6 Insights on Building Sales Pipelines: Funneling the Prospect from Content Asset, Social Share, Email or Call to Closed Deal

15 Nov
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Whether we call it a pipeline, a funnel or admit it’s just a totem providing us a way to talk about the buyer’s journey, businesses need something to use to map the sales process. We decided to see what the experts say about the cartography of those strategies. How are they tracking the elusive, wild prospect? How is the desirable beast’s behavior changing? What new processes and technologies are being used to land the big ones? And, what mistakes are marketers making as they build their pipeline, funnel, and neural network, whatever you want to call it, that’s designed to move leads through the stages of a sale. See how we do it and then read our interviews to learn from other marketing leaders.

We engaged following marketing and sales executives to answer those questions:

Samuel Adler, Director of Global Demand Generation and Analyst Relations at Zuora (Zuora designs and sells SaaS applications for companies with a subscription business model). John Wallin, CEO & President, Accelera Innovation (Accelera is changing the landscape of what technology means to the healthcare industry). Susan Enns, B2B Sales Coach and Author, B2B Sales Connections. (Sales Connections is a resource for anyone involved in B2B selling). Chris Sullens, President & Chief Executive Officer at Marathon Data Systems (Marathon provides a fully integrated suite of cloud-based software, mobile software and marketing services solutions). Dave Scholten, Commercial Segment Manager at Gordon Food Service (GFS is the largest privately held food service distributor in North America). Giles House is Sr. VP & CMO at CallidusCloud (CallidusCloud provides solutions that help sales and marketing to close more deals for more money in record time). Jennifer Johnson, CMO at Coverity (Coverity, the development testing leader, is the trusted standard for companies that need to protect their brands and bottom lines from software failures).

SocialAgenda Media: What sales pipeline building strategies have you tested and discarded due to lower ROI? What nuggets remained in your bucket?

John Wallin: The key to sales pipelines are at the front end. Specific markets and targets need to be established to insure that the prospects are companies that can grow their business with our value proposition, solutions and collective experiences. We establish specific metrics that the key account manager and sales team must meet to be a candidate for our company. We believe in “Growth at the right price,” for all parties. We are a growth company and we go to great lengths to partner with other companies that are also growth oriented.

Giles House: Probably two answers to this question. The easiest trap to fall into is buying low quality lists. We get inundated with emails every day with people offering us lists. The quality on those lists is generally very, very poor. So that’s one of the easiest things to discard. Instead we look to our own website and we try to capture more intelligence about the visitors there. 90% of visitors choose to remain anonymous, but there’s a lot of rich information you can still get from them. We use one of our internal solutions to monitor those people and take a guess at who they are based on the type of people our sales wants to engage.

As far as nuggets, we scaled back our Adwords strategy for a while, but we’ve turned that up again and it’s yielding good returns. SEM programs can be dismissed all too easily but mapping out the audience and where they are in their buying journey helps you to put the right offers out that will resonate with the buyers and prompt conversions.

Chris Sullens: In the past we’ve tried purchasing lists to cold call or email and have found that, at least in our target verticals, it is never worth the investment. What has worked well for us is seeking out opportunities to get in front of our target audience, face to face. We look for opportunities to speak at industry events, exhibit at trade shows and we host our own half day meetings where prospects and existing customers can come to see a short demo of our products, participate in a Q&A session and join us for a networking lunch. This allows us to make personal connections with our prospects so that when they are ready to buy they think of us.

Jennifer Johnson: I think there still is a place for traditional outbound programs such as tradeshows and direct mail. For certain industries or markets where we are trying to build awareness, tradeshows are still a good investment from both an awareness and pipeline generation standpoint.  I have found the most effective way to maximize pipeline building, regardless of program, is to have tight coordination between the marketing and sales teams on lead follow-up—making sure the follow-up is part of the campaign execution itself, not a bolted-on piece at the end.  For example, if you are going to execute a targeted campaign which includes email or direct mail, make sure the lead qualification or inside sales team is coordinated in terms of getting insight into when a prospect engages and how they engage, and then tailor the follow-up timing and pitch accordingly (that could mean in real-time, as the prospect is engaging).  Bringing the lead in the door is only half the battle—it’s what you do with it once you have it.  And that is sometimes an overlooked part of the process.

Sam Adler: In the past we’ve done list purchasing and big blasts of emails to the healthcare industry or other verticals, but I’ve found that purchasing lists usually does not do well. My favorite strategies are search engine marketing and display advertising because you can watch how much you’re spending, what your conversion rates are, how many form fills you get, how many opportunities you get from that and how many deals close depending on how much spend you’re putting into it, so you can kind of turn the dial until you max out on the strategy. Those are my favorites because they are the most controllable.

Dave Scholten: We have to be careful not to offer, “what’s hot”, when it might not be relevant to the customers. Also, if you don’t earn to right of offer an insight, then you just insult them.

Susan A. Enns: There is no question that our lead generation techniques have changed over the years.  For example, we have found that some bulk direct mail practices we used to use were not as effective as they once were, whereas others that are more customized to the particular prospect are more effective.  Also, because more people are reading their emails on their smart phones, prospecting emails longer than 200 words do not yield the same responses they used to.  We have also seen that heavy use of graphics in newsletter emails reduced response rates for the same reason.

Having said that, some of the old tried and true techniques of yesterday, if properly executed, still work as well today as they ever have.  This includes networking, telemarketing and cold calling.  Believe it or not, fax broadcasting is still a prospecting method that works extremely well for us.

As I said, they key is the lead generation technique must be properly executed, and should be tracked to ensure it yields a proper return for the dollars and time spent.  We track this right to the actual sales dollars produced, not just the number of leads generated as we feel this is a better measure of effectiveness.  If a prospecting method can be inexpensively automated therefore not requiring a lot of human intervention to implement, often the ROI can be very high.

Overall, we have found that a diversified prospecting approach works best; one that includes the best of the old, coupled with the best of the new.

SocialAgenda Media: What shifts in buying behaviors do you notice for your vertical? How do they redefine the buyer’s journey and your demand generation and sales processes?

Giles House: The biggest shift is that prospects tend to remain anonymous for a longer period of time than they used to even only a couple of years ago. People talk a lot about the hidden sales cycle where 60 to 70% of the sales process is taking place without the help of a sales person. Sales is getting into the game a lot later and then playing catch up. I think that’s maybe the biggest trend.

Another trend is that buyers are on social and not just the B2C ones either. Social has started to be “de-fluffed” and is now being seen as a valuable tool. There was all this hype about social but people are now starting to really understand it. It’s a good awareness tool and a way to raise discussions and attract new people into the top of the funnel, but it’s also a good lead-gen tool. We drive people to our website and to our webinars and we trace exactly where they’ve come from. The growth of leads and opportunities from the social channels that we’ve been tracking over the last 18 months is palpable. We’ve seen a really great traction.

John Wallin: Everything is under more scrutiny. Margins are shrinking; customers want compressed timelines to insure a quicker path to ROI. The two key words we focus on in the key account sales process are, “Managing expectations.” Sales calls are now a critical measurement of what we have done at the front-end. The days of horizontal sales calls are over, they have been for some time. Everything is measured on how it contributes to our targets and value proposition to our investors.

Chris Sullens: Prospects today want to be able to gather information and get many of their questions answered online before connecting with a salesperson. Our focus has shifted in recent years to making it easier for them to get the information they need through our website(s) and blog(s). Group demos and webinars also work well since prospects can join if they have time and don’t feel the pressure associated with connecting directly with a salesperson.

Dave Scholten: The recent shifts include where our customers can get their information, many more avenues to get information.

Jennifer Johnson: We sell to development organizations—yet developers are naturally skeptical of marketing and want to try the technology in a frictionless manner.  So we are looking at new ways we can create a more frictionless experience to shift more of the buyer’s journey through digital mediums (e.g. targeted, frequent content delivered via inbound channels) and self-service product trials.  Put the product in the developer’s hands and get them hooked.  Then once they have qualified themselves and are ready to engage, hand it over to sales.

Susan A. Enns: The biggest shift we see is that every prospect is more educated these days.  They have much more information at their fingertips and are not hesitant to use any and all of it in their buying decisions.  What this means is that our sales process must be more diligent in our fact finding to ensure that what prospect thinks he needs based on his initial research actually matches what he really needs based on the sales representatives product knowledge and expertise.  Also, as more and more communication is conducted by smart phones now, the information provided must be much shorter and much more to the point than it could be just a few years ago.  When properly done, the prospect gets what he need to make his buying decision quicker and is much happier with his purchase in the long run.

SocialAgenda Media: What processes and technologies do you use for optimizing the buyers’ journey and pipeline management, and how did you arrive to these choices?

Dave Scholten: Collect data, listen, and think prior to offering ideas.

Jennifer Johnson: Digital channels—social media, web, and trials—are a rising part of our demand generation program mix.  But the key here is providing relevant, compelling content on a frequent basis.  Developers don’t want ‘marketing fluff’.  They want technical content that clearly shows them how the technology will help them be more productive, solve a problem, etc.  Then they want to hear from other developers who they trust—if another developer says ‘Try this out. It’s pretty cool technology that helped me do x/y/z’, they are going to try it out.  Then you need a frictionless way to get them to experience the technology, and a clear path to continue to engage.  When they get to a certain stage, it gets handed over to sales.  However, that’s not to say that good old-fashioned outbound prospecting and appointment setting isn’t still effective.  Especially if you are entering a new market where you have low brand awareness, it takes a long time to bring people to you inbound.  Sometimes you need to go find them and educate them on your offering and value proposition.  We have a lead qualification team that does both inbound lead follow-up and outbound prospecting against target account lists—both sources are equal contributors to pipeline.

Giles House: Stage one is getting them in the funnel. You have to keep your house list of names fresh. We’re always doing what it takes to get more names in there. Some of it is technology. We use our own marketing automation intelligence technology with our website visitor intelligence to help dramatically but it’s also about mixing up tactics. For our industry, selling to sales and marketing professionals, there are lots of organizations and groups we’ll partner up with and do joint webinars and events. They have a similar audience to ours and offer a new place for us to converse with new potential prospects. Automation can then take over and keep the conversation going. The buyers get the information they need without having to engage in tons of phone and email interactions. So the automation is important and then tracking it all the way through to the closed deal is really important as well. This is the tricky part.

We get a view of what is engaging our customers and our prospects from our automation technology. But then when the sales guys are interacting it’s really important from a marketing perspective that we see what they’re sending out and how they’re communicating to that customer. From a content perspective, from a budgeting perspective from a conversation perspective we’ve got to track and see what things are really turning these people on and which things are just a waste of money.

The raw data you capture by using these technologies is very insightful. We can see everything that’s happened in any deal; what campaigns we sent, which ones they interacted with, when did they become a lead, when did the sales person take it over, and then, with the content management piece that a lot of companies are lacking, (and I really don’t understand why) we can see what interactions the sales person had with their buyer- the content and conversations. I believe knowing all that is fundamental to my team, and any marketing team, in creating that content and helping the sales to navigate their buyer’s journey.

Chris Sullens: To better understand our customers’ buying process, we conduct Win/Loss calls after prospects have disengaged from the sales process. We ask them questions like what prompted them to start looking for software, who was involved in the process and what factors influenced their final decisions. We are constantly refining our sales tools, collateral and process based on the information we gather from these calls.

Susan A. Enns: We use a variety of processes and technologies for our pipeline management.  This includes an off the shelf CRM system that we have customized for our own needs, an email marketing service for all our outgoing communications, and several internally designed website tracking systems so we can monitor our visitors’ navigation and content preferences.  We also use Google Analytics to see which of our SEO and Social Media linking initiatives (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube) drive the most traffic to our website.  Every system we use is tracked for effectiveness so that we can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

SocialAgenda Media: What most common mistakes do you observe marketers making while building a sales pipeline and moving leads through sales stages?

Sam Adler: I think the biggest mistake people make is blasting the prospect with unrelated content causing them to unsubscribe. What smart marketers do is try to figure out who the person is and what their interests are by watching where they’re going on your website or what their answers are to the questions you’re asking on forms and then giving them customized content that speaks to them. Those are the conversations that work as opposed to the kind of forced automation that is not customized.

Chris Sullens: One common mistake we see is focusing on quantity over quality. Marketers can get caught up in numbers like website visits and clicks and lose sight of the important things like conversion rate and lead quality. Another mistake is focusing on making sales instead of building relationships. We want our customers to think of us as a partner and a resource to help them solve problems. In B2B sales it’s also important to understand what the customer’s customer wants. Marketers often fail to communicate how their product will help the prospect satisfy their customer’s needs. Another common mistake is talking “at” prospects, focusing on products and using too much jargon instead of having a give-and-take conversation and focusing on the problems you can solve for your prospects.

Susan A. Enns: I think the most common mistakes are:

1.  Not using a properly designed CRM system that files each record by the date of the next sales contact date.   Many sales organizations are very proud that they have a database of 20,000 prospects.  When you ask them which of those are most likely to buy today, they have no idea.  In reality, when you don’t file your contacts by when they are most likely to buy, all you have done is create a glorified phone book.

2.  Not using a systematic and repeatable process to stay in touch and build a relationship with prospects so that you and your company stays “top of mind” so when people are ready to buy, they call you first.

3.  Not following through on prospect requests and promises made throughout the process. Many sales have been lost because email inquiries to the selling organization get lost in spam filters, service inquires to a website that promises 24/7 support are not answered, or marketing leads are not followed up on in a timely fashion by the sales representatives.  It still amazes me today on how many new customers we have acquired because we were the only company who called back.

John Wallin: The most common mistakes are:

1. Over promise, under deliver.

2. In-effective communication.

3. Lack of collaboration and cooperation.

Dave Scholten: The problem is talking about and offering information that’s important to us rather than talking about what is important to our customers.

Jennifer Johnson: Make sure lead qualification and sales follow-up is part of the campaign—not something that happens once the leads are generated and ‘thrown over the wall’.  There needs to be closed-loop feedback and coordination between marketing and sales.

Lead scoring will be a continual work in progress, but it is valuable. Not every lead is ready to go to sales at the same time.  Focus sales on the leads that are ready for them.  Let marketing nurture the ones that aren’t ready.

Data. Data. Data.  It’s not just about collecting metrics, but making it actionable for decision-making. Understand what question you are trying to answer and what decision you are making for every metric you collect. If you don’t know why you need it, it’s just noise.

Giles House: People always love to talk about themselves. It’s human nature. But people aren’t interested in what you do; they’re only interested in what you’re going to do for them. During our conversations we always try to lead with the value behind the process or activity we’re automating for the customer. It’s a classic mistake to talk about oneself rather than talking about the challenges and problems you’re solving and become a lighthouse of reason in a sea of noise.

The other problem is not monitoring what you’re doing. Every few months we’ll do an exercise to review our personas. We will do a win-loss analysis and review deals that closed. If it takes an interview with sales or the customer, we’ll get on the phone or do a deep dive to verify our assumptions about the challenges they were looking solve and how they solved them. Even things like how did they find us, where did they hear about us, what was it that attracted them to us, what was it that we could do that nobody else could do, are all things we’ll ask.

Report it, track it, measure it and make sure what you’re talking about is interesting.

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