Every business experiences sales cycles.
Sales pipelines and close rates ebb and flow based on many factors – some are market driven, some are internally driven. Business leaders learn to expect these sales cycles and plan accordingly.
But, when sales stagnate or decline for multiple months, there is something else happening. Since most business executives are “big picture” thinkers, their natural tendency is to first examine the business strategy. Has the market fundamentally shifted such that the product-market fit has weakened? Are new competitors in the game taking market share? Have the partners and allies changed direction? Is the product being disrupted by new technology? Any number of strategic factors may be the root cause of sustained sales stagnation, and business leaders need to continually monitor what’s happening outside the company for their business to remain relevant.
Strategy changes take lots of time and planning to implement.
If your sales have flat-lined, you need to respond quickly. Time is not on your side. In these situations, look at your Operating Model. Where Strategy is all about the “why” and “what” of your business, the Operating Model is about “how” – it’s about execution. When sales stagnate or decline, in addition to examining your strategy, examine your customer acquisition Operating Model. You may have hidden opportunities to recover sales growth and earnings by making changes to how you find and acquire customers.
To start this examination, map out exactly how you acquire customers today. This map is your status quo. For most businesses, the customer acquisition status quo looks very similar to how other companies in their industry acquire customers:
- Marketing generates awareness using advertisement, direct marketing, email campaigns, tradeshows, webinars, social media, analyst relations, etc.
- Marketing creates “pull” to the website using email campaigns, webinars, social media, and SEO/PPC
- Marketing captures the names of interested prospects (aka “leads”) via web form registrations, tradeshow giveaways, and webinar registrations
- Leads (names) are passed to Sales for Sales to qualify for Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing (BANT)
- Sales engages the qualified prospects and, hopefully, closes most as new customers
- Rinse and repeat.
If you have been in business any length of time, you have optimized your customer acquisition Operating Model around status quo. The problem with status quo is that it gets comfortable. But if sales stagnate, chances are your customer acquisition Operating Model is stale. Status quo is no longer getting the job done. It’s time to change status quo.
Here are some ideas for adapting your customer acquisition Operating Model:
- Think like your prospect. How do they find out about potential solutions to their business problems? What do they do to research their alternatives? Who do they listen to for ideas?
- Re-examine your marketing communication channels. Most of the research today is done by Millennials. Millennials are tech savvy and social media mavens. They don’t “do” tradeshows and their preferred communication platform is text, not email.
- Entertain to educate. Are you still publishing product-centric white papers? Publish a short, fun video on YouTube instead. Sixty minute webinars? Too long. Make webinars thirty minutes or less and feature one of your customers telling their story of how your product or service helped them.
- Set your content free. Any marketing content worth publishing must be frictionless to access. If you still require your web visitors to fill out a form before they can access your content, you are telling 95% of your readers to go away. Better yet, publish your content openly in social media.
- Open the aperture. A good collection rate of web visitors who self-identify is 2% – 3% of all web visitors. If your web lead capture is focused only on the visitors who self-identify, you are wasting a valuable resource. Invest in a solution to identify the other 97% of your web visitors, and make sure the solution you implement can also tell you what these visitors looked at.
Sales cycles are normal for all businesses; sales stagnation or decline is not normal. When sales flat-line over an extended period, it’s time to re-examine both your business strategy and your customer acquisition Operating Model. Fixing your business strategy may be what’s needed for (re)gaining long term sustainable competitive advantage. In the meantime, re-examine how you acquire customers and be prepared to change status quo.
I’m a huge Seinfeld fan and one of the episodes that sticks in my mind is when George complains about his “worlds colliding” (in this case his friends and his girlfriend). I am in marketing and this topic continually raises questions with our relationship with sales.
Today’s B2B sales and marketing teams struggle with the overwhelming number of channels for finding and reaching new leads. In traditional roles these two departments are at odds making any form of peace virtually impossible. As most of us do from time to time, searching the internet for educational yet intriguing information, I ran across a term recently that I would like to share with you:
SMARKETING. What happens when sales and marketing meet in the middle.
This word caught my eye because it was a little bizarre, but I liked the philosophy. After all, sales and marketing have the same goal, (or least should have) to grow business and generate revenue, and though each department uses different mechanisms and tactics, both are vital to increasing the bottom line and eliminating the colliding worlds. They achieve more than when they work independently. A lot more. This efficiency makes SMARKETING an effective strategy to drive growth.
Anonymous web visitor platforms like VisitorTrack support the SMARKETING philosophy. Harmony between these two departments allows marketing to see who is engaged on their website without filling out a form, prioritizes prospects based on interest and can identify return visitors providing sales with a high quality lead. In turn, a sales rep can see which products the prospect is interested in, have all the important contact information for the potential buyer at their fingertips and contact them before the competition, which allows deals to be closed faster. Thus, generating revenue which is the common goal, and eliminating the colliding worlds.
Imagine these formerly divided departments speaking the same language, maintaining open communication and relying on the same data! Crazy isn’t it?
When your salespeople are talking to and following up with the same target audience that marketing is engaging in advertising, social media and other channels, the results are bigger numbers, more deals, and a better return on investment as a result of this SMARKETING.
As much as I like the term SMARKETING, I am not sure it is going to catch on and become the new buzz word of the 21st century, however, it is a simple concept to bring two worlds together that before would always collide. I think even George would agree! #Smarketing!
There is an interesting infographic making its rounds on the internet describing how the typical rep follow up and the time it takes a buyer to make a decision don’t align.
Unless you refuse to surf the web, you’ve probably seen it and, like me, you probably agree with the information, especially if you work in sales. I’ve never been able to trace back the source of this infographic until recently when I read a very interesting article entitled, “Why it Takes 7 to 13+ Touches to Deliver a Qualified Sales Lead (Part 1)”. This article cites a study done by Microsoft that offers identical statistics to the one contained in the infographic, so I may have found the elusive source. As a bonus, the article is a pretty worthwhile read as well.
To me, the main premise of the infographic, and the referenced article, is that most sales reps give up trying to engage with prospects before they even generate interest. This makes perfect sense when you consider how technology has increased the ability to mass communicate, creating a noise barrier with potential customers. It becomes very difficult to break through the noise and capture the attention of the prospect regardless of how good the offering may be, so skillful messaging and repetition are critical to successful engagement.
In addition to the current state of prospect information overload, there are many sales experts that state that the majority of leads are not effectively pursued. For example, in his book “The Truth about Leads”, Dan McDade makes the statement that 95% of leads are not effectively pursued by sales people. From personal experience, selling a solution centered around lead generation, one of the most common objections my sales team experiences is that the prospect’s sales team is either not following up on leads or not receiving a quick response and giving up, in other words, bad leads.
If information overload and reluctant sales teams aren’t bad enough, let’s add to that the well- established trend that prospective buyers are increasingly not engaging with sellers until they are looking for a price. That’s exactly NOT when the sales professional wants to engage. Good sales people want to be involved with the problem definition and provide insight and guidance to the prospect. They want to provide the best solution to the customer because they want a long term partnership where they are viewed as a valuable resource and in turn sell more over time. Good luck with that if all you are doing is providing a requested price quote. By the way, if you’re a prospective buyer and someone is willing to undercut the competition without even asking what you are trying to accomplish, caveat emptor.
So, to summarize the selling conundrum, information overloaded buyers are delaying engagement with frustrated sellers until they are looking for a price quote, while the frustrated sellers are giving up trying to engage early, in large part due their perception of leads supplied by marketing. Anybody that has been in sales for more than 5 years will likely agree that the struggle to acquire new, really new, customers continues to become more challenging.
Here are some thoughts:
• Sales and Marketing MUST work together. The article I referenced at the beginning of the blog talks about the pre-qualification process for a lead. For many organizations this level of qualification will require the help of sales. Books could be written on the subject, but simply put, Marketing should abandon the play on volume of leads and focus on quality, while Sales needs to do their part by treating higher quality leads with the attention they deserve, insuring that a solid follow up process is in place.
• Marketing needs to provide transparency to the lead gen process. I suggest a tier structure on the quality of a lead and then inform sales on how the lead was generated. Pass along ALL relevant information from the lead. Utilize all available resources to try and garner the highest quality leads to be moved forward to sales for further qualification. Quality over quantity.
• Sales needs to develop a replicable, accountable and consistent sales process that can provide feedback to marketing. The team needs to know how the lead was generated, and when possible, where the prospect has shown interest. Once a lead tier structure is established and the information is flowing, they should then be held accountable to continuing the qualification process for engagement. By now, most serious sales professionals understand the infographic contained in the article, however, maintaining a disciplined approach to follow up is challenging. That challenge is made easier as the reps understand the quality of the leads supplied.
• Marketing needs to supply the best possible leads to sales. Web registrations are great if you’re the low cost provider. Click through on marketing campaigns is great if the people doing the clicking are also the economic decision makers. Opens on email campaigns become a little sketchy based on the possibility of false positives. Purchased lists provide data but no sense of interest. Anonymous website visitor tracking provides early insight to interest at a company level, but not the person. Of course if you’re focusing on decision makers, you can get that information from other sources. In the end, the marketer needs to feed the sales machine with the highest quality leads they can find.
• Sales needs to consistently follow up on the leads provided in a personalized manner. When Sales and Marketing can agree that leads provided are the best available, sales needs to make sure that there is consistent follow up. As the infographic in the article shows, engagement success increases dramatically as the amount of touches increase. Just because the prospect doesn’t knock down your door after one quick email does not mean the lead is bad. Sales needs to develop personalized messaging that provides insights and ideas specific to the prospect’s business, we all know prospects don’t want to be sold too. Provide continual feedback to marketing on progress. Qualify early and often. A personalized consistent approach requires more time and effort, so make sure that time is spent on the highest value prospects. When supplied specific information on prospect interest utilize that information within your personalized messaging.
Technology has made selling both easier and more difficult.
There are many tools to automate processes, track progress and generate leads to help both sales and marketing. At the same time the ease of mass communication has made it much more difficult to engage with prospective clients. Working together, Sales and Marketing can leverage the available resources to create a strategy to address the selling conundrum.
Buyer’s Journey from Awareness to Purchase
On the continuum of the buyer’s journey from Awareness to Purchase, the roles of Marketing and Sales have a symbiotic relationship- at least in theory. At the beginning of the buyer journey, Marketing plays the primary role in creating Awareness of the vendor’s products and services and then positioning these products and services in the minds of the buyer for their Consideration in the buyer’s list of possible vendors.
As buyers have shifted their journey on-line, Marketing has played a more prominent role in the Preference stage of the buyer decision process. Depending on the type of product or services, and based on the business model of the vendor, at some point in the Preference stage Sales takes over as the chief protagonist. A hand-off is made from Marketing to Sales (aka “Lead”) at the Preference stage and Sales takes the lead (pun intended) on to the Purchase stage and closes the deal.
In a perfect world, the coordination between Marketing and Sales is beautifully orchestrated. Marketing starts the buyer journey and Sales completes it. But, the relationship between Marketing and Sales is seldom peaceful. Despite careful planning and communication, these two groups rarely see eye to eye. Neither group is to blame. They are from two different planets.
Marketing is from Mars and Sales is from Venus. These two worlds play just fine together when there is clear distinction on who has the lead role in the buyer journey. Marketing is responsible for creating Awareness and getting their products and services on the buyer list for Consideration. Sales is clearly responsible for the Purchase phase. The worlds collide in the Preference phase as responsibility for the prospective buyer passes from Marketing to Sales.
These different views and blind spots result in an implied consent between Marketing and Sales – they simply agree to disagree. But, it doesn’t need to be this way. The two worlds could peacefully co-exist if they each had daily visibility of the “invisible visitors” to their website.
Marketing and Sales need VisitorTrack from netFactor. VisitorTrack provides the visibility of anonymous web visitors that otherwise go undetected. These “invisible visitors” are taking a self-directed journey on your web site and the web sites of your competitors. These visitors remain anonymous until they want you to know they are interested. By then, it’s too late for either Marketing or Sales to guide the buyer’s Preference or for Sales to establish the terms of engagement.
Adding regular visibility of these anonymous visitors and gaining insight on their digital journey makes life on Mars and Venus more enjoyable. VisitorTrack can’t guarantee Marketing and Sales will see eye to eye, but it will make them more agreeable.
* Thanks to Dr. John Gray, author of “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus”, 1992, HarperCollins
Is this a common response you, or a member of your sales team, has when presented with a lead? The answer probably depends on many variables within your organization, but for those of you that chuckled, read on. The definition and importance of a lead means different things to different people and is predicated on a number of company specific factors. If you’re still reading, your organization has most likely invested in some type of lead generation process and the volume of leads flowing to you or your sales team is significant. Previous blog posts on this site have discussed the difference between a lead and a name and how “not all leads are created equal”, so this discussion is focused on the sales process employed in handling leads and overcoming the indifference often exhibited by sales professionals when tasked with following up on leads.
To set the stage, consider some of the generally accepted truths about the business environment today.
Prospects are utilizing the web to guide them through their buying decisions much more frequently than in the past. Additionally, employees in general are tasked to do more in less time due to the assistance of ever advancing technology. Technology has also made it easier to target and message prospects, so they are receiving more and more unsolicited information about solutions to their needs. The logical result is an overtaxed prospect that blocks out communication attempts while researching internally defined problems without outside assistance. Since the primary role of a consultative sales person is to help the prospect define a need, uncover root cause and provide the best solution, it is easy to see how the modern buying cycle and sales cycle are at odds with one another. Based on this, it is logical to assume a lead that has shown an expressed interest will likely have a much higher sales conversion probability than a name generated from a target market list.
Because of the above, the first step in developing a sales process around leads is to rank the perceived interest level of the customer. Obviously, a lead generated by a prospect filling out a web form would demonstrate a high interest level, whereas a name generated from a target list has no known interest level. Unfortunately, we also know that only about 2% of website visitors will fill out a form, in part because they have the ability to conduct their own research to determine what solution they believe will best meet their needs. So as a first step in the process, develop a ranking system of leads based on how the lead was generated. A suggestion would be to rank form fills at the top, followed by visits to target pages to a site, followed by mail campaign opens, all the way down to target market lists.
The next step in the process is to determine how to follow up with the leads in each category of your ranking system.
As part of this step it is critical that each member of the sales team understands how the leads are ranked and why they are ranked in a certain way. Additionally, each sales team member needs to understand the specific process to be utilized for each lead category. It is up to the sales leader to determine the frequency and type of contact for each category, but much more time and effort should be spent on highly ranked leads. Most research on the subject of engagement leans towards six or more attempts over a defined time period utilizing multiple communication channels. This seems reasonable considering the workload of the typical prospect and the information “noise” to which they are subjected. If the sales team understands the ranking system and the reasoning behind the subsequent process, indifference will be reduced and high interest leads will be given the necessary attention.
Once a ranking system and a contact process has been established it is also critical to develop messaging that will resonate with the prospect and hopefully cut through the noise of all the information the prospect is currently receiving. Messaging is probably one of the most challenging aspects of developing a replicable sales process. Again, messaging will be dependent on your particular value proposition and the specific client needs addressed, but, generally, the more specifically you address your target prospect (read personalized here) the more likelihood of success in engagement over time. Suggestions here would be to make the message as customer centric as possible and utilize multiple messages to avoid becoming repetitive over the course of the contact period.
As a final step, it is extremely important to have a tracking mechanism in place to monitor progress and gauge success.
Preferably, this would be handled with a CRM, however it can be as simple as a spreadsheet. Whatever the vehicle, it is critical that the team members and the leader are able to track the activity to make sure the process is followed and results can be measured. The individual sales person needs a vehicle to keep track of what message was delivered to what client at what time. Once measurement provides insight into increased results from higher quality leads, the comment about “another lead” will likely be met with more enthusiasm and less sarcasm.