Brent Adamson
September 25, 2020

How B2B CMOs Can Prepare for 2021

Guest: Brent Adamson - Distinguished Vice President, Gartner

The challenges of 2020 have set the stage for big changes in 2021 (and beyond). For optimistic marketers, this means that 2020 is the fertilizer for a beautiful 2021, but it’s going to take a progressive, agile, and strategic mindset to reap the rewards. To discuss upcoming changes in the way that buyers buy and sellers sell in the context of marketing, Brent Adamson, distinguished VP at Gartner, joins Drew for his fourth episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite.

Joined by a live audience, Brent answers questions about how CMOs can plan for 2021, positing that marketers shouldn’t necessarily be focused on creating high-quality content. Instead, marketers should be brokers of information and experiences, building the confidence of their customers and prospects by coaching them through a world overwhelmed by thought leadership. Be sure to tune in to this productively disruptive episode—it might just change the way you think about marketing for the better.

Today’s guest CMO audience: Dux Raymond Sy (AvePoint), Mandy Dhaliwal (Dell Boomi), Dan Marks (previously of Hancock Whitney, now Infusion), Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek (Skillsoft), and Simon Schaffer-Goldman (Case Paper).

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How to enable buyer confidence
  • Why customer engagement is about sensemaking
  • Brent’s predictions for the future of marketing 

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 207 on YouTube

 Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:29] How Can CMOs Plan for 2021?
  • [5:43] Why High-Quality Content May Not Be the Answer Anymore
  • [11:48] How Current Customers Can Coach Prospects
  • [19:17] Virtual Events Need Sidebar Conversations
  • [26:01] It’s Time to Revisit Your Customer’s Buying Journey
  • [29:36] The 3 Types of Customer Engagement: Giving, Telling, Sensemaking
  • [34:30] Don’t Create New Content, Coach Customers on Great Content That Already Exists
  • [39:20] Why You Should Scenario Plan with Customers
  • [44:31] Marketers Should Be Information and Experience Brokers
  • [49:49] Is It Time to Get Rid of Marketing and Sales Silos?

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Brent Adamson (and special CMO Guests!)

[0:29] How Can CMOs Plan for 2021?

“How do I produce and generate more leads and opportunities in the funnel when most of that was done through live events which are, for the foreseeable future, shut down?” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Let’s start with the assumption that 2020 is just the fertilizer for a beautiful 2021. Now, I want to give a shout out to Rich Honiball, the CMO of Navy Exchange (NEXCOM) who included that little witticism in an email that he sent out with his reading list. But let’s just agree, 2020 has been a challenging year and many are anxious to see this year in the rear-view mirror, which begs the question, how do CMOs plan for 2021? The pandemic is far from over.

Many aren’t planning physical events in 2021. I’ve seen of being pushed back to September, some in June, but all of this is up in the air and of course then there’s the unknown impact of the global recession, which keeps clouding forecasts. So, yeah, challenges abound. When that happens, our go-to guy is Brent Adamson, distinguished vice president of Gartner, author of The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer. Brent holds the record for the most appearances on this show. This will be his fourth episode and he is among the bravest in that he welcomes a live audience of CMOs who will be joining us for the pummeling—I mean, the questioning. So, Brent, welcome back.

Brent Adamson: It’s always good to be back, Drew. I’m excited to pretend that I know what I’m talking about for an hour. It’s a lot of fun.

Drew Neisser: Well, you know, you’re epic at that.

Brent Adamson: Just ask my children.

Drew Neisser: Yes, so let’s set the stage. I mean, so much has changed in the last six months. What changes are you seeing right now that are making you rethink the advice that you’ve been giving for the last couple of years?

Brent Adamson: Well, this is a really interesting question about the pandemic, the global downturn, the quarantine, all of it in terms of, Is it an accelerant? Is it a distraction? Does it change everything, or does it take that which was going to happen already and just make it happen sooner? I think probably the answer is always it depends or it’s a little bit of both or a little bit of all of the above.

I think where I land is, in some ways, particularly for sales and marketing, which is where I spend all my time in research at Gartner, it’s either, or both, an accelerant and a distraction. By the way, I want to be super careful with that word “distraction” because I don’t want to belittle or downplay the fact that, of course, this is a very serious event and lives have been affected. I just want to pay huge respect to that before I simply say, “Oh, this is just a big distraction.” In many ways what I mean by that is simply that many of the narratives, the stories, the things we are seeing in our data about what’s happening with customer buying behavior, if anything, is becoming exacerbated or moving more quickly as opposed to changing wholesale and therefore requiring a reset of what we were doing before, if that makes sense.

Drew Neisser: It does, but I’m going to bring the audience up to speed. What we’re talking about is longer sales cycles, more people involved in the sale—we’re talking about enterprise sales here. Fourteen people on a buying committee and of course, when they’re done with the process, they finally make a decision and no one’s really happy. That means that sales and marketing have to change the way they think about the process because it isn’t just about getting a lead, handing it over, and so forth.

One thing that I’ve noticed is, and I think we talked about it recently, something big did change, which is why we’re in this sort of wartime setting if you will. I’ve heard this expression now, “wartime CEO” and the “CF-No.” I know I’ve introduced you to this notion where the CFO is only saying yes to those things that can drive immediate revenue or reduce costs unless it’s essential, i.e. digital transformation or some other thing like security. That’s a big thing. That’s not a casual interference. That’s a CF-No saying “I don’t care what your process was before. We’re not buying.”

Brent Adamson: Yes, so is that a question?

Drew Neisser: I have no idea. [Laughter]

Brent Adamson: All right. It’s all good. Let me give you a sense of a couple of things we’re seeing—we can talk about this as a group too and get everyone to corroborate or dispute—but one of the first things we saw on the marketing side, of course, is just the wholesale shutdown of live events. We’ve all been there and will continue to be there for the foreseeable future. We were just discussing that offline. On the marketing side, in many ways, what that does is it shuts down a major portion of our demand generation machine.

How do I produce and generate more leads and opportunities in the funnel when most of that was done through live events which are, for the foreseeable future, shut down? Oh, by the way, it’s not just we have to shut them down, but the money we used the spend on those, the CFO or “No” asked for that money back. It’s not like we can therefore deploy those resources somewhere else in marketing, which is frustrating.

Drew Neisser: Poof! Gone. Exactly.

[5:43] Why High-Quality Content May Not Be the Answer Anymore

“And in this race to differentiate ourselves on thought leadership, we've all kind of wound up in the same place where being really, really smart makes us look more or less the same.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Brent Adamson: Here’s the thing—that is absolutely a difference about how today is different and how the situation we’re in actually affects marketing. In some ways, I think it begs this really interesting question which ties back into the broader theme we’ve been following for the last couple of years. Let me throw this on the table and get your reaction. As a CMO, as a marketer, you’re left with the question, “Alright. What do I do now?” How do I generate the demand? How do I identify and quantify the opportunities that I used to do through the live channel? What’s left, arguably, is virtual, or, in our case, digital channels.

The obvious answer, I think, is one that’s going to likely exacerbate the problem, because the obvious answer is, “Well, we need to produce more content. We need to touch our clients and our customers and our prospects through more virtual channels, more digital content. The way that we’re going to differentiate ourselves in this world—if we can’t be thought leaders in-person, let’s be thought leaders through content. We’ll ramp up the efforts on the data-driven white papers and all the other infographics and videos.” A lot of people have had a lot of success with capturing eyes and attention on LinkedIn, for example.

What will happen is, we may drive more eyeballs and views, but it actually plays right into a broader trend we’re seeing in our research that particularly came out of our sales practice last year. It is going to exacerbate the very problem that customers find themselves facing right now—being overwhelmed with not just high quantities of content but overwhelmed with high quantities of high-quality content. This is a really interesting thing that we have seen happen over the last four or five years in our research. Just two years ago—and this is was pre-COVID, pandemic, all of it—in a very large survey of B2B buyers, we simply asked them to agree or disagree on a seven-point scale: To what degree did you find the content you encountered as part of this purchase to be generally of high quality?

It was interesting. There were 89% of respondents of over 1000 B2B buyers. 89%—I’m a liberal arts guy, I round up, so that’s like, everybody—said, “Yes. It was generally of high quality.” It’s not to say that we’re just flooding the market with insights or content. We’re flooding it because we all have better data now than we’ve ever had before. We’ve all got better insights. We’ve all placed a bet because our CEOs have asked us to go on being a thought leader for our industry because we’re a thought leader that will demonstrate that we’re smarter, that people can trust us. We’re the leading thinkers in our industries so customers will come to us first. And in this race to differentiate ourselves on thought leadership, we’ve all kind of wound up in the same place where being really, really smart makes us look more or less the same.

More importantly, where that’s left our customers is just confused at a higher level, because now I’ve got one company telling me to zig and they’ve got data, they’ve got research, they’ve got subject matter experts engaging me now digitally, not in-person, but they’ve got all this expertise and told me to zig and then some other company has got all this expertise and data and experts telling me to zag. And it’s all believable. It’s all credible.

We’ve talked about the customers being able to learn on their own for the better part of ten years now. That story up till now has largely been a story of, yes, customers are empowered to learn on their own, but much of that learning journey is separating signal from noise, wheat from chaff, figuring out what to believe. We’re finding ourselves quickly moving into a world where it’s almost all believable and now I’m stuck as a customer because now I’ve got to make a choice when I’ve got two different alternatives that are both credible and both relevant.

What do you do in that environment? We find that the easiest thing to do is just to not do, to choose to study it more, to choose to kick the decision down the road. One of the things that happens in this environment—when you set out to research something and find more information, more quality information than you expected on that thing that you are now studying as a result—in this case, a purchase—what that does is, it mentally and cognitively signals to you, “Wow, this is actually more important than I realized. I better dig into it. I better do more research.”

And when you do more research, you find even more information. You find more information; it leads you to do more research and you wind up in the classic paralysis of analysis. This is why I think a lot of times that our single biggest competitor is the status quo. The word that I’ve been using a lot in my research for the last year and a half is the word “confidence” because what happens in this environment is customers lose confidence. But they don’t lose confidence in the supplier or the brand or the company, they lose confidence in themselves and their ability to make a good decision.

Drew, I don’t know if you bought a car lately. I bought a car last year. It took me three years to buy that car because I kept saying, “Oh, but there’s another model, and here’s an app.” I got more and more information. The more information I got, the more confused I became. Let me wrap it up and kick it back to you for a question, Drew. I’m sorry, but you got me going on this one.

The world that we live in, when we can no longer generate demand through the live channel, which many of us have relied on so heavily over the last several years, is now shut down. The obvious next best play is through the content channel, through more research, more data. But what that’s going to do is it’s going to feed the beast of the very thing that’s causing customers to be more confused. There is a solution to this, by the way, we think. I’d love to get your thoughts on this. We’ve all built this machine, haven’t we? Over the last five years, it’s all been about content marketing. It’s all been about your tech stack and how you can produce, at scale, more content than ever before.

Drew Neisser: A couple of thoughts. We were heading towards analysis paralysis anyway. We already had this longer sales cycle and it was exacerbating. Content, at least as it goes to thought leadership, is not differentiating in a lot of categories. Got that completely.

[11:48] How Current Customers Can Coach Prospects

“You can actually use your current customers to become coaches to your buyers on how to get through their own buying journey.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: A lot of the CMOs that I’ve talked to have said that the absence of events was a two-part dinger. One was not just the new leads. It was, if you had a user conference and you could bring prospects who were on the fence, you could close them. You could close them easily. In fact, for a lot of CMOs that I’ve talked to, that was the biggest use. Taking that away is brutal because it means not only are you struggling to get new ones in the pipeline.

The solution in the short term for brands that aren’t necessarily cloud-based has been, one, go to current customers and make sure that you hang on to them for dear life. Two has been to negotiate deals with customers if you have to. Three has been making sure that the customers are using your product or service to its fullest advantage, and that, interestingly, has led to a lot of upselling and cross-selling because people weren’t using it. The last area has been, can that customer bridge the gap to your next customer?

I want to go back to the one other thought on the events because what’s interesting to me is that they’re trying to replicate events. That’s like those early ones of IBM and Adobe. They were just like, “We’re going to do a virtual event.” They will all say they had more attendance and they had a lot of leads, but no one is saying, “Gee, we closed a lot of business as a result of that.”

Then there’s this little thing that’s going on where there are 25 people on a Zoom call with a chef and some wine and cool stuff and customers and prospects together where they’re creating a unique experience and they’re having a chance to address the fears that you’re talking about, because, “Look, here are five happy customers. And look, here’s a glass wine so I can distract you from this tension that you’re feeling.” Anyway, this was my turn to be long-winded. The question is, what’s the answer, Brent?

Brent Adamson: Well, there’s a couple of them. We’ve just hit a fork in the road and there are like, three paths we can follow. What’s interesting is I think they all eventually marry back up at the same point. Let’s pick up the wine tasting parties because, I mean, why wouldn’t you want to do that? By the way, I’ve only been invited to one, I couldn’t make it. The cooking classes, all that kind of stuff—I think, to your point, the word that seems to be coming up a lot lately is “trust.” How do I build trust in the brand, how do I build trust in us, particularly in a virtual setting where it’s much harder to do?

I think the word “trust” is actually pretty critical here, but I would argue that, in many ways, what we really need to solve for is very much like the word “confidence.” It’s not so much do the customers trust our brand or do they trust us as a company because frankly, you wouldn’t be in the consideration set to begin with unless they already at least trusted you. Every time we study trust in brand or trust in company and statistically, it shows up as a non-statistically significant driver of a purchase, not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s table stakes.

If the customer doesn’t trust you, you’re not even in the running to begin with. When you’re one big company competing with another big company in your space, chances are you all have met that minimum threshold. But again, what I think it’s coming down to is this question of, does the customer trust themselves? Are they confident in the choice? You’re asking them to make a relatively large decision with lots of different stakeholders, lots of different information, competing information pulling in different directions.

You’re asking them to essentially, as my mom used to say, pull up and shoot. That’s a tough decision. The degree to which we can make customers feel more comfortable in that decision, I think anything we could do there is smart. One of the things that you can use your winetasting and your cooking parties for, to the degree that you mentioned, bringing current customers, happy customers on… We all play the card of the customer testimonial as the classic sales tactic. I don’t how many times I’ve been asked to go find a happy customer to talk to a prospective customer. But three years ago, we found a really fascinating best practice from a software company where they were using their customer testimonials in a very different way and I think it could totally apply here in this really interesting idea.

They were using their customer testimonials not to testify to how great the supplier is. “Oh, that’s a great brand. We love these guys! They’re so nice. They totally follow through on their promises.” They just preach the good word to that supplier. You know that’s going to happen because why would I pull in a customer who isn’t going to say those things? It’s kind of an empty promise. Rather, they coach their testifiers to essentially become buying coaches. In other words, their role became to coach that prospective customer through the complex buying journey.

So it’s like, “Hey, these guys are great. We love them. But I got to tell you, let me tell you what happened in our organization when we went on the journey of trying to buy this CRM system (or when we went on the journey of trying to buy this training platform or this picked up solution). I’ll tell you—we have this review board and they got involved and they shut everything down. If I had to do it all over again, I would get them involved early and I would ask him these three questions.”

You can actually use your current customers—whether it’s in the virtual online winetasting, or it’s in real life someday when we get back to in-person interactions, or over the phone—to become coaches to your buyers on how to get through their own buying journey, which they themselves don’t fully understand or appreciate just how complex it is. What you’re doing in that sense is you’re building confidence; you’re building trust in themselves. They’ll go, “You know what? I hadn’t thought of that but now that you mention it, I think I get it because that person just gave me an idea on how I can talk to my CFO because it worked for him or her.” Does that make sense? It’s a different way of thinking about customer testimonials.

Drew Neisser: It does. And because I’m brainwashed by you, I immediately go to buyer enablement. This is really under the category of let’s make buying easy when it’s really hard, so it falls neatly under that.

[19:17] Virtual Events Need Sidebar Conversations

“They found a way to recreate, not perfectly and not magically, but they have found a way to at least do their best to try to create those sidebar moments.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Dux Raymond Sy is the CMO at AvePoint, and Dux, you mentioned that you did an interesting, Vegas-style event. Talk a little bit about that, would you, and how that fits into this context.

Dux Raymond Sy: Absolutely. AvePoint, we’re a software company. We help companies migrate, manage, and protect their Microsoft 365 investments. We spend a lot of money in Microsoft’s biggest event, Microsoft Ignite, in the past few years. We throw a Vegas-style party. We give away a Ducati, the works. Obviously, this year, can’t do that. Microsoft’s still hosting the event. Now it’s all online, so we were thinking, okay, how can we replicate this experience to serve our customers and also prospects?

We still want to get the same feel. Everybody loves to come to our party. What we came up with is this idea of #AvePointRED Extravaganza. We’re going to bring Vegas to you. We hired all the Vegas acts to essentially do an online show, not just drinking wines. I mean, we support that, but think of it as like watching America’s Got Talent. We’ll have a host. I’m fortunate to be a part of it, too. And then every 10 or so minutes, we have a different act coming. It’s a mix of live and mix of recorded presentations.

Drew Neisser: Have you executed this yet?

Dux Raymond Sy: It’s going to be next week. I’ll invite everybody in this call so that you get to see it.

Drew Neisser: All right. So, this is like Brent asking me, was there a question there? And of course, I didn’t ask you to give a question, but I am going to ask this of other CMOs, do we have a question for Brent about this? I have many more.

Mandy Dhaliwal: I have a question for you.

Drew Neisser: Mandy Dhaliwal, who is the CMO at Dell Boomi.

Brent Adamson: Hey, Mandy.

Mandy Dhaliwal: Hi. Thanks, Brent, for shedding all this enlightenment on us. We’re doing something not as extravagant as Dux is doing, but we’re doing a Netflix-like series for our annual user conference. We call it Out of this World because Boomi World just didn’t seem like it was the right fit. Boomi World is all about in-person connections. We can’t do that right now, so we’re taking a thematic approach to this virtual event. Three events, Netflix-like episodes, and we’re in and we’re out.

I keep saying, “I feel like I’m in the infotainment business.” We’re putting together celebrity speakers, content, a new narrative. We’re launching everything we would have at our conference, but in the back of my mind, I’ve got this nagging feeling: Is this going to come off as cheesy? Do people really want this? Is there any sentiment? We’re in conference season. My LinkedIn feed is flooded right now with all these cool creative things that people are doing. It’s wine and cheese pairing 2.0 right now. Do you have any sense of that?

Brent Adamson: I don’t. I wish I had an answer, but I think you’re asking the right question. By the way, Dux, I’d hate to be the person who wins the virtual Ducati. Like, you finally win the Ducati and it’s a virtual one. That just made me laugh. But this is a really good question. Maybe it’s actually one I put back to you guys, but if you take like the biggest one, the biggest of the big is probably Dreamforce. I’ve presented at Dreamforce every year for that the last 11 years and that’s a massive event. There are all sorts of entertainment and concerts and everything around it, as you guys know.

I don’t know this for a fact, so I want to be very careful I’m not putting words in any mouths, but I would imagine that the people at Salesforce would tell you that it’s the stuff that happens around the event that matters so much. It’s the sidebar conversations, a sales rep saying, “Hey, did you like that show? Why don’t we go sit down and have a drink and talk about it?” And then they closed the deal or at least moved the deal down the pipeline.

I guess, Mandy, the question I would want to know is, what is the plan for those sidebar conversations? You’ve managed to get people into the tent, into the virtual door through what sounds like, honestly, a super cool event. But how do I create space for that moment, that sidebar moment? Let me give you, if I could, a very concrete example from sales. We run a chief sales officer forum every two weeks. We have about 60 heads of sales on and we just talk about what they’re working on, a big conversation with big topics. But one CSO said something really interesting to me about selling virtually.

He said, “You know, Brent, the thing is that we take the team and we go visit the customer. We’d have the client visit and we’d be in the conference room, we’d have the conversations. The most valuable moment of the entire customer visit live was when we were all walking out to the parking lot, and I, as the head of sales, the subject matter expert, top-to-top person, would kind of fall back in the hallway and have that one off sidebar conversation with their sales vice president of procurement or whatever and we’d just have that quick informal chat as we’re walking down the hall.”

And he said, “Now that we’re selling virtually, we don’t have that anymore.” That’s where all the business got done is a little overstated, but that was that magical moment. What he did is really interesting. They actually now on their Zoom calls in their WebExes, they will literally have that person say, “Hey, before we all hang up, can I just ask you to stick around online for just a couple of minutes?” They found a way to recreate, not perfectly and not magically, but they have found a way to at least do their best to try to create those sidebar moments.

I guess, Mandy, when I’ve got my sales head on thinking about your sales team, that would be my question to you. As cool as it sounds—it sounds really cool, actually—but as cool as it sounds, what’s the plan for the sidebar moment? It’d be interesting to get your thoughts on that, but that would be I think what I’d want to be thinking about.

Mandy Dhaliwal: We’re using the same playbook, right? Through virtual, there is an opportunity for one-on-ones with the sales teams afterward, and then we’ll pull them into exec roundtables as needed on the strategic account opportunity side. But again, I just kind of take a step back and go, do people really care?

Drew Neisser: The problem is, if you’re trying to replicate it, you’re probably making a mistake. You simply have to accept what the medium can and can’t do. I mean, you can try to break it a little bit. I love the postgame conversation, so we’re going to have a pregame and a postgame and I’ve seen that happen with association events where there’s an hour-long conversation and if anybody wants to stick around, we can keep going and we’ll be off-script. I love that idea. I’ve seen it work just in a casual way.

[26:01] It’s Time to Revisit Your Customer’s Buying Journey

“The thing you want to map is not the customer’s buying from you journey, but rather the customer’s buying journey, irrespective of you.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: One of the things that you said, Brent, when we talked about a month ago was that your sales guys, top sales guys, are being able to get in the C-suite, getting phone calls with CEOs that they could never get before. That doesn’t close the sale, but it’s a counter to what’s going on if you can get those conversations.

Brent Adamson: The number one challenge that we hear on the sales side for the last three years—when we talked to chief sales officers, what’s the one thing you’ve got to figure out? They’ll tell you, if I summed it up in a single word, it would be “access.” How do we literally get our customers to talk to our sales reps? They don’t feel the need. They don’t feel the desire. And what’s really interesting in the last six months is that that challenge seems to have diminished.

We are hearing, just broadly speaking, we get more access to more stakeholders now, particularly senior stakeholders because they’re not traveling, they’re not distracted. But when we ask the obvious follow-up question it’s like, “Wow, it must be raining money in your office.” It’s like, “No, not so much.”

The question becomes then, “Alright, so what are you doing with that access?” They’ll still tell you, you know, it’s still a buying committee decision and, oh, by the way, three people on the buying committee are furloughed. Or there’s a shadow buying committee. There’s the buying committee, and then there’s the CF-No or the senior C-suite above them saying “no” with veto power.

One of the things that we’ve been focused on for sales and marketing in the last six months is buying journey mapping, which I know for marketers has been around as long as marketing has. At least for the last 10 years, we’ve talked about buying journey mapping. We’ve spent a lot of time evolving that idea over the last several years, but I think one way or another, as a marketer in particular, although we tell heads of sales the same thing: If you haven’t gone back in the last several months to revisit with your customers—and literally it goes back a little bit, Mandy, to your point about how do I know if they want this? Ask them.

Have we collectively and individually sat down with our customers and said what’s different about buying now? Who’s involved in the buying committee? Have the rules of the game changed? What are you finding hard? What information would be helpful to you? And again, the thing you want to map is not the customer’s buying from you journey, but rather the customer’s buying journey, irrespective of you.

This is something, Drew, as you know, we’ve talked about for several years now. Ofttimes in marketing when we map the customer’s buying journey it’s awareness, consideration, preference, purchase, which is the awareness of us, consideration of us, preference of us, purchase from us. It’s the “buying from us” journey. But that’s not actually what we’re talking about here. This is what’s hard about buying, or even better, what’s hard about deciding?

I think the thing we want to map is not the customer’s purchase journey, but the customer’s decision journey. How are decisions being made in this organization right now? And by the way, sometimes they won’t know. That’s where this opportunity to play coach to them comes in, I think, and then buyer enablement becomes that much more important. But yeah, if you have not revisited your customer buying mapping in the last six months, I think that’s the first thing I’d put on my list of what to do in the next six.

Drew Neisser: And also plan to do it in a three-dimensional kind of way. I mean, when you look at Brent’s sort of spaghetti chart, it goes like this and you have three months in and then a new person comes in and you go backward, and then new jobs are done and then you get it there. Wait, there’s an executive buying committee that has to approve it. You go backward and you look at it and it literally looks like a Rube Goldberg exhibit. We’re still talking about buyer enablement no matter what.

[29:36] The 3 Types of Customer Engagement: Giving, Telling, Sensemaking

“A sensemaking approach is quite literally just helping your customers make sense out of all of that information out there.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Brent Adamson: I’ve got another one I can put on the table. By the way, I don’t know if you’ve even noticed, Drew, it’s still hanging out there. We still have those customers out there overwhelmed with too much high-quality information. We didn’t solve that yet. Should I take a stab at it?

All right, so this is the other bookend to buyer enablement. It’s something we call sensemaking. For full disclosure, this has been a huge topic for us on the sales side. We have not yet brought this to our marketing client base, and I think we need to and should other than to the degree that they’ve been exposed to it tangentially. I realize this is a marketing audience, so I’m going to try and be brief—but we studied B2B sellers and we asked customers about the information strategy that the sales reps used to engage them (again, the language wasn’t that because they if you asked about the information strategy, they wouldn’t actually know what you mean). There’s a whole series of questions we asked about how the sales rep engaged with information.

We did a big analysis and we came down to essentially three flavors of customer engagement through information. There’s giving, telling, and sensemaking. We talk about giving reps. Giving reps are, if giving you some information is good, giving you more information would be even better. And by the way, these are the sales reps that beat you guys up as marketers saying, “I’m calling the client. I need something else to give them.” They’re asking for one more insight, one more ROI calculator, one more you name it. You say, “Why do you need it?? And they’ll say, “Because I’m talking to them again.” Each customer interaction is just an opportunity to give more information.

The second one is telling. These are the sales reps that don’t need you at all, in their opinion. “I’ve been selling for thirty years. I’ve got deep expertise of this customer. I know what I’m doing” and that’s their posture towards customers as well. It’s like, “Let me give you my advice. Let me tell you what I think you should do.” It’s very personal.

And then there’s a third category or approach which is sensemaking and sensemaking—to be super clear, these are not profiles of reps. They’re not personality traits. They’re just techniques of using information, which is why I think it’s important for marketers because we as marketers can apply the same thinking in our content. A sensemaking approach is quite literally just helping your customers make sense out of all of that information out there, which is to simply acknowledge that there’s a lot of information out there.

It’s like, “You’ve got this data from us. You’ve got this white paper from us. You’ve got this data from this other place. I’m sure you went to this trade association and saw this particular webinar. I’ve got to imagine, at this point, you’re pretty confused. Let me see if I can help just give you a framework to help you put it all together and decide for yourself what’s best for you.” A lot of sensemaking, we find, whether it’s done through a rep—and I think super intriguing to me is when it’s done through digital channels—would be frameworks, diagnostics, benchmarking tools. Not to tell customers what to do, but to give them a way to manage information. To give them a way to decide, Socratically, on their own, how to just make sense.

In many ways, again, if your biggest competitor isn’t the competition so much as indecision, status quo, and low confidence, the way that we get more commerce happening is by getting more decisions to happen. The way we get more decisions happening is through more confidence. The way we do that is through, one, buyer enablement, and then through helping your customers make sense out of more information. Let me take a breath.

Drew Neisser: Yes. So, diagnostic tools, and I think I remember we talked about this, you can set these diagnostic tools up to be neutral, but favorable.

Brent Adamson: Yes.

Drew Neisser: They do a really good job. These are an old-fashioned version of a buyer’s guide, right?

Brent Adamson: Potentially. I tend to be a little bit hyperbolic sometimes, but I’ll be totally honest with you. When I look at all of our buying data, so much across sales and marketing at Gartner in the last two years has been about studying buying as much as studying marketing or selling. When I look at what’s going on in the buying side of complex B2B solutions, it’s kind of amazing to me that commerce still happens at all, honestly.

And it’s somewhat of a facetious point because as our head of research, his name is Eric, will say, “Brent, you’re an idiot” and he’s right, by the way. But he’ll say “Of course commerce still has to happen. You still have to buy replenishables. You still have to buy capital. Commerce will still happen, but it does, nonetheless Drew, make me wonder how much more commerce could happen if our customers just felt more confident in making bigger, perceivably more risky decisions than they do now.

I think the play here is not so much how do I steal share from the competition through sensemaking, but rather how do I enlarge the pie overall and just maintain my wedge? You can grow through share or you can grow through expanding the market. I think that the market we need to expand is not the market of buying your product; it is the market of quality decisions. It’s helping our customers make better decisions.

[34:30] Don’t Create New Content, Coach Customers on Great Content That Already Exists

“If you're not sure, ask your customer.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let me add an overlay to that to see if this makes sense. Sensemaking, I get it. The idea is, “Help me through this. Help me make sense of it.” But I’m going to add this layer which says, “I’m going into 2021 as a CMO and I’m completely uncertain.” If five men come to me and say, “I’ve got another marketing automation tool for you to buy, I want you to buy it,” you’re going to go, “Wait. No. My budget is down. I can’t even talk about it.”

But unless they say, “Okay, I know you have 25 current marketing automation tools. You could sunset five of them, which would reduce the cost, and buy mine. Basically, you’re going to have a net 30% savings in your marketing automation. Now you’ve made sense in the context of, I’ve got a smaller budget and I need to do one of two things: drive revenue or reduce costs. I think you need to bring this theory into this moment and maybe sensemaking is even that much more important.

Brent Adamson: What you’re talking about is what I would call an insight and is very consistent with what we’ve done with The Challenger work in the past. If you can share with your customer what we would call a commercial insight, that is an insight that you can monetize, there’s a different way to think about your business. Rather than adding this capability—if you sunset these five, add this one, overall you’re going to save more. I can help you save money in ways you didn’t know were possible. That a classic definition of what a commercial insight is.

But now you’ve got to play that out in a world where your competitor, pretty smart, too, is probably having either the exact same conversation and landing in the exact same place and now you’re not differentiated. Or they’re having a different conversation and getting them to land in a different place with equally good insights and now you’re differentiated but now you’ve got the zig-zag problem. Then customers will go, “I don’t know what to do.”

Beyond having a good insight, as you just described, one of the things about sensemaking that’s so critical is that it’s Challenger in context. The word I find that I use with sensemaking more anything else is the word “context.” It’s understanding where your insight sits in the context of all of the other information your customers are likely to encounter, which, by the way, means taking an audit of what is all that information. If you’re not sure, ask your customer.

One head of sales and marketing at a cloud company we know well, he said they did that, and this is cloud computing. They just went out and talked to their customers, said, “What’s the information that you always look at when you make these decisions?” They found there’s one white paper produced by a well-branded well-known competitor of theirs. They looked at it and so their first reaction was, “Oh no, they’re all looking at this white paper. We need a white paper.” That was their first reaction. “And our white paper needs to be as good as their white paper.”

Then they realized that’s not going to actually help anything. This is going to confuse people. So, you know what they decided to do? They used their competitor’s white paper as their collateral. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this is always the right answer. I’ve got to be super careful here. But what they’ve done is, rather running away from the problem, they’ve run right at it. And they say, “Hey, have you seen this? Because if you haven’t, you probably want to, because this is, honestly, for our industry, the single best resource to sum up everything that’s going on, so we suggest you look at it. By the way, when you look at it, we think these are the three questions you want to ask yourself as you look at it. And by the way, there are probably two things that aren’t here that maybe need to be here. If we were to write our version of this, we would add this one dimension.”

To the customer, it’s not like, “Oh no, more information.” They’re thinking, “Wow, you just helped me make sense out of this information.” And it’s perceived as a different posture from your customer’s perspective because now they look at that white paper and know what to do with it now, whereas before it was “I got this white paper, I got their white paper, I don’t know what to do with any of it.” And so, again, what you’re solving for is helping them make decisions, if that makes sense.

[39:20] Why You Should Scenario Plan with Customers

“It's less ‘I deliver this insight unto you. This is my knowledge of the world’ and more ‘You run right at uncertainty rather than running away from it.’” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: We have been making sense of sensemaking with Brent Adamson. Dan Marks of Hancock Whitney (Sep 2020 update: Dan is now Partner and executive VP at Infusion), you have a question for us.

Dan Marks: Yes, thanks. Brent, I think sensemaking makes a lot of sense.

Brent Adamson: I can’t escape that language.

Dan Marks: It just sets up so well.

Brent Adamson: I know, it does.

Dan Marks: As we talk to different people, I talk to peers and others, nobody knows what the future is going to be. That’s always been a challenge, but like we were saying at the beginning of this call, we don’t even know when people are to be comfortable coming back to big events. You have Zuckerberg this week saying that they’re building an AR platform and a VR platform so that you never have to talk to real people again. I’m not sure how much I buy that, I saw the movie, too, but that’s the world we’re in. When the future is so uncertain, what does sensemaking look like in that context?

Brent Adamson: Not only is it a good question, Dan, it’s a really relevant one. I’ll give you a take on it at least. But if I may, real quick on the Zuckerberg point—there’s a body of data we’ve been sharing with heads of sales lately, which is fascinating. Recently, we asked, again, a large group of B2B buyers—these are B2B complex purchases and we asked B2B buyers—to what degree would you prefer a completely rep free experience if you could have it? So, buy a large, complex B2B solution without having to talk to a sales rep at all. 33% said, “Yeah, that would be awesome.” And when you cut it by generation, 44% of millennials, just under half, said that’s what they would prefer.

I’m not the guy that’s going to put a fork in the sales force and say we’re done with sales reps, but I think we’re all going to have to watch this space very carefully. It’s going to be very interesting. That’s like dropping a bomb on the conversation running out the door, I know, but that does something fascinating.

We talked a lot about this in March and April with heads of sales and marketing, and we’ve seen some companies do some really cool things on it—it’s helped me personally to recalibrate my thinking on this idea of challenger and insight. Insight largely has been to show up to your customers with “Here’s a commercial insight. Here’s a way for you to think about your business in a way you haven’t thought about before, a way to make money or save money.” But the problem is, as you’ve mentioned Dan, in this world, we don’t know what the future’s going to look like.

What we found is that a number of companies that are actually now engaging in something very different based on the idea of scenario planning. They’re co-creating insights with their customers rather than coming to the customer saying, “Here’s what we think is going to happen,” because in some ways, that undermines your credibility because nobody knows what’s going to happen.

I’ve talked to a head of sales, a global head of sales in the food and beverage industry. He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy, and he said, “You know what? We simply sat down with our customers,” which would be retailers, food retailers in his world because he’s a CPG. Their posture towards customers is, “Look, you guys don’t know what’s happening and you have lots of questions,” or “You don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. But we’ve got a bunch of data that tells us that, depending on what happens, you’re going to need to be ready to do A, B, or C. What we’d love to do is sit down with you and take our data, put it together with your data, our experts with your experts, and do some scenario planning. Let’s figure out what are the three possible scenarios that might happen, what’s the likelihood of each, and then based on which of those three happen, what are the signals we look for to tell us which of the scenarios we’re landing in? And then, based on that, how can we work together to help you drive growth for your business?”

There’s another company I know in the high-tech world that does this well, and my contact is actually head of marketing. They do this with their customers; they call them jam sessions. Jamming, like music. “Let’s just sit down and get our best people together and, almost like jazz, let’s think about different scenarios.” It’s less “I deliver this insight unto you. This is my knowledge of the world” and more “You run right at uncertainty rather than running away from it.” Say, “Let’s figure out what the possible scenarios are with the highest likelihood, how to watch for them, and then what we’ll do together as a result.” Does that resonate with you, Dan? I think that’s the best answer I’ve got right now.

Dan Marks: I think you make a great point about how trying to predict the future can sometimes hurt your credibility. But I think you’re right to have a set of scenarios. Here are these things, and if we do them, I mean, it’s kind of classic data-driven marketing. More on that side of it. “Hey, we’re going to do two or three different test sells and not all of them are going to work, but if one of them does, then we’re in pretty good shape.” That makes a lot of sense.

Brent Adamson: And this kind of ties us back to sensemaking too, which is, “Let’s see if we can make sense out of this by saying there’s probably one of three things most likely to happen.” What I’ve given my customers here is then not an answer, but a framework. I think in some ways that’s the best we can do.

[44:31] Marketers Should Be Information and Experience Brokers

“It's not just what event am my producing, but what experiences am I brokering?” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Michelle BB, who is the CMO of Skillsoft has got a question for you. You’re on, Michelle.

Brent Adamson: How are you, Michelle?

Michelle BB: Great. I’m great. Thank you so much. And by the way, this is just a really informative discussion. I’m busily taking notes here. But you know, one of the things that you alluded to, look, we’re living in a time of massive change and disruption right now. We’ve got a global health crisis. We’ve got a widespread social justice movement. We’ve got economic uncertainty. One of the things that we’ve been thinking about and looking at is how do we help our customers make sense of this all? And how do we help them understand this within the context of their business?

We found that when we get them together in these smaller roundtables, we’ve had to leave the chat screen open for at least an hour after. In some ways I feel like we’re playing this role of matchmaker, helping them. It probably goes back to sensemaking, right? Helping them connect with others, helping them find the information that they need, and make sense of what is, in their world, a really challenging time.

A lot of our customers are chief human resource officers, chief learning officers, and you can imagine that their remit has changed dramatically. My question to you is, as you think about where we’re headed, do you see that this notion of bringing people together—smaller forums, this idea of information exchange, and again, just maybe peer to peer connection, building those connections to people—is that one way maybe we can solve this notion of being able to provide the right information the right way without giving too much?

Brent Adamson: That’s a really good question, I guess the simple answer, Michelle, is I don’t know. But by the way, can I just acknowledge Michelle from Skillsoft? It’s the only stage I’ve ever fallen off of at a sales kickoff meeting, the Skillsoft stage. Pam was there, sorry Michelle.

Michelle BB: Hopefully that precedes me, I’m just saying. [Laughter]

Brent Adamson: That was back when Pam was the head of marketing. By the way, you guys have done some great stuff with buyer enablement over the years, which you’ve profiled. But yeah, there is actually video of me falling off your stage, which you can find somewhere.

Drew Neisser: Wow. Well, add that to the show notes for sure.

Brent Adamson: Totally. But Michelle, the point is really interesting. The word that came to my mind as you described what you’re doing in leaving the chat open, for example. Super interesting, by the way, I love that idea. What if it was an interesting way for us as marketers to rethink our role a little bit as brokers of information as opposed to providers of information?

I’m going to use that language. I’m intrigued by that. And Mandy, that goes back to your point about the events you’re putting on. It’s not just what event am my producing, but what experiences am I brokering? It might be an interesting question for you to ask your team or yourself. Now whether things become more intimate going forward, I’d like to think that the world’s become smaller. But, you know, the other thing you didn’t add, Michelle, to your list is that it’s also an election year. It just seems that we’re becoming more divided and things are becoming darker and more cynical and we’re all finding ourselves in the fetal position in the corner, rocking back and forth.

Whatever we need to do to find ways to come together, and it may mean small groups, but I think marketing as the function of scale. We like to do things big because we have small budgets and we have to reach lots of people, so it’s going to be a really interesting if that’s the way things have to go.

Michelle BB: Just one more thing. I wrote down this notion of intimacy because I think it is an important thing. One of the things that’s very different about now is, we’re inviting people into our homes. We are dressing more casually. We are seeing people in a way that we wouldn’t have before and I think that’s also helping us build those bridges. That’s where I think we can go because we’re going to look at Zoom screens now or WebExes or whatever, and we’ve got all these people, and we’re getting a window into their lives, which I think is going to help build some of those connections.

Brent Adamson: I hope so. I love the optimism. Michelle. I’ll tell you, the language that I’ve used in our research over the last couple of years is, you know, we started studying a selling story and a marketing story. How do we sell better? How do we market better? We found in studying a selling and marketing story, what we actually found is a buying story. But what we found lately with these ideas of confidence and sensemaking and trust is that at the heart and soul of all of it is a very human story. I think in some ways, I don’t know, whatever this might be, but from an optimist’s point of view, I think what this whole thing has done for us is brought out a little bit more humanity perhaps. If one thinks positively, which would be super cool, given everything else is going on this world. If that’s a win, that’s a pretty big win, to go through what we’ve gone through.

Dux Raymond Sy: If I may add quickly, while everybody’s talking about social distancing, the last couple of months have brought virtual closeness.

Brent Adamson: I agree, Dux. Yeah, this is very intimate what we’re doing right now. We’re in each other’s homes right now. I just totally agree.

Drew Neisser: I want to go back to the election for a moment, and I will be officially changing the name of the show to Renegade Drinkers Unite depending on the results of the election. I’ll just say that the new theme music will be “Oh, Canada,” if it goes the wrong way.

[49:49] Is It Time to Get Rid of Marketing and Sales Silos?

“Our own internal organizational silos are likely the single biggest barrier to breakout growth in the next five years.” @brentadamson #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Now, I know Simon Schaffer-Goldman from Case Paper has been patiently waiting to ask a question, and I know he’s on the case.

Simon Schaffer-Goldman: This has been fascinating listening to everything, and when you look at the reality that we’re in today, you talk a lot about the 57%. A lot of the journey happens before, so when we look at sales and where sales gets more intimate with the customer, there is no more in-person, or very little happening right now, making it a lot more difficult. You have a team of people you’re trying to talk to. There are multiple decision-makers. There are people that are involved and you talk about trying to get to that one. I think you called it “mobilizers.”

With that in mind, not being able to actually, after that point, after that 57%, what advice are you giving marketers today? Sales and marketing, if at no other point in time, need to be so closely aligned than ever before—I think of Miracle on 34th Street when he says, “Go to Gimbels.” Somebody at Macy’s told you to go to Gimbels and it was like, “Oh, my Gosh.” Now, you’re basically telling the salespeople, “You know what we’re going to do here is we’re not going to talk about us.” Or in your case, you said actually a company is using a competitor’s resources. How does that jive with sales? That seems like a very hard pitch for marketing to make to a sales team.

Brent Adamson: Well, Simon, I think the one that we have to launch on is helping sales leaders rethink sales and selling pretty completely. As we draw this conversation to a close, Drew, now is the time to put the one big idea on the table that really is top of mind for me more than all of what we talked about so far, which is when you look at customer buying behavior right now and the customer’s likelihood to be using in-person channels—it’s talking to a sales rep, whether virtual or in-person, it doesn’t matter—I’m talking to a human being versus using a digital channel website, influencers, videos. What we can now say pretty definitively is customers have become relatively agnostic as to which channel they use. At the end of the day, what they’re really looking for is information. I’m happy to use a digital channel for that information or an in-person channel, and we find that to be the case across every buying job. We’ve taken B2B buying and broke it into a “jobs to be done” analysis and found six buying jobs.

No matter which buying job you look at, that channel agnosticism remains high. If you think about the way that we’re structured as organizations, marketing owns the digital channel traditionally, sales owns the in-person channel traditionally, and your customers don’t care. What’s even more interesting is that these digital channels owned by marketing are usually seen as the up-funnel channels, so that’s the demand generation, demand qualification. We suss it out, we qualify it, we market an MQL and then there’s this handoff over to the sales organization. And then from there, it’s like “Digital is done, marketing is over. Go get ’em sales!”

And when it wipes out, we tell them, “What did you do wrong? You didn’t follow my lead.” I call this the serial commercial engine. First the marketing, then the sales; first the digital, then the in-person. From a customer’s perspective, I think ultimately what we have to create is what I would call the parallel commercial engine, which is not so much sales and marketing running parallel to one another, but digital and in-person running parallel to one another.

The trouble is that, traditionally, digital is owned by one function and humans are owned by a different function. The thing I find myself saying more and more in the last two or three weeks—if I look across the next three to four years, I think our own internal organizational silos are likely the single biggest barrier to breakout growth in the next five years. We tend to think, well, this is a marketing thing. And Drew and I have debated this. Drew says, “Well, this is the world where marketing finally gets to take over and lead the commercial organization.”

It’s like, “I don’t know, but somebody needs to lead here.” But the thing I tell heads of sales is—and I’ve known CSOs for as long as I’ve been doing this, about seventeen years—CSOs often have this tendency, and I say this with great love, to define themselves by the number of sellers that report up into them. If you think about, as a head of sales, not what do I do, but who am I? It’s an identity question, not so much a behavior question. Who am I?

I am the builder of a sales organization. I build a team. I deploy a team; I train a team. I ensure that that team is a well-oiled machine. But what I find myself telling heads of sales right now is, as a CSO, you’re not the head of sellers. You need to think of yourself as the head of selling. Much of that selling is no longer happening through human channels. It’s happening through digital channels, and whether that, therefore, the head of selling becomes someone traditionally from marketing or someone from sales, I kind of don’t care. That was very scientific of me, wasn’t it?

There are only two companies in the world, in fact, one, in particular, I know in the world that has done this. And watch the space. I can’t tell you; I wish I could tell you more about it. It’s a tech company, a multibillion-dollar company. This is not a small startup out in the Valley. This a large, multi-billion international tech company. They’ve completely blown up their internal structure. I was talking to their head of marketing the other day. He is a CMO, he is one of the smartest CMOs I’ve ever met in the world, and I sent him a note about some things we’re working on and said, “Hey, I’m not sure we’ll be connecting nearly as much because my role is changing, your role is changing.” He wrote back and said, “Hey, Brent, it’s no big deal, because actually, I’m not the head of marketing anymore because we don’t have marketing.”

This is a CMO who said this. This is someone who’s dedicated 30 years of their career to become the very best of the best as chief marketing officer who just told me, as if it was no big deal, “We don’t have marketing anymore.” By the way, their head of sales, who I also know, has said, “We don’t have sales anymore either.” What they’ve done is they’ve reorganized structurally around customer buying jobs. They have different parts of the commercial function that are organized around solving customer’s challenges for that particular buying job, both through digital and through in-person. And, by the way, for them, through channel partners. All simultaneously.

This stuff gets really big, one of the reasons why we find ourselves not talking about this nearly as much is because you guys will naturally then ask us, “So what do we do about it? What’s the obvious answer?” Frankly, part of the answer is that we don’t know yet. I mean, this stuff is that disruptive. It’s hard for me to imagine most organizations being willing or able to go down this road of blowing it all up and rebuilding it. There’s just too much institutional baggage, budgets, reporting lines.

I’m a bit dumbfounded myself because what’s happening over the years is we’re seeing our commercial organizations become increasingly out of sync structurally with how buying actually happens. At some point, this thing, and you see small startup companies out in the Valley, they’ve got this figured out and they’re lean and they’re agile and they’re doing all sorts of cool things. But for the big multi-billion Fortune 50 or Fortune 500, this is going to be hard, but it’s going to be really necessary because customers are going to force us into it.

How’s that for optimism, Drew? Now I’ve crushed everybody’s soul, we’re out of time.

Drew Neisser: Exactly. All right. Yeah, we are definitely out of time. And speaking of changes, all the listeners out there don’t have a commute anymore, so unless they are long-distance runners, we lost them about 20 minutes ago. Anyway, we’re going to wrap up and then we’re going to have an after-party, an after conversation. But, Brent, as always, thank you so much. And the CMOs who joined us, thank you as well. It’s really been a mind-blowing conversation. And, of course, what you ended the show with, everybody’s going to want to ask, “Well, what’s next?” Stay tuned. We’ll try to answer that question.

Brent Adamson: Number five. It’s coming up. You and me, Drew.

Show Credits

Renegade Thinkers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Audio production is by Sam Beck. Show Notes are written by Melissa Caffrey. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and the voiceover is Linda Cornelius. To find all the transcripts of all the episodes, suggest future guests like Brent Adamson, and learn more about quite possibly the best B2B marketing agency in New York City, visit renegade.com. And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.

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