High-performance sales personnel: They excel in the same ways they always have …

spUnquestionably, technology has had a major impact on the way salespeople in the B-to-B arena go about doing their daily jobs.

Technology platforms and tech-oriented work practices have leeched into every aspect of sales management — from planning and execution to data mining and reference … sales call and results tracking … and compensation.

fall 2015 survey of U.S. business executives conducted by Brainshark and Forbes Insights confirms the degree to which technology investments are occurring as companies make efforts to improve sales productivity.

Here’s what the survey, which included U.S.-based executives from over 200 companies with annual revenues exceeding $50 million, found in terms of the types of investments that are being made:

  • Sales enablement technologies: ~55% are investing in these tools
  • Analytics: ~54%
  • CRM systems: ~53%
  • Learning technologies: ~45%
  • Mobile sales support technologies: ~44%
  • Social platforms: ~32%

And yet … when those same business executives were asked to identity the #1 most important characteristic of their strongest sales team members, technology-related characteristics don’t show up all that much.

As it turns out, tech adoption is a relatively minor part of being a high-performing salesperson. Instead, this survey found that the most important key characteristic of high-performing salespeople is “the ability to sell value over price.”

Here is the relative importance of five characteristics evaluated in the research – and where tech adoption fits among them:

  • The ability to sell value over price: ~81% identify as a key characteristic of high-performing salespeople
  • Consistency of execution: ~74%
  • Time spent with clients: ~48%
  • Leveraging marketing and sales content assets: ~26%
  • Adoption of technology: ~22%

The takeaway is that even though technology tools are helpful, there’s no substitute for the time-honored selling behaviors that separate the star sales performers from all the others.

For more information on the study findings, follow this link.

What do B-to-B buyers really want in a website?

Hint:  Forget social media.

btob web surfingAs online communications continues to evolve, B-to-B marketers have more options than ever to interface with prospects and suspects.

In fact, it’s pretty easy to get distracted by the latest “shiny objects” in marketing … and we sometimes see a lack of focus — and “prioritization all over the map” — as a result.

With company websites serving as the “hub” of marketing communications, it’s only natural to try to align the information provided to prospective customers with what they’re seeking.

A recent survey of several hundred B-to-B companies conducted by DH Communications and KoMarketing Associates sought to determine what business-to-business buyers are doing once they land on a vendor website. Which elements on the site increase a vendor’s credibility … and at the other end of the scale, what causes visitors to leave?

The results of this survey confirm what many have suspected. In a nutshell:

  • Buyers come to a vendor’s website with one thought foremost in mind: to qualify the company in order to begin the process of moving towards a purchase.

And this:

  • Buyers believe the vendor qualification process should be simple and straightforward, and they don’t have time to deal with it any other way.

This mission manifests itself in the following typical behaviors when landing on a website:

  1. The first place visitors go is straight to the products and services pages.
  2. They want to see technical information … and published pricing information, too.
  3. They look for testimonials or case examples to see how others have solved their problems using the products or services.
  4. If they don’t already know the company, they check out the “about us” pages to gauge its credibility as a supplier – but only after they’ve determined that its products or services are aligned with their needs.
  5. They have little interest in social media – and hence mostly ignore those elements.

Website Must-Haves

The survey asked respondents which informational content elements are “must-haves” for a B-to-B website. It found that these elements are of greatest importance:

  • Contact information: ~68% consider a “must-have”
  • Pricing information: ~43%
  • Technical information: ~38%
  • Case studies/white papers/articles: ~38%
  • Shipping information: ~37%

The first item on the list above may seem like a given. But it turns out that many websites don’t offer visitors the most preferred methods of contact: an e-mail address (~81% want this option) and/or a phone number (~57% want this).

What about “Contact Us” forms? It turns out that quite a few visitors don’t like them at all. It makes sense to offer them … but also to provide other contact options. Otherwise, some visitors will leave the site without any further engagement — or so they claim.

Axing the Distractions

Because most visitors come to vendor websites to gather information and research products in preparation for making a buying decision, things that detract from those objectives are viewed as an interruption and a distraction.

Some elements are so irritating, they’ll compel visitors to leave the website altogether.  What are those? Video and/or audio clips that play automatically, animated web designs and other visual hijinks, plus pop-up messages are the worst offenders.

Basically, anything that interrupts the visitor’s train of thought reduces the vendor’s credibility and helps the push the company further down the buyer’s list of prioritized vendors.

What’s Missing from Vendor Websites

The survey also asked respondents to cite what they feel is lacking on many vendor sites. Their responses to this question could be considered an indictment of B-to-B websites the world over!

  • Case studies/white papers/articles: ~54% say these are most lacking on websites
  • Pricing information: ~50%
  • Product reviews: ~42%
  • Technical support details: ~42%
  • Testimonials/client list: ~31%

Social Media?

To consider the social media attitudes revealed in this survey of B-to-B buyers is to wonder what all the fuss has been about over the past five years. In citing how impactful social media is on the buying process … it’s clear that the impact isn’t great at all:

  • Social media isn’t a factor: ~37%
  • Neutral feelings about social media: ~26%
  • Social media is a factor, but not a “deal-breaker”: ~30%
  • Social media is a big factor: ~6%

The takeaway?  If B-to-B web content managers spent less time on social media and more time on pricing information, case study testimonials and robust technical data, it would be a more valuable use of their energies.

I’ve summarized some of the key survey results above – but there are more research findings available in a 32-page report summary just published by KoMarketing Associates. You can download it here.

If the Purchase Funnel is Dead, it’s been Replaced by … What?

For most marketing professionals over the age of 30, the purchase funnel was one of the fundamental staples of their business training.

AIDA purchase funnelIn fact, the famous “AIDA” model – which stands for awareness, interest, desire and action – was first posited as far back as 1898 by Elias St. Elmo Lewis, an American sales and advertising professional and business writer.

“AIDA” was also the inspiration behind the classic purchase funnel – an orderly, simple path consumers take on the way to selecting and purchasing a product or service.

AIDA has had a good run, because for more than a century, the AIDA purchase funnel has meshed neatly with the various advertising and MarComm tactics that have come along the pike – print advertising, direct mail marketing, radio, television – and even the Internet.

While some people might contend that the advent of the Internet disrupted traditional buying processes, the greater reality is that it brought certain aspects of the buying process into sharper relief. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing stepped in to play nicely within the “interest, desire and action” steps.

Even better, Internet marketing made ineffective “soft” attitudinal metrics less important; all of a sudden, it became much easier to make educated decisions about sales and marketing programs based on hard evidence.

But with social media taking center stage, everything is now scrambled. The tidy “linear” purchase process just doesn’t reflect what’s happening now that “interactivity all over the place” is the thing.

But what exactly is the new “thing” when it comes to the purchase process? There’s a lot of discussion … lots of thinking … but not much in the way of conclusions.

Perhaps the most well-known attempt at replacing AIDA with a new model has been made by consulting firm McKinsey. In 2009, it came up with the “modern” version of the purchase funnel which it dubbed “the consumer decision journey.”

McKinsey purchase funnel
McKinsey’s new model has been described as a “purchase cycle,” a “customer journey,” and various other alternative explanations — you can take your pick.

But what exactly is that? When you look at how McKinsey attempts to graph it … it may be the proverbial “big ol’ mess.”  I’ve pictured it here so you can try and have some fun with it.

The “McKinsey Whatever” may be hard to grasp pictorially, but there’s one thing’s about it: it’s surely not linear.

There are two circles (kind of). Consumers can go around within the circles forwards or backwards. They can also go sideways between the two (sort of).

Truth be told, the “McKinsey Thingamabob” is fairly difficult to untangle. At least that’s the claim of some business observers such as Jon Bond, a marketing specialist and cofounder of branding agency Kirschenbaum Bond Senecal. He writes this:

“I’ve been in 20 meetings where the ‘McKinsey Frankenfunnel’ has come up , and not once has anyone had the courage to admit that they didn’t have a clue what to do with it.”

Bond goes on to posit that introducing this new model was a masterstroke on the part of McKinsey (wittingly or unwittingly) because it’s become a boon to its consulting business: Companies have to hire McKinsey so the consulting firm can explain it, he notes wryly.

Whether it’s the McKinsey diagram or any other one that’s been proffered recently in an attempt to illustrate the new purchasing paradigm (one being a Google model with the eyebrow-raising acronym “ACID”) – what’s clear is that the purchase process is more complex then ever before. And in that process, the number of touchpoints has also grown dramatically.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to jump out of the funnel (or box, or circles, or whatever the purchase cycle is today). Instead of focusing on impressions or touchpoints, let’s remember the big thing that interactivity has placed in the hands of purchasers: far more opportunity to see and hear what trusted influencers are saying about products, services and brands.

It’s like going back to traditional, pre-1900 word-of-mouth advertising — and putting it on steriods.

Jon Bond contends that this new riff on WOM may be the smarter way of looking at the purchase journey a customer takes today. Instead of the “old AIDA” or the “new interactivity,” he suggests focusing more on three degrees of “trust“:

  • Before trust: Even if the brand is known, it’s not yet trusted because no credible third party has validated the brand in the eyes of the buyer.
  • Trust exists: An interaction happens with a trusted influencer who recommends the brand or has positive things to say about it.
  • Advocacy: Nirvana for companies, wherein a highly satisfied customer also becomes a brand advocate, providing third-party validation and attracting additional new customers because of the resulting brand credibility.

Incidentally, the above scenario is particularly effective in the B-to-B world, where credibility and the “CYA” impulse have always played big roles in guiding business buyers to make purchase decisions they won’t regret later.

Consider it the IBM principle, writ large:  You’ve probably heard the adage that “nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM.”  Now, in the “Age of Interactivity,” that principle can apply across the board.

Does Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” Chart Apply to Social Media?

Hype Cycle Chart (Gartner, Inc.)That’s what author and digital marketing specialist Jeff Molander seems to think. In fact, it’s the topic of an article he wrote recently in Target Marketing magazine titled “What Game Changer? Moving past the Social Media Revolution that Never Was.”

As can be seen in the diagram at right, the Gartner “Hype Cycle” model begins with a technology trigger that generates a groundswell of interest and expectations, which is then followed by a crash when the early expectations fail to pan out.

Things do move forward again – much more slowly – as the sober reflection on early disappointments helps temper expectations to more realistic levels, characterized by Gartner as a “plateau of productivity.”

It is Mr. Molander’s contention that the characterization of social media as a “game-changing” phenomenon has been so overstated and sensationalized, most companies today are probably working against their own best interests in how they’re dealing with it.  Which is to say, not using it properly as a selling tool.

Here’s how Mr. Molander puts it: “The difference between fooling around with social media and selling with it relies on the use of time-tested direct response practices – not new tools and techniques.”

Those basic practices include:

  • Solving customers’ problems
  • Provoke customer responses that connect to the sales funnel
  • Discovering customers’ needs as they evolve … then using this knowledge to improve the response rate

The companies that are successful in selling goods and services via social media are promoting interactions in ways that answer questions and solve problems.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing new or novel about this: “Solving customer challenges” has always been an effective way to cultivate AIDA (awareness, interest, desire and action).

It also continues to be the best way to move customers toward making a purchase.

What social media can do is make the process easier to accomplish, due to social’s interactive nature. Approached in the proper way – and done with regularity – facilitating digital Q&A interactions will help leverage and drive sales.

I think Mr. Molander’s point of view is correct. Using social media as a platform for sales isn’t about some kind of “secret formula” for content creation or figuring out the ideal time to publish a Twitter tweet or blog post. It’s about using the “new” platforms to facilitate “old” sales concepts.

You know – the ones that work.

What Social Media is Teaching Us (Again)

Social MediaSocial media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and all that – burst onto the scene only a few years ago. Because of this, we’re still learning daily how these tools are impacting and influencing attitudes about companies and brands … as well as the propensity for people to buy products and services as a result.

But some aspects are coming into pretty strong focus now. One of the interesting insights I’ve drawn from social media is that it spotlights the “disconnect” that exists between marketing and sales personnel.

This disconnect has existed for decades, of course. In my nearly 35 years in business, I’ve heard a common refrain from sales folks. It goes something like this: “I have no idea what those people in marketing do all day long!”

On the flip side, the marketing pros have a few choice words for the sales personnel as well: “All they ever think about is the next order. Unless it delivers instant hot prospects who are ready to buy immediately, they’re not interested in any of our marketing programs.”

This is why so many B-to-B companies have tried to cross-pollinate between marketing and sales by moving staff back and forth between the two areas.

But what company is inclined to gives up its star sales performers to marketing? What happens more often is that the underperforming sales people are the ones who end up in marketing … where they then achieve only middling success there as well.

Conversely, so many of the best sales performers aren’t “God’s gift to strategic thinking” at all … while the marketing people who are so creative and insightful when thinking about markets are woefully inadequate when it comes to keeping up with a Rolodex® full of dozens of sales contacts.

Another part of the problem is the approach to metrics. Marketing personnel have historically been focused on reaching wider audiences. To a salesperson, things like “creating awareness” and “building a brand” are frustratingly fuzzy. Instead, salespeople focus on individual customers, sales quotas and other quantifiable information – real “bottom line” figures.

Today, social media is bringing all of this into sharper relief. To be most effective, social media demand that marketing and sales personnel work together. It’s no longer possible for the two groups to employ different approaches, different interactions and different metrics for success.

To my view, it’s going to be harder for marketing and communications personnel to get their heads around new expectations for metrics and analyses when compared to the sales folks. There are many new analytical tools to be mastered – and that’s probably a source of fear for many a marketer.

For salespeople, who live and die by facts and figures, this is duck soup by comparison.

And if you really think about social media, it’s about audience (customer) engagement in a direct and personal manner. Who’s been doing that for years? The sales force, of course.

So does it make any sense to “silo” social media activity and content development within the marketing department? Generally speaking, no.

In fact, many sales personnel have already embraced social media activities because they see it as another useful tool to leverage customer engagement. This is an environment they already know well, because they’ve always been in the business of building relationships.

So the times demand that marketing and sales team up as never before. For marketers, that means opening up the social media initiative and structuring it to include sales personnel as well the marketing staff. Redlining these tasks won’t work.

And here’s another idea: Have the marketing staff hang around with the sales force. Put them out there at trade shows and other industry events where they are forced interact with customers and behave like … salespeople!

[This is especially true if a company’s marketing staff comes from collegiate or administrative backgrounds – a common weakness in many mid-sized B-to-B firms where the most lucrative upward career paths take employees through engineering, R&D or sales, not through marketing and communications.]

Social media reminds us, once again, that the key to success in business is “mixing it up” with customers and prospects. We need to make sure we do the same inside our own companies.

How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

In my 20+ years in industrial, commercial and other non-consumer marketing communications, I’ve witnessed more than a few “big trends” affecting the nature of the selling process in the business realm.

One of the biggest of these is the approach that customers take when evaluating products and services they might be interested in purchasing. Recent research findings about these behaviors has been published that sheds more interesting light on where things are at the moment.

A survey of ~300 B-to-B managers was conducted in late 2009 by e-Research for Marketing (E-RM) for Colman Brohan Davis, a Chicago-based marketing organization. This survey, which was limited to respondents age 35 or younger, found that only a few of the 13 tools used to research products and services represented “traditional media” – print-based resources, trade shows, or consulting with industry colleagues by phone or in person.

Furthermore, the study found that even these four tactics are losing their importance compared to the use of online social networks, which were exploding in usage.

These survey results reminded me of a comment made by Adam Needles, director of B-to-B field marketing at Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta. “Somewhere around age 30 to 35, you can draw a line in the sand between people who are used to calling around to get everything and [where it’s been] all about relationships face-to-face.”

In contrast, Needles has this to say about younger staffers who conduct a great deal of the buying cycle online: “You have people whose expectation is that companies should put everything on their web sites; they should be getting real-time feeds and information, and companies should be totally integrated into … the blogosphere.”

Younger staffers tend to be influencers more than decision-makers. But this is not to diminish their importance, as they are the ones charged with conducting the research and drafting investigative report summaries and preliminary recommendations. Ferreting out information through resources like webinars and social platforms such as Twitter and blog posts, while it may seem exotic and less consequential to older colleagues, is not at all foreign to these staffers.

And we shouldn’t forget that today’s “influencer” at a company is very likely tomorrow’s “decision-maker.”

Which gets us back to the ER-M study. One big takeaway from that research was that customers are looking into all the corners of offine and online communications to find the information they feel they need to make risk-averse and “CYA” decisions that are also the successful ones that pay off well – hence building their reputations inside their company.

Tactics like direct mail marketing may seem old-hat or even quaint, but they can still be quite effective, while e-mail marketing, while fast and cheap, elicits resistance from some because they feel inundated with marketing materials that are irrelevant to their needs.

I guess it’s yet more challenging news for already-fractured marketing communications program tactics that continue to be under tight budget constraints.

McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.