B2B Product Marketing: Is Customer Experience Driving the Bus?

B2B Marketing is still an evolving specialty. Traditionally, people that aspire to a career in marketing mostly choose the much larger B2C space, working for the likes of P&G and PepsiCo. Marketing to businesses certainly is a different process and customer dynamic than marketing to consumers. But fundamentally, all B2B buyers are also consumers. B2B marketing can learn much from their more mature B2C brethren.

In most B2C product marketing, the key driver is Customer Experience (CX). Marketers do extensive research to gain deep knowledge of consumer preferences and behaviors. Then new products and product line extensions are developed based on these research findings.

On the other hand, B2B product marketers often have small or non-existent research budgets and end up designing products and services based on limited information, like anecdotal contacts with customers and trade show attendees.

Business product marketers must develop strong ties to their company’s Sales and Sales Training departments and staff. Salespeople are on the front lines of customer interaction at the moment of purchase. They know exactly what customers want, what they don’t like and how they perceive value. Sales trainers can tell marketers which are the products and policies that reps struggle with; where problems occur in the post-sale fulfillment process; and why reps are selling some products/services and not others.

Marketers should ride on sales calls with reps, attend training classes and experience these interactions first hand. They should also ride on service calls and sit with new customer on-boarding staff, CSRs and tech support personnel, listening and observing to live customer interactions.

The goal is to build a complete understanding of the customer experience over the life of the relationship. Equipped with this data, B2B product marketers can build products and services that delight customers, are understood by the company’s employees and create strong long-term relationships.

The Gamification of B2B Sales

When I started in B2B sales after graduating college, I sold payroll services. I later migrated to selling software/hardware turnkey IT solutions to the SMB sector. In 1978 I got my first sales manager job and worked my way up from there. Back then, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, B2B sales management operated on a pretty simple model. The core assumption: reps need two kinds of motivation, money (commissions and bonuses) and recognition (trips and awards.) Managers spent a few days a year planning out an annual “Presidents Club” trip for quota busters, and designing some plaques and certificates. That was it. Life was simple.

Starting in the late 1990’s and gaining momentum rolling into the 21st century, a new model of B2B sales management began to evolve. This new approach said, in essence, that commissions, annual trips and plaques aren’t enough to motivate 21st century sales professionals. They need to be continuously stimulated with games, competitions and contests year ‘round. The world is a highly competitive place, and management must adapt. Companies started copying the Dotcom formula: Foosball tables, air hockey, and beer and pizza celebrations at the office on Fridays.

Managers started spending a lot more time creating, designing and tracking contest results. One big annual trip becomes 3 or 4 (long weekend) mini trips. Quarterly and monthly contests are supplemented by weekly and daily competitions. Prizes may be cash, but often are merchandise, catalog gift certificates, restaurant and retailer gift cards, etc. Sales management is also bringing Gamification to sales conferences and training sessions, making every part of a salesperson’s professional life organized around competition: peer vs. peer, team vs. team, region vs. region, etc. Sales conferences are no longer boondoggle R&R trips, but rather highly structured, informational, training and role play sessions that feed reps’ competitive spirit. Welcome to Sales Boot Camp!

The underlying assumption to all this is that money and recognition is not enough. That the sales floor must constantly maintain a sense of urgency, that today’s sale is more valuable than tomorrow’s, because you got numbers on the board 24 hours sooner. Some companies have even created apps and Salesforce.com plug-ins to automate the process of running and managing sales competitions, as covered in this recent article in Inc. Magazine: http://www.inc.com/bob-marsh/salespeople-thrive-off-competition-so-up-their-game.html

All of this is part of the cultural shift in professional B2B sales that started during the Dotcom boom of the late 1990’s. This gamified approach to B2B sales management has now spread to other vertical markets, particularly those centered on providing turnkey solutions to the SMB market in crowded, highly competitive industries.

Sales management must continue to change and adapt with the times…a necessity to keep your business competitive.

How Do Sales Reps Bring Value to The Client Relationship?

Traditionally, B2B sales reps, particularly premise reps meeting clients face-to-face, have relied heavily on “relationship selling.” In this model, the salesperson is focused on building deep, long term, personal relationships with customers, leveraging that connection to produce a steady stream of sales over many years. Buyers bought based on personal connections and rep “likability”, since all major product/service alternatives were viewed as the same, with the relationship serving as the differentiator. Products and services were sold using a feature/benefit approach, where features of the product were tied to specific benefits to the buyer’s company.

Then in the eighties and nineties, the concept of feature/benefit selling was eclipsed by books like Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, which introduced the concept of the Discovery Call, where the rep would ask the client questions about their business and achieve the customer’s buy-in to the proposed product or service. This approach embraced the concept of the Complex Sale, where the client’s buying process involved multiple approval levels across multiple departments. Clients were not expected to make an immediate decision, but were instead provided by the rep with all the information the buyer needed to drive a favorable decision through the purchase process.

Around that same time, Miller and Heiman introduced Strategic Selling, which further evolved the concept of consultative selling, where products and services became “solutions”. This approach required an ever deeper dive into the client’s business, and different buyer profiles that the rep needed to identify and formulate a selling strategy based on how the buyer approaches the evaluation and selection process. Again, the underlying assumption was that the decision process would take weeks or months due to the buyer’s requirements for multiple levels of approval.

Solution selling is a big improvement over mere relationship sales, in that the rep actually brings value to the customer by educating them on how their products and services will improve the customer’s business. But much of the data required to formulate this solution comes from an exhaustive discovery process that puts the onus on the customer to research and respond.

In 2011, Dixon and Adamson published The Challenger Sale, which shifted the responsibility for information collection to the sales rep’s company. In this model, the rep’s marketing department researches the client’s industry exhaustively (prior to rep contact) to develop valuable insights into the issues that face owners and managers in the client’s sector. This eliminates the need for the customer to undergo an extensive discovery process and instead boils the rep’s value proposition down to a few key insights.

In the Challenger model, the sales rep becomes a trusted advisor that provides valuable insights to clients about issues and obstacles to the client’s success about which they are likely unaware. This is the key: providing the customer with previously unknown critical insights. It answers the old customer challenge of “tell me something I don’t already know.” The Challenger element comes into play when clients push back on the rep’s claims, questioning their relevance to their business. Equipped with solid industry research, the rep can state authoritatively that delaying implementation of their proposed solution will unequivocally result in lost sales, higher costs, increased turnover, or whatever key metric applies to the solution.

In short, a Challenger trained rep brings real value to the client relationship, making it more than worth the client’s time to meet. The sales process is shorter, simpler, takes less of the customer’s time and delivers tangible benefits to the client’s business.

Why the SEO Marathon is Worth the Time and Money

Customers often tell us that they want to have their company appear on page 1 of results on Google, Yahoo and Bing. By using search engine marketing (pay-per-click), we can make that happen practically right away. Meanwhile, we begin the long term effort to get the customer higher on organic search results through search engine optimization, known as SEO. The ultimate goal: to get the customer at or near Page 1 on the search engines, and more importantly, to keep them there.

Many independent website developers take a “one and done” approach to SEO by loading site content with keyword phrases, HTML meta tags and a handful of inbound links, add a WordPress plug-in or two and consider SEO a done deal. Will this, help? Sure, a bit. But if the customer is in a highly competitive space like plumbing, personal injury law, pizzerias, bars, salons, car dealerships or one of the dozens of other businesses with hotly contested keyword phrases, one and done SEO doesn’t make it happen.

Improving a customer’s SEO rankings in highly competitive business segments is a marathon. Doing it right requires that the SEO program be managed by a highly skilled SEO specialist. SEO pros go through multiple in-depth search engine certification exams and must recertify frequently. They monitor customers’ rankings closely and frequently test different advanced SEO tactics, including:

  • Site Indexation & Accessibility
  • In-Depth Keyword Research
  • Advanced Link Building from popular, authoritative sites
  • Frequent updates of substantive, high quality, relevant content
  • Advanced Tags
  • Speed and Performance Optimization

SEO experts test these and many other tactics and measure their effectiveness over time, using sophisticated analytics. SEO pros conference with business customers regularly, to discuss what’s working and develop new strategies that fit the customer’s business objectives.

The goal is to achieve dominant positions in search engine results and maintain them long term. If being found online by prospective customers is your business goal, you need a real SEO pro to get you there…and keep you there.

How Facebook’s Changing Demographics and Privacy Policies Affect Advertisers

A recent Pew Research survey validated a trend that many have suspected. Teenagers are abandoning Facebook by the millions. They hate the fact that their parents, grandparents and other adults are joining, making Facebook uncool. They complain about friends’ over-sharing, and about too much “drama” on the site. And they’re increasingly flocking to other social platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, Vine, Tumblr and Reddit.

Meanwhile the 35-54 and 55+ demographics are becoming increasingly concerned about Facebook’s constantly changing privacy policies. Facebook users of all ages are aggravated about having their profile pics used to endorse brands and products they’ve “Liked”, without permission or compensation.

Facebook refuses to join the Digital Advertising Alliance, which sets the ad industry’s standards for user privacy. Large advertisers like to see industry standards written into their advertising contracts and generally avoid non-compliant media, because of the perceived increased risk. Advertisers are recognizing that Facebook’s dubious privacy practices are driving their targeted consumers to other, more secure sites.

Facebook’s core following of over-sharers (Millennials, mommy bloggers, etc.) that spends several hours on Facebook every day, dramatically skew “average time on-site” statistics. Hundreds of millions of casual users that post rarely but visit Facebook occasionally to check up on friends and family don’t build the kind of behavioral footprint that advertisers need for effective targeting. Facebook’s constantly changing privacy policies harm advertisers by discouraging updates and shares by casual users that allow advertisers to build targeting profiles.

Millennials and over-sharers in general are notoriously unconcerned with privacy. Perhaps Facebook will evolve into a social platform for these groups. Meanwhile teens in search of something fresh and cool, and boomers and Gen Xers in search of better privacy protections migrate to social networks that better suit their needs.

The Close – Step in Sales Process or Natural Result of Good Customer Engagement?

Traditional sales models take the rep through a series of steps culminating in the customer signing a contract. In these sales-driven models, the close is positioned as a discrete action where the rep pushes the customer to make a commitment. This is very old school and no longer fits into 21st century customer engagement models.

Customers don’t want to be tricked, coerced, guilted or otherwise pushed to act against their own better judgment. We have all been in these situations as customers ourselves, and we don’t remember those incidents fondly. When a rep forces the close before the customer is ready to commit, the relationship rarely ends well. In the best case, the client regards the rep as pushy and overbearing, and meetings with the rep as something to be endured. Worst case, the deal gets cancelled “with prejudice” and the rep (and sometimes their company) is banished and blackballed. The company gains a reputation as a hard-sell service provider with reps that are to be avoided at all costs.

In the consultative solution sale, the rep invests time in discovering a client’s needs by taking a deep dive into really understanding their business. Every step in the sales process includes soliciting feedback from the customer to secure buy-in to the direction of the solution to be proposed. Every customer interaction includes qualifying for buying intent, decision authority, need and timing. The rep takes the client through the proposal step by step to secure agreement that the solution on the table will meet their needs and goals for the project. When the rep says “can we go ahead and get the process started?” the customer’s signature becomes the natural result of the engagement.

Customers don’t want to be pushed or tricked into signing, they want to be educated, informed and above all, listened to. Take this approach and you will be very successful at sales for years to come.

Is The One Call Close Dead?

I work in the media industry. Many media companies are finding it difficult to transition to digital marketing solutions while at the same time maintaining the revenue stream from their print, TV, radio and other traditional media products. I’m fortunate that I chose well and work for a company that is executing this strategy successfully, while many competitors and other old media companies struggle.

One of the challenges all media companies face is the propensity of sales management and sales reps to stick to old ways of interacting with clients. Back in the day, media sales was a traditional “feet on the street” sales model, where the player with the biggest sales force wins. This model was often based on a minimalist approach to client contact, where reps met with clients once a year to review ad programs and sign renewals. Reps understanding of clients’ business operations was limited to what they could learn in a one hour annual sales call. As a result, few sales reps developed expertise in marketing strategy, business models, margin targets, budget planning and other basic business skills. They sold based on the “shine on their shoes and the knot in their tie”, the 20th century sales model. Slowly but surely (in some cases not so slowly) these old school reps are finding that the old ways don’t work so well anymore.

Social media, search engines and the rest of the internet have forever changed sales and marketing. Customers are smarter and better informed. They expect a sales rep to bring real value to the customer relationship. They want to spend their limited time working with reps that can make a real, significant and measurable improvement in their business. They expect the sales consultant to have business management, advertising strategy and media planning skills that old school reps typically lack. They want a long term relationship only with reps willing to meet with them several times a year to review and fine tune advertising programs, and add real, tangible value to that relationship. 

The “one call close” doesn’t make that happen.