The Key To Sales Enablement Success Is To Focus On The Conversation

Why are sales and marketing professionals seemingly in a constant firefighting mode, moving from one fire drill to the next, one meeting to another? We are in the middle of a major transformation in the B2B sales model. Your company is caught between a rock and a hard place because your investors want to see accelerated growth and improved margins. However, your customers have the same pressures, and all have some form of enterprise-wide strategic procurement initiatives under way. Your goal: sell at a higher price. Their goal: buy only what they need at the lowest possible price. Something has to give.

In response to these tectonic forces, we find many companies have a variety of internal projects designed to combat the commoditization trend. Some common efforts include:

  • Training sales people to get access to executives
  • Creating "solution selling kits" or “sales playbooks”
  • Developing return-on investment tools
  • Focusing on demand-generation campaigns
  • Developing sales-coaching frameworks
  • Creating more structured opportunity identification and account scorecards
  • Fine-tuning the CRM system to improve reporting and forecasting processes
  • Pricing and packing exercises and corresponding negotiation training
  • Reinventing product marketing functions into "solution" marketing roles
  • Investing in branding and messaging programs.

Unfortunately, most organizations fail to properly coordinate these independent projects, with dramatic negative consequences. To meet growth objectives, companies hire more salespeople and put the burden of the customer relationship on the back of the sales force. To meet margin objectives, marketing resources are centralized and reduced. As a result, most organizations are unintentionally creating sales models that are: excessively labor intensive, rife with inefficiencies and not scalable—adding systemic problems these firms are trying to avoid.

"What do you do?"

You must manage the complexity or confuse customers. Value is communicated over time through a series of interactions between your company and your customer. However, this value isn't transferred from corporation to corporation. It is achieved by the conversations that individual people from your company have with specific stakeholders within a given account. So, in reality, a B2B sale is really the synthesis of many discrete conversations, and value is best communicated when they are focused on a common goal: solving the client's problem. What most organizations fail to address is how complex a task it is to corral many discrete conversations into a consistent value communications strategy.

To get a sense of the number of variables involved, consider a few questions that must be answered at the point of sale:

  • Who: is affected by the problem?
  • Why: is the problem important to address now, and what is its relationship to other problems?
  • When: will the problem be addressed, and where is the organization in its decision-making lifecycle?
  • Where: will the money come from to address the problem, and what resources are competing for the funding?
  • How: should the customer solve the problem, given the unique circumstances?
  • What: role will your company play in helping the customer solve the problem?

To make matters even more complex, most companies have solutions that can address multiple different problems, so this set of questions must be answered for each opportunity. We all know that good conversations are dynamic, reciprocal and most effective where there is trust between the people involved in the dialog. To accomplish this, the salesperson must communicate information that is:

  • Relevant: to the specific circumstances and realities of a given company
  • In context: to the roles and responsibilities of the individual with whom you are having the conversation
  • Timely: in concert with where the customer is in its problem-solving process and to the relative importance of that issue to others that could gain investment.

Some major organizations are making colossal mistakes when trying to address these "last mile" issues of sales effectiveness. Here are a few examples:

- In terms of relevance. A well-known business consulting firm was preparing for a meeting with the CEO of a $50 billion consumer packaged goods company. Salespeople met with the CEO and unveiled a plan that would cut costs by $5 million that year and reach up to $10 million in four years. They were surprised when the CEO delegated them to someone four rungs below him. That company had a target to cut more than $2 billion out of its expense structure that year. For a company with revenue of more than $50 billion, $5 million in savings can come from renegotiating the paper supplier contract—certainly not something that is going to get any C-level executive excited, let alone the CEO.

- In terms of context. The sales and marketing leadership team of a multibillion-dollar IT services firm decided to send personalized letters from its CEO to "CxO"-level people in 50 key accounts. These letters were identical and addressed, "Dear CXO." I've yet to meet anyone with the title "CxO," and the viewpoints of a chief financial officer, chief technical officer, chief information officer or chief marketing officer can be very different.

- In terms of timeliness. A large enterprise software company figured out how to position its identity management software as a tool to assist with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and, focusing on audit budgets, began marketing to auditors. However, auditors are not responsible for cost-effective ongoing compliance, and most had already figured out internal requirements for complying. So why was the company targeting people who don't have responsibility for a problem they don't need help addressing?

It's all about the conversation. Strong customer relationships are built over time, through a series of value-added interactions between various people from the buyer and seller organizations. However, most B2B companies fail to use the conversation with key individuals as the design point for go-to-market efforts. As a result, there are tremendous inefficiencies, redundant programs and conflicting agendas that work against the goals of adding more value to buyers. An effective sales enablement program should start by modeling the perspectives of all of the various stakeholders you will encounter on an account-by-account basis and creating a framework to help your salespeople have more value-added conversations that are relevant, in context and timely. After all, people buy from people.

(Writers note 6-27-10:  Forrester switched to a new blogging engine and I have since learned how to use it better; considering how popular this post has been - I thought I'd clean it up to make it easier to read)


Great insights. The

Great insights. The complexity of today's selling environment means sales people need help designing the conversation. You are raising awareness to this fact. Marketing professionals need first embrace this requirement (most don't) and second, find methodologies and frameworks to simplify and support this task.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that MOST conversations don't take place face-to-face anymore, especially in the critical early stages of the customer engagement. Telephone and email are relatively weak conversation tools.

I'd like to see marketing organizations deploy more content through sales people rather than in direct campaigns to customers. He us become "thought leaders" in our customer's eyes. Give us something of value to talk about.

Marketing sends blasts to customers -- despite new technologies. Sales people, if they know their customer, are in the best position to define relevance, create context and select the right timing for delivering valuable information to customers.

But they are not the creators and originators of the information. Communication (conversation) is a function of message, content and delivery. Companies need to rethink their marketing and sales communication and content strategies.

I come from a marketing

I come from a marketing background, but from my experience, I believe the “us and them” mentality is fostered and encouraged by the company culture from the moment we are hired.
One of the best experiences I had was during a sales conference, 5 CEOs were brought in to discuss their issues with most sales strategies, communications and pitches. Wow! What an eye opening experience. Yet the sales teams and marketing teams don’t interact or mingle in most situations. If I “saw the light” at this conference, what would have happened is 100 marketing folks had been allowed to attend to “see the light”?
I would venture that a majority of marketing folks have never even spoken to a sales person within the company, or been on customer calls to see first hand the needs of the clients they are supposed to be supporting. However, companies cannot point the finger solely at the marketing departments. I think sales carries some of the burden as well to help marketing folks understand their needs. It doesn't help marketing when no one in sales has time to help them do a better job, or immediately dismiss some of their recommendations and suggestions just because” they are not sales”.
Companies need to do a better job of Sales and Marketing alignment and get away from pitting these two groups against each other: it’s not “us” or “them”, it should be “we”. Unfortunately, companies get bogged down in the politics of where the responsibility should lie instead of the goal they are trying to accomplish. It shouldn't matter which function Sales and/or Marketing lies in, or whether they are combined into one function, or split out in a more traditional way. What matters is that the lines of communication and cooperation are open, teams are encouraged and rewarded for collaboration, and we get away from the blame game.
It’s not rocket science, but it can be painful to implement a true culture change if not done properly and with forethought.
I would challenge companies to:
-Don't look back at past histories: set common goals and priorities for moving forward; Hold both executives and employees accountable of both the sales and marketing teams by making this part of their priorities and objectives; and finally, make the tough choices with your content, process and technology improvements that will help your folks make this a successful venture.
-Find innovative ways to get the two teams together. Be it common team building activities, common training, or even some out of the box strategies like giving marketing staff a new twist on a sabbatical by letting them spend some time supporting sales (or at minimum go through the sales training of your company); Same for the sales teams – let them take the time to spend time working with marketing; Make all marketing new hires spend their first 3 months directly supporting the sales teams; Let marketing teams attend sales conferences; Let sales folks attend some of the marketing functions and training.
- And finally, try asking your employees what they as the roadblocks and then DO something to remove them.