Outbound is back (actually it never left). Sales development is becoming so popular that it’s beginning to lose its meaning (and all too often its effectiveness). The good news is that this means companies are focused on real growth. The bad news is that it also means that there’s more noise and confusion in the market than ever before (I know, we keep saying that, but it’s true).
The number of crappy emails, calls and approaches that I’m seeing (both as someone being marketed to, and in the assessments we conduct) astounds me, in number and in just how bad some of these efforts are. And these aren’t coming from just small companies. Some are coming from supposed leaders in the demand generation industry.
I believe the reason for this is there’s significantly more pressure to move the growth needle, and companies wanting growth are realizing that today you must be proactive and go to the market more intensely to be successful.
As a result of this pressure, they’re rushing to execute, and the results are not particularly good. If you're considering (or are already) implementing an outbound marketing or sales development approach, here are the four reasons it will fail. Avoid these and you should be in good shape.
1. A message that doesn’t provoke/motivate your targeted markets
When you start a company or launch a new product, you’ll hear a lot about the importance of product-market fit. This simply means does the product solve a clear enough pain or issue in a manner that is well enough understood by potential buyers to enable the product to create/meet enough demand to achieve desired economic objectives.
What doesn’t get as much attention, applies to startups and veteran businesses alike, and is equally (if not more) important is message-market fit. This refers to the message you’re delivering to the market, and whether or not that message connects, resonates and motivates your prospects to take action. Now these actions don’t necessarily mean that they jump up and buy, but instead are aligned with the actions they should take based upon where they are in the buyer’s journey.
And this is where most companies implementing outbound prospecting or sales development programs get themselves into trouble. The primary reason successful mid-market companies initiate outbound efforts is that they want to stimulate their growth. They’ve experienced success in the past, but they realize that to maintain (let alone accelerate) growth as they’re getting bigger, they have to go-to-the market, instead of just waiting for the market to come to them.
Their history of success proves product/market fit, and they assume that whatever message they’re currently using will be enough. Afterall, they think, “look at the business growth we’ve had without really going to the market; all we need to do is get more people aware of the great things we do and we won’t be able to keep up with demand.”
The problem with that is that the messaging that works when people find you is completely different (and far, far easier) than the message that’s needed when people aren’t looking for you. Remember, if people are finding you they’ve managed their own self-driven buyer’s journey and have already decided that they have a problem, that the problem matters and that they need to change. The only thing you have to do at that point is demonstrate why they should buy from you.
When you go outbound and you initiate the conversation and create demand, your prospects may not even be thinking about the issue you address, and rarely have they already decided that it’s a problem that they need to do anything about. Your message must stimulate those actions.
What to do about it:
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer. Of course, clarity behind your buyer personas is a critical first step; but understand there is no magic formula for crafting a message that fits. There’s no guru you can hire that puts magical pen to paper and crafts the message that works. Trust me, we’re pretty damn good at this, and it’s the toughest task we take. I regularly warn clients when we’re working on messaging early and they say things like, “Well, you’re the expert so we’ll go with the message you come up with,” that this is not how it works.
The only way you get market/message fit is to build it - test it - learn - repeat. It typically takes several rounds and iterations before there’s fit. The effort is complicated early because you’re not only trying to create message fit, but you also need to create awareness.
So the best thing you can do is create a strong first message, go-to-market, watch closely, track metrics and give the effort the time that it needs to work.
2. Your field sales/closers aren’t proficient at managing early stage opportunities
Several years ago I wrote a post warning companies that engaged in new, effective B2B lead generation efforts to be prepared for their closing rates to materially drop, at least initially. The reason for this is that very few salespeople and sales organizations are positioned to effectively manage early stage sales opportunities.
The objective of an effective outbound marketing or sales development effort is to create a consistent flow of sales qualified leads. Executives that are new to this effort often seem to confuse “sales qualified” with “order ready.” A sales qualified lead (SQL) is just that - a lead that is qualified and appropriate for an effective sales process. An SQL is the beginning of the sales process, not the end. They’re at the beginning of the pipeline, not the end. There’s a reason that early stage opportunities have a lower closing probability than late stage opportunities. It is the job of an effective sales process to build the need, heighten the impact/consequence of the issue(s) being addressed, and to accelerate the urgency. It is the sales development rep’s (SDR) job to ensure that the salesperson is talking to the right person, at the right company and to confirm that the conditions are right (there’s a need) for a salesperson to do their job.
This is why we warn companies not to use budget or timing as criteria in defining an SQL. Think of it this way, the SDR provides the raw material, but the salesperson needs to be able to build the end “product.”
What to do about it: Build your sales playbook in a manner that is designed to start at the early stage and build need, impact and urgency.
3. You lack the data to build and manage reasonable expectations
It’s the first two questions out of every prospect’s mouth when we begin talking about our sales development program.
- How fast until we get our first SQL?
- How many SQLs can we expect a month?
As soon as I get those questions, I pull out my sales development ouija board and ask the grand outbound spirits for the data and then I answer the question. Of course, I’m kidding.
What I really do is I ask for data to let me know:
- The defined size of the market.
- The criteria and attributes that enable one to clearly identify companies that fit the target profile. (This is crucial to be able to create the list - the single most important asset in any outbound effort.)
- How much awareness currently exists?
- What markets do they have a strong presence in?
- What percentage of the companies in those markets have already identified needs that match the offering?
- The presence and awareness for the competition.
- The typical sales cycle as well as the pipeline cycle.
- Data on which messages resonate and which don’t?
I could go on, but long before I get to the end of this list (usually before I get to the 3rd point) it becomes clear that there is no data. With no data, you cannot set reasonable expectations.
What to do about it: If you don’t have the data, there’s nothing you can do about it but to start down the path to build the data. Realize that this is going to increase the bumpiness on the path to scaling growth. Note that it’s not an excuse not to execute. The truth is that implementing a comprehensive approach to growth is the fastest way to get the critical data needed to grow smart.
4. You’re too damn impatient to actually let the crops grow
I’ve written before that neither inbound marketing nor outbound represents the “magic growth beans.” Sales growth and crop growth are very similar.
First you must prepare the field so the the crops of your choice can thrive. Then you must plant your seeds and cultivate them, even while you cannot see any direct signs of progress. If you want your crops to sustain you must ensure that a solid root structure is developed as well. Then as the crops begin to grow you must continue to cultivate so they become valuable. If you try to short circuit the process, everything breaks down.
The same is true when scaling growth. First you must prepare the market so your sales efforts can thrive. You do this by planting seeds in the form of building awareness and developing a message that resonates (see point 1). As awareness begins to form, you can’t start looking for sales. You must be looking for progress. You do this by tracking key data points:
- How well formed is the top of your funnel.
- What level of engagement do you have in the middle of your funnel.
- Conversion rates as you hit the bottom of your funnel.
If you try to short circuit this process, it breaks down. Always remember that buyers do things in their time. The role of outbound - and inbound - marketing is to create the environment that allows consistent growth to occur. If you haven’t built the structure for growth, at best you get a growth spurt, but you won’t be able to scale.
What to do about it: Invest in developing a structural approach to growth. It will be frustrating, but it will payoff - in ways beyond what you can imagine.
The Bottom Line
Look, I get it. I want more sales tomorrow. I want to put my SDR on the phones and start getting SQLs the next week. (Well, actually that’s happening, but it took tremendous effort for us to get there.)
For the record, Imagine is a self funded-business, and we haven’t always been in a position where I can say we’re doing well (thankfully, right now is one of the times I can say we’re doing very well). I know what it means to need sales and to need them now. But, what I need isn’t particularly relevant. The market (and reality) don’t care what I need.
You have two choices: If speed is important then be prepared to spend A LOT of money. Speed is why venture capital and private equity firms exist. It’s why companies like HubSpot, Zenefits, Yesware and others raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
If you’re not interested (or not in a position to) raise millions, then realize that it’s going to take some time. And the amount of time it takes is directly related to the effectiveness of your growth efforts before you begin. When I say it will take some time, I don’t mean years, but it’s certainly going to take months (emphasis on the plural); and you need to expect to make several pivots and course corrections before you’re on track.
But here’s the good news. If the effort wasn’t so damn hard then, frankly, there would be no point doing it. There would be no advantage. Everybody would be growing their business and it wouldn’t mean anything. There’d be no need for consultants (okay, I get that may be a good thing) because growing a business would be easy for everyone.
Here’s my final point. If you’re going to commit to growth - commit to it. Stop looking for shortcuts. This doesn’t mean implement a growth process with blind faith. It means develop the metrics so that you can take a data-backed journey of growth. The data will guide you about when to make the course corrections and when to hit on the accelerator.
The journey can be frustrating...but do you have a choice?