Relationship selling is getting rarer and rarer these days. People and businesses both do a lot more ‘homework’ or research online. They really don’t need to be called on by a professional sales person to help them understand what they can easily learn in a few keystrokes.
Buyers of consumer AND business products/services have always wanted more knowledge about the things they’re shopping for as knowledge provides them negotiating power, deeper insight into alternative solutions, etc. The fact that buyers always wanted this but seldom possessed it is due mostly to a lack of a platform for disseminating information. Now, we have that platform and it is the Internet. Smarter firms are really tweaking the kinds of information they place on the internet, the form (e.g., video) it takes and more.
One of the toughest spaces to be a marketer in has to be management consulting – a space I am very familiar with and one with some of my most fascinating clients. In consulting, you find at least three tiers of marketing/sales processes in existence:
1) The relationship sale – Here, the top sales people focus on personal relationships they have with (usually local) business executives. This model is failing fast as most firms don’t want to buy services from undifferentiated generalists that are local or known persons. They want to contract with the best in a given discipline. They want acknowledged subject matter experts not someone with a great golf handicap. Yes, having a pre-existing relationship is a great tie-breaker but there are fewer ‘ties’ popping up these days. In a relationship sales world, most deals are local and marketing is often very diffused and underused.
2) The reputation-based solution/market offering sale – Focused consultancies have identified specific solutions that they wish to take to market. They create trained teams to deliver these services repeatedly and efficiently. Winning one deal after another often comes from great references or word-of-mouth recommendations that past clients mention to prospective clients. It’s a great method that requires little in the way of marketing expenditures. The downside though is that this approach can take years to gain traction in the market and one’s entire market presence or momentum can be torpedoed with one bad client. Worse, this Marketing approach can’t scale fast enough when a given space is red-hot.
3) The recognized expert solution/market offering sale – Like the previous approach, the firm has developed specific market offerings. But in this scenario, the company creates focused thought leadership, intellectual property and other ‘assets’ (a hat tip here to Baker Tilly’s (link) Kristen Russell as her use of the ‘asset’ name is right on) that enable the company to create focused Marketing campaigns and initiatives. These assets are the original research reports, thought leadership papers, presentations, webinar content decks, etc. that are crafted by actual consultants (not simply works for hire that are contracted out to third parties)who also work on client-facing projects. These assets are the fuel that power a great marketing funnel.
In my parlance, the assets and the research behind them are often part of a unique point of view that great solution providers can bring to a prospect. When a firm can offer up a team that includes a published subject matter expert, how can some undifferentiated, unoriginal competitor stand a chance? They can’t. Businesses buy people first, teams second and the firm third when it comes to services. You can shout all you want that your firm “hires the best people”, “delivers value”, etc. but that is all noise and comes off undifferentiated to most service buyers. Buyers want to do business with firms that really are the best in their space.
Today’s businesses are getting this point. If you don’t believe me, read “The Challenger Sale” by Dixon and Adamson. It’s a book I’d recommend to any business executive this year. Don’t tell buyers you’re great, knowledgeable, etc. – PROVE IT! Put the proof of this expertise on your website.
Buyers want to see role-based videos on the web. They want to know how their job will be helped by the use of your solution. Provide them with buyers’ guides, methodologies and other tools to help them address these three kinds of buyer problems:
- Level 1 – Problem? I didn’t even know I had a problem. How do know what kind of problem do I have?
- Level 2 – Okay, I know I have a problem but how do I begin to understand the universe of potential solution categories? Help me make a complex issue easier to navigate.
- Level 3 – I know I have a problem and I know the kind of solution I need. Help me determine how I should evaluate your solution against your competitors’.
Many old-school sales/marketing groups are chock full of materials addressing that last piece of the sales puzzle. But, this is so wrong for the world described in the Challenger Sale book – a world where people go to the Internet FIRST to seek out answers to their problems. If your firm is awash in Level 3 function/feature oriented sales collateral, you’re probably not winning as much business as you should be. You also are not being considered by potential sales prospects in ever growing numbers because they can’t find anything about your offerings online. You didn’t even know these deals were there to be had.
(If you need more convincing, read also these pieces:
- “Dismantling the Sales Machine”, Brent Adamson, Mathew Dixon and Nicholas Toman, Harvard Business Review, November 2013
- “Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption”, Clayton M. Christensen, Dina Wang and Derek van Bever, Harvard Business Review, October 2013
- “The End of Solution Sales”, Brent Adamson, Mathew Dixon and Nicholas Toman, Harvard Business Review, July/August 2012)
What all of this points to is that businesses must create and populate on their websites (and others) content that informs, shapes and qualifies prospects.
When my firm engages with consulting and software firms, it’s often to help them create an internal capability to develop these ‘assets’. Once created, these firms want to use Marketing Automation software (e.g., Marketo, Eloqua, Pardot, etc.) to:
- see who’s looking at this material
- assign scores to the people downloading or looking at it
- track the potential prospect as it continues to engage with the firm (and flow through the marketing funnel)
- determine when this raw prospect becomes a qualified sales lead
But the one question that screws up firms is “What content do we need to create?” How do we know if it’s the right material? What should these companies put on the Internet? What content or ‘assets’ should they create?
For many firms (and executives), the answer to this question is that they develop content they THINK will resonate in the market. That ‘method’ is simply stabbing in the dark. It’s only dumb luck if they get it right some times.
So, to improve the value of this (sometimes inappropriate) content, firms are tempted to hire SEO (search engine optimizer) firms to get their content’s Google page placement higher. Again, this is the wrong method as boosting the SEO score for the wrong content won’t necessarily drive sales up an iota.
There’s gotta be a better way
Sellers of products and services shouldn’t just wing it when it comes to creating content or assets. They should take a page from the buyers out there and do some homework first. Sellers should ascertain the questions that buyers have and then build content around these questions or concerns. Any other approach is expensive, time-consuming, wasteful and frustrating for everyone involved.
It’s so obvious and, yet, so rarely done. Think about it – how many firms are still sending out those awful newsletters full of self-congratulatory fluff that means nothing to your firm? Why are they generating this dreck? They do it as they don’t really know what you want to read about. Worse, when I see this unfocused junk, my impression of the seller (their brand) goes way down.
Jim’s firm looks at a number of data sources to figure out the questions, issues, concerns, etc. that people have in the market. BrightEdge looks at what sort of person is scoping out your website and your competitors’ sites, too. They might also look at specific discussion groups or social networks where large numbers of your buyers hang out online. They look at the kinds of content these folks are searching for. They use social, mobile and search data to supplement their analysis. In the end, they can suggest an editorial calendar of sorts for the Marketing organization.
What’s brilliant about this is that this is the material that buyers are looking for – no SEO needed here as the high number of hits on this material alone will automatically move this information to the top pages of search engines. Buyers will find your firm as they will be finding your assets more and more frequently.
Today’s buyer wants to do business with a firm that understands them. If you’re not communicating with them, they think you don’t understand them. Modern Marketing is about creating very efficient and effective communication channels with prospective buyers. Guesswork has no place in a ruthless, competitive market.
There’s more to it than this though. BrightEdge also possesses tools to track the topics requested, how the information is being distributed, which items are most desired/valuable/translate into more sales, etc.
If your firm is still selling in the 1990s, you need to (in the words of Dear Abby) seek true love elsewhere. If your firm is solid but it’s losing out more and more to competitors who are better attuned to the buyers out there, there’s a good chance that your internet content/assets are insufficient or out of touch with the data needs of modern buyers. Fix this – now!
(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Software and Services Safari Blog)