Unlike relatively straightforward consumer purchases, the business-to-business buying cycle is often drawn out and complex. And from the seller's side, the process is costly and labor-intensive.
Even with inroads made via resource-rich Websites, B2B selling isn't getting any simpler. Organizational purchasing decisions involved an average of 3.5 more people in 2005 than were engaged in the same process in 2001. Further, analysts estimate closing a B2B sale takes 20 percent longer than just a few years ago.
And yet, a study last year by the Industrial Performance Group indicated sales teams spend most of their time (62 percent) on "non-revenue-generating" activities and just 38 percent of their time selling. Why? Well, one major reason is the oft-written-about disconnect between sales and marketing that exists in many companies.
Marketing is busy creating materials and programs to create leads for sales, but all too often those materials and tactics aren't focused on producing qualified leads—that is, qualified according to the sales staff. According to a national survey of 2,700 B2B sales executives:
• Up to 57 percent of marketing collateral is never used.
• As much as 80 percent of leads are ignored by sales as a matter of course.
• Sales regard 80 percent of marketing expenditures for lead generation and sales collateral as irrelevant.
In addition, the metrics for judging marketing lead generation are often based on quantity, not quality.
In a challenging economy, this kind of poor internal alignment could be all it takes to get a marketing program, agency contract, or entire marketing department shut down "for economic reasons." To survive corporate belt tightening, marketing needs to cooperate with sales to accurately align goals, strategies, tactics, and metrics.
Connecting Sales and Communications
In a perfect world, both sales and marketing are committed to closing sales—they just get there differently. Salespeople do so through one-on-one communications, while marketers use mass communications tactics. That's exactly the reason they are supposed to be working together. But it happens less than you think.
The efforts of one division are often discounted by the other. "Sales has no respect for what marketing accomplishes," writes Bill Babcock in "Truce! Ending the War Between Sales and Marketing." "They take leads grudgingly and when the leads turn into real opportunities they claim those opportunities were already on their radar."
That being said, both sales and marketing need to agree on their respective roles to achieve the ying/yang balance needed for an efficient process. Good marketing helps generate inquiries, build awareness and credibility, build relationships, and get the company on the short list, while a good sales team closes deals.
"Brand can create awareness, expectations, and even intention-but it doesn't close the sale," writes consultant Ron Shevlin in his book "Everything They've Told You About Marketing Is Wrong." "Something (or things) else does that. Which means you can't calculate the ROI of brand.
"With carefully designed and executed tests, perhaps you could measure the contribution to sales that branding investments make, but few (if any) firms seem willing to take that route."
The "something else" Shevlin refers to is your sales team, and what sales does best is close deals. According to sales consultant John Neeson, the national average for closing sales is just under 27 percent. Average, of course, means some companies are closing more than 50 percent while others are closing almost none.
The way to move your company into the 50 percent group is by implementing a sales-centric marketing methodology, one that can help B2B companies increase sales by 15 percent or more.
Assuming you've got a well-trained sales force, closing more deals is strictly a matter of improving lead quality and volume. Reaching prospects at every step with the right message, in the right medium, will nurture them through the pre-buying stages until they are ready to make a purchase. At this point, they become qualified leads that are easier to close.
The best way to achieve those improvements is through a collaborative effort. But go into the process with realistic expectations. Changing a cornerstone business process is painful and, typically, slow growth. Everyone involved needs to clearly understand what's in it for them.
So Happy Together
A marketing communications agency can be the unbiased third party to bring sales and marketing together into a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship. As objective consultants, an agency can help sales and marketing look beyond their respective agendas.
The agency first conducts separate in-depth interviews with all of the client's internal stakeholders. The information is then vetted, eliminating anything that's non-essential to the goal of increased sales. Strategic counseling helps clarify how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and will help each group exceed its goals.
But even with a management mandate and agency input, collaboration between internal entities is often a challenge to execute. Agencies help marketers adhere to the following guidelines:
Start speaking the same language. It may sound silly to some, but in many organizations the language of marketing and sales are like Spanish and Portuguese. They sound vaguely the same and have some commonalities, but they're actually nothing alike.
Your agency consultant will make sure you identify and clearly state your unique selling proposition. They will also help you define and differentiate "qualified lead" and "sales-ready lead" based on agreed criteria, using BANT (budget, authority, need, and timeframe) as a starting point for identifying leads.
Set the bar. Goal setting requires three separate but interconnected sets of goals—sales, marketing, and corporate—that all need to be mutually agreed upon. Using metrics that matter to the CEO and CFO will ensure the goals are backed by the people in the C-suite.
Establishing goals, however, must be based on an analysis of prior performance. You need to know where you are to figure out where you need to go. If you don't have any data on which to do analysis, then collecting data needs to be one of the goals.
Some goals will be financial, others will be performance based. For example, marketing should have a target not just for new leads generated, but for converting a percentage of those leads to sales-ready status, which is a far more valuable metric.
What percentage of sales-ready leads should marketing be accountable for delivering? That varies by industry, but the B2B average is approximately 30 percent. The remainder typically comes from repeat business and a small number of anonymous (non-defined) sources.
Getting through this step can be particularly difficult for companies that employ "creative" consumer agencies for their marketing communications. Many large agencies want to be judged by their creativity, not their sales success. They're focused on winning awards and generating water cooler buzz.
Make sure your agency is committed to your success rather than their own. A good way to do this is to let them know their performance will be judged by your sales results.
Say all the right things. For business buyers, the purchasing decision is a process, and price isn't always the most important factor. Your agency consultant will help sales and marketing work together on primary and secondary research to determine which messages are most appropriate for each stage of customer engagement, as well as the best delivery method(s). Means and messages for early-stage education, for example, are vastly different from late-cycle nurturing.
One reason for the abysmal ratings for collateral cited earlier is the ongoing notion one size fits all. Companies want to create a single brochure or individual ad to reach all their targets. Certainly budgets are key drivers here; all the more reason to create an integrated campaign that employs Web-based tools and tactics.
Although the glossy printed brochure has its place in sales, it's just no longer the only tool in the arsenal. Integrating personalized Web-based messaging is cost effective and flexible. It also offers more detailed consumer habit data than traditional tools.
Segmenting public relations messages is also essential. With expanding resources at their disposal, journalists seek information that speaks specifically to their audiences. Broadcast press releases have simply lost their effectiveness. An agency that is attuned to your media marketplace and best practices will know how to effectively navigate the sea change that's going on in news reporting and information distribution.
Fill the cracks. Good leads are too hard to come by to allow them to slip through the cracks, yet B2B companies typically lose or ignore 75 percent of the leads they generate. A closed-loop lead lifecycle is the only way to keep leads out of the cracks. The two danger areas are the handoff between marketing and sales, and the lead that isn't closed by sales.
The handoff is dangerous because for many companies it isn't so much a handoff as it is a blind heave over the cubicle wall (figuratively speaking). Your marcom agency will help you establish a process for handoffs, as well as documentation to support them. A lead incoming to sales should have its own history: How, when, and where did initial contact take place? What offers has the prospect responded to? What is their Web interaction, clickthrough pattern, and return rate?
Once received, sales must document where it went, the action taken, and results. Any lead not contacted or not closed should be cycled back to marketing for further nurturing.
Judge and be Judged. Maybe the most overlooked aspect of any program is analysis and modification. Establish a schedule for separate and joint reviews and valuation against metrics at the beginning of your process, right when you set your goals. Doing so commits everyone to taking part. And don't forget to include interim reviews for fine-tuning.
All Together Now
While B2B companies tend to follow well-defined buying cycles, numerous decision-makers are involved and the process is complex. When a B2B company targets prospective customers with a sales-centric marketing approach, it gains a better understanding of those customers—their attitudes, fears, preferences, and expectations. A company can expect an increase in sales productivity when it makes its marketing and sales departments equally responsible for the bottom line.
Rich Carango is vice president of creative services for Schubert Communications, a Philadelphia-based advertising and PR agency.