I've just reviewed the results of a recent LinkedIn poll in which I asked the audience to identify the initiative that had the greatest potential to boost their organisation's sales performance in 2011.
Faced with choices that also included shortening sales cycles, increasing win rates, qualifying bad deals out earlier and improving sales and marketing cooperation, more than half selected "finding more qualified sales opportunities".
A Historic Problem
It seems that most B2B sales and marketing leaders recognise a continuing need to improve the quality of their sales pipelines by uncovering more qualified sales opportunities.
This is not a new problem. So why has so little progress been made over the years? Why do so many organisations still struggle to fill their sales pipelines with more of the right sort of prospects?
Balancing Inbound and Outbound Activity
The issue has been compounded by the declining effectiveness of conventional pipeline-filling outbound marketing techniques. Prospects are less likely than they ever were to respond to "push" marketing messages. They don't attend shows. They don't respond to emails. They are difficult to reach by phone.
So you need to balance your conventional prospecting activity with making it easy for your organisation to be found when your potential prospects start searching for a answers to a problem you can solve for them, and ensure that the initial impression you create is attractive enough for them to want to learn more.
The Need for Focus
Whether you’re trying to be smarter about conventional prospecting, or more effective at attracting inbound enquiries, the foundations are the same. You need to clearly understand what your most valuable customers look like, how you can best connect with them, and how and why they go about making buying decisions.
Your Most Valuable Customers
It’s no longer enough to identify your most promising prospects using demographics: you need to also identify with them by understanding their structural, environmental and behavioural characteristics. If you need to find more qualified opportunities, job #1 must be to develop detailed descriptive profiles of your most valuable potential customers in each of your key target markets.
Catalysts for Change
But few of these organisations will be in a current buying cycle. In fact, if you catch them once they are in a formally defined buying process you might have arrived too late to influence their criteria. So job#2 is to identify the most common issues facing your prospects that are likely to force them to take action - you need to understand their potential catalysts for change.
Mapping the BuyerSphere
Next - and this is particularly important if you are seeking to generate more well-qualified inbound enquiries - you need to understand the circles of influence that surround the key stakeholders in your potential customers. Where do they turn when searching for solutions, and who do they trust to give them advice? We refer to this as “mapping the buyersphere”, and it’s an increasingly vital exercise. Simply put, you need to get found when they start looking.
Articulating a Compelling Vision
Last, but by no means least, you need to give them a reason to want to learn more, and a mechanism to reach out to you. You need to ensure that your messages attract, educate and intrigue them, and convince them that if they enter into a dialogue with you that they will learn something that is to their advantage.
These four key foundations are fundamental to both conventional outbound demand generation and to inbound marketing. Whether you find them, or they find you, it’s critical that you establish good reasons for them to want to continue the conversation - and for you to ask intelligent questions that enable you to qualify their attractiveness as a potential customer to you early on in the conversation.
We’ve found that preparing issue-based conversation frameworks for sales people can help to perform both these functions - to provide your prospects with the insights they need to decide whether they want to take the next step in their buying journey with you, and for you to determine whether or not they have the potential to become a good customer.
We’ve found that vendors who master these four foundations usually have dramatically better quality sales pipelines. Just as important, because they are able to qualify potential opportunities more effectively, the pipeline does not contain the false opportunities that characterises all too many B2B sales pipelines.
A Final Test
I’d like to offer a simple suggestion. Take a sheet of paper, and quickly note down the following:
- The top 10 characteristics of your most valuable customers
- The top 10 issues that most frequently initiate a buying process
- The top 10 most important influencers in your key markets
- The top 10 reasons why your potential prospects should involve you in their problem solving
Take a moment to consider your list. How well does each member of your sales and marketing organisation understand the answers? How might the answers vary from person to person? How effectively are you applying the information? Are you qualifying-out as effectively as you are qualifying-in?
If you can identify the gaps or ambiguities, and implement programmes to resolve them, you will be well on your way to solving the problem of finding more qualified sales opportunities.