kaboomJust before the Thanksgiving holiday, Scott Santucci of Forrester Research, published an article entitled, “Is the Sales Enablement Space a Growth Market or a Hype Bubble?” I have to give him some credit – he got my attention and raised a very important question.   I wanted to know what drove him to write the article and I talked with him last week. Bluntly stated, he’s firing a warning flare to get our industry (including investors, CEO or executive committees, sales, marketing, etc.) to pay a lot more attention to making customers successful, or risk a devastating blow.

That devastating thing? It’s what Scott’s calling a Hype Bubble. Make no mistake, companies and industries always fuel growth with hype. The hype machine is how we call attention to our products and services, make buyers excited, and get buyers to take notice. He’s not against marketing.  He’s concerned that Vendors are ignoring the basic fundamentals which comprise a healthy market (as outlined in his article). Scott speaks with 100’s of suppliers a year and, as he tells it, their pitches are woefully similar and few can answer his litmus questions:  What problem do you solve?  Who gets fired if that problem doesn’t get solved?  What do you do specifically that helps that person?

If suppliers are upping the hype in leiu of  answering those important questions, as Scott contends, then our industry is on dangerous footing. Left unanswered or unaddressed Vendors will be driven by an  inflated sense of growth and potential because they won’t be doing what’s needed to grow the market. How fast should we ramp-up our work-force; how much should we re-invest; what do we need to do to dominate the market; if Vendors don’t make these decisions based on reality or probability  it can all lead to an implosion.

He has a good point. I would chalk-up this disconnect to a lack of empathy. Unintentional, no doubt, but solution providers as a group downplay or ignore a couple of very key factors that underlie the hype.

Factor #1: Buyers aren’t as agile as you think.

No one, neither Vendors nor Investors, should fool themselves into believing that all they have to do is get the market’s attention (not that that’s easy). As Scott points out, organizational complexity is the reality for the companies you’re trying to sell to. This is one reason why you need great salespeople. It’s the salesperson that can build relationships, navigate the organizational structure and build a coalition of internal supporters. You’ll never be able to sell your solutions with the brute force of your marketing initiatives. The reason has a lot to do with factor #2.

Scott says, “Customers are not looking for “more stuff” – they need a lot of help sorting out their issues because the current state of their sales and marketing execution is extremely fragmented.” I would add, “And because they’ve been burned before.” Buyer’s aren’t naturally excited about solutions, they’re skeptical about them. They’ve learned that to successfully implement sales and marketing technology, they’ll need the full support of management and buy in from all who will touch, aid, support, use, finance, and be impacted by the technology. Agility doesn’t usually fuel transformation. No. Technological transformations occur when the resistance to change is over-taken by an organizationally shared belief that change is the highest priority. For that to happen requires a long-hard slog to get everyone on board.

This is part of why there could be a hype bubble today. Big buying decisions aren’t typically made quickly or with agility. If you want to dominate a large market, much like eating an elephant, you’ll have to do it one bite at a time.

Co-Founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel advocates in his book “From Zero to One” for sellers to go after a smaller market that they can dominate. I would argue that most Sales and Marketing solution vendors are going after the whole pie instead of starting one slice at a time. Perhaps this is because their investors demand fast traction, or to use our industry’s term of the year “velocity.”

Scott identifies the lesson as this; Vendors should focus more on building a solid volume of successes and less on closing a high volume of deals of unsubstantiated or doubtful success. By focusing on volume above all else, the industry may not only be creating a hype bubble, but it could be headed for a collapse.

A different lesson to consider is this; don’t go for the entire pie at once. Focus instead on the ability to dominate a niche.  Consider DocuSign’s success. They started as an esignature solution. They did everything they needed to do to dominate that business. Buyers were receptive because adopting an esignature solution doesn’t require a massive, transformational effort. It’s not expensive, it doesn’t require cross-divisional involvement or approval, and there is a high probability that the Buyer will experience success. Now, with esignature market domination in hand, they can and have broadened their efforts to the entire Digital Transaction Management market. They aren’t starting from zero. They’re starting with a base of satisfied, receptive customers who have taken the first step already.

Factor #2: Buyers don’t care as much as you think they do (or should).

They have too much to think about and not enough time to think. If they had nothing else to worry or think about—other than whether your solution would be helpful—then sure…bring it on. That is never the case however.

Furthermore, Buyers aren’t just comparing your solution to similar products. They’re comparing your solution to completely different solutions that solve completely different problems. Should we get this solution to address this problem, or should we get that other solution which addresses that other problem? Or… they’re comparing your solution to doing nothing at all. Many Buyers are getting by with their current process and technologies. “Getting by” is often “good enough.”

For Buyers, deciding which problems need immediate attention and which problems do not is the thing that keeps them up at night. All decision makers ask, “What’s on fire at this moment.” The thing that’s on fire at the moment will always get their attention above everything else. All else are prioritized based on how likely they are to catch on fire next.

Vendors, turning up the volume won’t direct the Buyer’s attention away from that which is on fire. It may put you on their radar, but your solution won’t be a priority until there is nothing more important for the Buyer to do than to buy your product. Challenger Selling™ and Challenger Marketing™ are tools Vendors can use to affect a Buyer’s priorities. The important thing to keep in mind is that these tools are not fast-acting and they don’t guarantee success. They require a high-level of training and a high-level of knowledge on the part of both Sellers and Marketers. And that leads me to the next point.

Factor #3: Buyers don’t share your perspective

Scott contends that suppliers would be more effective if they spent more time listening to buyers and less time “pounding away at them with your positioning and product roadmap.” There are a couple of reasons why vendors tend to do this. The first is that research shows the biggest issue is the inability of sellers to convey value. Marketers take that to mean that salespeople aren’t doing a good job telling the story and that the story just has to be told differently. If buyers aren’t yet buying (or accepting sales calls) perhaps it’s an issue with the pitch or the messaging. Admittedly, this is sometimes the case.

The second reason why I believe this happens has to do with the Challenger Sale. At its core, the Challenger Sale reinforces a belief that if we just ask the right questions and challenge our prospects thinking, that they too will see the light.

It’s true and untrue at the same time depending on the prospect’s priorities. I may totally agree that putting solar panels on my apartment building makes economic sense. However, if the roof needs replacing, no amount of education or conviction will convince me to re-order my priorities. Installing solar panels won’t be the next thing I do. At the same time, it’s plausible that Challenger Selling and Marketing would convince me that I should replace my roof above all other priorities so that I can then install solar panels. Sellers and Marketers need to be aware and considerate of the entire picture their Buyer is looking at.

Along with unmovable priorities, let’s consider who “they” are. We know from CSO Insights research that the average number of people involved in an enterprise buying decision is now 5.4. When you’re selling sales and marketing solutions, I believe the number to be much higher (a subject perhaps, for another post).

The point is that it can take a long time to get a group of buyers to agree on the trifecta of decision-making, what the problem is, whether the problem needs solving, and whether the problem needs solving now. The extent to which you are involved in that process and the extent to which you have empathy for each buying member’s unique situation will impact how many deals you win or lose.

The Take-away

As I mentioned before, it takes skilled, persistent, knowledgeable and empathetic salespeople to bring deals to fruition. Regardless of how brilliant, Marketers can’t close deals. They can, however, have a massive impact on deal progress—if their contributions extend throughout the sales process.

That’s why I actually believe that Marketing needs a bigger budget and more resources. Not so that they can change the value proposition and messaging. Not so they can make more noise and “crank up the volume.” They need bigger budgets and more resources so they can impact revenue further into the sales funnel. Marketing at the top of the funnel can get you more leads. Marketing throughout the funnel can ensure that more of those leads result in deals. Sales needs more of your help during the sales process itself.

Is the Sales Enablement Space a Hype Bubble?

I know it’s tempting to think analysts are just being controversial to get noticed, but I know Scott, and that’s certainly not his style.  So the question is – are we in a hype bubble and more importantly, will it burst?  I agree with Scott that our industry has a lot of hype. I don’t think that’s bad. However we do need to do a better job looking at things from the Buyer’s perspective in order to grow the market to the size we envision.   I am also optimistic that we can easily make the required shift from “get more leads” to “help sales people close more deals” and if we do, our whole industry will benefit.