The Changing Landscape of B2B Sales

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to see the swift evolution of B2B sales at both a large company and a small company. As a part of the online marketing team at Salesforce.com, I helped run a huge lead generation operation in which the website and sales force churned through leads and turned prospects into customers. At Web Analytics Demystified, a small boutique analytics consultancy, I have seen the complete opposite approach in which we have to generate leads, but with no sales people whatsoever. Both of these organizations are selling to businesses, but do so in dramatically different ways. Lately, organizations large and small are being impacted by the dramatic changes occurring in B2B sales. In this post, I’d like to share some of the changes I am seeing and talk about how one of these changes – the use of tools like Demandbase – is having a major impact on B2B sales.

While you can never take the human element out of sales, there is mounting evidence that B2B buyers are often close to making up their mind way before you or your sales people get to talk to them. I have seen many cases in which a particular vendor is excluded from a section process before they even had a chance to make their case.

As has been documented in recent articles, a growing number of businesses are performing research and making purchasing decisions before reaching out to in-person sales people. In the old days of B2B, in-person contact at tradeshows, inside sales calls, fancy meals and free tickets to sporting events were the keys to winning business. While you can never take the human element out of sales, there is mounting evidence that B2B buyers are often close to making up their mind way before you or your sales people get to talk to them. I have seen many cases in which a particular vendor is excluded from a section process before they even had a chance to make their case.

A new trend in B2B research, and one that I feel is here to stay, is the emergence of social-network based B2B rating sites. Sites such as TrustRadius and G2Crowd are paving the way for a new way to conduct B2B product research. These sites allow everyday business users to “rate” products with which they have experience. Then, it is possible for anyone or members of your social networks to see these product reviews. The premise is that you are more likely to believe (and trust) someone you know than a sales person when it comes to how good or bad a product works. Think of it as a “Yelp” for B2B products. Currently, most of these sites are starting with tech-related products, but I expect they will soon branch out to all B2B products. Another resource B2B buyers turn to is industry analysts like Gartner or Forrester (if related to tech) to see which companies should be compared with each other and their relative rankings.

However, for the foreseeable future, there is no escaping the fact that the marketing website is where prospects are most often turning to learn what they need about your products and services.

However, for the foreseeable future, there is no escaping the fact that the marketing website is where prospects are most often turning to learn what they need about your products and services. The traditional B2B website may include client testimonials, product demos, pricing sheets, and so on. These resources are important to help buyers understand where your company positions itself.

Unfortunately, most B2B websites do a poor job of converting prospects to leads. I have seen many reasons why B2B websites fail to convert including a lack of lead collection, too much lead collection, poor user interfaces, too much or too little content, and so on. The ideal scenario for lead generation is when you provide the right information, to the right person at the right time. But for most B2B websites, every website visitor is treated the same way. Each is shown the same promotions, for the same products. Most B2B websites are a one-size fits all model. But in reality each prospect is different. A visitor from a large multinational pharmaceutical company may have different needs than a visitor from a small retail store. These two different visitors are most likely interested in learning different things about your products and services. Perhaps one of your products is geared towards large companies, while another is better suited for smaller companies. Moreover, you may want to show different case studies to each of these visitors. Or, create an experience that is frictionless and fast-paths them to raise their hand, show interest and convert.

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As you can see, treating every visitor the same is not ideal. Back in the old days, if you were at a tradeshow and someone walked up to your booth, one of the first things you would do is to take a peek at what company they work for so you could personalize the conversation to their needs. So if you would do this in-person, why would you not do this on your marketing website? Most B2B companies don’t do this only because they don’t know that it is possible! For years at Salesforce.com we had no idea who was on our website until they completed a lead generation form. We used to speculate that X% of our visitors were small/medium business (SMB) and that Y% were larger enterprise prospects, but this was based primarily on what conent they looked at and the lead generation form subissions we received. Both of these identification sources were backward looking such that we could not act upon them in real-time to personalize the website experience as they were on the website.

The ideal scenario for lead generation is when you provide the right information, to the right person at the right time. But for most B2B websites, every website visitor is treated the same way. Each is shown the same promotions, for the same products.

Then one day, we came across Demandbase, which was a newer technology in the marketplace. Demandbase, through its Real-Time Identification technology, provided us with the ability to see what companies were actively on our site, what industry they were from and even how large of a company they represented. This information was like gold to us B2B marketers since it enabled the types of website personalization we had always wanted. By integrating Demandbase with our content management system and content targeting tools, we were able to swap out content for those visitors that had Demandbase data. This meant showing healthcare case studies to healthcare prospects and technology case studies to technology prospects. It meant showing enterprise level products by default to visitors from larger companies, while showing lower-end products to those from smaller organizations. This type of personalization had a positive impact in our key online metrics such as bounce rate and overall conversion.

Another way that we used Demandbase was to integrate its data into our web analytics tools. This allowed us to report upon which companies were visiting our website each day. From there, we began sharing these reports with the sales team and, suddenly, we got their attention! We were able to tell them which companies that they had on their sales lists were viewing the website and even what content on the website they were viewing. Whereas previously the online marketing team was perceived to be very separate from sales, the information we had from Demandbase started showing the sales team how important the website was to them closing deals. It is not an exaggeration to say that this technology and its corresponding data helped bridge a gap between Sales and Marketing that was often painful and unproductive. These are just some of the ways that Salesforce.com was able to leverage Demandbase’s technology.

But what about smaller organizations? As I mentioned previously, I work for a small web analytics consultancy with senior level practitioners and no sales people. Most of our work comes from word of mouth, but we still do have to sell. When I joined Web Analytics Demystified, I didn’t want to give up the cool Demandbase technology I had at Salesforce.com. Therefore, we installed the Demandbase Analytics module on our website and began passing company information that we could not otherwise get into our web analytics tool. For me personally, I was very interested in seeing who was reading my blog posts since I offer consulting in a very niche area. Within a few days, I was able to produce reports like the one shown here:

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We have to be very targeted when it comes to prospecting and Demandbase’s technology allows us to be efficient and target those companies that appear to be interested in us already.

This allowed me to see each day or each week which organizations were reading my blog posts. From there, if I was ever interested in finding new clients, I could go to LinkedIn and see if I knew people at the companies that were actively viewing my blogs. This often created a conversation that might result in a proposal for my services. Since we have no sales people, we have to be very targeted when it comes to prospecting and Demandbase’s technology allows us to be efficient and target those companies that appear to be interested in us already.

In conclusion, it is apparent that the approaches to B2B selling are changing right before our eyes. Those companies that cling to the old ways of selling may be at risk of losing deals to those that are more intelligently informing prospects. One way to do this is through new social-networking review sites or industry analysts. The other way is to make sure that your website is showing the right content to the right prospects at the right time. In my experience at both large and small B2B organizations, the use of Demandbase’ real-time identification technology, available through its Website Optimization suite of solutions, is a great way to gain a competitive advantage, personalize your website content and focus on the companies that are most likely to buy from you.