Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
April 13th, 2018
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a content strategist at IMPACT who served two masters. I worked with our client services team to help optimize processes, and I supported the brand team (IMPACT’s in-house marketing department).
Then, I got a virtual knock on my door.
“Liz, you’ve been killing it with what you’ve been doing for us so far, but we need you to go be a content strategist and marketer for the sales team,” the IMPACT leadership team told me. “We have big goals and big projects that require your help.”
Because I strive to be a team player who understands that, sometimes, you’ll need to pull up your big girl pants and do the job that’s needed, I said yes. I was on-board and ready to do the work.
On the inside, however, I was mentally kicking rocks, like a poutier, whinier version of Charlie Brown.
After all, I was a content-first marketer and strategist, and I felt like I was being taken away from all of the projects and priorities that mattered most to me.
I was going to be trading high-level content strategy and brand awareness activities for revenue projections and developing sales tools.
That was more than six months ago. I have since returned to the brand team, but to marketers everywhere, hear me when I say this:
My time on the sales team, though brief, has utterly and fundamentally transformed my outlook on inbound, as well as how I execute my role as a content strategist.
That said, since I know most of you reading this will not have the same opportunity to immerse yourself within your sales teams, I am going to share with the four most important lessons I learned while working side-by-side with our immensely talented sales reps.
1. Yes, We Want to Educate… but We Also Need to Sell
At a very high level, we marketers know why we embraced inbound.
Buyers buy differently. As a result, marketers had to take over some of what have traditionally been sales conversations by creating content that answers questions and nurturing opportunities that engage and convert.
But when you live in the creative vacuum of most marketing teams, you end up spending a lot of time creating top-of-the-funnel content that educates and engages, but doesn’t really close deals.
Why? Well, not only is that kind of thought leadership content more fun (and easier) to create, us marketers -- whether we like to admit it or not -- don’t like selling.
It’s the business equivalent of talking about politics or religion at the dinner table. It makes us uncomfortable. We’d rather be talking about something else, like Facebook algorithm changes or The Bachelor.
Because of this, many marketers may side-step selling entirely.
To top it off, I know we’re finally having alignment and sales enablement conversations, but we have to address the elephant in the room -- the rise of inbound has demonized the idea of selling to a degree.
We’re constantly bombarded with messaging about how buyers don’t want to be sold to anymore. Thus, along the road to achieving inbound glory, sales became distinctly unsexy, vilified even.
As a result, we’ve ended up with a bunch of super top-heavy inbound marketing strategies that offer next to nothing in the way of effective consideration and decision-making content.
That’s why one of first and most important lessons I learned during my time on sales is that if you’re not putting equitable focus on consideration and decision-making content -- the kind of content that gets people to sign on the dotted line -- I’m not sure what the heck you think you’re doing as a marketer.
In fact, if you keep that kind of thinking up, you’re going to market yourself right out of a job.
The reality is you need to connect the dots between what you’re educating your audience about and what you’re selling. If you can’t do that, your content will be useless.
(Unless, of course, you work at a company where philanthropic education is what you do, and you don’t need to see any sort of return on it. In which case, lucky you!)
This is the kind of stuff I think we marketers get intellectually, but we often forget to put it into practice.
So, What Should You Do?
You always need to have a service-oriented mindset with how you approach your content.
Even with your top-of-the-funnel content, you should be able to mentally identify the business case for its existence, and know what desired action you want a lead to take next.
And remember, if we didn’t really need sales, the inbound world would have found a way to get rid of them ages ago, but that’s a story for another day…
2. Sales Reps Are the Most Underutilized Marketing Resource in Your Company
Because most marketers would rather jump off a cliff than have an honest-to-goodness sales conversation, this has led to marketing and sales teams living in their own little bubbles.
That’s not to say sales isn’t without fault here, but let’s be honest with ourselves: Marketers love talking about “silos” almost as much as we love being right or breathing.
However, talking about silos and actively taking steps to break them down to achieve true marketing and sales alignment are two very different things.
Being put in the position where I was forced to align, I learned very quickly that buried within the minds of the IMPACT sales team were mountains and mountains of insights and ideas that made previously difficult parts of my job as a marketer so much easier.
Here’s what I mean:
They Know How Your Buyers Think & Talk
First, marketers need to lock themselves in a room for hours to figure out how their ideal buyers talk and naturally verbalize their problems and goals. Your sales reps already know that stuff.
They are literally talking to your buyers every single day about what keeps them up at night, what they want to achieve, and what’s standing in their way.
They’re Content Idea Machines
Second, marketers often struggle to identify gaps or opportunities in creating consideration and decision-making content.
Sales reps, on the other hand, know what’s missing instinctively, because they know what content they don’t have (but need) at their fingertips while they’re selling.
Seriously, anyone on the IMPACT sales team can (and has) rattled off loads of ideas to flesh out those parts of our own content funnel, and I bet your sales reps can, too. Have you asked?
They Know When Trouble Is Brewing Before You Do
Finally, your sales team is like a crystal ball that can forecast troubles for your business -- and uncover broken content strategy segments -- long before your marketing team does on their own.
For example, let’s say you provide multiple types of professional services to your customers, and you’re crushing your revenue goals every month.
If you dig deeper into that number, however, you may find one or two of your services are not meeting targets, or that the leads are coming in for them are subpar.
(You might have had another segment that was over-performing against targets, thus masking this shortfall.)
You need to keep an eye on sales, because, if they’re hungry or angsty about something, it’s probably going to be a problem marketing needs to solve.
So, What Should You Do?
Talk to your sales team. Often. Schedule one-on-ones and group brainstorming sessions.
By nurturing that relationship and staying in touch, you’ll stay ahead of problems and creating a robust content strategy that gets the results you want will be easier.
Here's how we handle it at IMPACT:
Marketing and sales meets once a month for a "smalignment" meeting.
I also have monthly individual brainstorming sessions with sales reps. (This week, I'm chatting with Melanie.)
On top of that, I send out periodic surveys soliciting content ideas and feedback from the sales team.
(Even though I'm back on the marketing team, my role has been reimagined to include owning how we market our services, liaising with the sales team, and ensuring alignment. It's awesome.)
3. More Than Likely, They Wish You’d Ask for Their Help More Often
This was the most heartwarming and disheartening lesson to learn. It’s also the simplest.
Sales reps -- even in the most highly-evolved business environments where they’re actively recognized as goal-crushers who fuel the organization -- are used to not being asked for input or people goofing off about the fact that sales isn’t cool anymore or doesn’t “get” what’s happening on the service side of the business.
More to the point, they’re used to their opinions not mattering.
That’s not okay for two key reasons. First and foremost, their opinions do matter. They have a ton of experience and front-line knowledge. Second, I guarantee if you ask your sales reps, you’ll be met with the some of the same responses I got when I started asking:
“Ugh, yes! I’ve been waiting for someone to ask!”
“Thank you so much for asking -- I have tons of ideas that I think might be helpful to you.”
“Absolutely! I’m happy to help. Seriously, bother me any time, I’m happy to help brainstorm or bounce ideas off of each other.”
So, What Should You Do?
Just like the last lesson, talk to your sales team. Often. Ask them questions. Involve them in brainstorms. Ask them for feedback on something you’re working on.
More than likely, you’ll discover you’ve got some of the smartest people in your organization who have been waiting for someone to notice that they have more to offer than the ability to get a contract signed.
4. Finally, More Marketers Need to Spend Time with Sales
Sales and marketing alignment would happen naturally, because we would realize it’s not a necessary evil, but rather a mutually beneficial relationship that’s exciting to be a part of.
I’m not joking when I say that, by the way. I legitimately get excited every time I get to talk to someone in sales.
In fact, some might joke that I make up reasons to go bother the sales team because I get so much out of my conversations with them -- whether that’s an idea for a piece of content or a new challenge I need to solve for.
So, What Should You Do?
This last one is easy. You need to put yourself out there as a solo marketer or marketing team and do something fundamentally different than before: pay attention to sales.
Now, I Have a Challenge for You -- It'll Only Take a Minute!
While what I've sketched out in this article can take a lot of work, you can still achieve measurable results and marked improvement with alignment by taking a single step forward.
So, what's one small thing you can do today to foster a better relationship with your sales team?
Here are a few ideas:
Send out a quick Google survey with a single question: "If marketing could create one piece of content that would make your job easier, what would it be?"
Schedule a monthly one-on-one with your sales reps. Your agenda should include explaining why you want to have this chat (to get ideas and feedback from sales), provide an opportunity for sales to share problems and ideas, and allow for marketing to do the same.
Send the most recent piece of content you've created to a sales team member and ask for their thoughts and feedback.
Those are just examples, but my challenge to you is to take a moment right now to commit to taking a single action today.
Then, write it down. You can either do so here as a comment -- I'd love to see what you come up with -- or on a post-it note or to-do list.
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