Devoted readers of my blog and newsletter may have been wondering why I haven’t posted recently. I took a detour from my consulting practice by hiring on full time with a client for fourteen months. I had an opportunity to get into a turnaround business (I'm a sucker for turnarounds) and “eat my own dog food” as a CSO. Here's what I learned.
As Chief Sales Officer for a $250 million manufacturing firm, I got a fresh street-level perspective on the challenges that middle market companies face, trying to grow in today’s volatile and uncertain marketplace. Much of the transformational work I undertook during my tenure was straightforward, but three of the initiatives were surprisingly difficult:
Updating sales management processes and tools is easy. Competitive strategy is hard.
The CEO chartered my consulting engagement by asking me to “whip them [the sales team] into shape.” In the course of my CSO tenure I implemented a blur of initiatives, including sales meeting cadences, CRM software, standardized metrics, pay for performance, a pre-call planning process, 1-on-1 coaching in the field, and funnel management, to name a few.
Assuming you stick to it, that stuff is relatively easy to get done; the road to effective sales processes and tools has seen many travelers. But what ultimately would define our company performance was whether we were capturing the right new customers and retaining old ones with profitable products and services that were different from our competitors. Figuring out how to do that was powerful but challenging work, starting with formal “voice of the customer” interviews and concluding with structured board-level planning sessions. The destination was uncharted territory for the company and it was not easy to accept.
There are no magic bullets with B2B marketing. You’ve got to spend time and money.
Our company was 110 years old, and it showed. We tackled the brand refresh the right way, as a strategy imperative and not merely an exercise in updating the logo. It was a no-brainer—our customers needed a clear understanding of how we added value—and by investing in rebranding we poured a foundation for growth.
Building on that foundation was hard. As carpet-bombed consumers, many of us imagine ourselves to be competent marketing critics, but charting a successful course for B2B marketing requires a good deal more savvy than rating Super Bowl ads. With no in-house marketing talent, I looked for a B2B marketing firm with a consultative approach. Little did I know that would mean kissing a lot of frogs.
Part of the problem is that the marketing industry is diverse and Balkanized. Yes, a lot of marketing is digital nowadays, but within that broad definition there are SEO specialists, website specialists, social media specialists, and email marketing specialists in addition to firms that focus on traditional marketing.
I solved for this complexity by selecting an integrated B2B marketing agency. These firms tout expertise in all areas, and I felt comfortable we weren’t a nail for their proverbial hammer. After setting a clear goal to increase our inbound warm leads, we agreed that the first step was a website refresh featuring mobile responsiveness. It was successfully launched one day after my departure.
Prospecting is a tough skill to teach. It’s far easier to hire for it.
As Keith Eades explains in The New Solution Selling*, “People who find prospecting to be a challenge…don’t properly define prospecting in the first place. Prospecting should be viewed as the ability to to create and stimulate interest. Calling a buyer and asking, ‘Are you looking to buy what I’m selling?’ isn’t stimulating interest, it’s polling.”
I inherited a legacy sales team that had historically added customers by just answering the phone. Times had changed and the phone was no longer ringing. The modest size of the team made it impractical to define separate hunter and farmer roles, so after recruiting some new players and restructuring the comp plan to put more at risk, I decided to power through it and bring everyone’s prospecting skills up to par.
I left no stone unturned, introducing tools, metrics, prospecting lists, contests, training, inside sales support and lots of 1-on-1 coaching. Sadly, the legacy guys never got it; they were hardwired with polling software. The greatest regret of my tenure is that we underperformed our new customer generation goals. I won't make that mistake again.
Competitive strategy, B2B marketing and prospecting may not be at the top of your list of challenges right now, but in the course of a leadership career it's likely you will encounter them. I hope my experience provides fresh insight into how to tackle them effectively. I'll leave you with these questions:
- What are your biggest revenue growth challenges?
- Are you certain you’re solving for them the right way?
- What has to go well in order for your approach to be successful?
By the way, I'm still a sucker for turnarounds.
Everett Hill is a revenue growth consultant to middle market CEOs. He helps companies grow by insuring a profitable intersection of competitive strategy and customer-facing tactical execution. Prior to founding Catalytic Advisors, he built a successful career in manufacturing and distribution companies as a sales leader and General Manager with significant P&L responsibility. He holds an engineering degree from Princeton University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.
*The Solution Selling Fieldbook, Eades, Touchstone, and Sullivan, 2005