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Part 3: Can B2B Sales Be Industrialized?

I concluded Part 2 of this blog series with a promise to look at the top of the funnel as a candidate for industrializing sales. The reason for doing this is two-fold:

  1. Changing an entire company is hard enough when you are building a company from scratch. Please believe me when I say, with scars, that when you hire experienced people for your startup team (a good idea), they come with biases. And those biases rarely include “Let’s do everything different!” And changing a running company, end to end, you need to be very brave or very crazy to go down that road. Feel free to give it a try. Just don’t expect your investors to be thrilled. Running a company is hard stuff, and changing it wholesale, in flight — well, we all know that analogy, don’t we?
  2. It turns out that the top of the funnel, or really just above the top of the funnel, is the growth constraint for most B2B companies. While we can think of a company as a factory with a certain capacity, and design our sales system to sell out that capacity, it’s almost always the case that it’s easier to add capacity than new customers. Especially good customers, the most precious asset of any company!

So, if we rightfully fear changing the whole company, and the top of the funnel is our constraint, it makes sense to focus our industrialization efforts initially on the top of the funnel!

Yes, it’s always about the math

Just in case you think I’m being hasty, or narrow, do this thought experiment. Mentally double the number of high-quality first meetings (i.e., discovery conversations) being conducted per account executive per month. Taking into account your sales cycle, will this grow your bookings and, eventually, your revenues? If the answer is “Yes,” then my hypothesis that the top of your funnel is the growth constraint of your business has been validated. If, on the other hand, all those extra high-quality meetings will just lead to thrash and congestion — that is, if your team is already efficiently working at maximum capacity and there really isn’t any opportunity for either higher sales throughput or improved new customer quality, then your constraint is elsewhere, and increasing top of funnel throughput (or quality, for that matter) is pointless.

This leaves the questions of whether we can safely decouple the top of the funnel from the discovery conversation process, and whether we can make an industrial machine that takes as its inputs the great unknown of business: “Who new might we sell to?”

The briar patch

I’m going to detour for a moment into the thorny thicket of “The Buyer’s Journey.” There is research, controversial to be sure, that says that B2B buyers are X% (X > 50) of the way through their “journey” before they ever reach out to a salesperson for help. If we take this as a limit and concede that the first time we can talk to a buyer is when they reach out to us, then the input to our industrialized top of funnel sales machine must logically be an inquiry, and the beginning of the seller’s journey must be “promotion” — that is, making the buyer aware that they should include our company and its offerings when they get to that magic point in the journey.

In a demilitarized sales world, where every single one of our competitors agrees to not talk to any buyer until that buyer comes to them, this design point would hold. We would all do our promotional work, presumably with about the same efficiency and effectiveness, as there are not many proprietary weapons in public promotion in the digital world where copying is always cheaper and faster than original strategy, tactics, and execution.

The internet is a follower’s paradise, and while there are marvelous success stories of category kings using promotion effectively, it is rarely the promotion that makes a difference. Cornering the market on keywords, content, social presence, and website conversion-ticks sounds good. It’s just unlikely that your thought leadership and industry insights will remain unique, or yours for that matter, for long.

Rules were made to be broken

And what if a competitor with a roughly similar offering decides to break the rules and reach out to potential buyers before those buyers reach out to them? What if a competitor decides to treat the long delay — between a glimmering of need, or pain, and a mature exploration of alternatives — as a killing field, with your offering as the road kill? Because by the time your best buyers reach out to you, their hearts and minds have been polluted by the notions and relationships proactively put in place by this cheating competitor.

Looked at this way, the whole Buyer’s Journey notion is a snare for the unwary, who will focus on driving inquiries at great expense, and even industrializing the rapid response to and nurturing of those “leads,” only to find out they were working for their cheating competitor all along. After all, their competitor certainly wants the appearance of legitimacy and comes from having alternatives in the marketplace, because buyers are comforted by that kind of thing. It’s possible to be tricked into industrializing the top of your funnel while providing succor to a competitor that has simply moved the top of their funnel above yours, so your every input has already been processed, and corrupted, by their machinery.

Do unto others before they do unto you

The clear answer to this Buyer’s Journey dilemma is to become that cheating competitor! And this means competing for the raw material above the top of the inquiry-driven funnel — the opportunity to influence and build relationships of those suspects well before they are 57%, or whatever, through their journey. This has nothing to do with how buyers prefer to engage. It has to do with who wins, and — more importantly — who loses. Because in any market there are lots of losers and often one winner, who takes all. Win the game way up there above the top of the funnel, and your odds of being that big winner go way up as well.

All this means that industrializing the very top of the funnel, where the input is mere suspects, not even juicy inquirers, is a matter of life or death. Wow! For a moment there, I thought we were engaged in an academic exercise to explore whether such a thing is even possible! Now it turns out that if it can be done, we better do it or risk having it done to us. Brutal stuff, but there it is.

Maybe we’ll get lucky, and it will turn out that the very top of the funnel can’t be industrialized, so we don’t have to worry about competitors doing it. You would certainly be forgiven in believing there is no danger at all if you carefully observe the behavior of the best-funded companies in the world, Silicon Valley venture-funded startups. They treat the very top of the funnel as the domain of Sales Development, which is defined pretty much as “What Sales Development Reps (SDRs) do.”

Funnel vision

As discussed in Part 2, in most shops, SDRs are mini–sales-factories: they define their own inputs (except for territory); invent their own approach (based often on what they are most comfortable doing); do their own research (based on their feelings about who might be a good prospect); compose and send emails; invent and execute a social strategy; make phone calls to whom and when they choose, deciding whether they should leave voice messages or not; decide who to follow up with and who to abandon to “nurturing”; implement their own qualification criteria and process; and often spend a lot of time in the CRM.

This is the exact opposite of industrialization, done in the name of scale. Interestingly, the only thing it does reliably is spend money while dramatically driving up the cost of SDRs in the geographies where VCs play heavily. In Silicon Valley, the price of an SDR “top-of-funnel factory-of-one” exceeds $100K, if you can find one at all who will work for your non-unicorn.

But screw fads and froth. What if you really wanted an industrialized sales process, one that both delivers and scales? What if you want to grow fast and profitably? Is it possible to industrialize the top of the funnel? In Part 4, I’ll lay out the parameters, and you can judge for yourself.

Links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5 of this blog series.