New accountability expectations across sales and marketing departments, coupled with increased demand for online content, are changing the playing field for sales teams.

Although strong sales tools are important, heightened focus needs to be placed on changing the sales and marketing approach to better understand the prospect, and in turn, create a more personalized approach. How you connect with your prospects can ultimately have an impact on meeting sales goals.

The following are four key points you need to know to improve your sales approach.

1. Prospects know more about your company than your company knows about them

According to a recent study conducted by DemandGen Report, over half of B2B buyers make initial contact only after compiling a short list of candidates. Now more than ever, prospective buyers are doing their homework before making initial contact with a company.

How much do you really know about them, though? Understanding their preferences by identifying what whitepapers they've downloaded, which pages on the website they've visited, and how long they spent on each page provides insights into what they might be interested in, or what products or services they're looking for. If you aren't already tracking such information, or if you don't know what your buyer is interested in, you need to find out.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is an important first step in better understanding how prospective buyers are engaging with your content. If you don't already have a CRM solution in place, consider it.

If you do, make sure you're maximizing the benefits by adding capabilities such as marketing automation software, which enables your team to more precisely measure what visitors are reading and downloading—ultimately resulting in stronger lead nurturing.

If marketing automation software is too cost-prohibitive, use available website analytics to garner behavior insights. Although those insights won't provide detail at the individual level, they can begin to identify what visitors are interacting with and how long they're staying on particular pages.

2. If your company isn't focused on content, you're already at a disadvantage

We already know that prospective buyers are doing their research ahead of time, so what can we do to make the process easier for them?

According to Roper Public Affairs, 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus advertisements. Buyers aren't looking for you to sell to them—they want information that answers their questions or fills a void. Buyers are getting information from case studies, company blogs, infographics, industry news, and other content-driven sources.

Developing a strong content marketing strategy and implementing it via a strong delivery system is essential to providing prospects with the insights they need to understand your business and, in turn, make a favorable purchasing decision. The same Roper Public Affairs study found that 60% of respondents said content marketing helped them make better purchasing decisions.

The strongest content marketing programs are rooted in strategy, so start by developing a content strategy that directly ties back to business objectives. Are you targeting B2B digital marketers, for example? Take the time to understand the topics that matter to them, the platforms they frequent, and the types of content that are applicable to the B2B digital space.

With a solid strategy in place, identify a team to develop the content and hold them accountable in quarterly reviews.

3. Thought leadership outweighs relationships

The old adage, "It's not what you know but who you know," no longer holds true in the business world. Relationships will always be important, but prospective buyers are more interested in what you know—and, ultimately, what you can do for them.

A strong referral network might help get your foot in the door, but the purchasing decision comes down to how you can help them solve their business challenges. Before your company even makes the short list, buyers want to know that you understand their industry and their business. They want to see that you're forward-thinking, ahead of industry trends, and transparent in your willingness to share those insights.

To demonstrate true thought leadership, start by identifying subject matter experts that can speak to key industry topics, and look for opportunities to promote their thinking. Securing speaking engagements or encourage thought leaders to submit guest blog posts and bylined articles to industry news outlets or contribute to the company blog. Prioritize communication platforms that are important for your audience, and take a stand on issues.

To be recognized as a genuine thought leader, one must provide real answers and have a unique point of view.

4. Unbudgeted projects are a huge opportunity

The industry is constantly changing, and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict what solutions will work six months from now, let alone a full fiscal year. Don't let budget cycles or restrictions prevent you from presenting new ideas to prospects or clients.

Clients want to see fresh thinking and evolved solutions, so don't hesitate to show them that you're thinking about them and their business challenges. If your prospects or clients like your idea and can see its value, they will find a way to get the project funded.

Make monitoring industry news and the availability new solutions part of your weekly routine, and actively share new information that could have an impact on your prospects' or client's business. Share relevant successes with other clients or within the industry, and make recommendations around how this information can be applied for them. Demonstrating smart, proactive thinking around their business goes a long way toward relationship building and ultimately driving sales.

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Although the sales tools you employ will always have a huge impact on your business, tools alone are no longer enough. Adopting new technology across the sales force, like iPads or new sales applications, may not be the game changer you're hoping for. Today's buyers want to be educated before initial contact with a company is even made. It's up to you to make that information readily available so that when it comes time to begin the purchasing process, you're already on the short list of prospects.

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Megan Myers is account strategist at JPL, an integrated agency specializing in digital, B2B marketing, advertising, and internal communications.

LinkedIn: Megan Myers