Interview: Where Can You Get The Insights Needed for Provocative Selling?

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jody Canavan, Founder and President of Launch International and an expert in content marketing.
Here are the notes from this compelling and important interview:
One of the biggest issues for Sales is that according to several research firms, over 1/2 of a typical prospect’s purchase decision is already complete before your sales reps are even being invited to the table. Why do you think sales reps are being invited later and later into the prospect’s decision-making process?

No matter what analyst firm you quote, everybody is reporting that sales reps are being invited to a prospect’s decision-making process later and later. And we all know it’s because buyers are self-educating more, and coming to sales conversations with an opinion, so it’s changing the way salespeople engage.

Everybody likes to talk about how buyers are self-educating more. The good news about that is that demand gen teams are getting really high marks for publishing information that gets viewed and downloaded. But there’s a real problem today with customers being over-informed…there’s too much information out there, and so now the real challenge is in helping prospects make sense of the information and apply it intelligently to their own situation.

The other big issue for sales is that almost 60%, of a typical pipeline is stalled at “Do Nothing”. Are more buyers really paralyzed by inaction and why?

I think every company would report their greatest competitor is “do nothing.” I know mine is, and yours probably is, too. We recently created some insight for a client around the real cost of inertia. To me, “do nothing” is also known as inertia, and there are tangible costs – monetary and otherwise – that companies realize by not progressing. Inaction is easier than action. Action is uncomfortable. It’s risky. It forces people to act with confidence, and from a perspective that is grounded in intelligence.

The key to overcoming “do nothing” is to make “nothing” more painful than doing something. There’s a new article just published in the Harvard Business Review about CEB’s approach. In it, they talk about how a supplier’s biggest challenge isn’t the competition, but the customer’s ability to learn. Salespeople need to be able to present important information that a customer might have overlooked. The best sales reps can link information and insights to the solutions their company provides.

How do you think sales can earn the right to play earlier in engagements?
The best salespeople know they have to bring something of value to their prospects. If we assume that the customer is over-informed and probably confused – or worse, that the prospect is heading down a path that really is not in their company’s best interest – then a salesperson armed with information, insight or intelligence will earn the right to play earlier.
Early in the decision process, during the IDEAS phase, you can earn the right to play by exposing potential risks and threats. This is usually done with industry research or diagnostic assessments, to “illuminate the rain”, identifying issues of which the buyer might not have been aware, or confirming their current woes are worth addressing.

Next, during the EXPLORATION phase you need to make the issue a priority, so at this stage you can help them understand and quantify the impact of doing nothing.

During the EVALUATION phase, different solutions are being explored, and the proposal is being considered versus several others. At this phase, sales can engage earlier by proactively justifying the potential gains of the proposed solutions.

Throughout this process, delivering insights are key … how the company is currently challenges in operational efficiency, risks and revenue opportunities, and how your vision for the solution can help to improve each.

You work with a lot of world-class companies. They have big budgets they can spend on marketing and demand gen, and sales enablement. How do you see these organizations solving the sales and marketing alignment challenge?
 Every company we know struggles with this. It’s easy to say the organizations are working together, but few companies have cracked the code on how to integrate both campaign activities and sales conversations to be in lock step toward a common goal.

It’s fascinating to watch from the outside because we work with really smart people in marketing and in sales enablement, and they’re all working harder than ever to figure this out, but it isn’t easy. The organizations doing it best are those where there is executive level support, commitment and active participation in designing points of integration.

At Launch you’ve created the concept of Thoughtful Selling to help overcome these key challenges. Is this another sales methodology, or something different?

Thoughtful selling is a term we use to describe the process of developing or taking unique insights and delivering them consistently and effectively to target audiences using both marketing and sales activities – activities that are integrated across both organizations. It’s a model for integrating campaigns and conversations. It’s not a sales methodology, but it would leverage any selling model as part of its execution.  So here’s an example, and it’s one our listeners can use because it’s very repeatable.

We had a client offered its customers an assessment as part of their sales process. Lots of companies do that. But who knows what happens to the assessments after they’re performed? They often just are deleted as part of the cost of sales. But this client captured that data and turned it into a study for their customers. That study became part of a demand gen campaign….prospects could download the study to see how companies were performing against a set of assessment questions in that niche. On its own, it was a very successful demand gen campaign, and it included all the things you’d expect – emails, blog posts, and so on. But to make it really part of a thoughtful selling strategy, we carried it into the sales organization and trained salespeople on how to have conversations that carried this unique perspective into their prospect base.

We produced a sales playbook that included the conversation path and some associated leave behind assets. Salespeople were trained to share with their prospects the results of the study. In their case, they “whiteboarded” out the results that went something like this: “Hello Mr./Ms. Customer. I like to share with you the results of our study of more than 4000 companies – many just like yours – and how they are handling their security challenges. I’d like to share where they’re’ strong, where they’re weak, and where many of them are investing today. We can compare that to what you believe to be happening in your organization, and see how you compare. Is that ok?”

As you might expect, the result of that conversation would lead to the prospect receiving a more formal assessment of their own. And we all know the conversion rate to revenue is substantially greater if a client performs a pre-sales assessment of any kind.

At the same time, we took key areas of the study and aligned existing case study results to the performance improvements the company expected their customers to achieve. That’s a great way to repurpose existing case study assets – by grouping them by reported results.

This particular program was wildly successful in terms of revenue and margin contribution. For me, it was one of the most integrated sales/marketing plays I’ve seen, and it leveraged insights to facilitate and support a compelling value-focused conversation.

Where do you recommend finding compelling Insights to use?
There’s a lot of talk these days about bringing unique perspective or insight to customers. CEB distinguishes between insight and thought leadership by saying that insight needs to drive a commercial outcome…meaning there needs to be a clear path to revenue attached to the work. In my company we talk about an “insight gap”. 

Companies are often really great about producing real thought leadership at the 20,000 foot level….things like visionary pieces. They’re also great about producing thought leadership at the product level – things like white papers. But what is often lacking is the in between … connecting brand strategy to products in a meaningful way that drives commercial outcome.

By the way, I think the terms are often diluted – thought leadership, insight and point of view. I’ve seen lots of works under a thought leadership umbrella that drive a commercial outcome.

So where does this information come from? In the example I shared, the insight came from information they already had – it was presales assessments. Companies are sitting on lots of valuable information but they often don’t know it exists or aren’t sure how to assemble it. And in a lot of cases, they don’t have the ability to accumulate it. Like pre-sales assessments sitting on laptops all around the world. By the way, if you’re out there thinking you have that kind of information – you need about 100 samples to have the results be statistically relevant…so it doesn’t really take a lot of digging.

For those where there’s simply no good data to be had, you have to get more creative. Sometimes companies invest in analysts or industry experts to develop insight.

For one of our clients, we leveraged predictive analytics to do a different kind of survey – predicting the future of a market niche. Once we gathered the predictions, we vetted them and gathered perspective from subject matter experts. The resulting study was something that no competitor had. It’s rolling out now, but early feedback has been really positive. What’s important to remember is that in order to be unique, it has to have the perspective of your organization or its leaders. An analyst report on its own or the results of a survey on their own is not bringing insight to your customers. 

Just as important as finding insight is knowing who to share them with.  You need to map the insight to the target buyer, and make sure it’s relevant to their role. I’m sure a lot of people on the call have invested in documenting personas or roles. In our thoughtful selling world, we talk about targeting insight in three ways:
  1. There are the “prove it” people – the Manager/Director level that needs to know that the solution works. These people care about your experience and expertise.
  2. There are the “model it” people – the Director/VP level that needs to know there’s a system and process to bring the vision together. This role cares most about commercial insight – the kind of insight that drives a sale forward. This is where most insight is lacking and this is where I’ve seen Alinean’s solutions have the greatest impact. We refer to the insight produced here as “applied perspective” – meaning whatever work is produced also has the added perspective of your company’s SMEs.
  3. And there are the “take us forward” people – the VP/C-levels who want to know that you’ll help plan their technology future.  This is where an organization’s leadership often gets involved in publishing technology roadmaps and more visionary content.

So there are two parts to this: knowing where to find insight or how to produce it when none exists, and knowing where to take it so that it’s relevant to their world.

What sales and marketing tools do you recommend your customers use to help implement Thoughtful Selling?

Organizations that understand the need to integrate campaign and conversation activities – meaning demand generation and sales enablement activities – also know they have to think differently about how they take their programs live. So from a programmatic perspective it requires participation from both marketing and sales. And because it’s a change – a good change but still a change – it’s always important to be able to demonstrate the great results you’ll have. Performance tracking is important to ensure continued integration.

From a tool perspective, Alinean is the only tool I know that brings insight to life via conversations, and covering the entire buyer’s journey:
  • Early in the process, Alinean’s Interactive White Papers can be used to convey thought leadership on key challenges and best practices, helping prospects understand and quantify the cost of do nothing and potential value of change based on their unique company profile (industry, location and size) and challenges.
  • A little further along in the process, Alinean Assessments and Benefits Estimators can be used to help prospects identify their priority issues, further quantifying the cost of do nothing, intelligently recommendoing solutions, and quantifying their potential value and ROI / TCO advantages.
  • As sales engages, Alinean’s ValueStory helps guide the communication of the value messaging, with interactive visual storytelling (whiteboarding) and insights – from interactive surveys, assessments / cost / benefit / ROI calculators. One of the best features of this toolset is its ability to replace PowerPoint with a tool that not only delivers a conversation, but interactively collects, aggregates and presents insights from each engagement, solving a big part of the “where do insights come from dilemma”.
  • And in later approval phases, Alinean’s ROI / TCO Calculators are used to create CFO ready business cases to deliver financial justification and gain quicker finance / procurement approval.

What are the risks in this type of program? How have you seen the development process go wrong?
 I guess I’d say there are two risks. The first is making sure the insight is meaningful and relevant to your target audience. I’m one of those “measure twice cut once” people, so I think it’s important to find and produce great insight. And then the second is making sure sales knows how to inject it into their conversation path.

One of our clients turned the insight into a whiteboard conversation, which is great, but then you introduce whiteboarding training and run into issues of retention. With Alinean and their new ValueStory solution, you can clearly accelerate that process because the content, like whiteboarding, is placed into a tool along with the insights, providing the sales rep with a guided conversation tool to convey the value messaging in a visually compelling fashion, along with interactive insights – surveys, assessments and value calculators.

The biggest area where I see organizations fall short is in the “what’s next” area. If you think back to the CEB comment about insight and that it needs to drive a commercial outcome, it’s true. The reason why we do all these great things is because we want to sell more. But I often see companies produce great things without really thinking through what they expect to happen next. Make sure you take your thoughts over the finish line to a closed sale. One bit of insight doesn’t get you there…there’s a whole nurture path that takes place, and a single introductory conversation doesn’t close a deal.

The process of creating thoughtful content and process can appear daunting. What are the five things you would recommend someone do now?
Demand gen and sales enablement experts are used to accomplishing much and using a thoughtful selling model and approach doesn’t have to be daunting. We suggest our clients start with one sales play or an upcoming solution launch to try the model. Once clients see how to bring it all together and once they see the results, it becomes very repeatable and desirable. 

The five recommended steps to execute on this include:
  • Assess existing assets - Assess your existing assets to see where or if they fit in a thoughtful selling model. Do they present a unique perspective? Are they aligned to buyer types.
  • Identify opportunities for upgrade or invention. Determine the needs based on goals by persona or role. Dig to see what you may be sitting on. And feed insight IP engine over time.
  • Align to both buyer journey and your unique value conversation. Where do assets belong in the buyer’s path? How can they be extended to support longer, bigger, and potentially more complex conversations? Make sure you have identified what is supposed to happen next all the way to a closed sale.
  • Integrate marketing and sales enablement - Integrate across silos and execute together. Leverage tools like Alinean to support that effort.
  • Measure/monitor/improve - Identify key metrics for tracking usage and effectiveness.


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