Automated marketing and sales vs human skills?

First they came for marketing and then they came for sales. Or at least that’s how it feels. Traditional sales and marketing expertise is being actively devalued as the development of much needed online tools for sales and marketing professionals has led the way to automation tools. These tools seek to define pathways for marketing and selling strategies that are based on what the vendors believe to be best practice. Automation solutions are strongly targeting startups that often lack any formal marketing and sales capability, or whose teams have limited practical experience. As these startups develop their inbound sales strategies based on data mining alone they are making some critical tradeoffs that may not be obvious.

Automation appears at first sight to democratise access to sales and marketing skills using ready-packaged techniques, but it can also encourage companies to operate without the savvy, the judgement and the relationship development abilities of experienced sales and marketing folks. What we have seen with many uses of these tools is a lot of poor story development, little appreciation of the individual motivation of potential buyers and a clinical view of nurturing — despite the popularity of persona’s that attempt to define idealised buyers. We have the tools without the what and whyand a devaluation of marketeers and sales functions into analysts, campaign process managers and order takers.

Engineers never really understood marketers or sales people. So the engineers came for marketing first, with an algorithm or two that pumps out predefined bits of “content” like bread-crumb bait on a summer lake, looking for bites. If you get no bites you move on, and if you get one then haul them in fast with a flurry of discounts and offers that are guaranteed to convert into revenue. And, of course, we hope the margins stand up. With all those algorithmic smarts, who needs expensive sales people with expensive accounts and alcohol dependencies?

And now the post-sale has its own automation, a services algorithm that pushes out a light yet soulless welcome to message, pimping the client with a flurry of additional offers that focuses on the sale and not the experience. Not so much a follow up but more of a follow on because we know you love us. Got a problem? There are always FAQ’s and Knowledge-bases and online chat options where the CS representative behaves like someone with petit mal, going absent for minutes in the middle of an outpouring on how this problem is destroying your life. “Sorry about that” and the hollow “I’m listening…”

Tough analysis? Maybe, but the seeds of engineering discontent led us here and not the quest by customers for a soulless purchasing experience. It’s interesting to note that amongst the top ten marketing automation software vendors none included a professional marketer as a founder

To be fair, disruption often needs an external eye to find opportunity and fertile ground but in these cases it seems that the view of founders was that whatever had gone before provided little value to these emerging businesses, started mostly by engineers. You might want to look for tools with subject matter experts as co-founders as a start point.

Consumers can be convinced that we want the soulless experience that appears to place us in control, at least some of the time. Tesco opened a chain of supermarkets in the US called Fresh & Easy where there were only customers and virtually no staff. Wander around aimlessly and then leave through the automated checkout with an apologetic lettuce. They failed. Google now believes they can do it better with their automated supermarkets. Eatsa in San Francisco offer you the opportunity to order your Quinoa Bowl from an iPad and receive it from a futuristic hole in the wall. Like a soulless Itsu with no value-add. Enjoy!

Many of the excellent new tools, find the most fertile ground amongst those with subject matter expertise, yet they can also convince others that packaged software makes them experts. The results are often less than spectacular for sales of new challenger products or services. Their sale is a crafted process of if-then loops, where the onus is on the buyer to educate themselves, fall into the right bucket or be discarded. Not ready to buy? Bad luck.

Where does this all lead? The move to prioritize order taking over the traditional skills may work for some, but for others they leave a lot of valuable prospects undeveloped or primed for the competition. By using a strategy of finding prospects already in “buying mode” you limit your ability to influence the sale, adjust the procurement specification or educate the prospect on technology and competitive advantages. A sort of “low attention span” view of your market where people you target either want it or they don’t. You are essentially reacting to someone else’s agenda and leaving it in the hands of the prospect to craft the sale.

Looking externally using public data and a segmentation approach is valuable information but only gets you so far. If these automated systems are your only contact points the lack of flexibility means pursuing only those companies that fit a “tribe” or idealised persona. What companies lose then is recommendation sales, network and relationship development and the value of a lifetime client.

There is a lot said about Account Based Sales and Marketing as if this is a new phenomenon, but it isn’t; the principles date back to way before I started selling in 1979. At that time ABS prospecting was already using a scorecard approach for prospect ranking (Ours was based on one we liberated from IBM), but no matter how good we were at managing the data analysis, sales success always depended on relationships to close good business.

People buy people first. Yet the data driven approach only brings the sales person into the equation when the marketing analysis says the target is showing buying signals. At this point there is no sales relationship. A failure to convert kicks the prospect back to marketing for “nurturing” using additional content, and eventually into the “remainder bucket”. The window for conversion is incredibly short and the data can’t tell you what is actually going on inside their business because all of the data you can access is, by its nature, historic and not forward looking; the only way you’ll get to find out what the target is planning is by personal contact. Unless your product or service is designed to review historic data, like performance support, then you are behind the curve and potentially pitching irrelevant content.

Great sales people individualise everything, beyond the “personalising” an email blast and down to a segmentation of one. The great salesperson looks through their target to the target’s customers and shows how their product enables that relationship. This is the true value of data, looking at industry trends and the historic activities of the targets, not at their propensity to purchase.

The automation tools also inevitably drive two other great disasters for smaller businesses; the first is the sheer volume of leads you need to chew through for AB testing and funneling strategies which requires ever broader outreach to keep the machine churning. If you’re getting 60% open rates and 35% response rates then I can tell you that you are prospecting too low down the target heirarchy, amongst those with limited influence or budget control. Don’t congratulate yourself on your excellent targeting but worry about the quality of the contacts. If you don’t sell up within those companies your marketing will be wasted, you’ll have false analytics and be wondering why you can’t convert.

The next valuable component is loss analysis. I’m amazed how few companies now do an assessment of why they didn’t win, too concerned with chasing the next opportunity. If your only organizational learning is response rates then you are chasing numbers that are finite. Sooner or later that will be a problem.

So now we come full circle. Automation is efficient, yes, but soulless if not integrated into a structure that provides flexibility and a skilled human to craft the individual journey. Cold and clinical gets it done in the short term and to your most receptive market, but not the long tail. A great sales experience drives loyalty that lasts.

Sales people who are not heavily commission focused have the flexibility to hunt and farm. They engage with valuable potential clients who don’t yet see your company’s value to their strategy because they aren’t looking in that direction. No amount of outbound noise will reach them, but a good salesperson will. They’ll also validate budgets, sign-off responsibilities and authority to procure. Then they’ll walk the organization, using the reputation they have developed, to find the extra opportunities and cement their company as a strategic supplier. They’ll make sure your brand is not lost in the noise.

In the past short-term behaviours drove bad sales and bad sales drove the opportunity for disruption. What companies ignored was the chance to change behaviours by reducing commission as a percentage of remuneration to gain the best clients for the business through well applied skills, utilising these excellent new tools to support the sales function and not replace it.

The engineered solution can only ever be a numbers game — as long as the numbers stand up and you fill your sales funnel with weighty opportunity and not foam. The nature of the guidance from the vendors shows that even they don’t know how to craft a message or develop a relationship because they no longer see the whites of the buyer’s eyes either.

Lets not risk losing the story telling expertise of the good marketeers and their carefully crafted messages, and the warm feeling of a valued client that only experienced sales people can enable. Let’s match these amazing tools with a commitment to cherish the sales and marketing skills that can wield them most effectively.

Please leave your thoughts and reflections below so we can begin a debate about the value and application of automation in sales, marketing and customer service

Part #1 of a occasional series on startup challenges