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B2B selling in 2021 - give me industry expertise over the flawed pursuit of hyper-personalization

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 18, 2021
My last piece on the myth of hyper-personalization stirred the pot - but I didn't do enough to establish a viable alternative. So grab your beverage of choice, and check my outspoken argument for where sales and marketing should head in 2021.


Last week, I threw hyper-personalization under the bus (The myth of hyper-personalization - algorithms are still undermining the customer experience). My beef with hyper-personalization raises another question: how should B2B companies approach marketing and sales in 2021?

One of hyper-personalization's biggest drawbacks? Throwing technology at the wrong problem:

Are we really prepared to argue that algorithms are savvy enough to anticipate our needs in a moment-by-moment context?

Is hyper-personalization the right sales and marketing goal?

This personalization obsession has spilled into sales and marketing, with the fantasy that if we present the prospect with the right offer at just the right time (marketing), or send an "intelligent trigger" from our CRM system (sales), we'll magically have ourselves a new customer. Alas, that ambition gets mucked up by the near-irresistable temptation to blast our contacts with spray-and-pray offers hiding under the personalization rationale, but that's a rant already made.

My critique of hyper-personalization amounts to this:

  • Is hyper-personalization in a real-time context really the right goal for sales and marketing - or, for that matter, building brand trust? (It better be, because the tech doesn't come cheap).
  • Even if it is the right goal, the tech isn't ready.
  • The data the tech relies on is either too siloed or vast.

For sales and marketing to earn relevance in today's economy, we need to redefine the problem. I believe this is fundamentally about culture change, not tech.

I have the apparently unfashionable view that marketers need to become educators/content producers with a journalistic bent, while salespeople need to become advisors.

Not just advisors, but industry experts. Personally, I think it's an electric concept, full of untapped potential. Alas, the message seems to generate resistance. Maybe it's because it requires substantive and difficult changes? It also tends to require gutty, disciplined work outside the comfort zone of most who enter these fields. Yes, it could be because I'm wrong, though I can't help but notice those who embrace this seem to fare pretty well.

B2B sales - industry expertise beats "intelligent" offer triggers

The pandemic has been brutally unequal in its infliction of economic pain across industries. As companies look to adapt, rebound, and perhaps thrive again, industry requirements have sharpened. Generic software solutions were already falling out of favor; that's even more true now. Project leaders want to learn from their industry peers; budget holders want to buy products designed for their industry, purchased from salespeople who know their industry, configured by experts who know their industry. I'm not the only one who's said it: the future of cloud ERP is vertical. And that's just one software category this applies to.

It might sound obvious, but in many industries, ERP solutions are still not designed to replace the proprietary systems that industry relies on. In the future, the spoils will go to those that do. Example: the success a vendor like Acumatica is having, via the first multi-tenant cloud ERP edition for the construction industry. Or how Sage Intacct partner AcctTwo customized Sage Intacct to appeal to finance leaders in faith-based organizations. But when I talked with Marcus Wagner, CEO of AcctTwo, he made it clear to me: their success wasn't just industry templates. Two other things drove their vertical success:

  • They recruited the top talent in that industry.
  • They built a community for finance leaders of faith-based organizations, including a vibrant annual event.

Think it's a bit easier to sell software in today's economy when your sales leaders are embedded in that industry, freely-sharing know-how? Of course, there is more to B2B selling in a pandemic economy - a topic I got into in B2B selling in a COVID-19 economy - digital acceleration changed the status quo. Can ROI selling help? We laid out the keys to so-called "ROI selling." ROI selling was always, in my view, the right approach. When budgets are frozen, it's an imperative:

That rules out the "sexy technology sell" that has fueled premature purchases and elaborate POCs of blockchain, AI and the like. Business impact is the sell now. If next-gen tech helps, fine, but the hype train is gasping for steam.

So how do you sell on ROI when buyers are pushing back on costs, or even citing budget freezes - but you know your (hopefully awesome) product could actually save them money, such as identifying supply chain waste? I fleshed that question out via the views of Tom Pisello, author of Evolved Selling: Optimizing Sales Enablement in the Age of Frugalnomics. But the short version is: sell the risk of the status quo, and the cost of doing nothing. Show, don't tell the prospect how your solution can change their business. More on that shortly.

A marketing crossroads - the slickness of AI, or the stickiness of community building?

So how does marketing plug into this framework? I see marketing as supporting the aims of sales' industry experts. How? By coming up with sexy product names, preferably with the word "intelligent" in them. Actually no - that's my snarky Sunday humor. Do it by producing compelling content - content that sparks and supports the community around the product.

I've talked to diginomica's lead marketing contributor Barb Mosher Zinck frequently about our difference in views on this. It's less of a difference of views than a difference in emphasis. Zinck emphasizes the importance of content to support the entire breadth of a customer lifecycle. Maybe lifecyle isn't the word she would use - it's hard to describe this without wading into a buzzword swamp. But her point is that if we embrace the discipline of customer success, we're going to need content all along that path.

Sounds right to me. However, I tend to emphasize one subsection of that content - so-called "thought leadership" content. If we can create that content in a kickass and authentic way that doesn't sound as pretentious as the phrase itself. This is the content that really establishes your industry topic authority. If you stick with it, your internal experts earn a trusted place in the communities they serve - and you bring in audiences with goodwill for your willingness to freely share project insights - before any sales funnel or pre-mature marketing messages ruin the vibe.

If you establish a deep relevance to the business communities you serve, do you really have to sweat the fickle attention of your prospect in any given moment, as they veer from Microsoft Teams to checking on their Amazon delivery? Building an architecture than can even attempt this is no small investment. Why let "AI" guess what the prospect wants, or worry about (temporarily) losing their attention, when you know on some fundamental level, they are already engaged?

Expert knowledge-sharing - the content culture change

Though I don't believe in the magic of hyper-personalization, I do believe in the magic of exceptional content. Content scales in a way relationships don't. And some of the best business relationships you will ever form stem from content.

Today, I spoke to a supply chain vendor about getting their experts to buy into this model. They are looking at a number of options, including podcast production. We talked about how the hardest part of this is culture change:

  1. Executives need to embrace the cross-organizational imperative of devoting time to content - encouraging their experts and product leads to create it. Could it become part of their KPIs? It warrants discussion.
  2. Leadership needs to take the social media muzzles off their experts, otherwise there is no authentic community to be built. Yes, you can still have social media guidelines - that's different than a culture where experts are expected to be "heads down," and not heard from.
  3. Subject matter experts must also embrace their role in content generation. Yes, it's tough with project deadlines bearing down on you. There are times where customer go-lives take precedence over everything. But when vendors tell me their experts can't write because they are "busy with customers," that raises flags. Good content engages more prospects and customers. A good FAQ, for example, can save an expert from countless repeated conversations - while expanding the advisory's reach.

An opt-in audience solves a lot of algorithmic guesswork

That's why I push back on "good news - AI can solve our customer engagement problems with context!" So much of this starts with culture. There is an alternative to emptying wallets on AI-for-context, and hoping for the best. As I wrote:

In B2B, there is an alternative model: building vibrant opt-in communities around your brand, content and industry. An audience of passionately-engaged subscribers solves a lot of algorithmic contextual guesswork, err, I mean hyper-personalization challenges.

No longer do you have to guess at what I need moment-to-moment, as my attention shifts from emailing a prospect to ordering toilet paper. Nope, you don't have to worry about predicting any of that, because I find your community relevant, and I've opted in...  We have a long-term connection of trust. You don't have to overthink the so-called "AI."

My take - before you sell anything, deliver something of value

Let's tie this together: marketers become adept at building communities sparked by content. In turn, they earn opt-in data. That data feeds the sales advisor, revealing the needs of their customers and prospects in a much richer way Hopefully, the sales advisor has a lot more to offer than a pitch deck. Hopefully their industry expertise has been fused into advisory, intellectual property, and demos with valuable takeaways - even if the prospect never goes any further.

The best option? Some type of "challenger sale" model. Provide a meaningful look at how you can change the prospect's business, with a demo built on their data. Suddenly, a budget with no room for your product makes room. Free trial versions of certain products might come into play here, as do open source projects. I once had a client that provided a free (and surprising) snapshot of all the problems a customer would have upgrading an Oracle or SAP system. Think that didn't build goodwill?

Whether you call it the challenger sale, the ROI sale, or who cares, the point is: before you sell anything, you've already delivered something of value - and provided expertise that sets you apart. You're not selling into a community, but selling from within that community.

Is personalization tech compatible with this? Absolutely. There are roles for automated triggers of content  (as long as they are thoughtfully designed not to overspam). There are roles for "prospect weighting," and AI-driven alerts for companies showing increased activity on your web site. There might even be a role for an online chatbot, though most chatbots on software websites are dumb, intrusive, and annoying, so we'll have to see.

This isn't an either/or. The smart use of tech, especially building a modern data platform, is absolutely in tune with building opt-in audiences. As long as we don't allow tech to lure us into complacency about our own need to change.

I remember enterprise software sales in the 1990s, back when you could sell multi-year ERP projects without even mentioning the word ROI. Too many marketing and sales teams fall back on tactics perfected in yesterday's bull markets. Marketing and sales today is harder, especially when modern tech is (mis)used to blast and chatbot the prospect into submission. But the reward for change is something you can't put a price on: making a monster difference in the lives of customers. As long as you get to that destination, whatever tactics you used to get there probably don't matter.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the informed B2B buyer.

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