Over the last 12 months, SBI has monitored the emerging sales and marketing revenue trends of B2B companies. We have compared these trends with those we have observed over the nine years that we have been conducting such research.
And since 2007, one thing is clear: the Internet has continued to impact how B2B buyers make purchase decisions. This impact started slowly, but since 2010 it has greatly accelerated every year. The result? It has created a cascading set of problems that have compounded and forced B2B companies to scramble to keep pace. Those that have been able to keep up have enjoyed higher levels of success. But most have fallen further behind each year.
Thanks to the Internet and, in the last few years, mobility, buyers control more of their journey before engaging a company’s sales team. And even though the new buyer’s journey is now a commonly held belief, surprisingly few B2B sales and marketing teams have changed their approaches. At least not in a meaningful way. It’s as if they’re waiting for this fad to fade away, when it’s actually accelerating. Research indicates that minor tweaks, or surface level adjustments, simply won’t suffice. In 2011, CEB reported that 57% of the buyer journey was complete before a salesperson was actively involved in the process. By 2015, this number had reached 69%.
To try to address this trend, companies focused on getting messages in the hands of early-stage buyers by launching various initiatives such as persona research, buyer journey mapping, content marketing, social selling, free trials, sales processes and mobile enablement, to name but a few. Though well founded, these initiatives were all one-offs. So companies were essentially trading strategic plans for a series of tactics masquerading as strategy.
In last year’s research findings, SBI reported that successful companies were moving back to functional strategies, in order to stitch their compounding set of initiatives together into a cohesive, functional plan. However, as functional strategies re-emerged, each revenue-facing function (product, marketing, sales and talent) had its own plan defined in isolation. While the performance of each individual function improved, collectively they operated in conflict with one another. In other words, the wheels were all spinning, but not in the same direction.
Which leads us to the key finding of this year’s research: Strategic Alignment. All of the evidence points to the fact that companies can no longer afford to launch individual initiatives, hoping they will somehow align themselves. The only way to systematize revenue growth is through strategic alignment. And it’s the one thing that the top 10% of teams say they are doing differently than in previous years that is directly contributing to their outstanding performance.
But before we dive too deep into the details of strategic alignment, it is important that you understand the difference between tactics and strategy. Many companies confuse the two. Tactics involve doing things right. Strategy involves doing the right things. As the figure below shows, the two are interrelated. The tactic-based approach of years past is dangerous. Being efficient at tactics means companies fall into one of two buckets: they either thrive or die quickly. Their fate is sealed by strategy. On the other hand, companies with effective strategy either thrive or survive. Certainly, it’s better to be good at strategy than tactics. But in a perfect world, the two intersect, and your company lands smack-dab in the upper right quadrant where there’s a brilliant plan that is brilliantly executed.
But let’s get back to strategic alignment. It’s surprising how much confusion surrounds the term strategic alignment. The average business leader can’t define it. Some of them confuse tactical execution with strategic alignment. Others claim it has something to do with “having a good working relationship with their peers.” Even worse, most could not articulate their corporate strategy. Strategic alignment definitely begins with a clear understanding of the corporate strategy, followed by a grasp of the interdependencies among the various functional strategies. However, internal alignment alone won’t cut it. Only by linking internal strategies with external market conditions can a company truly achieve strategic alignment. If this news resonates with you, and has you squirming in your chair, you are not alone. SBI found that a whopping 91% of companies failed to exhibit internal and external strategic alignment.
Nine percent of leading organizations do have a correct understanding that strategic alignment begins with a thorough knowledge of the markets in which a company competes. This is accomplished with proper market research. To be sure, an internal strategy that does not consider external factors, such as the marketplace, is destined for failure.
In any case, with market research in hand, the CEO is responsible for defining the corporate strategy. Typically the CEO already has a corporate strategy. However, often it is missing critical pieces required to set the direction for the functional strategies. To make matters worse, functional leaders do not understand the corporate strategy as well as they should. Therefore, they do not realize the implications the corporate strategy should have on their functional areas. Ideally, on the heels of the corporate strategy, are the three links in the revenue growth value chain – product, marketing and sales. A single weak link will break the chain.
One thing is clear: none of these groups can be successful without support from the others. Great products don’t market or sell themselves. Marketing can’t generate demand for poor products and cannot close business deals without help from sales. Sales is ultimately accountable for revenue, but the best sales force in the world can’t achieve quota without good products and leads from marketing. Finally, and arguably most important, is the talent strategy. Strategies don’t execute themselves. They simply define the performance conditions. That’s 50% of the success equation. The other half comes from having talent that can execute the strategies.
Clearly, the detrimental effects of not getting strategic alignment right are huge. We must understand that because 100% of revenue comes from the efforts of the product, marketing and sales teams. While sales is responsible for the quota, they can’t win without help from their cross-functional teammates. On the cost side, the typical company spends 35% of revenue on product (11%), marketing (5%) and sales (19%). While companies need to track budgets at the functional level, when it comes to revenue growth, the spend must be considered in aggregate. Obviously, spending 35% of your revenue to pursue your entire revenue stream is risky when the functions are misaligned.
So strategically aligning your Revenue Growth Strategy is a wise move. And there are six steps to achieving this: Market Research, Corporate Strategy, Product Strategy, Marketing Strategy, Sales Strategy and Talent Strategy. This is summarized in the figure below.
Soon we will detail each of these steps and provide clear, practical guidance on how to pull them off without a hitch. But before we move on, consider these three keys to successful strategy:
- Strategy is about making choices – To win, a company must choose to do some things and not others.
- Strategy is about increasing the odds of success – There is no such thing as a perfect strategy.
- Strategy is about combining rigor and creativity – Strategy should be creative and scientific, as it involves generating and testing hypotheses grounded in factual data.