Ralph Varcoe interviews Ian Redfern about the shifts in B2B sales. They discuss how COVID has impacted on the sales process, and look at how there were shifts already happening before the hiatus caused by the pandemic. The cover many topics, including the challenges presented in the modern world to the B2B seller, and they look at the best ways to address that. One area of focus is on the Executive, and how the companies which win in this new era are those who align everything to the Executive. It’s a fascinating discussion about the evolution from product and account-based marketing to Executive-Based Selling.

Ralph Varcoe: Welcome, everybody, to this Now AI podcast, the next in the series, where today I’m going to be talking to Ian Redfern. Ian, I know that we’re in this COVID-19 lockdown situation right now. I’m sitting in my house. Whereabouts are you?

Ian Redfern: I’m in West London, and more specifically I’m in a conservatory and the temperature is rapidly approaching 30 degrees, so if I suddenly just disappear, it’s because I’ve gone to get a drink or a shower.

Ralph: Or you’ve collapsed, but hopefully not. [laughter] I should say, to those listening, this is probably the hottest day of the year so far, and it’s only ten past 10:00 in the morning. Well, good luck for the rest of the day in your sweatbox. [laughs] Thanks for joining.

Ian: No problem.

Ralph: What I wanted to do, first of all – today’s topic is a new era in business-to-business selling, a new era in B2B. I’ve asked you to come along to talk about that and have a conversation. What would be really useful first of all is just to give us a little bit of background as to who you are, what’s your involvement with Now AI, how long has it been, and what have you done before you’ve got to this point with us?

Ian: I’m Ian Redfern. I’ve been in and around IT – oh, goodness, for just short of 30 years now, which is a frightening thought. I began working in agency side for 3 or 4 years when I was straight out of university and then moved to a company, which at the time was very small and became very large, called Cisco. Spent the vast majority of my time there – a couple of decades, in fact – and rose to the dizzy heights, if you can call it that, of being a Director for Cloud and Managed Services for Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

Essentially, my time has always been around digital business-to-business data channels and go to market. Of course, working with channels, you come across all kinds of different organizations who are all struggling with this B2B challenge – small organizations, medium organizations, and then the very large ones too.

When I left Cisco, I then took some personal time out to do some projects around conservation and a bunch of other stuff, but came back in with Now AI as a strategic advisor because I think what’s going on with Now AI is absolutely of its time, and the way in which the company is looking at reimagining the B2B process is spot on. That’s why I’ve decided to get involved and stay involved for about 18 months now.

Ralph: Brilliant. You’ve obviously got a lot of history, a lot of experience in the B2B space, selling in a B2B world. Obviously it’s non-consumer; it’s businesses selling to businesses. The topic here, we’re talking about the new era in B2B. What is a new era? Why do we need to even think about a new era? Surely selling to businesses is the same as it’s ever been and it’s going to carry on being so?

Ian: That’s one way of looking at it. If you consider that that kind of approach will never bring you any differentiation from your competition, that’s a fine way of looking at it. [laughs] But I think most organizations have the ambition to be distinct and differentiated by the success of what they’re doing as opposed to just being the same as everyone else.

I’ve had a longstanding belief that simply following the norms of a business discipline is more of a reflection of the fact that you’re afraid to fail than anything else. It’s a way of protecting yourself from the failure of being innovative, from the failure of being different, which is obviously a risk.

B2B has been the same for a long period of time. The process of one large organization selling to another large organization has pretty much been the same for 20-25 years. I was looking at some recent research on where B2B companies are going to be spending their marketing money over the next – this is pre-COVID, so you need to reflect that – and amazingly, tradeshows is still on the list.

I mean, are you kidding me? Tradeshows are effectively the season recap. You get these season recaps on Netflix; tradeshows are for people who didn’t pay attention during the rest of the year. They’ve always been a very, very expensive way of making sure that the people who didn’t pay attention can catch up. And that includes your own people, by the way. But there’s still a large amount of spending going that way. Then automation of sales and marketing is still a big area of investment.

When I was at Cisco, we were putting in systems like KANA for emails in 2001. This is two decades old now. Essentially, the space hasn’t changed, certainly in relative terms to B2C. The area in terms of the thinking around it has not changed for a long time. Maybe the tools have, maybe the digitization has, but really the thinking around it has not. In a situation where that’s the case, it does create this opportunity for those who do things differently to stand out.

That’s what I really mean by a new era, and that’s why the Now AI proposition got me interested. It just looks at things in a different way. And being absolutely honest, this concept, this idea has been accelerated by what’s happening now with COVID. It’s brought everything into sharper focus.

Ralph: You’re right, COVID is one of the issues which is causing a change. But what do you think is the result of this? What’s going to be the legacy of the changes that are happening right now as a result of the COVID pandemic, the lockdown, and the way in which people are having to adapt the way that they sell?

Ian: If I just step back a second, I think the changes that were going to come anyway are just being accelerated by COVID. If you look at the elements of what’s going on in B2B, essentially it’s still perceived as a serial process, as a serial exercise.

Even through ‘new’ techniques like ABM, account-based marketing, it’s essentially still a serial process. It is seen as company produces product, product goes through messaging testing, messaging arrives in email, very simple personalization happens, you mail this to a high priority account, and somebody actually watches what happens as opposed to it just disappearing into a lead management process that nobody knows, understands, or monitors.

The point is that it’s not a serial process. B2B is an ongoing value exchange. It’s always happening. It’s a parallel and multiple series of events. If you want to think of it in dimensions, B2B has always been viewed as this 2D serial process, and it’s not. It’s 4D, with time and all kinds of other things, like politics and emotions and external events and various other things all impacting on how decisions are made in a very, very complex way.

This historical idea that we still cling to that a serial process drawn out and in a little workflow is going to be able to capture that is, in my view, plain nonsense. You need a different way of looking at things.

On top of that, the environment has changed considerably. The customer has changed because of the level of information they can get to on their own, without needing to speak to anyone from your organization. The actual sales and marketing tools that companies are using have changed, and there are been some pluses and minuses to that.

Competition has changed. One of the key things around key accounts is they typically have a plan put together for each fiscal year. The incredulity I have that those plans are put in place once a year and maybe reviewed once a quarter – these markets, the markets in which your customers sit, are now cycling round in days and weeks. They’re moving so quickly because the barriers to entry for new players are low. All kinds of things are happening in these markets on a daily and weekly basis, and we’ve got yearly plans? Are we kidding ourselves here?

So the customer has changed, the environment has changed, the level and speed of competition has changed. And of course now, with COVID, we’ve got some other challenges. We’ve got to explain who we are and what we’d like to sell from a distance, and without the benefit of those wonderful tradeshows I was talking about.

Ralph: That’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? We tell our sales teams, “You need to be out in front of your customer. You need to be sitting, looking at the whites of their eyes across a table, having something to eat with them, building a rapport,” and the rapport building, as we all know, is something that you can do effectively if you’re with somebody, if you’re actually there physically with them. But that’s gone in today’s environment.

For the last – I don’t know what it is, eight weeks or so, we’ve all been sitting at home. We’ve all done copious amounts of Zoom calls and team calls and speaking to people on the old-fashioned telephone. You can’t build the rapport and the relationship in the same way, and the amount of time that you have with an executive is seemingly reduced, because I think everybody – and I don’t know whether this is reflected in things that you’ve experienced – but it seems that everybody is actually quite a lot busier than they were before because they’re on back-to-back calls and don’t have as much time.

Ian: I get exactly what you mean. There is now this much more prescient challenge of being relevant and developing a relationship at a distance. One of the reasons why Now AI is interesting – again, and this was happening way before COVID – is the principle is that relevance is more important than anything else. It’s how you quickly get to the point of being relevant and it’s how you stay relevant in this mutual value exchange I’m talking about, this process of an ongoing mutual value exchange. It’s not a point in time; it’s ongoing.

How do you maintain your mutual relevance to each other? Predominantly with you as the selling organization, it’s your job to make sure that you’re providing a level of understanding and a level of relevance in your interactions that these customers want to keep. I’d seen that this is the way in which B2B was moving anyway. It’s less about “can I improve my search engine optimization by another 1.5%?” or “can I go to a big tradeshow?” It’s “what is it that I am saying that means that I am going to stand out?”

If you look at the amount of money that’s going into that as a topic versus how much money is being spent on systems, it’s ridiculous. It’s the wrong way up. We need to be spending much more time, much more energy, much more thinking time in understanding what it is that our customers are going to need from us, and much less time putting in place systems that allow us to communicate with them – may be at a lower cost and maybe with better measurements, but we’re just communicating things that aren’t relevant. We’re basically telling them things they don’t want to know twice as quickly.

Ralph: Or they already know, and so adds no value. It’s a really interesting thing. We talk about context being king. We’ve heard for years that it’s all about content is king. He or she who has the best content, the most prolific amount of content, is pushing it out in multiple channels in multiple ways to reach their audience, is going to be king or queen. Whereas what we’re looking at is, actually, what about content in the context of what’s relevant to the customer? Is that something that you’ve seen too, and does that resonate?

Ian: Yeah, absolutely. Context is a superset of content. You absolutely need content. You need something to say. But there is no point trying to sell shampoo to a bald man, and we spend a lot of our time doing that in B2B. We always have. It’s made worse by the fact that there’s a separation between sales and marketing organizations was ever thus. But the fact that we as a set of very, very smart corporate people have been unable to fix that separation between sales and marketing in what is now about 50 years is something we should all be ashamed of.

We’ve got to get to the point where context allows us to waste less time and waste less effort and waste less money. This process is actually pretty simple. It’s about identifying areas of opportunity through context and through matching up what you have with what the customer is going to need. It’s about assessing whether your offer in that space is going to be unique and valuable enough versus that of the competition, and it’s about executing against that flawlessly every time. That’s basically it.

We’re making it far too difficult for ourselves by not understanding the basic principle, which is: what is it that my customer requires that I can do better than anyone else?

Ralph: How is that different to account-based marketing that exists today? Lots of people are doing account-based marketing, looking at content which is relevant to an account, systems, as you talk about, that are in place to enable that communication to happen. Isn’t it the case that it already happens, that there’s content being created, it’s all around the account, and that’s good enough?

Ian: What I’ve seen is that there are various types of account-based marketing, and they range from something which very closely addresses the things, at least in principle, that we’ve discussed in the last few minutes. But actually, the majority of executions I’ve seen are quite similar to traditional marketing; it just happens to have a fairly low level of personalization. Maybe one or two elements beyond the first name of the person receiving the communication. It’s really not that much different.

Of course, it still suffers from the fact that it is event-driven. It’s based around a new solution or a new product or a new idea for selling into an account, which is driven by the sales side. From a Now AI perspective, the work that we do ultimately should come back as a set of ongoing discussions that don’t feel like a sales engagement. It’s a set of discussions that are continually uncovering ways in which value can be exchanged, and it is, as I said, a full dimensional set of multiple conversations that are happening in parallel. It is not an event-driven exercise like ABM.

Ralph: ABM is looking at the account and then typically is looking at the persona of let’s say a CIO or a CFO or a sales director and creating something that is relevant to the account but is not necessarily specific, or is in general not specific to the executive.

If I think about it from my point of view – here I am; I’m responsible for sales and marketing at Now AI, so I could pull together a set of statements and outcomes which are relatively generic, and I could be pretty sure that a lot of sales directors out there are struggling to get their teams to have enough pipeline cover to be able to hit their numbers. The deal velocity could be better, and any number of other things which are reasonably generic.

I’m pretty sure from the conversations I’ve had with a number of sales directors over the last couple of weeks that I’m pretty much in the ballpark – but they don’t all have those problems, and they don’t all have all of those problems. There are nuances within each of their businesses, and there are nuances within each of their sales teams and the objectives that they have as individuals, which means that the conversation I need to have with them is much more tailored to basically ask the question: “How can I help? How can I make your life as an individual better and easier? Tell me about that, and then let’s work out how to provide the solution.”

Ian: You’re right, and it’s actually in layers. It builds out from the individual to the individual’s role and objectives, through their department, through their organization, out into the competitive space, and then into the open market. We have to build up intelligence that way and we have to start to think of things that way.

Just coming back to answering that question, the previous one, in a single statement, ABM at the moment is like someone trying to sell me a frying pan because they know that I eat. It’s one of the things that I’m going to need because I am a human being and I need food intake.

What Now AI is trying to do, and where I think this new era needs to go, is I want someone to try and sell me a frying pan because they know that I hate washing up. It’s the ability to get to the point where the specifics of the reason I really want a nonstick frying pan is that deep that it’s very, very easy for me to turn around and say, “Do you know what? I’m going to buy a frying pan.”

Ralph: I like that. It’s a nice analogy. It’s a specific but entirely different reason than the assumption being from the generic frying pan salesman.

Ian: Yeah, and it goes back to what I said at the start: you’re not going to fail by trying to sell it to me on the basis that you know that I eat, but you are never going to differentiate. You are never going to get supernormal returns. You are never going to break through into a completely different relationship with your customer if that’s where you stay. You’re just going to be the same as everyone else.

Ralph: And that’s going to make it harder for you to build the pipeline. It’s going to mean that you’re competing on possibly an agenda that a competitor of yours is setting because they are thinking about these sorts of things that you may not be.

Ian: Correct. And in a COVID market, you’re probably going to be driving your margins down because you look the same as everyone else.

Ralph: Differentiation is key, and differentiation happens through the context and focusing in on the executive rather than the company.

Ian: It’s not rather than; it’s putting the executive at the heart of a set of concentric considerations that are all there. But the primary is, what does this person need? What does this person require from me that we can provide to them as an organization better than anyone else? It’s not about just making an individual happy. It has to fit within the context and strategies of the business they’re in and so on. But certainly primarily, “what are the objectives of this individual?” is a place that we should be starting.

If all we’re doing is saying, “We have a new Solution A that is broadly relevant to Industry B against Topic C,” that’s not ABM. That’s not. That’s just making sure essentially that you don’t sound stupid. [laughs] That’s just three layers of preventing failure. There’s actually nothing progressive about that kind of ABM.

Ralph: That all makes sense to me. What, therefore, is the best way to become more specific and to put the executive at the centre of everything that a sales team does?

Ian: I mentioned at the beginning that I spend almost all of my time around data. We are now in a position where the amount of data available to us – without stalking [laughs] – the amount of data available to us as potential sellers of things in the B2B sense is unimaginably large. That’s not just at the level of an individual, but in terms of the openness and the communications that companies have with their market, with their investors, with analysts, in company reports and so on. We’re living in this rich age of data.

But paradoxically, we’re not living in a rich age of information when it comes to B2B. Data has to have a purpose, has to have a direction in order to give it some meaning. Therefore, the answer to your question really is very simple: you collect up as much data as you possibly can about the organization and the industry and the people that you are trying to create this mutual value exchange with. Then you synthesize that through the lens that they would have and the concerns that they would have in their seat about what’s going on in their business and their industry and in terms of their own job role.

Then you plot your offering against what you find after you’ve run that filter, and amazingly, what you come up with is a set of things which only in the most remote of circumstances will not be in the wheelhouse of the person that you’re trying to speak to. It’s incredible how much cut-through a message which has been considered and which is informed and which has a direction to it, a feeling of understanding and empathy and direction – it’s amazing how much cut-through a message like that gets, particularly when the majority of the messages that they get, however they’re served, are not relevant, not timely, do not consider their position, and frankly have no relevance.

It’s like hearing your name called in a crowded room. It just cuts through when you get a message like that. That’s what Now AI is doing, and that’s why it’s unique and important.

Ralph: Touching on the data, there is so much of it, and it’s overwhelming. As you say, data is not something any of us are short of. You just have to do a Google search and get returned with a gazillion bits of information about a company or a topic. The question is, how do you filter it, and what lenses do you use to filter that?

Coming back to your point before, you mentioned the implication of the change in B2B and that doing things the same way as they’ve always been done, there’s wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money. But surely there is also wasted time, effort, and money of getting a salesperson or sales team collectively to do this trawling themselves – probably in an inconsistent way, because some salespeople will be bloody brilliant at it and some won’t be so good, and some probably just aren’t that interested in it. They’d rather do the socializing with customers. We all know that there are salespeople across that spectrum.

But even the good ones that do it won’t do it in quite the same way as each other, and it’s going got take time. Presumably, it’s going to take weeks to gather the right data, sift out the stuff that just isn’t relevant, pull together the bits that are, then look at how that gets pulled together with the portfolio you’re selling in the context of an industry, in the context of a company, around what the individual is looking to do that you’re trying to talk to.

So actually, in today’s world, if you don’t take a service that does all this for you, you’re having a lost opportunity, and there’s a cost associated with that.

Ian: Sure. I think this is where it comes back to looking at why you brought certain people into your sales team or marketing team and what their primary role is. I’m not arguing in any sense that this is the role of a well-remunerated salesperson, to go and trawl into that for weeks and weeks and do this exercise. That’s not the point.

If I was running a sales team right now, I would be teaching my sales teams how to speedread and how to manage an online meeting better than anybody else on the planet. They’re the two things.

The speedreading is because they should be getting fed the type of information that I’m talking about from third parties. There’s a way in which large datasets can be trawled using algorithms and AI to produce at least a first line of relevant content, and then on top of that, you still need human interaction in order to tweak that and make it nice and tight. But once that is done, then the salesperson should be receiving those bulletins or those updates or those ideas, reading them all, and folding them into an overall strategic approach for their customer. That’s what they should be doing, not surfing; they should be thinking about how to strategically manage this mutual value exchange that’s created by these relevant messages, relevant opportunities that have been created essentially through some form of third party service that does that trawling for them.

That means that they are then pinpointed, both in time and skills, on the things that they were hired to do. They spend time with the customer and they facilitate that value exchange. They’re not essentially doing the job that somebody in a call centre could be doing.

Ralph: I agree with that entirely. I think the well-paid, well-remunerated salesperson should be looking at how to develop the relationship, develop the opportunities, push them through to closure, creating mutual value.

I’ve seen in the past, when I was working with ABM type software and processes and tools, that there were companies that said, “We won’t get the salespeople to do that, but we can get a junior, an intern or three in the marketing department, to basically sift through the Google Alerts and other things and then pull that together and give it to the salespeople.” Are you saying that that’s not the right approach either?

Ian: I just don’t think it’s a scalable or sensible use of cash. [laughs] To use your figures, even if it’s just one account, if you think paying that three people, even at junior rates, is going to have the same impact as a worldwide algorithm that is scraping and assimilating and aggregating and ranking and rating it, realigning news stories, data, context information, etc., giving you the relevant score, posting it through to a senior analyst who’s been in the vertical probably for 30 years to run his eye over it, sharpen it, and tweak it – I mean, it’s just not in the same ballpark.

As well as the fact that these three juniors are ultimately going to want to be seniors, so then what do you do? [laughs] From a longstanding strategic commitment point of view, both of the people and the exercise, if you don’t want it to be a money pit and an HR problem, outsource it and get machines to do it. That’s what Now AI is doing, and that’s why it’s really interesting.

Ralph: To summarize, what we’re saying is that there are challenges in the B2B market and things are changing. One example of that is through COVID-19, the fact that we’ve all been in lockdown, businesses have been in hiatus, putting projects on hold, people have been taking the time to reassess the business model that they use – which traditionally in sales has been face-to-face, but has had to move virtual. Actually, we see some companies saying that their teams can remain virtual for the foreseeable future. There is also a suggestion that companies that have got large offices aren’t going to be quick to push people back into those offices.

Those changes are driving a need to look at things in a different way in order that time isn’t wasted, effort isn’t wasted, money isn’t wasted, and for things to be done in a scalable and consistent way that enables salespeople – the really good, strategic salespeople – to spend the time thinking about how they’re driving the business with their customers, looking for mutual value.

One way of looking at that – and the only one, actually, that I’ve seen so far – is what Now AI is doing: to create a platform that pulls together the information, aggregates it, and coordinates it in a way that can be turned into conversations that are served up to the customer in a timely way in order to drive additional value quickly.

Ian: Spot on. It’s a phrase that’s being used too much, but this is a once in a generation opportunity for smart B2B sellers to get ahead, to move ahead significantly. It’s not a pause, but it’s a moment at which thinking about how to move forward can be one.

In all honesty, as I said at the beginning, the B2B space was ready for change anyway. The current situation is just accelerating that need. And if you’re going to be making changes to certain elements, then why not look at the whole model? If your whole model at the moment is based on pretty low-level information being somewhat personalized, event-driven, and serial, you have the opportunity to do the opposite of all of those and steal a march.

You can become relevant. You can have an ongoing, continuous exchange. You can have a sales and marketing strategy which is moving and flowing with the ebbs and flows of the market in which your customers sit and isn’t just created once a year and then put on the shelf. You can do all of those things. And you can actually do it cheaper than you’re currently doing it, with better results. It’s just one of those moments, and people will choose whether they take it or not.

Ralph: That’s fantastic. Thank you, Ian. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you, get your perspective on things.

Ian: Same to you.

Ralph: Thank you, everybody, for listening to this podcast about the new era in B2B. It’s one of a series, so do tune in to one or two or three of the next ones, where we’ll be interviewing a number of people across the business and talking about similar issues and challenges and why contextualized sales intelligence directed towards the executive is the way that business-to-business will be selling in the future, and why we’re talking about this whole thing of a new era in B2B selling.

Thank you, Ian, and look forward to speaking to you again soon.

Ian: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you. Bye.