Driving Faster B2B Purchases through Sales and Customer Alignment

The new customer

The way B2B buyers make purchasing decisions have transformed, but many sales staff continue to exhibit learned behaviors from a prior era. Sales once thrived from closing big deals, but now buyers make purchases incrementally. They chaperoned buyers through their purchase, but, according to Forrester, now 75 percent of the buy cycle is completed before sales is contacted. Sales feels their role is to persuade buyers to make a purchase, but the majority of buyers obtain evaluative information from nine or more independent sources before engaging with sales. These disconnects between buyer expectations and seller behaviors that are hard-coded into sales culture have crippled efficacy and efficiency. Only 50 percent of sales staff are hitting their quotas. Forrester has found that buyers don’t see value in their interactions with sales 97 percent of the time. To close deals faster and meet quotas more often, sales needs to be re-wired to meet the expectations of the modern buyer. They, and Marketing, need to systematically understand buyer expectations and use that information to align sales with those behaviors that buyers will see value in, which will help buyers make purchasing decisions faster, and increase close rates. Bridging the gaps Years ago, buyers looked to vendor sales teams as fountains of knowledge, insights and tools to help them be more successful.  The role of the sales person was trusted adviser and guide.  They helped companies identify unmet needs and guided them through the evaluation and selection process. Not anymore. Today, buyers expect sales people to specialize in listening. Listen to how buyers understand their needs, their approach to solving them, and how solutions they’re evaluating fit into the broader corporate ecosystem. The first step in bridging the gaps between buyer expectations and seller behaviors, is to create two sets of maps; one from the buyer’s perspective and another from the seller’s. The first map is called the buyer’s journey. It documents each step of the buyer’s process from the trigger point where a problem is first identified, through purchasing a solution and evangelizing it. The second set of maps documents internally held beliefs, processes and strategies, so the two can be compared. Both maps are created primarily through thoughtful, objective interviews. The result is a set of storyboards that document processes, expectations, and interactions for different personas, products and problem statements. The storyboards show why some sales are being delayed or lost, when buyers experienced something different than what they were expecting and, most importantly at all, what buyers needed from the vendor at each step of their purchasing process. We call these buyer tollgates. Jumping over tollgates Tollgates are barriers the buyer has to overcome before making a purchase, such as a business case or a presentation to management. When sales is focused on “buy buy buy” long before buyers are ready to make a purchase decision, it delays the purchase and is not valuable to buyers. By refocusing sales on helping the customer overcome their tollgates, sales can dramatically improve its value to the customer, close rates and shorten the sales cycle. The buyer’s journey map serves as a decoder ring to the buyer for sales. Over time, sales can instinctively pick up on indicators of where a prospect is in their process and what tollgates they need to pass to get to the next stage. Each time sales helps the buyer pass a tollgate, the buyer sees value in the interaction and is able to proceed to the next step faster. The most compelling way for a sales representative to improve their individual performance and earn a larger commission is to master the art and science of helping buyers pass tollgates. Background: The Sellers’ Compass™ New Business Strategies introduced the Sellers’ Compass™ in our whitepaper “Connecting Customer Experience to Revenue.”  The Sellers’ Compass is a framework for aligning marketing, sales, support and operations to how buyers make purchasing decisions and their expected experience with the vendor. At the heart of the methodology is the Sellers’ Compass™ itself, a ten-stage map of the buyers’ journey. This is our methodology for mapping the buyer’s purchasing process, including buyer tollgates and expectations in sales interactions. Sales operates most heavily in the Evaluate, Validate and Purchase steps. When the buyer’s journey map is completed for an individual brand, sales will be able to identify the step in the sellers compass a prospect is in and correlate it to specific buyer tollgates and expectations. The outcome is a sales staff that operates in a thoughtful way with scientific precision, rather than relying on gut instinct and traditional sales behaviors. Sales and marketing alignment A Harvard study found that those responding to an online lead within one hour were seven times more likely to get business from it, yet in a separate study they found that 23 percent of leads were never responded to and only 37 percent were within one hour. This is a substantial amount of lead leakage, where prospective customers are “disqualified” or fall through the cracks. 80 percent of those disqualified leads end up purchasing from a competitor. Sales is often frustrated by the quality of leads produced by marketing, and marketing in-turn sees that their leads are not followed-up on. Lead scoring based on journey maps and measuring where buyers are is a better technique to qualify leads and provide sales with meaningful context. Instead of telling sales a lead touched a piece of content, marketing can identify how fast the lead is moving through their purchasing process, what step they’re on, and what tollgates they need to overcome, so sales is equipped to make effective calls that will bring quality business. Change management Psychologists have compared the natural human resistance to change to our aversion to pain. Sales methodologies have been deeply rooted into sales culture and training. Change must be carefully facilitated, while navigating cultural and political constraints. It must be done incrementally, or risk being rejected by staff outright. Journey maps based on the Seller’s Compass methodology is a tool for helping staffs visualize the gaps between buyers and sellers and internalize the changes that can improve their performance and commission. Conclusion Sales staff needs to replace spray and pray and hard-selling techniques with a thoughtful approach to understanding buyers and helping buyers complete their self-directed journey. By helping buyers overcome their own tollgates, sales can become a valued asset to buyers, while accelerating the sales process and closing more deals. First published in MarTech Advisor.

AI in Email Tech: An Intuitive Touch to your Customer Engagement

Email is the best and the worst marketing tool. It is the ‘go-to’ tool for building mindshare, finding leads and nurturing sales opportunities. At the same time, email is considered one of the most annoying, unproductive, time-sinks of the day. Despite our daily griping about the size of our email inboxes, email is here to stay with higher volumes expected. According to Adobe’s latest email study, millennials expect their use of email to increase and can be expected to check their email more frequently than any other generation. Additionally, enterprise social networks like Slack were preferred by only one percent of the study respondents. Despite, or because, of our experiences and feelings, email users are stepping up to be ‘masters of their inbox’. People are becoming more selective in how they engage with email. Adobe found that:

  • 40 percent of emails are deleted without being opened.
  • Lack of relevant personalization drives brand dissatisfaction.
  • Email is effective for additional incentives to purchase (42%), not what to purchase (17%).
  • Time spent checking personal and work email dropped by 20 percent compared to last year.
Email has gone through various evolutions beginning with mass mail, segmentation, personalization to becoming true one-to-one marketing platforms that are tightly integrated into an organization’s marketing and sales ecosystem. While email is here to stay, the technology capabilities are rapidly changing. Artificial Intelligence Empowered Email Machine learning is helping marketers get more granular in their buyer/customer engagement strategies, more responsive to their needs and interests, and ultimately more adaptive in their marketing outreach. Dave O’Flanagan, CEO at Boxever, a customer intelligence cloud solution, believes that new technologies can be instrumental in aligning email communications to each recipient’s needs. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help to solve this problem. Intelligent solutions will learn from past customer experiences and interactions and use that insight to dictate what they offer those customers in the future.” Michelle Huff, CMO at Act-On Software, a marketing automation platform provider, sees email vendors increasingly adapting communications to context and looking to AI to bridge that divide and help their users anticipate buyers’ needs. “The convergence of technologies enables marketers to build Adaptive Journeys™ to support complex discovery and purchasing behaviors,” shares Huff. “Intelligent technology can activate adjustments in messaging in real-time to ensure the right content is being sent to a customer for any given scenario,” agrees O’Flanagan. “This ensures customers are getting impactful, personalized email engagements.” But, technology is not a silver bullet; making email effective requires Sales and Marketing to work more closely together. More Interactivity According to Huff, “Email is really the workhorse of marketing. It is what helps to further a relationship: It is the nurturing engine used to warm up, prime, reconnect and stay top of mind with your buyers and customers.” Manohar Chapalamadugu, Founder and CEO of Agile CRM, believes as does Huff and O’Flanagan, that embedded videos and interactive content will increasingly become the norm within emails. Allowing the reader to engage with the content either by sliding, peeling, pulling or zipping integrates email tighter with marketing automation to score customer behavior. O’Flanagan cautions that video and interactive content needs to be hyper-personalized to deliver true value. Huff advises companies to support email campaign with multichannel marketing. “By adding a display advertising element, marketing can bet on higher open rates and overall content engagement,” Michelle shares. “This can be two-fold: Retargeting email subscribers with ads across additional web properties to keep your brand top of mind as well as act as a reminder to open your most recently sent email or engage with your next email.” Data-Driven The trend that will have the most impact on email marketing is it’s becoming more data-driven. Huff states, “Being able to understand how a customer interacts and engages with your emails and the assets within it like CTA buttons, links and videos are digital breadcrumbs helping marketers better understand who their buyers are and where they are in their buying journey.” Becoming data-driven is tightly linked to email’s role in helping companies achieve a true 360-degree view of customers and enable real personalization. That means capturing and rationalizing all interaction data across the relationship lifecycle and investing in a centralized data platform to get a complete cross-channel view of customers. Yet at the same time, marketers will need to be more vigilant to their data and compliance obligations, prioritizing regular audits of customer data collected, ensuring that data is permissioned and sell-by dates enforced, as well as investing in third-party certifications. Huff advocates that “marketers and CMOs will need to look at privacy and compliance as weapons in a larger demand gen arsenal . One that is central to their brand promise.” Individualized Marketing By becoming more data-driven, email will evolve into what Act-On calls ‘adaptive individualized marketing’ to make smarter email marketing decisions about what the recipient should receive based on what is known about them. That will lead to true one-to-one marketing. “Marketers must build Adaptive Journeys personalized to each individual based on the unique behaviors and preferences of each customer,” shares Huff. “A brand’s engagement with a buyer should not be program based, but predicated on who they are, when they prefer to engage, and across the channel they most engage on. It’s about delivering value to the customer where they are and when they want it.” Adds O’Flanagan, “, brands must leverage customer data in an appropriate fashion and approach personalization subtly . To build trust and improve the overall brand experience.” Email platforms are crucial to operationalizing customer experiences . Behavioral data will not only determine where in a journey an individual is but what is the next best action (to borrow a term from Pegasystems) and when. Huff stresses that “measuring the impact of individual email programs and tying that back to a centralized data repository draws a more complete picture of the lifecycle end-to-end.” This enables the whole organization to better understand how to correctly impact micro-moments of influence and pain. First published in MarTech Advisor

How Employee Annual Performance Reviews Can Make Or Break Customer Experience

Companies have figured out their employees’ experience can make or break them in the age of the customer. Not that how satisfied and engaged the employee was never important; the difference today is that the causality between customer satisfaction, revenue and the employee has never been clearer. Human resources departments, a term which increasingly sounds like an oxymoron in today's climate, and their company leaders are slowly accepting that platitudes on posters about how much they care about employees are over.   Free food, ping pong and open seating are becoming passé as a result of companies proactively involving their employees to shape cultures and workspaces that enable them to be their best. The impact on customer experience as measured by the customer’s perceived value-add of key interaction points is justification for companies to continue on this path.  It’s a win-win-win.

One of the biggest challenges in customer alignment is change management — the rooting out of age old practices and sacred cows.  Many of which used to be the very foundations of what was believed to make an organization successful.  One such practice is the annual employee performance review. Employees today, regardless of generation, want continuous timely and relevant feedback. Not just to improve their performance but also in response to FOMO. Companies operate at a pace that demand employees be informed of changes before, during and after they’ve happened. Only through continuous meaningful feedback can employees continually adjust their priorities, work methods and skills to stay ‘vectored’ to company strategies and objectives .
To understand more about why and how the annual performance process actually hurts companies, I interviewed two experts that come to this discussion from very different perspectives.  Vip Sandhir is CEO and Founder of HighGround, and Michael Brenner, keynote speaker, author and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. Christine Crandell: Why are organizations are moving away from conducting annual performance reviews? Vip Sandhir:  While annual performance reviews are intended to give employees a holistic view of their progress, they are anxiety-inducing, can damage the employee-manager relationship, and worst of all, are backwards-looking. Today’s employees — especially Millennials — want to find meaning in their work, frequent feedback and recognition for their contributions. Organizations have recognized that annual performance reviews no longer fulfill employees’ needs, hastening the move to more continuous feedback models. Michael Brenner: I mostly agree. Employees loathe them almost as much as managers and most executives know they do not incentivize higher performance. Effective annual performance reviews with regular feedback may simply be effective only because of the regular feedback. When I had to give performance reviews, I had weekly feedback sessions with employees and those sessions alone drove higher performance. The annual performance review did not serve me as an employee, as a manager, or as an executive. Crandell: How can frequent performance conversations improve an organization's ability to deliver quality customer experience? Brenner: Gallup’s quarterly surveys on employee engagement show that the biggest factor in engaged employees is in having “a manager who seems to care about me as a person.” Frequent feedback allows the manager to check-in with employee’s performance but it also allows the employee’s goals to be reinforced, they allow for an explanation of how the employee’s performance is impacting the overall goals of the team or company. They also allow a discussion on ways to improve in near real time. And finally, they allow the manager and employee to discuss what it going well. Sandhir: Frequent performance conversations can empower employees to do their best work, which ultimately drives their ability to deliver great customer service. Just as sales teams now look to optimize the customer experience rather than solely focusing on hitting their targets, HR departments also need to adopt strategies that strengthen the entire employee experience. Rather than waiting until an annual review to address concerns and opportunities for growth, employees can initiate monthly or quarterly feedback conversations with their managers. In doing so, employees hit their goals more often and more effectively, which ultimately results in better serviced customers.

Successful CX starts with creating two-way dialogue between managers and employees – a tactic that can reinvigorate the passion and motivation workers need to make good on their promises to customers. Integrating peer-to-peer (P2P) feedback can also foster improved CX as our report found that this tactic reduces employee anxiety around performance check-ins. By leveraging P2P feedback, employees use insight from their colleagues to build upon their skills and meet customers’ needs in the process.

Crandell: What’s the best way for companies to ditch the annual review process?  Sandhir: Before rolling out revamped performance management processes, HR needs to get buy in from executive leadership and create a communication plan from the top down. Leadership teams want to ensure the HR platform encompasses the entire employee experience, so organizations should seek technology that’s nimble and can be customized to meet each employee’s needs and preferences. While it’s critical to get the C-suite on board, it’s just as important to ensure managers and employees understand why you’re making the switch, given they’re the ones most affected by it. From there, HR should arm managers with the tools they need to carry out frequent and productive conversations with their employees –  whether that’s a full performance management and employee engagement platform or a standardized document for check-ins. This training will allow managers to engage in conversations that excite employees, not intimidate them. Brenner: I completely agree that this cannot be just an HR-led initiative. And often the successful regular performance programs originate from leadership visions to improve employee engagement, to connect with employees on the overall vision, and to provide employees with a place where they are proud to work . My regular reviews include three simple questions: • How are you doing? • How am I doing? • How can I help? Crandell: How do preferences for performance conversations differ across generations? Sandhir: We found that Millennials are spearheading the push for more frequent conversations: 58% of millennial managers hold at least weekly performance conversations with their employees compared to only 39% of their Baby Boomer counterparts. When it comes to format (in-person vs. virtual) for performance conversations, we found that preferences are fairly consistent across generations. For instance, we found that Millennial managers are almost just as likely as Baby Boomers to hold in-person development conversations (59% vs. 62%). This is clearly one area where Millennials defy the stereotype for preferring technology to communicate. Crandell: How can performance feedback keep employees aligned to evolving corporate objectives and strategic plans? BrennerThe biggest gap occurs on vision and mission. Many companies state their vision as something like being the largest supplier of widgets. Their mission is sell more widgets. And who is inspired by that?

The vision should be a future goal that every employee would want to help achieve . The mission should define what impact the business has on customers. When these two elements are in place, every executive, manager and employee can start to ask, for every task, ‘does this support the mission and future vision?’

Corporate culture is defined by values. And values are reinforced by who gets hired, fired and promoted. Executives and managers need to consider more than just performance when making these decisions. We have all worked with smart and high-performing jerks. But a values-based culture would ask that employee to consider their behavior and the effect it has on the culture and other employees. Sandhir: Our report shows that there is a gap in communicating corporate objectives in the first place.  If executives are more transparent about what the target goals are each year, employees can think of their own goals in terms of how they contribute to the bigger picture. Development conversations between managers and employees tend to focus on employee-centric issues rather than the company’s goals – only 46 percent discuss company performance goals during check-ins. Though discussing an individual’s performance and potential areas for growth is essential, the most effective feedback conversations also address the company’s overall strategy and well-being as well as how an employee plays a part. To better align personal goals with overarching company objectives, managers should first reinforce the organization’s strategy, values and mission. From there, they can work with employees to craft attainable goals that contribute to the company goals. If, for example, a company goal is to inject more creativity into customer service, employees can add value by setting a personal objective to brainstorm new tactics for customer experience. By providing consistent feedback on progress, employees are reminded to keep their eyes set on the bigger picture rather than get caught up in the daily grind. First published in Forbes

4 Questions Every Small Business Must Ask About Artificial Intelligence

From Siri to Alexa, customers are becoming accustomed to AI-powered solutions and soon they will expect the same for their local businesses. Sure, an AI rollout can be daunting, but by adopting a strategic approach and adding smart software, small businesses will not only be able to differentiate themselves from competitors, but compete with the industry giants as well.   While many overcomplicate the technology, AI’s behaviors are predictable – it’s merely an advanced system that is trained, not told. AI mimics the human brain in the way that it learns. It starts with no information, and after being given thousands of pieces of information, is able to understand and make predictions about data it has never seen before.   AI will become a threat to small businesses if owners believe it won’t impact them, or isn’t already impacting them. The fact is, AI has the potential to drastically help companies of all sizes work smarter and more efficiently than ever before.   Before acting on an AI rollout, here are the top four questions small businesses should ask themselves:   What is it you are looking to achieve with AI?   AI can provide great value for sales, marketing, finance, HR, customer service, and more. Hone in on what exactly you are hoping to achieve with the use of AI – where do you need to increase productivity?   By setting highly focused goals, you will be able to develop a plan that prioritizes specific applications for AI technology. This way, small businesses can slowly adapt and familiarize themselves with the software, that will, overtime, drastically enhance the bottom line.   The most immediate benefit of AI is that it will provide immense efficiency. There will be less time entering data and more time getting valuable insight to augment decision making. There’s a mass amount of data waiting to be analyzed and AI will guide businesses on how to act.   What data has already been put into a system of record?   You’ll never hear the words “too much data” and “AI” used in the same sentence. AI systems become more accurate and effective as the volume of data increases. The big industry players have been accumulating business intel, reporting, and have already moved on to predictive analytics.   The first step in your AI project is to systematize your business. With the widespread adoption of cloud based solutions (SAAS) and the rapid reduction in the cost of storage and processing, the first step is to start instrumenting all elements of your business. Your website, your marketing activities, your sales – including the business that you “win” and “lose.”   Unlike huge, multi-national companies that are able to capture and process peta-bytes of data, small businesses have had access to significantly less data. This is changing with the adoption of cloud-based products and services and the availability of open data sets from governments and other providers. The goal for small business owners is to have the appropriate systems and infrastructure needed to go and analyze data and extract even more business value.   What is your ability to explore your business data and understand what’s going on objectively?   If you’re looking at the raw data it’s easy to “torture the data” to get the answer you want to be there – don’t fall victim to this habit.   Your goal is to generate several hypotheses from the data. Examine outliers and the associations between data elements. Be careful not to draw conclusions too early though, as outliers could be caused by “bad data” that needs to be cleaned up, and the relationships may not be strong enough to make any definitive conclusions. We often allow our personal biases and expectations get in the way of looking at data. The numbers don’t lie, but if we look at them expecting certain results, we may end up manipulating the information to meet our expectations. In order to take full advantage of AI, we need to be able to trust the numbers.   You don’t need to use expensive tools; use the reports and dashboards that are built into the tools you already have and approach the problem with an inquisitive mind. Look for the unexpected and when you detect something that’s interesting, create one or more hypothesis to explain what you’re seeing, and then set about to prove or disprove it.   Is your technology provider on the path to add these capabilities into their product to further automate and provide more meaningful insights?   AI will not provide any benefit if small businesses lack the IT infrastructure to support it. Start by upgrading your approach to IT – move toward a cloud-based resource that can support AI once implemented. Data is a prerequisite to introducing AI into a system, and a paper system is useless when it comes to incorporating AI.   Make sure your goals are aligned with the direction your software is going. If it doesn’t seem as though your software provider is working toward the same future as you, it might be time to consider another option. It’s important to ensure your provider is taking steps to remain relevant in the future of technology.   If you’re just getting started on the business analytics journey, begin by using the reports and dashboards that your systems have today. Become familiar with the digital assistants that are already on your smartphone; explore what they are already able to do and stay current with how these systems are evolving.   By making an effort to understand and embrace AI, small businesses are optimizing operations, improving customer-service, and growing their bottom line. Imagine where your company would be if you didn’t embrace the uncertainty of the internet or didn’t go mobile in the age of the smartphone. Artificial intelligence is the newest technology adding efficiency and intellect to small business – don’t be late to adapt; be better, faster, smarter operators with the use of AI. First published in Forbes