Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Episode 23: Maria Boulden on Bridging the Thought Leadership-Sales Divide

In too many organizations, thought leadership research, marketing and sales still dwell in stovepipes, fiercely protecting their turf and seeing little overlap in what they do. But the world has changed since the pandemic, making it imperative that the three teams work together. Many potential customers make purchasing decisions online and are reluctant to meet with a sales representative. It will take more than charm and a good golf game today to win them over.

Maria Boulden, Gartner vice president and executive partner for sales, says the best B2B companies are putting sales and thought leadership into what she calls a unified commercial engine. This is helping them win over clients in an increasingly complex business world where prospects have a bewildering number of options.  

This approach can have a powerful impact on revenue. Thought leadership researchers and marketers can show salespeople how to win potential clients by serving as sense makers who help them see their options more clearly, Maria says. 

In this interview with Bob Buday, she talks about the biggest misconceptions preventing thought leadership research, marketing and sales from working productively together, why everyone including thought leadership professionals needs to be measured, and the payoff when thought leadership and sales are on the same page.

Transcript: Bob Buday and Maria Boulden

Bob Buday: So Maria, since the big pandemic began in early 2020, how have the most effective B2B sales forces changed the way they operate? Do you see any patterns or threads?

Maria Boulden: Bob, there’s an incredible amount of separation happening right now between the leaders and the laggards. Not many people are playing in the middle anymore because the world is forcing a split.

First and foremost, the best B2B sales forces have embraced the fact that, figuratively and literally, buyers aren’t where they used to be. Today, 75% of B2B buyers don’t want to engage with a seller at all — not on the phone, not on a video call like this, not on a chat box, and certainly not in person. With the seismic shift to remote work, most aren’t even in the office anymore.

Our data also shows that B2B buyers’ appetite for digital commerce, which is what they’re doing when they’re not seeing sellers, may also exceed their ability to make a high-quality purchase online. So even though they want to buy that way, it doesn’t mean they’re good at it.

We found that buyers who did it on their own, through self-service digital commerce transactions, have much higher buyer regret. They’re more likely to say that they should have consulted more information, taken longer to make their decision and even bought something different altogether.

This is really important for commercial leaders because customers who regret their digital commerce purchases aren’t likely to come back anytime soon, even if a rep gets involved. And that’s bad for long-term customer loyalty and account growth.

So the best B2B companies are recognizing that pure-play digital commerce is more likely to lead to regret than having a rep in front of the customers.

When you push a rep on a buyer and they do mostly rep-assisted learning and buying, they only have a 31% chance of closing a high-quality deal. [By high-quality deal, I mean] long-term great profitability, and big commitment kind of thing. With that in mind, the best B2B companies are combining the right digital experience with embedding a sales rep at the right times. That’s what pushes the probability of a high-quality deal into the 60s and even into the 70 percentiles.

We’re increasingly seeing the laggards force buyers to engage with a sales rep, which could completely be the wrong thing to do. But leaving them to their own devices isn’t the right answer either.

So long story short, the best commercial organizations are striking the right balance between digital and rep assistance, based on what they know about their customer journey. They embed a rep where customers are most likely to make a mistake, get stuck or otherwise make a bad decision or no decision at all.

The other thing [the best B2B companies] do is build agility into their organization. We’re in a never normal world; you can create a world-class commercial team and it’ll be obsolete tomorrow. So your people, your tools, your processes need to be agile. And they need to be looking at the right parts of the horizon to know when the world needs to shift.

Leaders vs. Laggards in Sales

Bob: Roughly what percentage of B2B companies that you have researched are “leaders” and “laggards”?

Maria: The leaders are a small percentage, maybe less than 20%. They have a unified commercial engine doing what I just described. And there’s maybe another 20% that will go the way of the dinosaurs because they just can’t wrap their heads around it. They’re either going to get bought or get out.

Bob: They’re still selling the way they sold before the pandemic?

Maria: Oh, yeah. We still have 2019 sellers going into the 2023 buying environment. It’s a kill box for them, and it’s tragic to watch. A lot of times when I get there, the first thing I do is try to get them some relief. In some cases, for sellers who can’t figure out how they will adapt, you find them a soft landing [an exit from the company]. It sounds ruthless, but it’s better for them, and it’s better for the company.

“42% of my client base [chief sales and revenue officers] also own the marketing function and thought leadership.”

Bob: Do they believe that buyers will soon revert to the good old days pre-pandemic?

Maria: Absolutely. There’s a lot who believe that. But what I can also say is — back to that concept of a funnel and [buyers] working their way through it – Gartner’s offering here is for chief sales officers and chief revenue officers. 42% of my client base also owns the marketing function and thought leadership.

The Role of Thought Leadership 

Bob: Where does thought leadership come into play here? How important is it in the new commercial engine you’re talking about?

Maria: It’s incredibly important because, you know, thought leadership isn’t about just saying cool things at conferences and customer events. There is such an inundation of information — and high-quality information. Thought leadership helps make sense of it and give direction to it. It’s incredibly important.

Bob: Do most of the B2B companies you work with get that now? I don’t think they understood the value of thought leadership five years ago.

Maria: They’re coming around. There’s still a lot of companies that think thought leadership is just saying pithy things and doesn’t actually contribute to the revenue engine and profitable growth. But they are so connected. It’s really critical to help companies understand that bridge — how it helps the top and bottom line. And unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand that.

Bob: Have you worked with B2B companies since the pandemic that are trying to improve how thought leadership research, marketing, and business development/sales work together?

Maria: Absolutely. In fact, a lot of our work today is to unify that commercial engine. I’m very deliberately saying “commercial engine” because there was a time when people referred to “sales and marketing” in one instance, as one thing. As of late, there’s been so much separation between the functions, and a lot of confusion about what thought leadership really is.

Obviously, your book and your work go a long way to define that and make it executable. We’re finding a lot of companies that just don’t understand that integrating [sales and marketing] isn’t hard. But it involves some important decisions that need to be made. They’re not hard decisions to make, but they’re hard to mobilize.

Politics and Old Paradigms Die Hard

Bob: What makes them hard to mobilize? What are some of the biggest barriers there?

Maria: Unfortunately, oftentimes it’s office politics and paradigms and a belief about what the functions are supposed to do.

Bob: So where does the disagreement come in? Is it “Well, the marketing person thinks it should go this way, and the head of sales believes that you go a different way. And the head of thought leadership research thinks something completely different”?

Maria: That’s a lot of it. You and I have talked about how marketing, thought leadership and salespeople are always on different pages, and it’s very true. Many of the organizations that I support are stovepiped. They put thought leadership in the marketing function, and those people are doing critical work. But either they’re not collaborating with the sales team in that process, or frankly, the sales team is ignoring it. It’s not part of their process.

“Thought leadership and the associated marketing without sales is a daydream. And sales without thought leadership and the associated marketing is a nightmare.” 

There’s no way for a company to be sustainably successful when you let that happen. It’s kind of a twist on a Japanese proverb: “Thought leadership and the associated marketing without sales is a daydream. And sales without thought leadership and the associated marketing is a nightmare.”

Now, I do see it changing for the better. Like we said, a lot of companies are building that commercial team and a revenue engine. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re combining the functions. But they are putting them into that unified commercial engine that works together, that’s measured on common goals and focuses on customers to guide that work together.

In companies where this is not happening, each of these groups have their own processes and they’re not connected. They’re not held accountable to connect. They’re not mutually held accountable for how to fix the top and bottom line because that feels too salesy. “I didn’t sign up for sales, only sales seems to own the number.”

Now, I’m not saying everybody needs to be on the same variable compensation model as a seller. But there needs to be some metrics that thought leadership, research, marketing, and the sales teams are accountable to hit together. I like that to be in the form of pipeline metrics, from the very beginning of awareness all the way through. That’s a common and direct link to the right kind of revenue growth.

Whether you call it a pod or a commercial team or a segment team, it shares a goal and it has skin in the game to achieve it. And it drives their day-to-day work to collaborate. That’s what the best commercial teams do.

Metrics Matter for Thought Leadership, Too

Bob: Revenue goals have to be part of the metrics, right?

Maria: They do, or they have to be at least within spitting distance. I mentioned pipeline metrics. I like having rapid revenue growth goals. A lot of companies are creating these pod concepts, where thought leadership marketing, thought leadership research, and sellers all support the same customer ecosystem — whether it’s a market segment, or an industry segment, or behavioral segment, or whatever. They do have a revenue goal, and their pay is tied to it.

For the others, it’s more of a different type of performance management. But they also have other metrics around how that pipeline works, whether it’s a prospect or an established customer. That works really well.

Bob: Do you ever hear, from marketing or thought leadership research heads, something to the effect of, “We should not be measured on revenue. We should be measured on things like awareness or downloads or share of voice”? You know, “Let the salespeople be measured on revenue because they’re the ones talking to customers. We in marketing and thought leadership research are not talking to customers.”

Maria: I understand. And I do I get that a lot. There’s a discomfort there because the hooks set pretty deep when you own part of the revenue number. And that’s a rush that salespeople get, but which most people who aren’t salespeople don’t get.

I don’t have a problem with digital instances and stages of pipeline development that follow being part of the common metrics. As a leader, I want a team metric that everyone is accountable to hit. To me, that’s top line and bottom line. And when you have a company that doesn’t feel accountable, when you have people in your company who don’t see how their work directly impacts profitable revenue, you’ve got disconnects, and you’ve got stovepipes.

Bob: I’ve heard countless times from marketing and thought leadership research people that they should not be measured on revenue. I believe that comes from those who are not entirely confident their content is good. I say to them, “Look, your company is investing in thought leadership research and marketing not because it’s a research company or a publishing house; you’re there to generate top-line and bottom-line growth. And if you’re not contributing to that, and you’re not being measured on that, I don’t know what you’re doing.”

Maria: I couldn’t agree more. And just like sellers who can’t execute in a 2023 buying environment, in my humble opinion our role is to structure the best organization.

If people aren’t comfortable with the metrics you’re setting, you help them find another opportunity that showcases their skills better.

The Power of Feedback and Data

Bob: What do you tell the marketing or thought leadership research professionals who say their firm’s salespeople never tell them when a prospect who read their content became a client? Especially, when they hear that a client read something that led to a win.

Maria: There’s two issues there. First, you’ve got a communication issue in the form of no feedback loop. And I’m not saying it needs to be for credit. But if thought leadership is there for a company to increase awareness, it’s not enough to rely only on the sellers to tell them about it.

There has to be sales feedback, without question. Sales operations and sales leadership must build that into the sales process. It’s important in account planning to have a contact strategy with a systematized feedback loop. Sellers have to be held accountable to do it.

But again, there should be a very clear dataset of all of the things that generate digital instances in the pipeline. Most pipelines have four stages.

It doesn’t have to be some conversation that they have at the watercooler. That’s not what the best companies do. They measure it.

If you’re relying on that type of analog feedback in a digital world, it’s not sustainable. Salespeople have better things to do with their time than going back to marketing and telling them which content is resonating with customers. The last thing you need is to tie them up in a feedback loop. You need them driving the customer experience and supporting what their customers and prospects need.

Biggest Misconceptions

Bob: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that the thought leadership research, marketing, brand marketing and salespeople have about each other?

Maria: There’s often an assumption that sellers will just ignore anything you’re putting together for them or alter it beyond recognition — that they’ll just rely on charm and communication skills, and that steak dinner, versus the power of thought leadership and the science of marketing. I guarantee you, if you give a seller a proven or a highly probable way to consistently close successfully, they’ll use it. In fact, they’ll be banging your door down for it.

So I would say that there’s a misconception that sellers aren’t professional, that it’s about all those old school things. Frankly, if you haven’t washed those sellers out of your organization yet, you can do the best thought leadership marketing in the world and it is not going to matter. Somebody’s got to close it. It won’t sell itself no matter how good it is.

In many organizations people’s egos still assume that there’s no process for sellers. And unfortunately a lot of companies are in that box because they have relied on charm and communication skills. In this environment, it’s a recipe for disaster.

“Sales is a science. Marketing is a science. Thought leadership is a science. They have to be treated as such.” 

The best organizations have a strong sales process that takes opportunities and converts them into sales, whether it’s prospects or existing customers. Sales is a science. Marketing is a science. Thought leadership is a science. They have to be treated as such.

There’s also a misconception that the impact of thought leadership research and marketing can’t be measured, that it really is just a little extra seasoning on an engine. That’s not the case. This can be measured at the top and at the bottom-line levels. When you get those results, sellers won’t dismiss it. Leaders who have to make budget decisions will take it seriously. And the commercial engine becomes unified.

Bob: The marketing people think the salespeople don’t read the thought leadership content. They don’t read the book that they published, or the latest research report. When a client or prospect raises his or her hand and asks to talk to some salesperson, the salesperson typically knows nothing. And he or she looks like a fool in front of the prospect or client.

A lot of marketers’ feel their firm’s salespeople will be unprepared to hold a thought leadership discussion or consultative sell or Challenger sale.

Maria: You know, if they’re right, then the onus is on their companies is to either upscale those sellers or to get them out of their organization. Like I said, I hate to sound Machiavellian, but in this environment, you’re doing everybody a favor when you build the right [commercial] organization. Just because somebody has great institutional knowledge, that’s not a sword. It’s not a shield. They need to go.

Bob: I’m not saying every piece of thought leadership content out there is great. Most of it is not great. But there are pieces of research or books that are memorable.  Clients react to them  and say, “This is great. I want to talk to the organization behind this research report, or this book, or this great presentation that I saw at the industry conference.”

Do you think most B2B salespeople understand just how much a customer can be affected by a great piece of thought leadership?

Maria: Honestly, I don’t. I do a lot of work with companies to develop and deploy commercial insight. A huge component of that is thought leadership. And it is still a bit disappointing to me how many people don’t get that. They understand digital, or getting a better understanding of it. They’re finally coming around to the fact that they need to understand the customer ecosystem, the customer journey, the customer experience.

But unfortunately, whether you call it commercial insight or thought leadership, the average organization still struggles. They’re trying, and that’s where our work comes in. They’re not there yet.

Sales Execs Must Take the Lead

Bob: Last question. What can chief sales officers do to improve what we’re talking about here – the way thought leadership is rolled out to market and conversations begun with salespeople?

Maria: It’s a privilege to be a sales leader and a responsibility to build your best organization; it’s not the movie “Hunger Games.” You surround yourself with strong people. You have to either help them get the skills they need or help them find their next opportunity outside the sales organization.

Another thing that chief sales officers need to do is educate their people on the financial impact of their thought leadership programs. It’s not esoteric or a “feel good.” They can and must quantify the impact or it’s not worth doing. When you quantify the impact, people get it. When they understand those connections, they tend to come along.

And if you lead the whole commercial function, you’ve got to make sure your sellers aren’t the only function responsible for hitting a number.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: