For the past 3 years Dan Bernoske has been in high demand as a sales and marketing consultant with Sales Benchmark Index (SBI), with a focus on helping B2B companies attain their revenue goals. Prior to SBI, Dan held business development, sales, and product management leadership positions at several start-up companies developing Apple iOS platforms and E-Commerce-based social networks.
In this interview, Dan discusses what it takes to succeed in today’s B2B sales landscape.
The B2B sales landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years. Talk about the most dramatic of those changes and what they mean for B2B sales.
There’s a new A player today. What does that mean? It’s somebody who’s a social seller, using LinkedIn to prospect, to form relationships and nurture those relationships. It means being aligned with the buyers, so using buyer personas and buyer process maps. It boils down to aligning to the buyer and speaking their language in a very strategic manner.
The sales rep of today is very different from the past. I began seeing the shift before I came over to SBI 3 years ago. One of the changes that I saw back then—and the big reason I came to SBI—is that of focusing on the customer first. Like many others, I used to go into a sales presentation with a PowerPoint deck front-loaded with information about me, my company, what I could do for them—really about that product pitch. But then I noticed that I started getting a lot more traction when I started listening to the customer first, doing almost a research exercise up front to understand their problems. They were then more receptive to what I had to say.
How important is social selling in sales strategies today?
It’s absolutely critical.
To start with, it begins with prospecting — that’s a huge part of it. Social prospecting is all about making connections, then expanding your network and activating that network by having conversations that are meaningful to those new prospects. That’s how you open up the door. Today, that’s happening through LinkedIn. When we look at LinkedIn, it used to be used as an online résumé, but now it’s clearly viewed as a platform to generate leads, grow your network, harvest your network; all that really started happening back 3-4 years ago but really it’s pervasive now.
One of the great things is, when you reach out to someone through social, they can see who else you’re connected to. So oftentimes it would be a 2nd or 3rd degree connection, but mostly 2nd degree, and you have a lot of luck there. The second area is providing really targeted insight, because you can see what they’re all about online. You use their own words, build on that, offer them insight and lead them towards whatever solution you’re offering them –a solution that would help them.
The other aspect of social selling is account development. Once you’re in the account, you’re not only providing the insights but you’re also helping the individual out.
I’ll give you an example of just providing assistance. One of the top-of-mind issues for many VPs of Sales is acquiring and retaining top talent. One of the best things you can do to nurture that relationship is to connect possible sales candidates to that VP of Sales. You do things that are actually outside the current scope of your products because you truly want to help this guy, this individual, this persona. And you can do that through social.
Of course, there are always the offline activities for a salesperson, too. Walking the halls will never be dead. Your online activities need to lead to offline results. Walking the halls is still very critical.
Can you provide an example of successful social sales application you’ve seen in your consultancy?
I talk a great deal about the importance of the buyer persona, and we’ve had a lot of success with that. Knowing, having, and using a buyer persona affects a lot of areas of the business. If you have a really solid persona as a foundation, then what happens? Marketing content and campaigns become much more targeted. You develop effective campaigns that that fill the funnel and then also fuel the social.
If you have really well-identified personas, then as a seller what I would do is go to LinkedIn and tag my connections as personas. Now I can filter my entire network by a particular persona type, then go back to Marketing and rely on content that is specifically targeted to that persona. I then start to nurture my social network with that content. So it becomes very, very targeted one-to-one-based insights that you’re providing. That is where we’ve seen pretty good success regardless of the industry.
Precision Sales Strategies and Sales Processes
For companies that come to you complaining of flagging sales, are there factors that are most common that you almost always see coming? If so, what are they?
Of course factors can vary widely company-to-company and industry-to-industry, but I’ll say this: it very often boils down to a sales strategy.
We actually did some research recently and we found that 78% of the companies that we’ve been surveying and working with either don’t have, or have the wrong sales strategy. That’s a pretty overwhelming factor. So either they had the same strategy as their competitors, or they are not aligned with the buyers, or they had tactics that they’re calling strategy. Whatever the reason they don’t have it. And that’s a huge problem.
If you really look at a sales strategy, it’s an operating plan for the sales force. It’s how you allocate your resources for driving down costs, driving up revenues, all of those things. If you don’t have that in place foundationally, nothing works that well.
Much of the time this comes about because the company either hasn’t taken the time to think out a sales strategy, they just pulled it out of the air or—a big problem—they just evolved it in a vacuum, in one of those traditional silos between arcane product and sales where the organizations weren’t talking to each other. When you don’t align with product, don’t align with corporate or marketing, that’s how you get out of whack real quick.
A good strategy starts with segmentation: you identify your market, chop it up and then plan around it. It’s how you allocate your budget to address the segment. Then you start to engage the end user and the buyer, and that’s where the sales process and prospecting comes in.
Much of the time a sales process, like a product strategy, is missing the mark as well. It goes back to product pitching—there’s still a lot of that out there. So how do you change both the language and the approach? It starts with the buyer first.
There are a lot of sales processes that are very internal, like “How do I enter a lead into CRM?” which is a very tactical thing. In the older days a typical line item in a sales process would be, “Give customer terms and conditions.” Today it needs to be more like, “Hold a discovery meeting to find out what the problem is.”
Could you share some experiences in your consultancy with regard to the sales process?
For a large Fortune 50 company that we’re working with, we’ve rolled out a sales process in one of their regions. There are always a lot of factors that go into the success or failure of a region or company, of course, and we can’t stake claim to all the success being on the sales process. But this region adheres to a sales process, and out of four regions they were the only one at the end of last year that were actually up. They’re up 7%, while the rest were down one or two points.
Now there are obviously a lot of factors that go into that. There’s economic factors that are unique to each region, you have to factor in products, the list goes on with all the things that get factored in. But the fact of the matter is that when you have the benefit of this consistent go-to-market strategy that’s standardized across your entire sales force, it’s basically “As the tide rises all boats rise with it.” It was a solution that worked out so well that now we’re expanding it into the other regions. The other regions originally said, “No, we don’t need it.” After seeing the successes, and especially hearing it from sales reps, the other regions are now interested in pursuing the sales process that they earlier ruled out.
The benefits that give them the added incentive are working shorter sales cycles, and larger deal size. Bigger deals come about because you’re actually identifying and targeting the right personas up front—the real decision makers. Then you also bake in adding value—you’re really adding value to the conversation and then value to your solution. We all know that when you demonstrate value you can demand a higher price, so you get a better average deal size. And then the close rate increases as well.
That’s what happened not only with this example but with several companies when it came to the sales process.
What were the other regions using as a sales process, or were they using any at all?
It fell into one of three categories: One, they didn’t have a sales process at all. Two, they had a sales process but it wasn’t adopted. There’s something we call “shelfware” where you create this beautiful process, a great PowerPoint, but if management does not reinforce the use of it and really force it out into the field, it just sits on the shelf and does nothing.
Then the third scenario was that they had a sales process but it was just a bad one. For instance a lot of sales organizations confuse a fulfillment process with the sales process. People look at a sales process as “Fill out the terms and conditions, complete the forms, submit the order and install.” That’s not a sales process, that’s an implementation process, and a lot of organizations will move forward thinking that’s a sales process.
Join Hands with Marketing
In your consultancy, you deal in equal parts marketing and sales. Has it become more necessary for the two to be more coordinated, and if so why?
Yes, definitely. When you look at lead generation and lead management, how you’re filling the top of the funnel, marketing today is less about branding and fancy campaigns and more about the quality of leads you can push through the funnel. And that handoff to sales is absolutely critical.
Sales and Marketing need to fully agree on lead qualification. It’s very similar to the IT world in which you have a Service Level Agreement (SLA)—that’s what you want between Sales and Marketing. You have the leaders sit down in a room and agree on a couple of things: What does a good lead look like? What is your response time to that lead? If the lead doesn’t go anywhere, how quickly and how are you going to get that lead back to marketing to further nurture it? Because you don’t want it to die and go over to the competition. So those three things constitute something like an SLA, and that’s what helps define that handoff that we’re talking about.
How would Marketing fit in with the sales process?
In addition to the handoff we just spoke of, Marketing is just as much if not more about content, real good content marketing. It’s about providing commercial insight throughout the sales process. Marketing is paralleling the sales process as it goes—injecting insight and enabling the sales rep to keep the momentum rolling forward.
So much of sales hinges on the buyer persona, as I touched on earlier. The buying persona, combined with the buying process map, guides your way. It all begins with a compelling event—something happened that put them into the market.
And they’re asking themselves, “What caused this problem?” As a sales rep you want to go rolling into that meeting knowing that they’re asking themselves that question, and marketing should be able to provide a couple pieces of content to the sales rep so he goes in armed with some things that support solving that problem. Something like “Five ways to identify what caused my problem,” or “How to mitigate the problem in the future.” You have content that actually specifically speaks to the persona right where they are in the buying process.