B2B Selling in the Digital Age

We chat with Manny Medina, CEO of sales acceleration tool company Outreach, about where salespeople, sales tech, and alignment with marketing is headed in the age of data, AI and digitally empowered buyers.

On B2B selling in the digital age

Sales professionals operate in the same hyper-digital environment as marketing professionals, but the B2B buyer's journey has changed so drastically in the digital environment that B2B sales professionals need to recalibrate their mindset, approach, and tools to achieve their goals effectively. In the digital buying cycle, salespeople come into the discussion much later (than they used to), and are dealing with far more well-informed prospects who have not only done substantial research and referencing before setting up the meeting, but who also expect a seamless experience similar to the B2C interactions they have in their personal life. Manny agrees that buyers are more sophisticated than ever - so sellers need more sophisticated tools. “The days of engaging buyers with generic stories about the need to change are far behind us. Every buyer’s journey takes its own path and sales reps need insights into each buyer’s unique needs and the ability to engage with highly personalized and relevant messages and content. That’s why content sharing and learning solutions like Mindtickle and Guru have seen so much success - they deliver real-time guided learning and content when reps need it”.

How can sales reps make themselves more relevant and what mindset changes do they need to activate in order to thrive in the digital environment? “Buyers are showing up to the first conversation with a lot of research and knowledge under their belt and expect sales reps to meet them where they are. A good sales rep provides a ton of value, especially in complex B2B sales, but selling today requires a mental shift. Reps need to change from sales mode to problem-solving mode. That's why the buyer has engaged - because they have a problem to solve. And a rep who understands that problem recognizes where the buyer is in their journey and can articulate a clear path to the solution will always thrive.” And that’s where sales tech comes into the picture. “Reps need technology that helps them not only identify who the buyer is and where they are in the journey, but also what actions to take to advance them to the next step”.

On social selling for B2B sales reps

We heard a lot about social selling when social media exploded as a strategic marketing tool a few years ago. What role could ‘professional’ social media such as LinkedIn play with ‘social selling’? is the notion of social selling even realistic? Manny’s take is that LinkedIn is a great tool for getting context around buyer’s, but it can also be a distraction. “I’ve seen SDR shops lose productivity when they introduce “social selling” into the mix. You can waste so much time hunting for that silver bullet on LinkedIn and other social channels but the truth is, the fact that you both root for the same sports team isn’t going to open the door. That’s not why people buy. People buy because they have problems to solve. Kitschiness and personalization will only get you so far if you’re not articulating how you solve a real business problem they have”. Salespersons may use sales tech to empower themselves and be more efficient, even more effective. But the basics are still crucial to pulling off a human-to-human deal. Knowing your customer and their context – better than your competition- is still the key to cracking the deal. “You’d be better off spending time reading their company 10K or 10Q or educating yourself on their market. Find out what’s top of mind for their CXO - those priorities get cascaded downhill. Think like a consultant - pick your area of expertise and go deep. If you’re selling ads, figure out if their current ads are effectively reaching their target demographic. If you’re selling IT figure out what innovations are disrupting that industry and if they’re prepared to deal with them. If you’re selling HR software see if they are hiring or what their Glassdoor reviews say”.

On sales and marketing alignment

Alignment between sales and marketing has been referenced as one of the big rocks for modern-day business. As we discuss the real challenges with sales and marketing alignment, it is obvious that technology is not one of them. Between martech and sales tech, it is easier than ever for these functions to streamline and orchestrate their roles. For marketing to know what became of the leads they developed and for sales to participate in the process of defining the best prospects. Says Manny “up to this point marketers had no way to test messaging within a sales funnel. They would establish personas, and messaging, use those in their lead gen efforts, and enable sales to use them - but as soon as that lead got handed off, they had no idea how it was actually handled, what conversations reps were actually having.” Sales and marketing technology are enabling transparency around each other’s actions, helping to ensure consistency in the brand voice, as well as enabling marketing to serve the last mile needs of the sales reps better with the right content and assets. When marketers have more visibility into what’s working for sales, they are able to fine-tune their efforts and consistently deliver better leads.  

On CRM’s ‘adoption problem’ and the new-age sales enablement platform

Sales tech has never seen the kind of enthusiastic adoption by sales teams as marketing has. CRM especially - the poster child of sales enablement technology - still has adoption challenges even after all these years. In an interview with MarTech Advisor in late 2017, Tom Libretto, the CMO of Pegasystems had said that the reason CRM implementations tended to fail is that the CRM system itself was built to be more of a sales ‘administration' tool where the ‘R’ stood for Records and not Relationship.

We asked Manny about his personal experience as CEO of a sales enablement tool (Outreach) and what CSOs could do to drive adoption. Specifically, what are the common mistakes sales leadership makes when it comes to deploying new tools and technologies to aid sales productivity? The reason CRM has never really been adopted by sales is that it was never really designed to help them. CRM is a place to store and report on data. But it does nothing to help a rep sell - it's not a place where reps execute sales activities, it doesn't manage the sales workflow. That's why CRM engagement measured in weekly active usage across deployed seats is less than 15%. Outreach, on the other hand, is a place where reps live and breathe, it's where they execute all of their sales activities, it’s where they manage all communications with prospects. And that’s why we see over 80% of our users become weekly active users within a few of weeks of deployment”. In the same interview, for example, Mr. Libretto called their solution a ‘guided selling platform’ that is able to motivate salespeople to use the system because of the really valuable insights around customers it could generate. So, the ‘new-age’ sales enablement platforms need to be not just able to give sales reps (users) a comprehensive ‘environment’ wherein they do everything related to their sales activities, but also be able to promise more than basic customer data as an outcome of all the input data needed - it needs to prescribe next best action, predict success and also drive bigger and better deals with the customer insights they can mine. That is why technologies such as machine learning, AI, predictive analytics and data-driven lead management are scoring big with the sales tech vendor fraternity.

On data-driven CSOs and data-enabled sales teams

CSOs need to become more like CMOs - maniacally data-driven. That wasn’t possible 5 years ago because they simply didn’t have the data - but all of that has changed. We’re finally at a place where the data about sales activity and outcomes is available because sales reps are executing sales activities - calls, emails, social touches, etc. - inside of a (sales enablement) system. So now sales leaders and all of their reps on their teams have visibility into what’s working and what’s not. Everything they do should be measured and tested.

However, unlike marketers, it seems that the pressure to do data-driven everything and to be data-driven decision makers hasn’t yet percolated to the sales force. Data tends to be something referred to at the time of annual planning- not on an ongoing basis to make ongoing relevant decisions. We asked Manny about his personal experiences with data-driven decision making. “Sales owns some of the most expensive resources in an organization: headcount. And anything you can do to drive better performance and results from that investment will have a significant bottom-line impact. When we started Outreach we ran a lot of tests to determine which strategies and messages drive the highest response and conversion rates with prospecting. In one, we tested the old adage about personalization - the more highly personalized your messaging, the better it will perform. But when we looked at the data, we learned that wasn’t really the case. For a subset of personas and use cases, personalization made all the difference but for others, highly personalized content actually performed the same as or slightly worse than standard content. So, we quickly pivoted away from investing hours in researching prospects and personalizing emails, except for the cases where the data told us it made sense to do so. It's a simple example but without this insight, our outbound team would be wasting many hours every day on activities that don't increase results. That's a big deal”

On the sales tech trends to look out for

Manny is on the machine learning team. “Not only can the machine make data-driven recommendations that help reps take the right actions at the right time, but both machine and human can learn from the outcomes of those actions to continuously improve. In the next couple of years, machine learning will change the game by delivering these insights to reps right inside of their workflow. One area where we expect to see a lot of innovation is around analyzing communications - content, timing, and channel - to determine the most effective ways to engage a buyer”. AI, big data, and predictive analytics are poised to change the way Sales tech empowers salespeople to do their job. Where CRM helps organize their contacts, AI has the power to help predict just who will convert and when with truly actionable insights it surfaces. But Manny ends on a cautionary note, that “salespeople still tend to trust their own intuition and experience” – so any machine enabled system has to let both - the salesperson and the system – learn as they go, instead of just prescribing actions to the salesperson from a highly intelligent black-box.

By Chitra Iyer