A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with a CEO I'd met through the speaking I do. He runs a mid-market company and several months ago he told me that he was implementing inbound marketing at his company. He was excited about the potential it brought and had credited the presentation I made to leading to the decision.
So I was checking-in with him to see how things were going. Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised with what he said. He told me, "Doug, we're still committed to inbound, but frankly we need to get our deal pipeline in order first. Sales are not where they need to be, and we are 'all hands on deck' to driving sales over the next 90 days."
I laughed (on the inside) when I heard this. I thought to myself, "Really...you've done little to no work on the top of your funnel in years, and your pipeline is weak. Who'da thought." I wished him luck, knowing that if I check back with him in 6 - 12 months his company will be weaker than it is today (which is weaker than it was 6 - 12 months ago). What's worse, he won't even realize that he's sealing his own fate.
I've seen it happen over the 12 years that I've been running Imagine. Small and mid-market companies, in their effort to grow, are making themselves weaker. Frankly, I found myself (and Imagine) in a very similar place just over five years ago.
We'd been so focused on the bottom of the funnel, that we didn't have the raw material needed to fuel our growth. What's more, there was a shift in the market (in our case it was the continuing recession) that made our traditional growth efforts insufficient. (Note: While today we're not experiencing a global recession, the radical shift in buyer behavior makes traditional growth approaches insufficient for nearly every business.)
While there was tremendous pressure on the short-term for new sales (meeting payroll was one I remember quite well), I realized that we had to make a real change to our approach. I'm happy to share that the last five years have been our most successful sales years, and today we have a larger/stronger pipeline than ever. Here's what we did to make the transition:
Realize That It Will Take Time
While this isn't an action, per se, it was the most important piece of the puzzle. I had to acknowledge that I didn't get where I am overnight, and it would take time to fix it.
The core problem was that in the first seven years we'd outgrown our sales/revenue generating capabilities. While we enjoyed growth in our early years, we never invested adequately in the activities to grow new opportunities.
I realized that our fundamental challenge was that we had built a structure that needed a volume and velocity to work effectively. Patience is certainly not a strength of mine, but I realized that I'd have to be disciplined and patient. I didn't want to merely create a surge of activity to gain short-term growth, only to confront the same challenge - but bigger and with more complexity - later. I wanted to solve the problem; and that would take some time.
Track The Right Metrics
That said, I wasn't going to pursue growth on faith. I knew I wouldn't be able to measure by closed sales, but I needed to be able to measure and track progress so that I could:
- Ensure that I was on course and wasn't going to experience a negative surprise.
- Accelerate learning and make the adjustments needed to achieve the goals we established.
Don't Change Everything At Once
I realized we were embarking on a transformation, and the worst thing you can do when transforming is to change everything at once. Realizing that it would take time for our new approach to gain traction and deliver results, I knew that we would have to keep doing those things that weren't as effective until things started working.
Five years ago, 80% of the new business we got was directly related to action I, myself, took (and I don't mean from a sales perspective). Most of that came from speaking that I did. While I love to speak, relying on it as my primary new business generation tactic was dangerous (if you're curious why, leave a comment and I'll explain).
Today less than 5% of the new business we get comes from those actions. Our new business is originated by our sales development rep, inbound marketing and campaigns. But that didn't happen overnight.
Don't Wait For Them To Come To You
The power of inbound is its philosophy of helping before selling, its use of content to support and influence the buyer's journey, and the way it embraces how prospects behave today. Regular readers of this blog know that for us it's not about inbound or outbound; rather it's about Allbound.
We implemented some aggressive outbound efforts, utilizing and leveraging the work we were doing with content and inbound marketing, to complement our longer-term investments and to shorten the time to revenue. The outbound efforts gave us greater insights into what was happening, intelligence into what our prospects were thinking and data to guide our overall actions.
Today (literally), we are not doing any formal outbound activities. Not because we don't want to, but because our inbound lead generation has grown so much we're not able to keep up with it. As we invest in our capacity, we'll reinitiate outbound activities.
Work on Your Product/Service
Another important point for us was that we realized we needed to raise our game. As part of our process to really understand who we want to be a hero to, we realized that we needed to move deeper to solve their problems. We realized that promotion, content and sales are only a piece of the marketing and demand generation puzzle. What we did - our product/service - was equally or more important.
This is an important lesson for anyone striving for growth. I don't care if you sell your multimillion dollar equipment or provide professional services to neighborhood nannies - you must continually work on your product and service (you'll notice I use "and" not "or"). What is the problem your core customer has? I don't mean the surface problem that any commodity could address, but the deep problem; the one that requires you and your company? What makes you special? And remember, what makes you special today will be a commodity tomorrow (just look at Apple).
That's what we did. You'll notice I didn't get into the tactics of our approach - there's plenty of that already here on the blog (and plenty more to come). The key is that we realized that "waiting until we have everything together" before we embarked on the journey was only a formula for continued weakness.
I leave you with this pointer: