Welcome to the NEW content era (co-branded)
Aligning people, process and technology with persuasive content to drive sales effectiveness
Welcome to the NEW content era
Sales Engine's Steve Robinson explains why, in 2021 personalisation is no longer good enough
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With the decline in face-to-face connection and the rise of technology in the sales process, your content needs to work harder than ever before...
Back in 1996 Bill Gates wrote an essay titled 'Content is King'
He was referring to how companies and brands could harness the power of the internet (still in its infancy at the time) to engage with their audience. Fast forward a few years and by the 2000’s content marketing had really taken off, with ebooks, how-to-guides, social media and video all vying for the reader’s attention.
With so much material out there, the next logical step was personalisation, making it relevant to the reader’s industry or interests, and adding their name to make them feel it was written just for them.
Until the start of 2020, most sales teams were still utilising this brand of personalised content to support their face-to-face sales processes and help them drive opportunities forward.
Over the last 12 months however, in the sales arena in particular, remote working, new technology and AI-driven sales tools have all combined to rapidly diminish the human connection that is the cornerstone of good selling practice.
With that taken away, the impact has been profound and is forcing a radical rethink about the role of content and what sales teams need to survive and thrive now.
We’ve now entered a new era where content needs to work harder than ever before, taking on a much more critical role in balancing the machine driven and human driven sides of a sales engagement. More than just a means to inform or persuade, content now needs to connect at a much deeper, more unique and individual level, and enable informed salespeople to demonstrate credibility, true empathy and understanding.
How did we get here?
The drive for efficiency and the pitfalls of automation
The rise of technology
The last few years has seen the meteoric rise of sales technology solutions, each claiming to be the one you need to transform the efficiency and effectiveness of your sales team.
From CRM to ABM to demand gen to sales enablement platforms, the market is awash with tools that are all supposed to have transformed our lives.
In reality however, once deployed they frequently only bring marginal gains, not night and day differences.
At Sales Engine we are in the privileged position of working with customers across Europe and the US who are deploying these various platforms in different ways and to differing effect, so we’ve seen first-hand what works and what is really just smoke and mirrors.
And this exposure set us to wondering why, given the undeniable potential of these platforms, are they not having a bigger impact on sales results and productivity?
But before we leap into the conclusions we’ve come to, let’s take a step back and look at how we got to where we are today.
Understanding the journey of enlightenment that the sales industry has gone on is crucial to ensuring that we take the right next steps and make the most of the tools that we have at our disposal.
The early days
of sales methodologies
My personal sales career started in the very early nineties, but interestingly the methodologies we were trained in back then (SPIN and Miller Heiman mainly) could be traced back to the late seventies.
There was also a heavy influence at the time from the Xerox Professional Selling Skills ideas pioneered in the sixties.
So I think it’s fair to say that the pace of change within sales methodologies hadn’t exactly been rapid.
And when it came to written content, it was basic and typically used to confirm or reiterate what had already been said; essentially you produced it if you had to rather then it acting as a core component of the sales engagement process.
You certainly weren’t trained on how to create it!
And surprisingly this was pretty much the case all the way through the nineties and noughties, as what we saw was simply further refinement (and even just light re-naming!) of tried and trusted consultative selling approaches.
It wasn’t until the Challenger Sale came along in 2012 that we saw any real new developments in methodologies that truly reflected the change in buyer behaviour that was being driven by access to information.
Repositioning the salesperson as a challenger of received wisdom also drove a requirement for new content to back them up.
Marketing and insights teams needed to arm salespeople with materials they could use much earlier in the sale, to provoke discussion and convince stakeholders, rather than simply confirming generally accepted facts.
What this all means is that we’ve had in excess of 40 years of constant honing and refinement of the methodologies and how we teach salespeople to adopt and use them to good effect.
It’s a tried and tested system that works well in the main, albeit there is still a constant need to keep refreshing the training, and keep coaching the teams to keep them on point.
Technology is the new kid on the block
Set against this extensive history it’s clear that the plethora of sales effectiveness and sales enablement tools we now have are in their infancy. As a market we’re all still learning how to get the best from the opportunities they present us with, as well as how to integrate those capabilities into the sales approaches we’ve honed for four decades.
And this is where we see things becoming disjointed.
A lot of the sales tools have morphed from solutions that began life in the marketing tech stack, which means the deep understanding and skills needed to harness their capabilities can often lie outside of sales teams.
A number of the sales enablement tools grew out of quite specialist areas like ABM, or lead tracking, but as their functionality has grown they have ended up being presented to sales teams for automation and efficiency gains, with some grand claims about how they can benefit the sales process.
Sales Enablement tools have always run the risk of de-skilling salespeople.
The first victim of this will be the content – brains are no longer as engaged, as the ‘machine’ now owns the content. The production process becomes more efficient but the quality of the outcome is at an all-time low.
Sales leaders acknowledging, understanding and then obsessing over content is the key to ensuring that this doesn’t happen.
As we see it, when it comes to content the big difference between a marketing approach and a sales approach is summarised as the difference between personalisation and tailoring.
The tools that serve marketing so well are set-up to deliver on the one-to-many and one-to-few basis, which typically takes 95% generic content and personalises it with the prospect name and maybe a few industry-specific elements to make it feel targeted.
But harnessing this approach in a one-to-one sales engagement process risks encouraging sales to merely personalise generic collateral, presentations and proposals rather than truly tailoring it to the unique needs of each prospect.
This of course isn’t the fault of the tech itself, it’s all down to the people using it. As with any other profession, there are good and bad habits within sales teams.
The best salespeople have always known that working hard to tailor content to a specific opportunity or customer will generate the best results.
The problems that can arise from introducing these kinds of enablement or effectiveness platforms into sales teams is the temptation to let the tech do the heavy lifting for you. This makes the production process much more efficient, but it comes at the cost of quality – and inevitably, results.
As an opportunity progresses through the pipeline the degree of personalisation should fall away to be replaced by tailored and client specific content.
And this is where we think there is a risk that the wheels can fall off. In the drive for efficiency and the dazzle of technology, the balance of content automation is being tipped too far.
In many cases we see firms who end up becoming much more efficient, but also far less effective in their sales process.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re huge fans of tools and technology that enhance the sales process. Nothing gets us more excited than the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and dive into a shiny new piece of tech, to see how our customers could leverage it for competitive advantage.
But the way we see these tools being sold and implemented all too often focuses on mapping the existing sales process, training the users, and importing the various bits of existing supporting collateral to ensure that when sales first visit the new tool they are met with some familiar content and can get up and running quickly.
This is the big mistake.
What is being missed, sometimes almost completely, is that ultimately all of these tools are only as good as the content that is contained within them.
So, whether it is a sales enablement platform like Seismic or Highspot, an ABM platform like Folloze, an L&D platform like Brainshark or a content creation tool like Turtl, their ultimate success and impact will be determined at least as much by the content that is put into them, as it will by how well they are integrated into a sales process and how well users are trained to use them.
Irrespective of the tool, a large slice of the gains you can make will come about by re-thinking the content that your sales teams access through it.
Loading in your existing presentations and traditionally structured documents and collateral will massively reduce these gains. It’s like being given access to Lewis Hamilton’s championship winning Mercedes, then swapping the wheels for those off your road car; you’ve immediately compromised the performance by using the wrong parts.
Content is King
(but you knew that)
Our recommendation at the start of 2021 is that you make this the beginning of the era of NEW content within your organisation.
You’ve doubtless honed your methodology and process over time, you have numerous tools in place to support your teams, so now is the time to make sure that final, vital piece of the puzzle is in place.
An excess of noise and overwhelming volume meant that, even without Covid, the way our buyers engage with content had already changed, and this has only increased in the last twelve months.
Buyers now do more of their own research, and with less face-to-face meetings they have more time to devote to engaging with online content. Conversely they typically tend to spend less time in shorter Zoom/Teams meetings for online presentations and demos.
Have you really pivoted your content to serve this new market? Are you still using standard linear presentations from several years ago, and boring Word documents for your proposals, or have you embraced the new ways of selling?
Furthermore, if you have already invested in a major sales enablement platform, does the content it contains allow for the complex and decidedly non-linear buying cycles that sales now have to contend with?
Most sales methodologies boil the sales process down to a number of sequential steps for sales to follow (typically from 4 to 8 different phases of a sale), which means that supporting content gets aligned to this.
But as the graphic overleaf from Gartner shows, in the real world our buyers no longer fit into these convenient steps, so the content we give to sales teams now needs to have the flexibility to be tailored perfectly to each opportunity to cope with this complexity.
This means inserting Company Name B in place of Company A for a presentation or document that always gets rolled out at a certain pre-defined stage on a sales engagement simply won’t cut it anymore!
When it comes to sales enablement we would urge you to take a close look at the content that your teams are using – this includes collateral at every stage of the pipeline from lead generation to final proposal.
Review your presentations, proposals and supporting materials and ask yourself the question of whether they really are fit for purpose for the way that sales works in 2021. Have you thought long and hard about their relevancy in this new era or have they been side-lined in the rush for other new initiatives?
If, in the later stages of an engagement, your tool is generating the same beautiful looking content for every one of your opportunities and doesn’t feature customer-specific insight from your salesperson, then we would counsel you to think again on how effective that will really be for your buyer.
Informing and controlling content
Data-driven insights and staying on-brand
The best sales enablement tools come complete with clever analytics to give you deep insights into the performance of your content. By showing you which content your audience engages with, and what they ignore, they can help to drive the relevancy of your sales conversations and unlock new opportunities.
They can also provide powerful clues as to which salespeople are really taking advantage of the opportunities that they are presented with, which can help drive coaching and training within the business.
But if your content is out of step with their capabilities you will be missing these gains, and not getting the return on the investment you’ve made in the platform and your training programmes.
The other consideration here is of course who owns the content creation process.
"A 2017 CSO Insights study revealed that, despite most sales leaders considering it to be ‘marketing’s job’, in fact just 39% of the content salespeople need is created by marketing."
This is a fascinating area as the plethora of tools and processes result in various models that each bring their own pros and cons – and conflicts.
In some firms we certainly see the marketing team as the engine room, serving up a raft of great-looking, on-brand and well written content which, frustratingly for them, sales then ignore in favour of something that ‘has always worked perfectly for me’!
In others we see sales owning far more of the content creation process, which can be something of a wild-west environment where things are re-built time and again, elements from years ago get re-purposed and brand, tone and currency are afterthoughts.
The wider adoption of tools in the market is bringing some of the wilder elements of this under control. However, this in itself can introduce new pressures if sales don’t feel their real-world requirements are being met.
The actual sales process at the coal-face can differ substantially from the theoretical process that was used to inform the initial implementation of the solution, which means that the supporting content that is mapped to it may not serve its intended purpose.
It’s therefore critical that sales are given a voice and an involvement in the creation of this content, in order to make sure it is both effective and widely adopted. Otherwise the risk is that people will simply circumvent the system and go back to creating their own materials, completely undermining the purpose and investment in the platform.
How can the Eyeful & Sales Engine Alliance help?
An obsession with audience-focused content that delivers results
Effective content from top to bottom
Clearly, the first stage in preparing for this new era lies with sales leaders acknowledging the vital role that high quality content plays in the success of their teams. Our role is then to sit alongside our customers, to understand their challenges and to work with them to ensure there is complete harmony between people, processes and technology.
As a multidisciplinary team of sales and bid leaders, content creators, writers and designers we bring a check-and-challenge methodology and an external perspective, coupled with a deep understanding of sales process and an obsession with beautifully curated content as the glue that sticks it all together.
Additionally, we cherish the relationships we have with a number of sales technology vendors which allows us to play a role as a passionate and excited supporter, rather than a re-seller of one platform.
Working together with vendor and customer, we build the right content to deliver the results all parties want to see.
The projects we work on span from the very top of the funnel all the way through to the final pitch and even the ongoing management of key contracts.
What holds true right through this journey is that our focus is always on your audience, their needs and what content is going to best achieve the results that you need.
Sitting at the point where sales and marketing meet, we are able to extend into both sides to create content that serves all audiences, that integrates into the sales process, and that actually gets used by sales.
The beauty of harnessing various tools within this process is that we get to monitor the effectiveness of all of the content, creating more of what works, is valued and used by the sales team.
So, whether you are in the early stages of considering which technology could improve your process, or you have already invested heavily in a number of tools that you now need to take advantage of, we are able to support you, challenge you and guide you to create the right content and deploy it in the right way to help you drive results.
Our aim with this paper has been to simply lay down some of the challenges that we see sales and marketing leaders facing in 2021
You’ve honed the process, you have access to some amazing tools, so now it’s simply about ensuring your content allows you to make the most of this.
We hope this has struck a chord, and that you're now planning on dipping into a range of your current webinars, product collateral, proposal documents and presentations to see whether it measures up.
And if you’re not sure where to go next, or would like some benchmarks and best practice guidance to compare your current approach against, then just drop us a line.
Welcome to 2021 – the era of new, tailored and sales-focused content!