10 Tips for Supporting the Sales Team in Today's Environment

The traditional role of marketing is to create awareness of the brand, company and products through various tactics such as advertising, trade shows, public relations, email and others. Marketing is also expected to generate inquiries and leads that sales can turn into prospects and, ultimately, clients.

But the way people buy has changed dramatically, as Todd Ebert details in this eBook, due to the prevalence of information and opinion online and in social media. Very often sales joins the conversation long after prospects have heard about an offering, researched it and solicited advice from others. With this in mind, how can SMB marketers support sales?

The good news is that, despite the changes, the core objectives for marketing remain the same: directing sales to the right opportunities, promoting the organization and offering, and providing tools and information to equip sales to close deals.

Affinity Express recently hired Rick Ashcroft and Brent Hoxsey, two retail industry veterans, to help grow our business in the segment. Working with them over the past couple of months has enabled me to develop the following checklist you can use to cover all the bases with your sales team.

Social Media Buying Cycle Social Media Buying Cycle, CMS Wire, Rob McCarthy 1-17-12

1.       Build a target list

If you don't tell sales what and who to sell, you can bet they will sell whatever they want. Instead, your first step should be to decide on the segments and accounts you want sales to target. Describe your ideal customer(s) and list the reasons why. How large are these clients in terms of revenue, number of employees or other criteria? Does your company do well at displacing competitors or selling early adopters? What kind of unmet needs should sales look for? You might not be able to build a perfect database but you should take the time to compile as much information as you can. There is no need to buy a prospect list anymore, since you can find names of companies online from various industry sites and publications, as well as on LinkedIn.

Once you have your target list, help sales prioritize based on the most promising opportunities. If you have more than one sales person on your team, assign accounts to ensure thorough coverage and avoid duplication of efforts.

We completed this activity when our retail team was first hired and found lists to get us started and NRF Stores and Internet Retailer. Our approach was to concentrate on the sub-segments in which we already have clients and then map out all the adjacent sub-categories where we would be likely to have credibility because of the work we've done and meaningful client references. The plan is to move outward as we gain relevant experience. We also assigned accounts based on geography because that made sense with our team covering retail sales.

2.       Research the market

Beyond the names of possible accounts, the sales team needs to know about the industry challenges, the problems your product or service solves and the emerging trends. Sales can do a much better job talking about your offering when they understand the context. If you can create messaging and tools in the language and terms the segment uses, that is even better. People much prefer buying from those who understand them. Find out the industry associations, major trade shows, analysts that cover the space, must-read publications and LinkedIn groups that have influence and then engage with them.

What is effective for Affinity Express is to join associations and attend industry conferences because we get fully immersed in the segment. In January, our team went to the National Retail Federation's annual convention and expo and it was extremely effective and educational. The agendas tell us what is top-of-mind for the segment, the sessions provide interesting and relevant research so we can create content like this blog post on trends, networking events uncover leads and exhibit halls are great places to test our messaging and value proposition.

3.       Evaluate the competition

Take a good look at the competition, their product offerings and their value propositions to see how you stack up against them. Ensure you have clear differentiation from the other providers in the market. This is important ammunition for sales and there is so much you can find online. Social media is powerful because you can get great insight on how companies position themselves in blog posts and tweets.

We built a matrix of about 30 companies that provide marketing production solutions to the retail industry in a variety of categories including agencies, printers and technology vendors. This allowed us to make side-by-side comparisons on the size, technology, service offering and advantages of all. Once we had this detail, we could drill down to see what the true strengths of Affinity Express are and any gaps in our offering that needed to be addressed. We look closely at the marketing practices of our top competitors and check if they have blogs, issue press releases, attend industry events, develop white papers and more. We always want to know how visible and how effective they are.

4.       Build value propositions

Once you have a target list, a basic understanding of the market and a handle on the competition, you are ready to craft effective value propositions. Our team likes to call these "elevator pitches" but I don't think we pitch in elevators all that often these days! In fact, 95% of the visitors to a website don't want to talk to a sales person, but 70% will eventually buy from that company or a competitor. Marketing has to work with sales to create compelling value propositions that can be featured both in sales meetings and online, as well as customized for specific prospects in presentations.

Over the course of several sessions with the Affinity Express subject matter experts, we developed our value proposition for the retail industry around our ability to enable client marketing teams to more effectively allocate their time and resources to new media—where consumers are spending their time and making purchases. Now we are working to incorporate and reinforce that value proposition on our website, blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and more.

5.       Interview sales

These meetings with sales are crucial to building value propositions as well as teamwork. You want to form strong partnerships from the beginning. You should ask team members about their sales style, tactics they use to open doors and engage prospects, and the types of materials and content they like to use. Pick their brains and map out the sales process to understand what tools would be helpful at each stage of the prospect buying process. It's not about sending outbound messages on how great your company and services are. Instead, you want to practice inbound marketing to educate the prospects and provide value.

We were lucky enough to get some face time with our sales pros while attending the National Retail Federation. After walking the exhibit hall and checking out various sessions, we would convene back at the hotel with our laptops, which enabled us to brainstorm what would be effective for companies considering Affinity Express services. One of the items we prioritized was a client discovery proposal, which we use to explain what we need and will accomplish by completing an onsite assessment of a client's current operation.

Sales and Marketing6.       Attend sales presentations

Nothing advises marketing better than seeing sales work their magic in person. You not only get a better read on salespeople, you can hear the questions, goals  and objections of prospects directly. This gives you a priority list of new materials and messaging you should create. It also helps you gather the first-hand experience that will elevate your topics and messaging on social media.

A previous boss of mine thought attending sales presentations was so essential that it was a required part of my job to go to several each month. I would also pair up with new reps to contribute to their training. After a time, I was able to participate in the presentations and overcome objections in a true partnership with our salespeople. Today it is more likely we'll have virtual sessions but the conversations are still very informative. I learn things like the specific terms retailers use for their marketing materials, reducing the chance I'll sound like an outsider when I write marketing content for the segment. Once introductions are made, I also try to connect with retail contacts on LinkedIn, comment on blogs and monitor Twitter.

7.       Create new materials and revise existing ones

Considering all the groundwork you've done at this point, you should have the basis to update the collateral you have now and understand the gaps you need to fill. You want to have a complete range of demos, presentations, brochures, fact sheets, proposal templates, guides to handling objections, etc. If you have the capacity, it's best to customize materials for prospects and contacts.

Recently, when there were some meetings with very large prospects, sales reached out to me. I was able to research the companies and provide some solid information. We included the detail in the PowerPoint presentation when we talked about their goals and challenges. Their name was featured throughout the document. Even better, Mel customized all our marketing production samples so that we featured the companies' logos and designs.

8.       Employ social media

Write informative blog posts based on what you learned about the target market through both your research and your ongoing dialog with sales. Encourage sales to share links with their prospects. This gives them a reason to reach out without using a heavy pitch (and even for business-to-business companies like Affinity Express, social media improves sales productivity!). Plus, if you are writing posts that provide value and educate, it will enable your team to form a relationship that is far more productive than overt requests to buy.

Fortunately, I collected quite a bit of interesting information at the National Retail Federation conference and was able to publish some posts. Now that we have done our research, we are in the process of building our editorial calendar for the retail industry so that we speak to the topics that are trending but also bring our own unique perspective.

9.       Nurture relationships

Not every prospect will be ready to buy when sales first reaches out. Marketing can maintain the relationships by publishing content on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. The distribution of newsletters and white papers to prospects and clients who have opted in to receive communications establishes your company as a trusted resource and keeps you top-of-mind when they are ready to buy.

In addition to our blog, Affinity Express Marketing sends out a monthly newsletter specific to each of the three main segments we serve. We include not only the content we've created but also include links to other blogs, publications and websites that are relevant. Designs our team created are featured and we share comments we've received on our company or work. For us, a monthly newsletter targeted to each segment we serve is the right frequency.

10.   Communicate often with sales

Schedule regular meetings each week, month or whatever frequency makes sense for your organization as long as it becomes a commitment sales and marketing honor. It should be your standard operating procedure to engage sales to find out what they are hearing, see what marketing messaging or materials are working and get insight on support they will need from you in the near future.

For us, a monthly meeting works well but I'm fortunate that our sales people in all the segments are not shy about emailing, calling and Skyping to get some help whenever they need something. Far from it!

Marketing can't be done in a vacuum and a strong relationship with the sales team---no matter how big or small—is the best way to ensure effectiveness and relevance. When focusing sales, promoting the company and providing tools and knowledge you become more efficient and effective by leveraging online tools and social media.

How has sales support changed at your company now that consumers have more power over the buying conversation than ever before? Do you have any other tactics you think are helpful for empowering sales with consumers who are now "information activists"?


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