It was 2006. At that point, Linda Bishop says the economy was doing pretty well. But on the heels of a major recession and 10-plus years of getting back on track, every aspect of the business landscape has changed.
Bishop, the president of Thought Transformation, has a unique view from where she sits. As she consults with a variety of companies that crave business-to-business sales training, she realizes the B2B selling game may have gone through the most dramatic change.
“People primarily still used direct mail and printed material for communicating with customers,” Bishop says, noting there were also rising digital options, but not nearly to the extent we see today.
After the crash in 2007, every marketer’s budget got cut. “You had to do more with less,” she says.
Before she founded Atlanta-based Thought Transformation, Bishop sold printing for 17 years. “If you had the word ‘printing’ on your card, no one wanted to talk to you, because people didn’t feel you could solve the problem. When people are tasked to do more with less, they have less time to talk to sales professionals. It became, ‘Let me research this online, then pick two to three options,’ than I want to talk to you.’”
It was the rise of the empowered consumer.
When most people hear the word “consumer,” they think of an individual making a purchase. But the buyers within the B2B world are just as relevant, says Billy Mitchell, owner and president of MLT Creative, a B2B marketing agency in Atlanta states.
“The consumer in the B2B world is every bit as empowered as the B2C consumer,” Mitchell says. “They have the additional motivation that they better do their research and make the right choice because their job might be on the line. They may prefer to be 80 percent down the buyer journey before they even want to talk to a salesperson.”
Mitchell believes that when we buy for individual needs or desires, lifestyle is at the heart of the motivation. In contrast, B2B purchasing affects livelihoods.
The buyers within the business world are increasingly difficult to reach, which deepens the challenge of B2B selling. “It has grown more challenging to get a face-to-face meeting with a customer for the first time,” Bishop says.
“The consumer in the B2B world is every bit as empowered as the B2C consumer. They have the additional motivation that they better do their research and make the right choice because their job might be on the line.” —Billy Mitchell, President and Owner of MLT Creative
With empowered consumers, those in the B2B space need to reach out in a variety of ways. A simple phone call just doesn’t cut it anymore. Therefore, any seller who aims to succeed must find a way to stand out. Bishop believes print collateral offers a wonderful opportunity.
“If I’m a sales professional, say I make a call, and they’re interested,” she says. “I have two choices. I can email them something that gets pushed down in their inbox as soon as it comes in, or I can hand them a brochure that they touch – that makes a stronger memory – and keep. The average person in an office gets 120 emails a day and maybe three to five pieces of mail a week. That’s 600 emails a week. What stands out more?”
Bishop says we’re hardwired to live in a world of physical things. “In order to successfully sell today, you have to use all of them. They are all arrows in your quiver.”
And even though he’s on the marketing side, Mitchell also endorses the use of direct mail along with digital. “I think it (direct mail) actually breaks things up,” he says.
Mitchell also says that direct mail is presently just as data-driven as digital communication initiatives, which stomps on the stigma of snail mail being irrelevant in the digital world.
All about the value
But communication materials aren’t the only important item on the checklist. Selling today also pivots on how you provide value to your customer.
“You have to be more interesting,” Bishop says. “You have to be more relevant and bring more value to the person you are trying to meet.”
Everything from value-added extras to price can influence a consumer to make a buying decision. It’s imperative for B2B professionals to acknowledge that the buyer can make a split decision at any moment in the sales funnel.
“Every funnel has an exit,” Mitchell says. MLT Creative provides content marketing solutions for a variety of other businesses, helping to position clients as thought leaders, despite the overwhelming amount of content circulating.
“People now write about content shock,” Mitchell says. “Everyone’s got blogs; everyone’s trying to do something on social media. But the whole thing still comes down to providing helpful content to your buyer to make them more and more informed.”
That’s where value comes in.
And the more you stay in touch with your customers, the better you can add value. Mitchell likes to use the term “smarketing,” which is the sharing of objectives between sales and marketing and the corresponding measurement. “Smarketing” breaks down the silos between the two departments through software integration and collaboration.
Even Bishop has a catchphrase – “specific sells.” But you can’t be specific in your selling if you don’t know what the customer specifically wants. Listening can become much more effective if sales and marketing teams work together collecting data.
“The average person in an office gets 120 emails in a day and maybe three to five pieces of mail a week. That’s 600 emails a week. What stands out more?”
—Linda Bishop, President, Thought Transformation
While significant progress can be made though “smarketing,” Mitchell says sales and marketing are “two totally different departments and personalities,” thus making the collaboration part a bit more difficult.
“Even though the tools are there, it’s still two different types of worlds,” he says.
And that’s where the future of B2B selling may lie. If sales and marketing can effectively share objectives, they can create a more successful listening platform to better serve (and win) clients.
In the meantime, there’s still much to learn. “It’s a good time to be in marketing and sales,” Mitchell says, “but it’s not a place for lazy people. It’s constantly evolving, and it’s a never-quite-done-learning field.”
But that’s what keeps things interesting, right?