B2B: Why Thought-Leadership Falls Short

Thought LeadershipWhen it comes to thought leadership, an image like the one to the left often comes to mind for people. The recent thinking goes something like the following…

Customers want to be presented with new ideas and learn from thought leading subject matter experts before making a purchase. As they are educated by the SME, they are gradually sold.

But is thought-leadership enough? I would maintain that it threatens to be an expensive path for free consulting. Allow me to explain…

The Research

A few years ago, ITSMA conducted research finding that 57% of B2B buyers would like to see thought-leadership from sales reps. The conclusion they had drawn, like for so many others, was that if buyers want thought leadership, sales and marketing must give it to them. Important to note is ITSMA’s official definition of thought leadership is as follows:

“Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without selling.” – ITSMA

More recently, Omobono joined forces with the Business Marketing Association to research marketer’s top priorities. The results showed that not only did ‘Strengthening Thought Leadership’ rank as a Top 3 priority at 63%, 8% higher than ‘Deepening Customer Relationships,’ and 19% higher than ‘Raising Brand Awareness,’ but it ranked as marketer’s first priority.

The focus and emphasis on thought leadership is not surprising, and can be a good thing. That is, if thought leadership is the goal and your sales and marketing model is to offer free consulting and therefore derive no commercial benefit. Tweet This C2T

For the CMO and CSO, this is an unaffordable luxury as accountability to the board and stockholders would never permit such an expensive endeavor with no associated RO[M]I.

Standing in contrast is the work and research conducted by CEB, which shows that ‘thought-leadership’ is several steps removed from meeting the criteria that results in having commercial impact. Let’s look at their definitions for each of the five areas in their hierarchy of messaging.

Hierarchy of Messaging

  • General Information – General Information is simply information that covers generally just about everything. It’s that overwhelming flood of information out there, that we spend more time filtering out rather than taking in.
  • Accepted Information – Accepted Information is credible, it’s relevant, but often, it’s not terribly interesting. It doesn’t necessarily teach anything new. An example might be, “90% of CIOs are concerned about what cloud computing means for their organization.”
  • Thought Leadership – Thought Leadership is interesting, newsworthy, incremental information that customers themselves likely couldn’t have discovered on their own. So, unlike accepted information, thought leadership provides new perspectives or new data that teaches, and doesn’t just confirm.
  • Insight – Insight is designed to disrupt the customer’s view of their business. It juxtaposes the cost of current behavior against the potential of an alternate action. This breaks the customer’s frame of mind.
  • Commercial Insight – Commercial Insight has the highest bar, and ensures we are not simply providing free consulting to customers. It’s Insight that meets the “frame-breaking” bar but simultaneously leads the customer specifically back to us as the sole supplier, enabling them to actually take action on that Insight.

In light of the definitions, let’s now go back to the originally cited research from ITSMA to understand why giving buyers what they want (‘thought leadership’) is bad for business. There are three perspectives to consider:

Three Limitations of Thought Leadership

1. The Buyer’s Objective with Thought Leadership

From the buyer’s perspective, they truly want to understand trends and conditions that may impact them or their business negatively. But, they don’t care where it comes from, nor if it results in a sale for you or credibility for your brand. That was never their aim, as they care about protecting the interests of their business first and foremost…and that is perfectly reasonable. Therefore, the goal of the buyer(s) is to become as informed as (s)he can so that the best decision can be made when selecting between suppliers.

“Thought Leadership is largely focused on presenting a new idea rather than undermining an existing one.” – CEB Tweet This C2T

According to CEB, when it comes to thought leadership, “the real limitation is it doesn’t necessarily drive action. That’s because most thought leadership is largely focused on presenting a new idea rather than undermining an existing one. Thought leadership often has little lasting impact for this reason. It fails to disrupt the customer’s thinking.”

2. The Marketer’s Objective with Thought Leadership

For marketers, of key interest is creating disproportionate mind-share for the brand, which requires establishing credibility, which leads to engagement and subsequently, reliance upon the brand. According to the study, thought leadership is seen by marketers…AND BUYERS…as a way to do so.

I am not claiming the research is wrong. But I am suggesting the conclusions drawn from the research are not only off-base, but potentially detrimental to the marketer’s stated goals that led them to pursue thought leadership in the first place.

As marketers, we can often fall into the trap of inserting ourselves [or our brands] into the center of the story. For example, the term ‘thought-leader,’ puts the person delivering the ‘thought’ at center stage. What we all have learned over the years, however, is that the only way to change a customer’s behavior, is to stop telling our own story to build credibility, but instead, tell theirs and help them see themselves in the story.

Therefore, instead of pursuing thought leadership to earn credibility, be credible in demonstrating you understand your audience. C2T

3. The Sales Rep’s Objective with Thought Leadership

While marketers certainly have their own challenges of getting attention and responses, given the rise in popularity of content marketing, sales reps too, have some tough sledding to get responses to their emails and phone calls.

Reading the research from ITSMA, reps are left with the natural, but wrong conclusion that if buyers want thought leadership, they should provide it to them. The problem with this approach is that sales reps can tend to overlook one very important element.

In their pursuit to provide thought leadership, their point of view, insight, etc., no matter how profound, fails to lead uniquely and specifically back to them as the sole supplier in a way that enables the buyer to take action. The following article discusses more on this concept here (Where are you Leading?).

In other words, the thought leadership merely provides the buyers with a perspective that could apply to any number of suppliers. This results in the buyer determining that their choices of suppliers are relatively equal, so they look for a tie-breaker. Too often, that tie-breaker becomes ‘price.’

Three questions that must be answered before a prospect will buy – Why Change? Why Now? Why you? C2T

To change this outcome, I will refer to a friend of mine, Bob Apollo. He argues in his article, that there are three primary questions that need to be answered before customers will buy from you, Why Change? Why Now? Why You? 

Regarding the order of the questions, both Bob and I would contend that the order of the questions [as written] is paramount as well. Reversing the order, as so many have done for years, merely results in prospects remaining with the status quo 60% of the time.

In Summary…

While demonstrating thought leadership is certainly better than simply offering general or accepted information,  as we see it still pales in comparison to the kind of insight that is frame-breaking and provokes an action that leads distinctly and uniquely to your solution.

With that said, let me provide a different picture of what sales and marketers need to be doing to provide the most value for a customer.

Disruption

I love what this picture represents. By virtue of the fish (i.e., Marketer, Sales Rep, Content, etc.) swimming against the flow, others can’t help but redirect their path (i.e., Thinking) to adjust for the disruption to their current path (i.e., Status Quo).

As for thought leadership, presenting new ideas that others have never heard before often produces a pattern like the first picture. What that picture doesn’t represent, however, is how long they stay on that path. The hope or belief is that they remain on that path to purchase. But thought leadership does not require them to purchase your product to still value you as a thought leader (i.e., Free Consultant).

Therefore, to avoid this, whether you are producing content, a campaign, or delivering messaging to prospects as a sales rep, ask yourself the following questions about what your message delivers.

Does your message:

  • Break the customer’s frame of mind about what they have been doing?
  • Juxtapose the cost of current behavior against the potential of an alternate action?
  • Lead the customer specifically back to you as the sole supplier?
  • Enable them to actually take action on that Insight?

Answering “no” to any of those questions puts you at risk of providing free consulting for your competitors.


 

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

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Challenger Sale: Three Types of Tension

Tension or Constructive Tension?Whether you realize it or not, every sales call produces tension. But only one type of tension contributes to successful outcomes. Which of the three types most closely represents your approach?

Following is a question I received today on Quora regarding Constructive Tension that I thought others might find of interest…

“I am interested in who has used the business insights approach in The Challenger Sale approach? What has been their experience in how it sits creating constructive tension?”

Following is my response to this question.

‘Constructive tension’ is exactly that…constructive, IF it has been created appropriately and the opportunity to do so has been earned. While there is much more to this question than I can respond to here, the following three keys are critical to creating the ‘constructive’ kind of tension:

  1. Establish credibility – Without this, there is no need to proceed further.
  2. Reframe thinking – Once you have established you are credible with insight about matters affecting their business and/or industry, you help them think differently about a problem that they previously misunderstood or didn’t anticipate.
  3. Appropriately placed tension – When creating constructive tension, it is imperative that the tension is between the prospect and their status quo. When inappropriately done, the tension is between prospect and rep. This is not constructive, but rather destructive tension.

I commonly refer to three types of tension based upon CEB’s model of ‘constructive tension.’

  1. Constructive. Tension created between the prospect and the problem they are currently facing. What makes it constructive tension is when prospects find living with their problem no longer tenable.
  2. Destructive. This kind of tension inappropriately causes tension between wrong parties…the prospect and the rep. This typically presents itself in its destructive form with a rep-centric agenda.
  3. Unproductive. This type of tension occurs when a rep offers nothing of value to benefit the prospect warranting a meeting in the first place. As a result, the tension occurs in the form of the prospect ending the meeting as quickly as professionally possible.

In summary, constructive tension is great. It serves as the catalyst for change and if guided properly and appropriately ending in your solution, it will be tremendously valuable to the prospect.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Challenger Sale: The Truth About ‘Insight’

Insight Selling and Challenger SaleWith the rise in popularity of The Challenger Sale, there is one particular attribute of CEB’s research that has captured the attention of reps, consultants and sales training companies alike…and that worries me!

The attribute I am referring to is insight.

To be clear, their research is not the concern, but rather the interpretation by the aforementioned.

Insight is a critical component to successful selling, but there are three particular areas that need to be properly understood in order to have repeatable success in sales.

3 Truths About ‘Insight’

  1. Insight does not make you a Challenger. If it did, organizations could quickly and easily transform sales teams into Challengers by simply creating brilliant insights, and emailing them out to the sales teams. Insight in the hands of a Challenger is golden, but it is not the insight that makes them a Challenger. It’s what they do with the insight and how that truly causes them to outperform their peers.
  2. Insight is not the key to increased sales. A couple of points regarding this assertion:
    1. Not all insight is earth shattering. When determining what your message will address with a prospect, CEB categorizes the messaging addressing one of two types of insights — 1.) Misunderstood Cause, or 2.) Unrecognized Problems. With the misunderstood cause, prospects are familiar with the problem, but are content living with it or see it as the cost of doing business.
    2. Insight is not the same as Commercial Insight. This is one of the most important points. A rep can deliver a powerful insight that either teaches the prospect the misunderstood cause or an unrecognized problem, and still lose the sale. It’s actually quite common, especially in Challenger implementations. The mistake is made when insight does not uniquely lead back TO the supplier exclusively. In other words, you are teaching the prospect of a problem that needs to be resolved, but they perceive that any supplier is capable of doing so.
  3. Insight is not a Reframe. For starters, ‘Reframe’ is a verb, whereas the word ‘Insight’ is a noun, defined as...

in·sight (noun \ˈin-ˌsīt\)
: the ability to understand people and situations in a very clear way
: an understanding of the true nature of something

When reps take their insight (noun) and intend it to be a verb, the responsibility of getting a prospect to see things differently rests squarely on the insight. Challengers properly understand the role of insight, but see themselves as responsible for teaching prospects to see things differently, but to do so, they first need to ‘unteach’ what the prospect believes they already know. This is the function of the reframe done through Commercial Teaching, which is not a thought-provoking sentence or question, but rather a process. Being able to reframe is a competency that needs to be developed.

Repeatable Success Tip

It’s no secret that Challengers do things differently, and the results, particularly in a more complex, B2B selling environment, stand in stark contrast to those of different profiles. As is typical of my articles, I care little about the incidental successes sales reps have, but care much more about creating repeatable successes. Following are three areas to focus on in order to do so.

  1. Develop your reframe competency. Learn how to reframe anything. Practice this in your personal and professional interactions in order to make reframes a natural part of how you think and speak, rather than the ‘thing you do’ when selling. Tweet This
  2. Don’t abdicate responsibility for insight development. CEB rightly calls out that the best organizations develop insights organizationally so that reps aren’t out making things up on the fly with prospects. That said, this does not mean wait for marketing to deliver. Reps have unique insights from a different perspective than the rest of the organization. Insight development isn’t the responsibility of a single department. It’s the responsibility of all. Tweet This
  3. Make your insights count. Take the time to test your insights and teaching. In order to make sure that your insight and teaching leads uniquely and exclusively back to you as the supplier, CEB refers to this as the ‘logo test.’ The question is if you were to remove your company logo from your pitch deck, would the prospect point exclusively to your company as the solution? If your teaching and insights could apply to you AND your competition, more refinement is needed. Without this, you are providing free consulting. Tweet This
Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.