“Hi, can I speak to Jordan? Hi Jordan, this is Mike at ACME. I saw you were interested in our wireless network systems and I wanted to talk to you about that. Just so you know, our routers are ranked best-in-class and we’re having a Fourth of July weekend sale.”
What do you think? Would you like to keep talking to Mike, or do you wish that you had let it go to voicemail?
Most people, me included, hate getting these calls. We think, “Ugh, a sales pitch,” and get off the phone as quickly as possible. We say “I’ll think about it,” or “Get back to me in a month” — anything to get the overly enthusiastic salesperson off the line, so we can get back to the email we were drafting, the report we were supposed to have put together yesterday, the latest blog post we need to write.
“Hi Jordan, this is Mike from ACME. I believe you’re looking for a new wireless network system, and I’d like to help you if I can. Could you tell me about the problem you’re trying to solve and what your main concerns are?”
The difference is night and day. Suddenly, we’re being invited to talk about ourselves and our problems — which is the preferred pastime of all humankind — to someone who might actually be able to help. That fundamental shift in attitude, from talking about your own products to listening to the buyer’s problems, is at the heart of inbound sales.
Inbound sales is a process that focuses on individual buyers and their personal needs, pain points and goals. It’s a collaborative approach that involves listening to the buyer and educating them about their options.
Inbound marketing is becoming more and more mainstream. Applying those same buyer-focused principles to the sales team is just a natural next step.
Even more than that, though, inbound sales is the hottest new topic in the world of online sales and marketing. For example, industry leader HubSpot has not only developed a sales CMS to go along with their marketing tools, they also have a dedicated sales blog to help and educate their customers, and starting in April 2016, they even offer an inbound sales certification. Just like marketing, sales needs to adjust to the new digital landscape and the new requirements of modern buyers.
If you’re thinking that inbound sales could help your organization, or if you’re ready to get started, here are the five main steps you need to take.
A) Align Your Sales and Marketing Teams.
I have a pet theory that there’s really no difference between sales and marketing any more. After all, in an ideal world, both teams would work together towards a common goal: meeting as many prospective customers as possible with the information they need, at the time they need it, to earn more business for your company.
Sadly, such a utopia is rarely the case. Sales and marketing departments in many organizations often have an adversarial relationship, each blaming the other when a deal falls through.
Just ask your people: does marketing wonder why sales never manages to close the leads that marketing generates? Does sales think that marketing doesn’t pass them qualified leads — or worse, think of the marketers as just “the T-shirt department”?
When you add inbound principles to the mix, this inter-departmental snippiness can get worse. Marketers are trying to put themselves in the buyers’ shoes and provide useful and relevant information, only to have sales jump in with a pushy, company-focused sales pitch.
If you can get both teams focused on the ultimate goal of better serving your potential customers, that’s a solid foundation of agreement to build on.
1. Agree on what a qualified lead looks like.
Since the hand-off between sales and marketing can be the trickiest part of the process, your sales and marketing teams need to first agree on what a qualified lead looks like.
This goes beyond just, “They’re in the right vertical and they have the money.” It’s time to bring those buyer personas out of the marketing vault, and revise and expand them to make them useful tools for sales team as well. If sales and marketing develop and use a common shorthand language of “Marketing Mindy” and “Technology Tom,” that will go a long way towards putting everyone on the same page.
Just like the buyer-focused marketing team, the buyer-focused sales team needs to be very clear about the buyer’s journey and where sales fits in.
2. Give both teams the same set of goals.
A set of common goals and expectations can also help to align your sales and marketing teams, and foster a spirit of collaboration instead of competition.
This kind of cultural change simply must come from leadership. There’s really no other way around it. If there are any personal politics between the department heads, you can bet your bottom dollar that everyone in the departments knows about it and acts accordingly.
For example, maybe a C-level executive loves the sales team but thinks that marketing is a waste of space (or vice versa). It sounds extreme, but I’ve seen it happen. In that situation, sales people know there’s no real motivation for helping marketing, and they won’t make the effort. If leadership doesn’t respect and value the work done in each department, then the boots-on-the-ground folks won’t either.
And although I don’t typically advocate for any more meetings, you may want to consider adding a weekly “standup” meeting for sales and marketing to confer on what happened the previous week, what they plan to accomplish in the coming week, and any problems they foresee. This, again, fosters an attitude of collaboration rather than antagonism.
3. Cultivate open lines of communication.
Full disclosure: I’m on the marketing side of the equation. And I genuinely love it when I have great relationships with sales guys and can ask them lots of questions. That’s because sales guys, who talk to customers every day, learn all the things about our potential buyers that I desperately need to know.
What are the common problems our potential customers are facing? What kinds of solutions have they tried in the past? What are their biggest fears about “taking the plunge” with us? What are their recurring questions? Salespeople have access to all this information, and it’s gold for an inbound marketer who wants to create content that’s really going to resonate.
B) Develop Your Inbound Sales Methodology
Inbound sales really is a new discipline — so new, in fact, that everyone’s still figuring out exactly what it means and how to best implement it.
HubSpot, my go-to resource, has developed an inbound sales methodology graphic to go along with their inbound marketing methodology:
Inbound Sales Methodology
Inbound Marketing Methodology
You can see the similarities: where inbound marketing is focused on Attract, Convert, Close, and Delight, inbound sales tells us to Identify, Connect, Explore, and Advise.
I don’t want to criticize HubSpot, but I’m not sure this is the most useful way to view the inbound sales process — at least, not at the beginning of trying to implement a new process. Rather, it’s important to get the fundamentals of this new perspective down first, and to understand why we’re going to talk to customers this way.
4. Stop talking.
Back in the day, salespeople were gatekeepers for information. If you wanted to know product specifications in the pre-internet world, you had to pick up the phone and call someone (or at least make a call to order a catalog), a practice that seems as archaic now as leeches and bloodletting.
Some salespeople, though, still think that the point of sales is to talk and talk about the products and what they can do. I promise you, if it’s a qualified lead, they have already gone on your website. And while there, they didn’t just look at your products: they also made a host of judgments about your company, your culture, and your trustworthiness.
Modern buyers are already well into the buying journey before they speak to a salesperson. The salesperson should know this, respect it, and make it their first priority to find out more about the buyer’s current situation. As HubSpot explains, the inbound salesperson’s job is to help the buyer connect your company’s generic value proposition to the buyer’s specific challenges.
5. Start listening.
This is the most important piece of inbound sales, and it’s the point I was trying to make with my example scripts at the beginning of the post. If sales has an attitude of, “I have all the answers, I just need to tell them to my prospect!” you’re not likely to succeed.
The approach should be, “Let me find out as much as I can about this particular buyer’s situation and circumstances, so I’ll be in a better position to give them the answers they need.”
The goal is to connect with and support the buyer in their journey. When done effectively, a consultative sales approach builds a solution-oriented relationship with your customers. When buyers genuinely trust that the sales team wants to help them, you go from being a hindrance in their life to a useful tool that they don’t want to be without.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: These five steps are an awful lot of work. We’re talking about a philosophical shift in how we approach communicating with our potential customers. That takes fundamental culture change throughout your organization, which is never an easy task.
But it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing new or revolutionary about inbound sales. The ideas behind inbound (put the customer’s needs first, listen more than you talk, sell by educating) have been used by savvy salespeople for decades. Back in the 1980s, success guru Brian Tracy released The Psychology of Selling, which in many ways foreshadows today’s sales-and-marketing obsession with putting the customer’s needs first.
And it’s really just common sense: Treat buyers the way you would want to be treated in their position, and educate them on their options rather than strong-arming them into making a buying decision.
Consultative selling is focused on helping buyers make an informed purchase. If inbound marketing is “listen to the buyer and support them during the researching process” then inbound sales is “listen to the buyer and support them during the purchasing process.”