Does Marketing Now Own the Majority of the B2B Sales Cycle?

Posted on October 12, 2015

Having led both Sales and Marketing organizations, I am in a unique position to be able to comment on a shift in the way we think about the sales process.   Conventional wisdom says Sales organizations own the sales process — or do they?

Over the past five years, we’ve all seen a steady stream of posts by experts such as Lori Wizdo (Forrester Research), Kathleen Schaub (IDC), Tiffany Bova (Gartner Research), and others that have documented changing B2B buyer dynamics — namely, that B2B buyers conduct more DIY research earlier in the buyer journey and typically engage with a brand’s sales channels later in the buyer journey.  It doesn’t matter which statistics you believe regarding how far a buyer has gone in their journey before contacting a sales person (67%, 75% or 90%) as the real underlying insight is that it is much later than it used to be (largely in part to digital and social channels that allow buyers to conduct their own pre-purchase research and seek feedback from customers using a brand’s product or service).

B2B buyers have replaced early stage sales conversations with consuming content from brand marketers largely in the form of online search, recommendations from customers/peers (video, social, case study), and third-party influencers (including research analyst firms, such as Forrester’s Wave or Gartner’s Magic Quadrant reports).

The Roles in Selling Have Changed

My first job out of college was 100% commission-based sales.  My marketing organization (like most) invested in advertising, collateral, and PR — but it was up to me to find my buyers, engage them, and close them.  No free lunch, no “sales leads with a ribbon on them,” nor did the buyers perform 50%+ of their buying research to shorten my sales cycle.  Nope — I had to manage the process from call to close and that’s how selling has been conducted for hundreds of years.

The Internet has changed the B2B buying dynamic such that more work is being performed by marketing organizations upfront to engage buyers (SEO/website, content, social, review sites, analyst reports, case studies, solution architectures). Not only are marketing teams responsible for originating sales leads, marketers are responsible for developing the messaging, collateral, and often the sales enablement tools to support Sales in converting a Lead into an Opportunity.  Progressive marketers have even created special email nurture tracks to help Sales jump-start Opportunities that have stalled in the sales process.  So with all of this marketing involvement in the sales process, why do so many companies still believe their sales organizations truly “own” the corporate sales process.

The Science of Selling Has Changed

Beyond being responsible for “top-of-funnel” demand generation, today’s marketing departments are also responsible for nurturing these prospects through “middle-of-funnel” content until they are theoretically ready to buy (MQL). This is based on modern lead management theory that introduces the concepts of a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) and Sales Accepted Lead (SAL).  In other words, Sales decides to accept the lead because it exhibits BANT (or other criteria) that makes it actionable and ready to engage.  If Sales does not agree the lead is ready to buy, they reject the lead and it is sent back to Marketing for further nurturing.  As a result, it is now largely accepted in most companies that Sales is no longer responsible for originating its own leads — Marketing is.

So how does Marketing go about generating SALs?  They must think/act like a sales person.  It starts by demonstrating an understanding of the prospect’s key business challenges or opportunities, and how the brand can help the prospect overcome a challenge or take advantage of an opportunity.  Next, Marketing carefully constructs narratives that are built into sequenced dialog via marketing automation tools designed to pique the interest of buyers and create engagement. This engagement of sales prospects in a digital dialog has taken the place of live conversations sales people used to have with prospects early in the sales cycle.

Closing Thought

If we define the sales cycle as only that period of time when a corporate Sales organization is engaged with a lead, then we can say that sales cycles have shortened dramatically.  However, if we define a sales cycle as the period of time that a brand is engaged with a lead, then we can say that Marketing is now responsible for a large portion (even majority) of it.

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