The Reality of Inbound Sales in the Age of Commoditization

Inbound Sales in Age of Commoditization

When I tell my sales counterparts at other startups that my leads are 100% inbound, they typically look at me with wide eyes and open mouths and ask, “Really? I don’t understand how you can do that.” And, what’s funny is that from my perspective, I honestly don’t understand how they can’t. There are two ways I know how to systematically generate marketing qualified leads: content marketing and channel partners.

While I recognize and can appreciate that millions of companies have built their businesses on outbound prospecting – whether that’s through good old-fashioned door-to-door sales, or by arming entry-level sales reps with modern-day tech tools it sure sounds like a lot of extra work, time and money that I simply do not have right now.

Let’s look at the facts. B2B buyers have changed. Really.

Also, Pearl Jam is now considered classic rock (I know, it’s freaking me out too).

Rock Music Preferences United States

And, if you’re in tech, your buyers have greater expectations than ever. In fact, according to Google’s B2B customer study last June, 78% of B2B tech buyers agreed that a brand’s thought leadership was extremely important when looking to make a purchase on behalf of their company.

Moreover, the American Marketing Association reports that “the conversations salespeople have with prospects and customers are often the last bastion of competitive differentiation in today’s rapidly commoditizing markets.” Translation = Someone else is probably selling a nearly identical product or service.

Thus, your prospects don’t want to spend their time hearing from even the friendliest voice or reading your carefully worded email when all they have to do when they have a problem is open a web browser from any number of devices in front of them, in their pockets, or attached to their wrists, and search for an answer.

How many calls do you have to make to uncover a marketing qualified lead? How many marketing qualified leads do you need to produce to feed your sales team? I hate to quote the proverb “you’ll attract more bees with a teaspoon of honey than a gallon of vinegar,” but it’s true. When you’re at an early stage startup, every dollar and every minute count.

Actually, isn’t that true for any size organization? Time is money, and success is (let’s face it) measured by revenue; therefore, successful organizations are wise about how their employees spend their time.

I know that these are bold, confident words, so let’s take this from theory to actual practice. In fact, I’ve already done it once in my career and I’m happy to share both my results and my secret sauce.

When I joined my last company, over 80% of sales came from channel partners. But the CEO saw a real opportunity to also grow the company’s direct business. So, the company pivoted and decided to position itself as a best-in-breed product rather than solely as a complementary offering to the partner’s product.

They dropped a couple hundred grand on trade shows, bought lists, made cold calls, and sent out email blasts {shudder}. And, they saw a bit of a lift. The market responded. But, it took a lot of work and a lot of money to get these preliminary results.

Enter Inbound Marketing

I’m going to skip ahead now and share some results with you because in this case, numbers might speak louder than words. And, it’s important to note that our average enterprise sales cycle was between 6 and 12 months.

Here’s what we did in one year:

415% increase in direct sales leads.

92% increase in closed units.

89% increase in direct sales revenue.

The board did not complain. In fact, they asked, “What do you need from us to do more of this?” We went all-in on what had worked and started to grow exponentially.

So, how did we do it, and how do you do it too? Here’s a high-level hit list of the inbound activities that, in my experience, yield the best results:

  • Identify your buyer personas (no more than 4 or 5) and workshop them with the team — both the sales and marketing team. This has to be the first step, and it cannot be skipped. Inbound marketing relies on a strong understanding of your buyer personas.
  • Identify themes that resonate with at least one of those personas (if not all), and make sure those themes are 100% educational in nature. What will your buyer persona learn?
  • Start writing toward those themes. Yes, you. Not a writer? I don’t care. Try it, get some thoughts on paper, and then leverage a professional writer or editor to help make it sing. Or, talk into a recording device or app, or participate in an interview. But do not outsource your content 100%. YOU are passionate about your company. YOU understand the value you bring to your customers. YOU need to be the authentic voice behind that content.
  • Promote the content you write. Social media is a wonderful vehicle for this, both organically and through paid promotion. One caveat — it’s not just up to the marketing team to share content. This is an “all hands on deck” activity. Consider this: Would you be more likely to engage with a piece of content that was shared by someone you know and trust, versus a brand you’ve never seen? How much more likely would you be to engage in that same individual added his or her own comments to the content?
  • Calls-to-action (CTAs) are critical. Insightful, authentic content is the first step, but what next? The most effective CTAs for inbound marketing offers the reader an appropriate next step. My recommendation is to offer a complimentary piece of content that holds a greater value or to engage the reader with a piece of interactive content like a quiz or survey of some kind. This is the point where you begin collecting contact information to build your prospect database, so make sure you’re offering them something that’s worth their contact information.
  • Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose! Have authors partial post their blog on their own LinkedIn profiles and share pieces of the content in the places and spaces where your buyer personas spend their time. Again, this isn’t a job for the marketing team. This is a task for everyone because people like to talk to people and like to buy from people. Where the marketing team CAN add a ton of value is by transforming content into “new-to-you” pieces. Take a series of blogs and spin them into an ebook, a webinar, an infographic or a video. Then, you guessed it, re-engage the team sharing and start upping your CTA offers. The better the offer, the higher your conversion will be.
  • As you collect contact information, it’s important to track the types of content that your newfound friend has consumed and then base all of your follow-up communications on that data. That means you should rarely, if ever, send the same email message to all of your contacts. And, be sure to expose this data to the salespeople who will eventually be in contact with these prospects.

Listen, there’s no easy button — it takes some effort. But in my experience, the thing that’s easy isn’t necessarily what’s most effective. While inbound marketing and sales takes some work on the front end, it’s totally manageable for even the smallest of teams (I’ve never had a team of more than three people, and up until very recently, I was a powerhouse of one). Most importantly, it’s extremely scalable even on an extremely lean budget.

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    • Jen I respect what you say , If you are sell little 5 K MRC deals / SAAS deals , maybe that is true. But the truth is you will never sell seven figure deals waiting for them to come to you , that i can promise , I may know a little about sales 30 years selling at for years at the Fortune 500 level , I have sold in a single year over 10 Million Net new revenue.. Maybe I can sell another 10 Million with just inbound ? doubt it ..

      • William, Jen isn’t saying that employing an inbound marketing strategy is going to result in closing deals hands-off. There is still a place for sales professionals but later in the process and engaging with qualified prospects who are already predisposed to buy.

        In fact, this is nothing new, it’s just a new way to do what companies, including those Fortune 500 and Fortune 10 companies have been doing for years, but more measurable. Substituting online efforts to establish a company or division as a thought leader for print, radio, and TV is really superior in every way.

        If you think your customers aren’t already searching and researching online, you’re mistaken! We’re not just selling “little 5 K MRC deals / SAAS deals” this way!

        Truly, the world is changing and the way that people, those same people you’re selling to in those F500 companies, are buying and selling is changing, too.

        • Well I hope you can close all these deals without ever talking to anyone , with out understanding what they need and how this may be of benefit etc . And yes there is a world of a difference in selling little 5k MRC SAAS models and complex solutions to a CTO who runs a 3000 strong IT dept , who has to deal with compliance, integration , security , network , storage global deployment and legacy issues to name a few of the little things they need to make sure works before you can sell it research on line 😉 . Still i think it’s nice that you think the CTO of P&G is just sitting around waiting for your very well researched e-mail to make him reach out and touch you !

          • William – my sales team and I most definitely talk to our prospects quite a bit. But, our prospects FIND us. In fact, I’m working right now with a Fortune 100 company that is looking at my product, Allbound, to be a platform-as-a-service, system-of-record for their channel organization. How did I meet the buyer persona at this company? He found me by reading a blog I actually wrote here for Sales Hacker that was shared in a LinkedIn group of which he is a member. Was he ready to buy the day he contacted us via our website? No. But, he’s philosophically on board with our approach. There’s still a great deal to do to make him and his company happy customers. Inbound marketing and thought leadership won’t do it all for you. As I said, there is no easy button, but your customers ARE doing research and they ARE paying attention even when they’re not actively buying. So, as salespeople and marketers we need to meet our customers where they are in their buyer journey, and I believe the tenets of inbound marketing and inbound sales are critical.

          • Your snark is not appreciated, does not contribute to the discussion, and demonstrates just how out of touch you are. Good luck!

            • Okay , i am out of touch , yet I am advising start up on how to go to market.. ( Yep i am out touch ) . I am just saying the , no matter how much social selling , blog post Instagram and tweets you do , it will be a long hard to road to selling multi million dollar deals that way . It all starts with a conversation. Are buyers better informed YES ! and that is a good thing for business !

      • Here’s the facts: 72% of ALL technology decisions that are now being made (or highly influenced) outside of the IT department aren’t traditional IT decisions – they’re being made by Marketing, Finance, Sales, etc. By 2020, Gartner predicts it will be 90%. The CIO is losing (has lost) his/her place at the executive table as SaaS takes over. This ain’t the 90’s, folks – learn to sell those $5k MRC SaaS and subscription deals or face the consequences.

        • CIO still hold the purse string and wont allow technologies that don’t fit , plain and simple

          • William, no one should be selling a technology that doesn’t fit. In fact, I could make the argument that an inbound-generated lead is more likely to be a good fit for that company than an outbound-prospected lead, but I won’t get into that because you seem fixated on this idea of control. Also, I think it’s actually pretty hilarious that I had a call this morning with a company that does over a billion in revenue. Long story short, IT panicked slightly when they heard that the channel team was looking at a PaaS solution for better engaging channel partners, but the decision to buy is 100% revenue driven. Words from the exec team? “IT doesn’t decide this. Sales decides this.”

            • I am not arguing with you about if it makes sense to do inbound and if those leads are qualified better than out bound .. If you know what your doing you should know who and why you are calling anyone .One thing i have noticed is that half the stuff being sold as Sales argumentation tools and predictive this and that are basically garbage and will be gone in 2 years , i think you would be hard pressed to talk to GE and sell them on a technology solution driven by any thing but revenue … I think sales is all about revenue of one form or another . if you don’t move the needle it wont sell …

          • Well my friend, you’re 100% right. In fact – if I were you, I’d actually make even MORE cold calls into CIOs – if something has been working that well since Reagan was in office, you definitely should not risk adapting to modern times. Change is S.C.A.R.Y. Damn punks in Silicon Valley.

            • I don’t need to make more cold calls to CTO’s or CIO’s ..I am not arguing against change , i was programming while you a twinkle in your mamas eyes , seem more startup come and go and few more will be gone once the dust settles . As for the Valley , well those youngsters come to me for advise and we work with many a- and b round firms . Seems they need something i bring to table , maybe table manners ?

    • Great Article Jen. The market has changed. If one of your revenue pillars isn’t focusing on buyer personas and figuring out where they are doing research you swimming upstream. It can be done, but it can get exponentially better with a combined effort. My buddy at Akoonu is helping folks figure out buyer personas by simplifying where that research is organized and presented. Keep them coming Jen!

    • What I find most important about this post is empowering the entire [sales] team to become their own marketing vehicle. Reps should spend time becoming a voice of authority in their verticals to build trust in their networks. When buyers reach a point where they know they need help, reps who’ve proven they understand what the world looks like through the buyer’s eyes will be the first place buyers go to discuss the problem they are trying to solve for. Good read. Thanks, Jen!

      • Yes! I love this: “Reps should spend time becoming a voice of authority in their verticals to build trust in their networks.” Thanks Drew!

    • 72% of ALL technology decisions that are now being made (or highly influenced) outside of the IT department aren’t traditional IT decisions – they’re being made by Marketing, Finance, Sales, etc. By 2020, Gartner predicts it will be 90%. The fact is, the CIO is losing (has lost) his/her place at the executive table as SaaS takes over. This ain’t the 90’s, folks – learn to sell those $5k MRC SaaS and subscription deals or face the consequences.

    • Jen, have you ever considered the science behind what you are proposing? All the things that are correct in your post, and all the things that are incorrect, can be understood with a few simple Lean principles of perceived value, flow, pull, and waste. If you look at the early stages of the customer buying process, what is really happening? For example, every company has a unique value proposition, unique ideal customer, and unique ideal revenue process. Inbound vs. Outbound is irrelevant. These terms limit your thinking. Who is your ideal customer? What does your customer actually consider value? How does your customer prefer to buy your solution. Now, what are the optimum series of value steps that align with your buyer? How will you get your customer to “pull” those steps faster? What things in your process don’t add perceived value? Eliminate them. Content marketing only adds value when the customer perceives and pulls that value. How you get the right value offer in front of the right customer is a tactic that is part of a more strategic revenue value stream. Good post. I give it a B+. To get an A you will need the science.

    • Great, lively discussion and a great article.

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