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Let’s face it.  Sales can generate revenue without Marketing.   Not so in reverse.   The true purpose of marketing – of the messages, and the programs, and the collateral, and the PR –  is to accelerate and amplify sales efforts.  When that’s forgotten, sales-marketing misalignment follows.

Companies focus lots of attention on understanding customer needs, designing messages and programs for them, and gathering feedback to improve products and go-to-market efforts.  Unfortunately, when Marketers forget what marketing is for, they often neglect their other, one might even argue primary, audience: Sales.   (To clarify, by “Sales” I mean both direct and indirect channels, so partners are definitely included in this discussion.)

You probably have a process in place to measure customer satisfaction and gather customer input.  Whether via survey, customer advisory board, or support call analysis, some form of customer feedback is influencing your business.  What feedback mechanism do you have in place for the Sales team?

Here are five simple ideas to help understand Sales’ needs and align Sales and Marketing:

1. Conduct an annual sales survey.  Just like a customer satisfaction survey, this tool can assess current perceptions, determine needs, and prioritize their importance.  Use a survey to find out what tools, information, and skills will improve sales productivity, and to assess how well various marketing organizations are supporting and collaborating with Sales.

2. Gather input through your sales and partner portals. Create a visible and easily accessible request form and encourage Sales to ask for tools, training, content, information, or other changes that will help them accelerate and close deals.   Then use your existing sales and partner communications to highlight requests that have been implemented.

3. Create sales and partner advisory boards. Be sure to select a diverse set of members.  This group can be a sounding board for new initiatives or programs such as Sales Kickoff agendas, improvements to product launches, or training curricula.

4. Place Marketing and Sales in the same room. The most effective marketing people are those that spend time out in the field, accompanying reps to sales meetings and listening to partners.  You can’t regularly send everyone in marketing out into the field, but you can provide opportunities for greater interaction.  Send marketing people to sales training, where they can see what sales is learning, and build relationships and hear feedback directly from their classmates.   Have marketing folks who are involved in lead-gen and sales enablement activities participate in sales meetings and calls, so they can hear the issues and challenges Sales faces, and play a more direct role in helping overcome them.

5.  Plan together. During your annual planning process, ask Sales and Marketing executives to identify specific dependencies on each other.   The leadership team should then acknowledge  each dependency, and jointly make decisions about whether and how each organization will fulfill their obligations to the other groups that depend on them.  They should also agree on changes to the plan if the obligations can’t be met.  Such collaboration early and at the highest levels of leadership permeates through both groups.  (Of course, the same process should be used for the entire executive staff, not only the Sales and Marketing leaders.)

Marketers and Sales and Channel managers: Please share how your marketing organization gets feedback from your sales channels.

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Relevance – to your buyer’s company, industry, role, current business objectives and challenges, and personal interests.

Value – tangible value that specifically and directly links what you’re selling to what the customer wants.  Value is the intersection of results you have proved you can deliver, and the results the customer is looking for.

Uniqueness – Your secret sauce. That thing that only you can deliver, or for which you are known as the best or the vanguard.

Idea Design’s blog about asking is right on – and applies to businesses as much as to charities. At the end are three points that may as well have been written for businesses – here they are,  with business terms inserted:

“1. Be where your [customers and prospects] are. Hang out with them. Learn their language and be relevant to them.

2. If you want to [close deals] sooner or later you are going to have to ask for [the sale].

3. And when you do ask, ask in a way that is appropriate to your [customer]. ”

In a business, these apply to the sales reps, and to the rest of your organization.   Get your messages into the places customers look to for information (note – first place they look is not your website).   Your marketing, services, and product development / design staff should be attending the same events, reading the same publications, and participating in the same discussions on and off-line that your target audiences do.

Most sales people don’t have much trouble asking for a sale – but they often fail to do their homework and communicate why their offer should matter to the customer in the customer’s terms.  That makes the ask inappropriate.  To increase the frequency of yeses, increaes the relevance of your offers.  To make that relevance natural, as Idea Design suggests, hang out with the customers.

Given that segmentation is the cornerstone of marketing, I am often surprised at how little of it B-to-B companies actually do.  Company size and geography are often the only criteria for segmentation, with industry being a distant third. There are other ways to slice and dice.  A few ideas:

1. Look at customer characteristics such as tolerance for risk, speed of technology adoption, core business driver (are they technology-driven, customer-driven, supply-chain driven, etc.)  – some may be much more likely to buy from you than others.

2. Separate customers with different levels of familiarity and experience with your company and products – your objectives and sales approach will be very different.

3. Split companies up by specific situations, business processes, or use-cases that are common to an industry or a business models.   The solutions and services you offer them will vary drastically.

4. Define audiences based on their roles and responsibilities within an organization or within the decision-making process.   Also consider segmenting by organization structure and culture – highly hierarchical, process-focused companies need a different sale then flat and agile organizations.

5. This seems painfully obvious, but then again, its rarely done:  Segment based on actual customer objectives.   This one is difficult and takes account-specific research to determine who fits where.  So we tend to just assume that all companies in an industry, experiencing the same pressures (you know, the slide that says “Increased competition, Decreasing customer loyalty / ease of switching, regulation and/or deregulation, growing complexity of IT environment..”) must have the same objectives.  But in fact, some are looking to get bought, some want to grow internationally, some want to raise revenue from existing customers, while other are focused on boosting profitability.

Most companies also under-utilize the insights that segmentation provies.  Next time we’ll explore the uses of segment characteristics in various parts of your organization.

Comment and share some innovative segmentation criteria you’ve seen used by BtoB companies.

I came across a great summary of an all-too-common problem on the MarketCulture blog.  The article   recommends that companies focus “on a demand that needs to be met (rather) than a tech that needs to be sold.”  Well said!

Apple is a great example of what happens when a company switches from product to market focus.  Apple started as a product-focused company.  And almost disappeared, despite its loyal following among creative types.   Its computers were easier to use and better designed, but the mass market who needed easy-to-use computers wasn’t there until later, by which time MS had introduced Windows, washing away Apple’s design superiority.    While Apple was still focused on cool product design, MS wooed a broad community of application developers to meet the growing demand for specialized applications.  The need was for a broad range of software functionality, and Apple missed that completely.

But Apple learned.  When music sharing came along, launching wars between record labels and music enthusiasts, Apple  saw the need, and designed around it.  This time, Apple focused on the demand side, with savvy marketing and even more savvy ecosystem creation. Significantly, Apple didn’t give up its leading-edge product design competency in order to become market focused.

To all the entrepreneurs with great ideas, and the larger vendors touting product features: Spend time with customers to find out where they really will spend money.  Then DO make “products so good they don’t need sales and marketing.”   Then market and sell like crazy.

More ideas on cultivating customer contribution and creating opportunities for interaction by turning traditional marketing into Marketing 2.0

6. In-person events – These are expensive to put on, so why spend the entire time lecturing on information that’s already in your collateral? Third party presenters can be more interesting, but any lecture can get dreary fast. Give attendees lots of time to interact with you and with each other, while you listens and takes notes. Consider a workshop rather than presentation format so that the entire event is interactive.

7.   Trade Shows – This seems like a highly interactive event, but most booth staffers are so focused on doing the demos and spewing the spiel, that the opportunity to listen is lost.  (I adore alliteration.)   To change the mindset, make it clear you’re at the show to interact with and listen to customers, not just to be seen and heard.  Set objectives of specific information you want to gather from booth visitors or people attending your sessions.  Ask a few questions or give a short (5 questions max) survey before handing out the tchachkis, or organize mixers and events that have information gathering as an explicit objective.

If a widely open a conversation seems too much of leap, try these by first letting a small group of customers you know well contribute and participate, then open further when you’re comfortable managing a broader conversation.

Have you tried these or other ways to engage customers in conversations?  Share them in your comment!

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Turning Marketing into Conversations – Part 2
Turning Marketing into Conversations – Part 1

Social networking channels are not the only way to make your marketing efforts more interactive.   While you experiment with social media, you can make traditional marketing methods conversational too.

Getting customers to contribute to the substance in your marketing content, events, products will raise the value and trust customers place in them.   Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, demonstrates that  “labor enhances affection for its results.”

This week I’ll be posting a series of ideas on adding interaction and soliciting active customer engagement and contribution through traditional marketing tools.   Here are a few to start off.

  1. Value proposition and messaging – Starting with the obvious here: when crafting your claims of benefits, value, and ROI, ask your customers what benefits they’ve actually received.    Use these results to create your messages about benefits and value.  Then go back and ask customers if they “buy” the story you tell about how your product leads to business results. You’ll have messages that really resonate, and your will have created references that back up your story because they ARE the story.
  2. Collateral and White papers – Create a Wiki instead of static product data sheets, brochures, and white papers.  Provide a framework and some base content,  then give customers the ability to contribute.  You can moderate to ensure accuracy, of course.  With customers contributing,  you’ll have more complete, relevant, and trustworthy information.

Have you tried these or other ways to engage customers in conversations? Share them in your comment!

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Turn Marketing into Conversations – Part 2
Turn Marketing into Conversations – Part 3

Everywhere you look, its web 2.0, and even 3.0 with the central theme being interactive communication, user engagement, and the democratization of content.  But are we really interacting, or just blasting messages into the ether? Christopher Carfi’s recent post highlights a gem of a quote –  Leave it to the Amish to distill the essence of the shortcomings of much modern communication.

With so many channels for communication, it seems customers should be more engaged than ever.  Are yours?   If not, or if not enough, take a look at how much time you (and your marketing organization as a whole) spend on outbound marketing and messages, and how much on creating and participating in conversations with customers.

Your customers are participating in social networking and contributing to social media.  MyBlogLog, a site that attempts to consolidate data across multiple communities, lists 55 social media services. LinkedIn, Twitter, Technorati, Digg, Plaxo, a sea of blogging platforms…  And new ones pop up almost daily.

The good news is that there really isn’t hope or reason to maintain ubiquitous presence.  Instead, find out which ones your customers frequent, and design a process for participating in those.

Even better news: You don’t need to jump on every social media and networking tool in order to have conversations. You can make traditional marketing methods more interactive too.  Next time: Some ideas of how to do that.

As a follow-up to the previous post, here are some practical differences to keep in mind when planning for solutions marketing.

Solution marketing differs from traditional product marketing.  This is a partial list, of course, but 7 is supposed to be a lucky number, right?

  1. Solutions marketers understand what motives customers to allocate budget within the broader context for a purchase
  2. Solutions marketing content is focused on the buyer and their objectives, not the product or its features
  3. Solutions-oriented value propositions focus in on specific use-cases or situations in which the customer is involved.
  4. The solutions marketing process and programs provide information or resources that are valuable to the customer
  5. Thought leadership and value creation are critical components of solutions marketing
  6. Solutions marketing activity often involves collaboration with other companies (see broader context in #1)
  7. To ensure that all of the above are truly relevant, current, and valuable to your audience, Solutions Marketing must engage the customer in conversation and dialogue at every available opportunity.

Speaking of dialogues, please add to the list with your comments!

Companies used to selling products struggle to shift to “solution selling”.   There are lots of obstacles – product-oriented habits,  the never-ending argument of “what’s a solution, anyway?” (more on that in a future post), sales reluctance to adopt new techniques, etc.    Before we put the big strategy and sales kickoff program in place to “transform Sales”, however, lets first look upstream at marketing.

As any sales approach, solution selling starts with customer-relevant content, programs, and ultimately (we hope)  leads.  All supplied by marketing.   In this case, by Solution Marketing.   Understanding how its different from product marketing can pave the way to a smoother transition and solution selling success.

Solutions Marketing is about shifting your perspective and context. A solutions approach to marketing places your offerings within the context of the customers’ broader situation and needs.   It starts with the customer and their desired outcomes, instead of with you and your products. (Note – their objective is NOT to buy a product.)   Focusing on the customer’s broader context means solution marketing can encompass aspects of the customer’s needs that your own product or service may not solve.  The value prop IS the customer’s desired outcome, not your product’s superiority.

Let’s be really clear – “Solution Selling” and “Solution Marketing” are not the same as actually selling and marketing solutions. They are approaches to how your customers become aware of, learn about, interact with, and commit to your business. They don’t require that you actually offer a complete solution – only that you understand the role you play in helping customers achieve their objectives.

Ultimately, solutions marketing must support solution selling. That means giving sales reps and channel partners the knowledge and tools they need to carry the customer-centric view through the entire sales process and beyond.