for each member of the buying committee at each stage of their buyer’s journey.
This requires doing a lot of homework, laying a lot of groundwork, and producing a steady stream of content on an ongoing basis.
Here’s what you get for all that effort:
Awareness Stage: Visibility to prospects while they are in stealth mode. Opportunity to build trust by helping them answer questions about their challenge.
Evaluation Stage: Credibility with prospects while they assess potential solutions. Opportunity to gain mind share by building your reputation as a domain authority, thought leader, and reliable source of helpful information.
Selection Stage: Authentic relationship with prospects while they identify and purchase the solution that’s right for them. Opportunity to cement mind share by being helpful—including recommending a competitor’s product if that’s the better option for the prosect—rather than trying to close the deal at any cost.
Implementation Stage: Earn respect from prospects by helping them realize more value than they expected. Opportunity to delight and retain customers by making how-to information readily accessible and offering quick solutions to any issues they encounter.
Loyalty Stage: Advocacy by loyal customers when they tell their peers and colleagues how and why your company and solutions earned their trust and business. Opportunity to tap into low-cost, highly effective marketing by making VIP customers feel valued and giving them easy-to-share information about your business.
That’s a lot, right?
Notice how many of the things content marketing can do for you are things we might traditionally have expected to see from sales.
That’s the digital-first reality. Content marketing is doing the work of building a virtual relationship between your company and its target audience.
Critically, content marketing holds that relationship door open long enough for prospects to eventually reveal themselves, after which salespeople can begin to interact with them.
Whether you’re a skeptical salesperson or the leader who has to deal with one, I have a stark message for you: get onboard or get ready to struggle.
This isn’t something that a few buyers are choosing, which you might try to ignore in the hope that it’s a fad. This is a permanent shift.
B2B buyers are transferring proven, comfortable habits from their outside work, B2C lives to the workplace.
The COVID pandemic forced every B2B buyer to work remotely and digitally. And, guess what? It wasn’t as difficult as they imagined.
B2B buyers found a lot to like about this new digital-first approach, which means it’s here to stay
Like many aspects of our working lives, B2B buyers found a lot to like about this new digital-first approach. Which means it’s here to stay.
Content marketing has become a mission critical aspect of B2B business.
Companies that procrastinate over implementing digital processes and content marketing strategies will find themselves falling behind—or even getting leapfrogged by—faster moving competitors.
Likewise, salespeople who are reluctant to embrace this new reality and resist working with their marketing colleagues will find themselves marginalized and getting passed over in favor of those more willing to adapt.
Let’s flip the coin and end on an up-beat note.
B2B sales can benefit tremendously from effective content marketing, as we’ve briefly covered in this post.
Therefore, it makes sense for B2B salespeople to do whatever they can to support that effort and maximize its effectiveness.
Salespeople should be able to put themselves in a buyer’s shoes and explain their needs
Salespeople possess a wealth of customer-related knowledge that can help guide content production.
If they’ve been doing their job well, salespeople should be able to put themselves in a buyer’s shoes and explain their needs, wants, beliefs, emotions, communication preferences, and so forth.
Salespeople are usually talkers. They speak the buyer’s language.
Content written in a style and vernacular that prospects find authentic and relatable is more likely to be noticed and remembered.
Finally, salespeople are often the first human with whom a prospect interacts after spending time online, researching the company and its solutions.
The more consistent the buyer’s experience between that online phase and the in-person phase, the better.
Such consistency is easiest to achieve when the sales team is involved throughout the content creation and review process.
Let’s move past the shock-and-horror phase that inevitably follows a dramatic shake up in the way things work.
Marketing and sales working hand-in-glove on a properly constructed content marketing strategy represents a formidable advantage over companies where the two remain siloed and in taciturn opposition.
Go all-in, salespeople! Content marketing isn’t the enemy, it’s your ticket to success.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock