The hottest buzzword in the "inbound" landscape these days is inbound sales. Inbound sales is a refinement of more traditional sales processes that focuses on better utilizing data from inbound marketing and making the buyer journey more natural and helpful. Everybody's talking about it, and the demand for implementing inbound sales along with inbound marketing is growing quickly. There are agencies popping up or realigning themselves to service companies seeking to better handle inbound leads and train sales reps on best practices. So the inbound revolution continues beyond marketing, but how did we get here and where are we going?
Inbound marketing has been around since the mid-2000's when HubSpot and a few other pioneers started rethinking marketing and sales. The idea has always been to make sales and marketing less intrusive and more valuable to customers. Turning marketing into education and sales into service has been the mantra of the inbound revolution since its inception.
But when the rubber actually hit the road in 2009 and beyond, sales and marketing departments and practitioners in all kinds of industries found the inbound revolution a little hard to swallow. In particular, there were traditional lines drawn between Sales and Marketing institutions, lines that were not to be crossed. Marketing's job was to attract visitors and leads, and hopefully, some of them would be qualified. Marketing would throw them over the wall to Sales, and Sales would call, qualify and convert leads into opportunities and, again hopefully, close them.
In this mid-decade scenario, inbound marketing was at first treated with skepticism, since it was new. Fast forward to 2015, and it's pretty much mainstream. Not everybody is practicing inbound well, but most companies are at least dabbling in its various components, blogging, SEO and social media. What has driven the inbound revolution is the changing customer landscape, the fact that everyone is on smartphones now and everyone is good at rejecting spam and other forms of unsolicited advertising. People want great, helpful content delivered where they hang out online - and nothing else!
The trick for inbound marketers has become figuring out what kind of content for each buyer persona and where and when to deliver it for maximum engagement.
Towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s we started to run into another roadblock. Sales. Inbound marketers were becoming so skilled at attracting and converting leads, that converting them into customers was becoming a real challenge due to the sheer volume. The relationship between an inbound lead and a real prospect was often murky at best, and we were forced to continue "nurturing" them with more content, hoping that their true colors would coming shining through (to borrow a phrase from Cyndi Lauper). Sales reps were becoming frustrated because their call lists were doubling or tripling in size without any significant increase in lead quality or close rates. Many companies considered reducing their marketing to reduce this pressure on the Sales team. So we started rethinking the whole process.
A few years ago, thought leaders in marketing figured out that the apparent dysfunction between Sales and Marketing could be fixed by overhauling and aligning processes. Easier said than done, but yes, we all thought sales and marketing alignment was the way to go. Get the two teams on the same page on targeting, lead quality, goals and process, and you would be able to bridge the gap and start improving sales performance right away.
Not so fast!
Sales and marketing alignment is great in theory, but in practice there are still some monumental barriers. For one thing, marketers and sales reps use different tools and criteria to assess, track and develop leads. Marketing technology platforms like HubSpot and CRMs like Salesforce are the tools of choice for most marketers and sales reps these days. In many cases they are integrated, providing instant visibility and accountability as the sales funnel develops from top to bottom. We've also become pretty sophisticated at deploying marketing automation workflows that keep us on our toes when something interesting happens. So what's the problem?
The problem is that we're still not in the heads of our inbound leads. We don't really know what their intentions are when they visit our website, even if they come back to visit multiple times. We can infer intention from their engagement and behavior, but unless they fill out a bottom funnel form requesting a consultation, we're really just guessing about their sales readiness, aren't we? We don't often share data views or KPIs that allow us to assess leads consistently and quickly.
Sales reps may be able to see a lead score go up, but what does it mean? When is the right time to call? What should the rep say on the call? How should she prioritize leads and call the best ones first? This is the quandary for inbound sales reps. What's the best approach to handling inbound leads, qualifying them and closing them when they are ready to buy?
I think we can all agree that technology and customer expectations have forced us to become better marketers and sales reps. We can't bombard people with advertising anymore and we can't just cold call and expect any positive results. The key to this apparent dilemma is working together to understand and help our prospects make informed decisions that may or may not lead to a sale for us. Let me suggest a couple of fundamental changes:
Instead of generating lots of traffic and leads, Marketing's new mission is:
Attract qualified buyers who are looking for what we sell and help them understand our value.
Sales' new mission becomes equally customer centric:
Learn about prospects during the buyer journey and be prepared to help them further when a conversation is warranted. If a sale is the best solution, help them learn how to be your customer.
These are two sides of the same coin, and they may overlap during the Consideration Stage of the Buyer Journey. There may not even be a hand-off between Marketing and Sales. Instead, there is a shared visibility and responsibility to find likely buyers that are already in your sales funnel using the same tools and metrics. Then, treat them like royalty.
This will certainly involve collaboration and shared goals, along with truly integrated sales and marketing technology and training to make the most of these new tools. Sales reps and marketers must be able to share the same database and see changes to the buyer journey as they happen in real time. The first rep to make that connection at just the right time wins nearly every time.
Are we there yet?
Not even close. Most of us are still dealing with siloed sales and marketing teams and the "always be closing" mentality. Even early adopters of inbound marketing are still struggling with how to converge sales and marketing so that they aren't just aligned, but actually working together with a common purpose and methodology. You're going to hear a lot more about inbound sales in the next few months. It's the next big challenge for inbound beyond 2015. Do we have all the answers yet? No, but we're working on it.
Please stay tuned.