In Conversation with Tom Steenburgh
Sep 04 2018
Tom Steenburgh is the Richard S. Reynolds Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the Darden School of Business. He is an expert in business-to-business marketing and sales, and co-founded the Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession conference. He is particularly interested in managerial issues in professional selling and sales force management.
We kick off our conversation with Tom by asking about “social selling” – when is it “selling” and when is it “marketing”? “In general, sales and marketing are becoming more aligned,” he told us. “Let me give you an example: I talked with one manager at Hubspot who said that their sales and marketing are so combined that they now call it ‘smarketing.’ There are a bunch of ways that these two things combine.”
Tom offers an example of a heavy machinery manufacturer who used a “smarketing” approach to create a website tailored to four buyer personas. The products have multi-million-dollar price tags and a long sales cycle – from 18 months to 3 years. “What they use the website for is to figure out what information which type of customer is searching for, “ he explains. “Is it the finance persona trying to figure out how to finance a purchase, or the regulatory persona researching local regulations? Then the vendor can get the right information to the right person in the buying unit. And that is a combination of sales and marketing; it’s using technology to work yourself through the buying process in a more effective manner.”
One problem this can help solve is that there is often a point in the buying process where the customer “goes dark.” They were talking with the seller, but now they’ve stopped. It isn’t that they’ve lost interest; they’re simply doing further investigation and sorting things out internally. If this dark period can be illuminated by following buyer activity on the vendor website or on social media, the salesperson is better positioned to provide insights and perspectives.
But who is actually doing this tracking? Is it the salesperson? “No, the salesperson doesn’t have the bandwidth. It has to be someone upstream, in conjunction with the salesperson. That’s why it’s smarketing – they’re combining functions to get them to work together to be more effective within the sales process.”
Is this kind of technology application going to make the sales role less important, or even reduce the overall number of sales jobs? “People have been predicting the demise of the sales profession for a while now,” Tom says. “It hasn’t happened. I think the thing that has changed is that what’s expected out of the role has become different. You see more high value applications, so relative to 20 years ago, more companies are talking about creating value with their customers with their salesforce.
“Strategic accounts is much more of a value creation side compared to how it used to be about taking costs out of the equation. I think today, strategic account management is one of the most interesting applications. How can we create value for both of us? For really high value applications, the salesperson is playing a more important role.”
In terms of the changing role of sales, the narrative is usually framed as “now the customer knows everything, and the seller has no leverage.” Tom is not convinced this is the whole story. “I have to laugh about it,” he says, “when I’m talking to salespeople and they say they’re despairing because the customer has more information than they do, because I think, well, when we’re talking about buying anything off the web…who do you think has more information, the customer or Amazon? I’d much rather be Amazon than the customer in that negotiation.
“So, companies need to get smarter in terms of how to use the information they have about clients, and figure out where to make better bets. And if I were to bet on a company or customer, I’d bet on a company every time because they have all the information and access to stuff you wouldn’t expect at all. But you do have to get the back office involved to do that at all, so one rep working with 10 clients isn’t enough; you need 100 reps working with 10 clients to be able to figure out what’s working in the market. I think that’s where the power of data is: It’s aggregating up through these individual examples of salespeople so you can see market trends and act on them. And that does start to feel a little more like marketing.”