Complexity Simplified — The B2B Selling Dilemma

Complexity is a natural condition of our modern digital era. Complexity, coupled with exponential change, can paralyze effective execution. Without mechanisms to make the complex simple, people experience the feeling as “complicated”.

This is the condition B2B sales and marketing leaders experience when it comes to defining and executing sales, marketing, content and data strategies.

The impact and costs are high — to individual productivity, functional results and to strategic business goals. They’re also accelerating with the exponential rate of change. As Mckinsey says in this two minute video accompanying this article:

“The future waits for no one. The biggest risk, is being left behind.”

For B2B sales and marketing leaders the problem isn’t knowing what to do. What to do is universally understood and generally accepted. Prescriptions include:

  • Segment audiences and buyers to focus investment and resources
  • Deeply understand customer business issues, functions, roles (personas), and how they make (buying) decisions
  • Develop insights and products that address those issues
  • Develop messages, stories and proof-of-value content that demonstrates and shares this knowledge
  • Deliver relevant, personalized, useful information, in audience-preferred formats through appropriate channels
  • Build a content operation to meet or even optimize 10 criteria for high-performing digital content
  • Align your sales process, activities and messages to your buyer’s decision process
  • Create value for buyers, and differentiate yourself, organization and products through the way you sell
  • Enable with technology

Even this short list has been simplified to:

“Deliver the right content at the right time in the right formats through the right channels to address specific situational and individual interests.”

Unfortunately, rhetoric and aspiration far exceeds execution reality and competency.

The primary constraint is an inability to operationalize execution.

New digital content criteria have created a requirement to scale. In fact, to scale without compromises. It is so complex organizations have struggled with it for years. It’s now at the point marketers find it complicated, confusing and often paralyzing.

One important point before concluding this setup.

Technology-driven change is occurring exponentially. But strategy, process and learning responses are linear. This also means slow. This gap is now recognized and experienced as complicated, even overwhelming in many cases. (See John Hagel’s writing on this, starting with Scaling Learning in an Exponential World.)

This adds a significant complication to the complexity challenge.

Unless this is addressed performance results will continue to suffer at the individual level, for marketing and sales functions, with content, for customer experiences, all adversely affecting profitable revenue growth.

The Execution Gap

Scholarly work acknowledge this generic problem. A worthwhile read is Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton’s Knowledge-Doing Gap. They ask, “Why are there so many gaps between what firms know they should do and what they actually do? Why do so many companies fail to implement the experience and insight they’ve worked so hard to acquire?”

See also our blog with embedded explanatory video: Address Your Content Marketing Gap

Dr. Atul Gawande a general and endocrine surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and author of The Checklist Manifesto — How to Get Things Right, provides perhaps the most compelling assessment of the problem of managing complex situations.

His book introduces breakthrough approaches and examples on resolving this problem.

“Here then is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable.
Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields — from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies.”

We recommend a strategy we call “Complexity Simplified”.

Diagnose the Problem Correctly

This always begins with a correct diagnosis of the key underlying causes.

This technology-change-driven digital age, with self-educating buyers and complex, expensive selling challenges, has introduced new strategic imperatives that business leaders have been slow to recognize and respond to.

Knowledge, value-based sales conversations, and high-performing content are primary drivers of strategic business outcomes, as well as functional and personal performance.

I offer three groups of three core causes that must be addressed:

  1. Mindset, Strategy, Process
  2. Leadership, Teamwork, Discipline
  3. Veridical, Holistic, Operationalize

Mindset, Strategy, Process

New realities require different mindset. To keep up with exponential change requires a shift from “business-as-usual” to a “breakthrough” mindset.

By breakthrough thinking I mean the ability to commit to significant, meaningful outcomes, before knowing exactly what to do, or how to do it, to achieve those “must have” outcomes.

Most senior business, marketing, and sales executives “came up” in their business life prior to this digitally empowered era. They lack direct experience and training with exponential change. They weren’t impacted by digital content and channels, or information-empowered buyers the way sellers are today. In fact, they were needed for information.

The implications are evident.

Marketing, sales and content strategy that is immature, outdated or not robust enough to address new realities.

For example, cloud technology has shifted technology buying power and decision process from procurement-experienced IT professionals, to marketing and sales functional decision makers.

This has increased purchase decision speed and initial implementation timeframes. And simple tool technology purchases often please users. However, business results from larger martech and sales enablement investments often are delayed or far from realized.

IT professionals learned from the re-engineering experience of the mid 90s it is essential to re-design processes before deploying new technologies.

A colleague with decades of experience in supply chain and related software implementation frequently says:

“It easier for executives to write a check for technology than to address the core causes of a problem first.”

Process change is key to breakthrough performance, especially in an era of exponential change.

Leadership, Teamwork, Discipline

A colleague made a nice fortune in the sales training business over fifteen years ago. He would conclude his two-day seminars, typically to groups of 100 to 200 seasoned sales professionals, by saying:

“All of this material we’ve covered, all the skills and techniques we’ve worked on here, won’t make much of a difference without leadership, teamwork and discipline.”

Strategic imperatives require effective strategy. Business leaders are primarily responsible for strategy. Missing or weak strategy has to be seen as an indication of weak leadership.

For B2B selling organizations, teamwork today means marketing and sales organizations must move quickly through the initial goal of “alignment,” to collaboration, and now to complete integration.

Unfortunately, too many sales leaders are clueless about marketing. They likely never had any marketing experience or accountability. So they don’t appreciate the important contributions marketing can and must make. This is a blind side in a digital world.

Similarly, too many marketing leaders are clueless about sales. Just look at the misguided “content ROI” conversation that focuses on tactical asset level measurement of views or leads.

Marketing leaders with any sales acumen would re-frame their justification to their ability to leverage direct sales resources and outcomes.

They would focus on their ability to improve sales performance results, and to provide a better return on that significant investment. (Ongoing studies show average quota achievement levels less than 60%. Bloated selling costs is a near epidemic in many sectors.)

There is some encouraging indicators from companies that have adopted a “chief revenue officer” (CRO) management model. When a company is truly customer-centric, it makes sense to place accountability for all functions that affect customer experience in one role.

B2B sales teamwork means shifting sales mindset, strategy and process from “lone ranger” selling, to team selling.

This is especially important for complex, value or big “systems” sales (platform or ecosystem). This selling requires coordinated input and activity from product marketing, demand gen, inside sales, technical pre-sales engineers, as well as direct sales and managers. Often channel and partners are involved in co-selling and ongoing customer support.

Team-based selling works best when everyone brings disciplined execution to well-defined and documented sales “plays.”

American football is a good analogy here.

Just look at the offensive and defensive coaches on the sidelines. Notice the huge and detailed placards containing many complex “plays”. When commentators replay and analyze plays, it’s staggering all the options that are simultaneously executed by all players on the field.

I’m amazed at the ability of players to understand, remember, and execute these complex plays in the heat of battle, triggered by short play codes. Complexity simplified.

Using well designed marketing and sales plays is a powerful strategy.

But, a well known expression must be remembered: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“Self-discipline is the master key to sales success. All other disciplines, attributes, and skill sets are built upon the foundation of self-discipline.” Anthony Iannarino

Leaders must imbue discipline into culture, strategy, process, teamwork, execution and results. It’s the hallmark of great individuals, teams and organizations. It’s also a predictor of success.

Veridical, Holistic, Operationalize

On my last business entrepreneurship class in business school, one of my most influential professors sat on the corner of his desk at the front of the classroom and told us,

“All the strategy, finance, marketing, operations and other knowledge you might have gained here won’t make much difference if you don’t bring a veridical mindset to managing your business.”

None of us knew what the heck he just said.

Since this was pre-internet and smart phones, he had to define veridical for us.

It’s astounding when business, sales and marketing leaders either can’t see or deny the realities that attack their business.

I have learned it is difficult in large organizations for B2B leaders to acknowledge, or at least prioritize addressing problems, until they can see a path to resolution. This is business as usual mindset, not breakthrough thinking.

But process and outcome clarity before making a breakthrough decision is virtually impossible, especially given the complexity inherent in digital transformation and exponential change. This is a time when leaders and organizations have to move past just being comfortable, to being competently proactive with breakthrough management practices.

A veridical assessment shows we’re a good 10 years into this cloud, digital content and channels, exponential-change transformation. It’s real and well underway. The cost to catch up is high risk indeed.

A veridical assessment of the cost, efficiency and performance of sales, marketing, and content functions reveals a need for a more integrated and holistic approach to strategy and execution.

As Larry Bossidy has professed, strategy must also address how to operationalize for execution.

“Execution is the job of the business leader.”
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

Important but under-considered strategic drivers are an organization’s knowledge and content practices.

Relevant, insight-based, sales conversations, and high-performing content, are primary business drivers in a digital era characterized by customers who prefer to self-educate.

Marketing and sales content in most organizations is not high-performing. Despite content volume, and complaints of volume, required content is often missing. And product-pitch sales conversations are a norm.

To improve in these areas, organizations must seriously evaluate changes for:

  • A holistic, customer-centric starting point for content and related investments
  • Holistic content strategy for the business (cross-functional)
  • Business level decisions for content investment priorities (similar to the process for capital investment or product features)
  • Holistic, professional, production operations management, to serve and coordinate requirements across ALL content dependent functions

This is necessary because of a discovery we made during twenty years running our custom content development business serving B2B sales and marketing organizations:

The traditional, project-oriented, creative craftsman approach to content production is outdated. It can’t efficiently support the content requirements of ALL customer engaging functions across the enterprise. It will not meet new digital content criteria required by information-empowered buyers, their digital channel and format preferences. It cannot scale without compromise.

The operational impact of this new reality includes:

  • Costs per content asset 2 to 3 times higher than necessary
  • Assets that are single purpose, and often used only one to three times (estimates more than 50% of marketing content meets this criteria, and much often never used)
  • Useful life of assets less than a year
  • Under-performing content that doesn’t support the “job” it’s required to do
  • Missing content due to poor content strategy, planning and inefficient production to deliver with the timeliness, versions, flexibility and scale demanded by audience criteria for personalized, relevant, useful content in preferred forms and formats.
  • Actually it’s a long list, and every organization has their own additions.

Why is this still the case?

These are not “nice to have” recommendations. They require new thinking, process and operations methods.

Most companies should be 7 to 10 years into this digital content transformation.

It is highly complex. Current thinking, strategy, process and management practices haven’t solved it. It requires new models to drive necessary changes. Successful sales, marketing, content strategy and operation models do exist. Companies are underway heading down these paths to operationalize execution in each area. Enabling technologies are here with more arriving quarterly.

It starts with leadership, requires a veridical assessment of current state, and mindset shifts that drive strategy, process and operational changes.

Complexity doesn’t have to be confusing. High-performing organizations will use Complexity Simplified as a strategy to resolve this condition, and gain a competitive advantage in the process.

Jim Burns writes regularly on the Execute Content Strategy blog.