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A Digital Sales Force: Build it and they will come

By Burkey Belser and Joe Walsh
April 16, 2015
A Digital Sales Force: Build it and they will come

A Digital Sales Force: Build it and they will come

Professional services firm CMOs, CBDOs, CSOs and their teams are under increasing pressure to deliver measurable, impactful results. Scan the headlines and you’ll see abundant evidence of the trend we know you are feeling in your own firm.

“The expectation of CMOs has moved from providing great marketing to demonstrably accelerating profitable growth.”

—Egon Zehnder, CMO Redefined

“Fifty-three percent of CMOs surveyed felt an increased pressure to enable revenue growth.”

—Deloitte/, Digital Divide CMO Survey

In this evolving era of marketing and sales, the new marketing royalty is called ROI. Old media or new, your boss wants help delivering an uptick in leads and new business.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

D­­igital outreach has emerged as the top channel to deliver against today’s leadership expectations. The old marketing toolbox has ceded its prime position to something new and much more measurable. Success ahead lies in combining traditional marketing approaches with deeper digital savvy and distribution. The goal is still the same—(1) leads (2) that turn into sales (3) that contribute to growth.

We know you know this in theory. But have you got it figured out in practice?

The Great Recession accelerated a shift already in motion away from marketing toward new business development. We fully embrace the biz dev mindset but reject the assumption that marketing can be jettisoned solely in favor of boots on the ground. Success in sales demands success in marketing. Recognizing the unquestioned power of the Internet has led us to create a new framework for marketing and sales to replace the classic Sales Funnel. We call it the “Digital Sales Force.”SM


Like all marketing—from the narrow end of the classic Marketing to Sales Funnel to the new construct of our Digital Sales Force— lead creation, nurturing and conversion remain primary goals. A Digital Sales Force, managed and executed well, allows marketers to go direct to prospects and create interest and leads without hands-on effort from your busy or otherwise BD challenged professionals. The Holy Grail, right?

Our Digital Sales Force has three component parts: get clear, get found and get chosen. These parts lead to the fourth: get results. Like all great marketing, the parts are inextricably linked. If your firm lags or fails at one part, leads are harder and more expensive to generate or close.


The promise of the Digital Sales Force begins with getting clear

Without a clear and compelling value proposition, ask yourself why would anyone pay attention to your firm? Remember; a brand is an identity based on a promise of value different than others. Professional services are largely viewed as commodities and, therefore, tough to differentiate. Therefore, if the difference is only one of a few degrees, be prepared to express it, well…differently.

You probably imagine a compelling value proposition must be unique. “Unique” is a big word for only six letters. However, “unique” is seldom possible. “Different” is. We often hear our clients tell us that “any firm could say that” when we define a value proposition. In fact, it’s likely to be true that many firms could match your value proposition. What’s important is that they don’t. They could…but they don’t. Being first is just as effective as being unique. Your goal is to be associated with an idea that is different from any other. For that to happen, you need to be bold, creative and unfailingly consistent (the topic of tomorrow’s post).

You may be helped by a quick review of the concept and history of positioning. During the 1950s, as Madison Avenue became big business and sales became a well-studied discipline, the Holy Grail was to find a “unique selling proposition (USP)” typically based on a product or service feature. But businesses learned that USP could be quickly copied—and frequently sold for less. As a result, the concept of a USP collapsed to be replaced in a seminal theory on marketing (not sales!) called Positioning: The Battle for the Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. The theory of positioning does not require a USP but, instead, a corner of the buyer’s mind, some psychological connection that resonates with the buyer about that product or service. You probably think that Nike’s value proposition is “Just Do It.” But it’s not. It’s “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.” That positioning statement is the touchstone for every decision made by the firm—from product development to marketing. “Just Do It” is a component of the creative expression we all call a tagline.

To repeat, your very first and most critical step is to define a value proposition, not that is unique (good luck with that), but that is different from any other.



Digital Sales Force, Step Two: Getting noticed. The mind of the firm.

To earn attention for your offerings, you simply must stand out from the crowd. It almost goes without saying but that is, in fact, what almost every firm fails to do. They lack the courage or, more generously stated, do not understand the necessity of the risk. David Ogilvy, the late great adman said famously, “You can’t bore people into trying your product or service.” But that is exactly what most firms do.

Let’s dig into this idea a bit because, if you fail at this step, you’ll never pass to the steps ahead. Compelling brand programs do not begin and end at nice design. Of course, they should be well-designed but “pretty” is not a brand. Compelling brands begin with substance and a creative leap, probably well out of your comfort zone. That creative leap is both visual and verbal: it’s a story, a good story persuasively articulated so your audience feels the difference. “Just Do It” reaches for the best inside of me, the best I can do, not someone else. If the manufacturer has made an honest, authentic connection, then you will believe their gear will bring out the best in you. That tagline, remember, is not about Nike; it’s about you. They could easily have said, “We make the best shoes and sports attire” but would you care? Worse, would you believe them?

Without a strong creative expression, without mustering your courage to take a leap, you don’t have a brand. You have a website, or a logo or a brochure or an email campaign. But no brand.

Look, feel, thought-provoking content

Look and feel, that’s one pillar. The other pillar of brand is “voice.” By this we mean the nature of the voice, the attitude behind it, the confidence the voice exhibits—that is, its personality. However, to create a digital sales force demands thought-provoking content. Your must go beyond the social personality of the firm. Andy Warhol said, “I’m superficial. But I’m deeply superficial.” What we see and feel in the market (social personality) must be augmented by the mind of the firm: what does the firm think about; what does it say about topics where it professes expertise. This is the engine for our new construct: thought leadership engages the gears from first (brand position—get clear) through second (brand expression—get noticed) into third (get chosen—understanding the mind of the firm). With engaging content, your digital sales force picks up speed.

Let’s rinse and repeat: Brand position is why buyers should care. Brand expression demands buyers take notice. Thought leadership is the mind of the firm made public, explaining why they should choose you.

If you’re smart—and we know you are—by now you are wondering why in the world we have called this a Digital Sales Force. You’re about to learn.


Step three in the Digital Sales Force is getting chosen

The promise of the Digital Sales Force requires disciplined digital activity to break through the high volume of content marketing initiatives and all the clutter it causes.

Information overload is a fact of life today in America. The accompanying mixture of fatique and confusion has been given the sobriquet, “Americanitis.” The further result was neatly summed up by Herbert Simon in 1971, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

We are asking firms to look hard at what they are putting into the slipstream that is the Internet. Is it meaningful content or simply chatter? Some content such as alerts may have real value but we suspect, without broader support, those alerts are getting lost in the noise. Blog posts like this one can stimulate meaningful conversation but we are worried even these will expire like mayflies unless part of a larger program. Tweets? Well, is it possible to argue that tweets are anything but the ultimate chatter?

Without compelling content, your web site will remain, for all intents, a static brochure, your emails will sit unopened or otherwise be ignored, and your social media will be the equivalent of white noise. If a Digital Sales Force is a new business engine, effective content marketing is the jet fuel. Smart marketers understand this and have plans to increase investment in content—creating a bit of arm’s race for content that sells.

“75% of B2B buyers rely more on content to research and make B2B purchasing decisions than they did a year ago.” (DemandGen Report)

“Type of content used in the past 12 months to research B2B purchasing decisions:

  • White Papers (78%);
    • Case Studies (73%);
    • Webinars (67%);
    • eBooks (58%);
    • Videos (58%);
    • Blog Posts (56%);
    • Infographics (52%)
    (DemandGen Report)

The challenge is creating content that earns and keeps attention. How do you break through the clutter? First, understand the difference between chatter content and anchor content.

Generally, chatter content is, for example, the legal, accounting or other related professional alerts, podcasts or webinars that address topical changes in the law, the standards or the regulations.  Again, nothing wrong with these, but inboxes are cluttered with these topics.  Anchor content is more programmatic.  An example is our client Steptoe & Johnson's Below the Surface branded content initiative in the shale gas production vertical.   The program includes an annual poll of executives in the field, a well-designed and written annual research report, a companion microsite that houses the findings and related content, a symposium to cover the issues of the day, and then, of course, emails, SEO efforts, social outreach, webinars, in person meetings and article placements in business journals and more.

Anchor content is thoughtful, often a 10,000 foot view of the market or an issue with conclusions frequently supported by independent quantitative research. Or anchor content can be a deep dive into an important issue for your buyers. Anchor content is absolutely not about you but about your shared interests with clients or members. Anchor content is designed to begin big conversations, not small ones. It also provides the fodder for material to be distributed semi-automatically as blog posts and social media. Anchor content tells buyers yours is an important voice in the business conversation. It is with anchor content that “digital” enters the Digital Sales Force.

Contemporary content management tools and analytics allow your team to measure the impact of you efforts driven by compelling content. They alert you to who is paying attention, who is engaged and who seems receptive to your ideas. You can measure this and quantify your success.

Ultimately success is measured by the sale. Being second has no value. To the victor go the spoils. If you have neglected improving your proposal process or sales pitch, then all your prior effort will go for naught. As we explore the concept of the Digital Sales Force further, we will help you identify strategies and tactics that improve your odds of winning. But we can tell you this now: the same courage, the same willingness to be different, the same demonstrated interest in your clients’ problems are keys to success.



Anticipating the brand experience brings the Digital Sales Force full circle

Get clear. Get noticed. Get chosen. These are the critical first steps in creating a powerful brand experience. But these steps reflect a transactional attitude to which we would like to add a step: get results. The sale is not the end; it’s the beginning of the relationship. Sellers need to begin with the end in mind—not closing the sale but creating a relationship. Selling is said to focus on the needs of the seller; marketing on the needs of the buyer. If sellers begin with a relationship in mind, they will focus on both!

Brand is reputation and reputation is behavior. The visual and verbal consistency that comes from the brand is designed to be rolled out across all the firm’s marketing programs and activities—everything—website, pitchbooks, proposals, e-newsletters and alerts, webinars, seminars, parties, exhibits, signage, blogs, social media. Aligning behavior with those messages is challenging is an organization with multiple owners. It demands constant repetition, strong leadership and a considerable investment of time and effort. Yet that investment is rarely made so we see brands roll up and fly away as new marketing directors arrive who do not understand the brand position (brand expression can be changed without changing the brand position) or with management changes at the top. When Arthur Andersen turned out the lights, ready to launch was a $100 million brand campaign, 40 percent of which was earmarked for the internal audience! Brands fail among professional service firms, companies and associations because the brand gets forgotten. It’s that simple.

However, know this. With a compelling brand and content, you can kick your Digital Sales Force into gear to build loyalty within the firm, attract talent to the firm, launch a new service area or office, penetrate or build strength in an industry. It seems like we’re being asked to do all of these things. But, in truth, all we are being asked to do—reducing everything to its essence—is to deliver leads. That’s what great marketing has always strived to do—surface prospective clients. Today, some of the traditional tools have been replaced with digital tools but “digital” is only part of the solution. But it is an increasingly significant part— mastering the concept and implementation of your digital sales force, with all its component parts, will make your marketing invaluable.