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Death of a B2B Salesman

Insights for the SMB Marketer

By now, you may have read or heard about the Forrester report, “Death of A (B2B) Salesman,” in which they estimate that by 2020, self-service eCommerce will eliminate one million B2B sales jobs. As we all know, there is a sea change afoot, and more and more transactions and, in fact, entire customer relationships are now occurring solely online. This is happening not just in B2C but in B2B too.

The most telling stat from the Forrester survey is that B2B buyers prefer to self-educate over talking to sales about products by a factor of 3-to-1, indicating a very clear preference. Forrester properly points out that complex sales transactions will continue to flow to sales reps and call centers across all sizes of clients, while all other transactions will increasingly be routed through self-serve eCommerce websites.

This reminds me of my wife, who recently started a small skin care company. She went to GoDaddy for her domain and software, T-Mobile for phones and wireless, and Harvest for expense and time-reporting needs. She did all of this and much more to set-up her company without ever speaking to a salesperson. And she did this because it was her preference. As anyone who markets to SMBs knows, one of their greatest pain points is being time starved. Frictionless eCommerce solves this pain point head on. And as more millennial businesses emerge, expect this preference to only grow. (My wife would like me to claim here that she is one of these millennial SMBs.)

Forrester refers to the B2B seller as being “out of sync” with B2B buyers. This has broad reaching implications on salespeople in seller organizations and, in fact, impacts their actual business models — a C-level discussion no doubt. It may be that, in the future world, the lines between marketing, sales, and customer service are so blurred there are no lines anymore.

But if you are an SMB marketer, how does all of this impact you now? What can you do immediately to ensure you are in tune with this sea change? While by no means an exhaustive list, here are some recommendations on what you could be focusing on over the next six months that will have an immediate impact:

1. Ensure varsity-level search immediately!

When asked about their SMB search efforts, we have been told countless times by clients, "We’re on it!" But when conducting even a rudimentary analysis, we learn that their efforts are sub-optimal and behind the competition. This applies to SEM and SEO. The same kind of rigor and prioritization of search in B2C and in industries like retail should be applied to SMB marketing. This requires resources, diligence, technology, and strategy. In short, it requires a world-class capability. This has already become table stakes in outbound prospecting for SMB marketing.

2. Audit the site experience and (just as important) analytics

Obviously all of this, including my wife’s example, implies that the site experience must evolve. But as anyone who actually works in a marketing organization of any consequence knows, this is much easier said than done. Typically owned by many stakeholders and governing bodies, evolving the site is a company-wide initiative. In the meantime, our recommendation would be to focus on the portions of the site that you affect and are relevant to your campaigns with an eye on two goals: a) creating a frictionless conversion experience and b) providing content that informs and captures leads. 

Meanwhile, perhaps as important as the experience itself, be sure you have an underlying analytics platform to set yourself up for success in the long-term. This is often the unsexy, “dirty” work and requires investment rather than half-measures and workarounds.

3. Build a content factory (but don’t try to solve world hunger)

Everywhere you turn these days you can read about how content is king and, for us, Forrester’s findings underscore its importance. So we won’t retread ground here. As someone who has created a mountain of content, I will provide two suggestions based on my past errors. The first is when beginning to build content, keep in mind that you want to build a scalable “factory.” As this sea change continues, you will need a repeatable process to create lots of content. Clients typically reach out to Merkle right about when they realize that their content demands far outpace their supply. So I would plan accordingly.

The second suggestion is to avoid trying to solve world hunger. The pervasive advice is that you must create valuable and compelling content. While this is sound advice, clients often then over-engineer their content, creating extremely long, semi-relevant, involved (and expensive) pieces. Remember the SMB is time-starved, so you should focus content on being brief and informative with the goal of helping them along the customer journey. And you needs lots. So create helpful pieces rapidly and then move on.

4. Build a social proof factory — more than just “likes”

Similar to content, social is, of course, a much-discussed topic these days. When targeting the SMB, again, remember they are time starved. Instead of games that generate likes on your Facebook page, we would rather you spend your time on developing a social strategy which builds your credibility among SMBs who are looking quickly for validation on your product. For example, rather than a cool viral video which has little to do with your product, we would first recommend a video of customer testimonials that provides valuable social proof to their fellow SMB owners.

5. Ensure varsity-level lead nurturing immediately!

Similar to search, when stressing the importance of lead nurturing, often our clients exclaim, “We have a program!” only to find that it is sub-optimal. Often thought of as a commercial sales issue, lead nurturing is critical to SMBs. Stated another way, in a world without the salesperson, who is maintaining the dialogue with your prospects? In your future state, your search strategy generates maximum volume and your informative content draws them in. Then you need to incubate them. This requires multi-segment, multi-touch contact streams, triggered based on lead behavior.

And no, your home-grown system built on chewing gum and bailing wire won’t work. This does require a true marketing automation platform to properly incubate your very valuable leads.

At this point, what you may have concluded is that you need to engage in an overall customer journey mapping initiative. And that would be wise. GoDaddy is an excellent example of an SMB seller who has clearly thought through the entire lead, retention, and upsell journey, assuming there may be absolutely no sales or customer service interaction. I recommend you conduct an audit of your own customer journey and see how it measures up.

Merkle has a formal framework called the Connected CRM Assessment that has been used by many of our clients to conduct an analysis of the customer journey across segments to identify short and long-term gaps. Either way, if you are targeting SMBs, we highly recommend you assess where you are today and how you’ll fare in a future with fewer salespeople.