Marketers: Get Sales Experience

mark donnigan sales experience is essential for a marketer
Mark Donnigan

I’ve long argued that the chief marketing officer‘s primary job is to be the chief evangelist for their company. We can think of the CMO, CRO, and CEO as a three-strand cord. For the CMO to make the most of their role, they need to have a strong understanding and empathy for sales. It’s time to recognize that marketing and sales aren’t distinct realms but two overlapping parts of a single process. 

We know that capturing buyer attention in the B2B marketplace is harder than ever. To succeed, you need a firm grasp of your customer’s needs, and you must map the buyer’s journey so that you can be confident that your marketing activities are in alignment with where the buyer is at each step in their process. In this article, I explore why sales experience is essential for marketers, especially marketing leaders or those who aspire to be one.

Knowing Sales is Critical for a Marketer

B2B marketing is always evolving. In recent years, much of the emphasis has been on inbound marketing techniques to educate B2B buyers so that they will raise their hand (respond to a CTA), indicating that they want more information from the company about the product. But, as customers can do more research than they previously were able, they have an even more significant influence on the entire buying process. The days of the seller being able to control and pace the buying process are over. Now that business executives are referencing marketing and demand generation as the same (they are by the way), it’s time for many marketers to learn how to sell. 

For a marketer, the only way to successfully communicate with the buyer and influencers of a buying journey is to understand their process completely. And this requires that you have an excellent command of sales. The savviest sales professionals know how to engage with customers, answer their most pressing questions, and help tip the balance when undecided. Today, marketers must reach this same level of understanding, even if their practical experience can never reach that of a 20-year sales veteran. 

A few points for marketers to know:

  • The buyer’s journey has changed to become more fragmented and less linear. Buyers are likely to jump from stage to stage rather than proceed linearly through the funnel. Both marketing and sales teams need to be able to meet the buyer’s needs at every point.
  • The B2B process is becoming buyer-led. These days, customers are more educated and have access to more information. You should assume that buyers know as much as, if not more than, your team does about their needs and possible solutions. We are marketing at a point where the buyer has the power, and thus, we must orient around their journey of discovery and the steps they are taking to make a purchase decision.
  • It’s helpful to understand the distinction between marketing and sales. However, it’s even more important to align these two, as misalignment can be extremely costly. Without empathy for the selling process, it will be much more difficult to become fully aligned with sales.
  • Foster relationships up and down the sales organization to learn as much about the sales process as possible. This work requires real effort and, when possible, getting into the field. You can only learn so much listening to calls or reading transcripts. It’s essential to be in the room to see the facial expressions and hear the voice inflections.
  • Seek resources to keep learning about marketing and sales, especially as they pertain to your industry. Study, and constant up-leveling for the marketer is required. The sales profession is shifting rapidly, and staying on top will require work.

How the Buyer’s Journey has Shifted

The B2B sales process is getting more complex, and it involves more stakeholders as it’s stretching out over more extended periods. A DemandGen report from 2017 found that more than half of B2B buying centers have more stakeholders involved than before. Gartner has published survey results showing that influencers of a B2B purchase decision can number into the low double digits. This buying complexity creates more discussions and possible differences of opinion, which can cause delays in decision-making. 

As a B2B marketer, your job is to enable the sales process by driving awareness and providing accurate and relevant information to your target market. B2B buyers are naturally well-informed with a clear understanding of their needs, and they can do plenty of research while not being easily influenced by hype. Today, your customers are more knowledgeable and self-sufficient than ever, as the entire buyer’s journey has shifted.

The Buyer’s Journey is No Longer Linear

The buyer’s journey is a useful model describing the process that takes a customer from identifying a problem to ultimately choosing a product to solve that problem. However, the buyer’s journey is an imperfect model. Today, B2B customers are unlikely to take a linear route that fits the traditional Awareness, Consideration, Decision shape.

These days, the process is less linear and more fragmented than ever. It’s no surprise that Biznology found today’s sales process is 22% longer than five years ago. Buyers get information from multiple sources and often circle back to different stages. In 2018 at the Gartner Sales & Marketing Conference, Brent Adamson reported that most B2B buyers would revisit every buying job (i.e., the buying process stage) at least once before making a final choice. 

To make matters more complicated, you can’t assume that your prospects are only looking at your solution. Since they may be considering choices from multiple suppliers, you need to be proactive about guiding prospective buyers at every stage of the journey. The sales process plays an integral role here as it lets you influence people who may be on the fence.

Organizations that will succeed going forward will be those that materially simplify the purchase process for customers. Gartner

The B2B Sales Process is Buyer-Led

One of the most important distinctions to understand is that buyers today are better-informed and more in control of the buyer’s journey than ever. We can say confidently that the whole B2B marketing process is now buyer-led rather than rep-led. Consider the following:

  • A report by Accenture reveals that most B2B buyers are 57% of the way through the buyer’s journey before they even talk to a company rep. This is a critical insight for marketing leaders because it shows that when buyers respond to our marketing, they may be closer to deciding than some would suspect.
  • According to CSO Insights, 70% of buyers have fully defined their needs before engaging with a sales rep. If our content marketing and distribution are not 100% on-point, our competitors will be educating the buyer, making it extremely hard to convert them to buy from us.
  • Online reviews play an ever-increasing role in buying decisions. A Learning Hub marketing report says that 92% of B2B buyers are more likely to purchase based on a trusted review. This fact evident when professionals self-organize at meet-ups and on-line forums to exchange information.

All of this gives us a strong signal that today’s B2B buyers are becoming more independent and less reliant on the vendor when it comes to making purchase decisions. Some of this comes down to the easy access to information provided by the internet, social media, and industry forums. It also speaks to a different mentality when compared to buyers in the pre-digital age. Your B2B customers no longer want to be hand-fed every piece of relevant information. They insist on doing their research and only using marketing and sales interactions to supplement what they’ve already learned.

In a sense, you can assume that buyers know more than you do about their needs and what options are available. Customers have a strong incentive to research the issues that directly affect them, whereas you likely have broad industry or ecosystem information only. Your prospect will look at many of your competitors, compare features and prices, and possibly look at new products on the horizon. 

How Marketing and Sales are Merging

In this new normal, where the buyer is in control, marketing and sales must function seamlessly together to engage effectively with prospects and the market. The traditional silos between marketing and sales aren’t beneficial as they merge (I’d argue they already have, but many marketers just don’t know it). 

Without a grounding in sales, and a command of the ecosystem and industry that you are marketing to, your strategy will likely be incomplete and leave buyers frustrated. It’s time to abolish the designation of MQL (marketing qualified leads). The idea of MQL and SQL (sales qualified leads) is primarily seller centered and doesn’t serve any value to the buyer. As marketers take on a higher-order role in making sure that the leads they are producing for the enterprise align with the company’s business objectives, the result will be faster sales cycles, higher win rates, and larger ACVs. It’s not hard to see the similarities here with the job of sales, right?

Since B2B buying complexity is not a delivery problem from sales or marketing but is a buying problem, sales and marketing must jointly address it with high-quality, cross-channel information to help customers complete the purchase actions that they need to accomplish. In this reality, vendors assume the role of a guide to help customers navigate the buying process by using their deep technology, market, and ecosystem insights to help customers overcome or avoid obstacles they may not anticipate on their own.

Customers are giving sales reps limited access because they can now learn so much online. And this means sales leaders must discover other ways to equip sellers to make the most of the interactions that reps have with customers. Marketing is positioned to be a powerful ally to sales as it’s through consistent and carefully crafted thought leadership that marketing can open up high-value conversations that differentiate their offering from competitors, and cut through the plethora of information gathered online. Quality conversations created by marketing influence customer decisions that lead to bigger, better deals. 

In today’s B2B buying process, marketing fulfills the critical role of buyer enablement. If done correctly, this will be the swing factor in an account being “closed won.”

Marketing and Sales Alignment

Alignment across marketing and sales starts at the chief executive level since both teams must be working on common goals. If marketing is accountable for the number of leads (MQLs) produced, but sales is measured on revenue, there will be a fundamental disconnect. This is visible in many companies where the sales team complains about low quality leads from marketing. Is there any wonder why this is when marketing is optimizing for lead flow and not what percentage will close to revenue? 

Objectives are out of alignment across many sales and marketing organizations. While the two teams’ jobs will always be different, they need to have shared high-level goals that lead to pipeline (lead flow) and revenue targets. Since the marketing and sales functions are responsible for meeting specific objectives that are mainly the same, you will want to use the same data and dashboards for both marketing and sales teams. There’s no better way for a marketer to gain empathy for their sales colleagues and to understand how marketing can accelerate business goals than to share the same KPIs. 

Build Relationships with Your Sellers

Marketing and sales teams that regularly collaborate, communicate, and work together will make each other better. To inspire communication between your teams, institute a bi-directional and collaborative communication program.

Here’s an example of how one marketing team turned a sales enablement session into a practical workshop for their sellers and built a powerful pipeline-generating program.

  • Marketing gave sales a list of highly likely to buy accounts for the product and application while providing detailed information about why each account would be a great fit. 
  • Sales reviewed the lists and created Stage-1 opportunities for the accounts in the CRM.
  • After the sales team identified their target accounts, marketing hosted an enablement workshop where the assigned Account Executives built outreach plans to approach their target accounts.
  • Marketing then hosted a webinar explaining the product and its specific application, to which sales invited their previously identified high-value, targeted accounts.
  • After the webinar, marketing tabulated the generated leads and provided the top AE with a special prize. 

The example above is just one small way for marketers to engage with sellers to reinforce the company’s shared mission and business objectives. 

Always be Learning

Even if you have a good foundation in sales, there’s always more to learn. The following books are especially useful for marketers seeking to understand the changing relationship between sales and marketing in B2B environments, and those seeking to up-level their skills.

Inbound Selling: How to Change the Way You Sell to Match How People Buy by Brian Signorelli. For front-line sellers, sales managers, executives, and other sales professionals, including marketers, Inbound Selling is the complete resource to help your business thrive in the empowered buyer’s age.

The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. The Challenger Sale argues that classic relationship building is a losing approach, especially when it comes to selling complex, large-scale business-to-business solutions.

The Psychology of Selling: Increase Your Sales Faster and Easier Than You Ever Thought Possible by Brian Tracy. This book aims to give you a series of ideas, methods, strategies, and techniques that you can use immediately to make more sales, faster and easier than ever before.

The Sales Acceleration Formula: Using Data, Technology, and Inbound Selling to go from $0 to $100 Million by Mark Roberge. In today’s digital world, in which every action is logged, and masses of data sit at our fingertips, there is a process for building a sales team. Sales can be predictable.

Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. This must-read book is an examination of the psychology of compliance, which uncovers which factors cause a person to say “yes” to another’s request. 

Listen to Mark talk about sales and marketing alignment on The Startup Junkies Podcast:

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