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The Brave New World Of Buying Automation

by David Brock on February 26th, 2016

There was a hilarious article in the New York Times, A Robot That Has Fun At Telemarketing’s Expense.  It got me to thinking about the future of buying and selling.

The sales and marketing automation markets are among the hottest SaaS markets around.  Each year, 1000’s of new suppliers of software solutions emerge.  Collectively the markets are expected to generate 10’s of billions of revenues.

All of this supposedly oriented at making sales and marketers more efficient and effective.

We are drowning in the output of these tools.  We are drowning in emails, most of which are irrelevant.  While the tools are supposed to help improve the targeting and relevance, marketers don’t bother with it.  87% of emails have no or limited targeting.  After all, why worry about being relevant, when you can just play a numbers game, papering the web with endless emails about your cool products.  It seems we have unlimited ability to broadcast and the analytics help us understand the “engagement.”

We don’t even get the opportunity to read that white paper we download, because we are getting a phone call (from a local area code), asking us about our interest in the products of the company.  “No, I’m not interested in your products, I’m interested in your white paper.  Why don’t you talk to me about that?”  Of course they can’t, their script doesn’t allow that option, but they can set up a meeting with someone who can.

We got digital mounds of content stacking up, available to all.  Most seems to be collecting digital dust.

We’ve got tools that prompt and remind us about everything.  Do this, don’t do that.  We’ve got scripts for every situation, we know the key piece of content to send, based on the analytics, so we don’t have to think about the conversation.

The tools tell us the words to say, then measure the response from the customers, telling us more words to say and when, based on the response.  We are lost without our devices, we sit in meetings, leveraging the latest collaboration tools, while at the same time multitasking and participating in a separate conversation across the globe or even across the table.  Yet our meetings are increasingly ineffective.

We don’t know what to do or say, until we look at what the app prompts us to do or say, “Here are your coaching objectives, make sure you cover this.  Here’s the latest analysis of our products in your industry and the results other customers are presenting. We’ve heard that objection before and based on an analysis of all the responses, here’s the response that causes us to win—sorry I don’t know if it answers your objecting……..”

We do this all this in the spirit of connecting more effectively with our customers, engaging them better, and making us more efficient and impactful.

The data is interesting, however.  Time spent on selling and selling activities is on the decline.  People are spending more time updating CRM and the other tools.  Quota performance is declining.  Customers are disengaging, choosing digital wandering over engaging.  It seems our solutions are to crank up the volume of marketing programs–more emails, more content, more SEO optimization, tweak the analytics.

Ever the opportunist, I’m wondering how to jump in this multibillion band wagon.  What’s the cool tool I can bring to market.  Then I read the NYT article, and it strikes me.  Buyers have to have the same problem sales and marketing has, only it’s from their point of view.  The next emerging market has to be Buying Automation.  After all,  the sales and marketing automation markets are terribly crowded and confusing.  we know there will be dramatic consolidation.

But the Buying Automation market is nascent.  Yes, Google, Bing, and Yahoo (remember them) have the lion’s share–through search.  And the sales/marketing people are always increasing their spending on SEO, PPC, and other programs.  But there is so much more to do.  The guy in the NYT has a solution for dealing with all the inbound prospecting calls, and the white paper calls.  We can refine and tune it.  We can look at tools to handle email.  We can have buying automation tools we can leverage in meetings to script our responses, based on what the sales automation tools are telling the sales person to do.  We have analytics that can interact with the sellers analytics and perhaps solve the problem without needing to bother us.

We can aggressively move the needle from 57% (Brent got a little miffed when I referred to it as tired–we had a good laugh).  As an overachiever, my goal is to provide buying automation tools to move it from 57% to 100%!  Ultimately, we can cut out all the middle people, my buying app will engage with your selling app and figure everything out, issuing a digital contract, digital PO, with digital signatures!  Our analytics will do battle with your analytics, arriving at an agreed upon price, all in nanoseconds.  (As I riff on the idea, I wonder if Watson ever played chess with Watson?  Who would win?)

But to achieve this vision, we need to get started with Buying Automation.  It’s a huge market, with huge opportunity–can you spell Unicorn?

Phew, I needed to get that out of my system!  Thanks for letting me play and for putting up with my tongue in cheek cynicism.  I hope you had a little fun reading it.

In reality I’m a real fan of tools that help us be more effective, engage the right customers with the right conversations at the right time.  Tools, implemented and used well can make us more impactful, effective, and efficient.

But I worry, when they become the crutch, when they become the substitute for being engaged, for being part of the conversation–shaping, guiding it, challenging others.  I worry, when we no longer expect our people to think critically, to challenge, to figure things out.  I worry, when we can’t help our customers and our people solve problems.

I think we probably need to pause, perhaps hit the reset button.  What are you doing to train your people on critical thinking?  What are you doing to help them learn how to solve problems and guide your customer in solving problems?  How good are your people at figuring things out, how are you helping them get better.

Enough for now, I’m putting together a pitch deck for my first buying automation app.  I have a meeting with investors for my seed round.

From → Transformation

  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Interesting, as usual Dave!

    Allow me to play a little for a few moments – I’ve spent much of my week exploring curiosity and it’s role in sales/buying… you could say I’ve been being curious about curiosity – all good stuff – one for a future post perhaps?

    Anyway, back to the matter in hand – buying & selling automation…

    Imagine… we see a softening economy – not just our markets but seemingly most if not all others… (sound familiar?!)… So we know we need a better message, and we need to get it out to more people, so increasing the chances overall of making a sale/getting new customers etc – it’s all logical, right?

    Our masters and overlords are asking us for more and more reports and metrics as they try to understand what is happening more strategically, which makes sense… and also takes time away from refining our message and getting it out to more prospects, and actually talking with those prospects…

    So we invest in automation to help us get more done in these areas – they do the message outreach/broadcast AND produce the metrics & reports that managers want.

    Imagine also that all our competitors are doing something similar – well, those that are left…

    Now think about the poor customer, bombarded by a slew of ‘me too’ and ‘look alike’ suppliers all blasting out new messages, that are just as undifferentiated as before, but a little more shiny & strident…

    As a customer being bombarded by all of this, and having my own job to do, I may now be looking for some sort of buying automation tool – and we already have examples of that now – eAuctions, which basically just drive prices down.

    So with prices down, suppliers are now hurting. Some withdraw from some markets, even go out of business. THose that are left might reduce their offerings – can’t afford to offer so many options. Clients have to adjust to the changing, shrinking supplier landscape – sure, there are new products, new entrants to the market, but they don’t last – there’s less and less money to be had – less profitable business to fund & sustain this activity – mergers, acquisitions – all these go up. Wages stagnate some, and at the corporate level innovation is stiffled by fear – fear of risk – innovation is all about uncertainty – how long will it take to develop and get in to production with a new product/feature? Will enough people buy it, at a profitable price? Will the competition come in and steal our business, knock us off our perch? Risk! And that means less investment and activity there…

    … it’s becoming a self sustaining cycle of doom… less innovation, less reason for customers to buy you vs who they currently buy from… liquidity of cash begins to slow…

    My question: Could the rush to automate selling and buying actually exacerbate, make worse, the very situation we’re trying to fix… with selling and buying automation?

    I get an average of 507 emails a week (I measured it!!), many from external parties trying to sell me sales training and enablement (I’m responsible for sales training at my company, Microchip)…

    … and it is VERY RARE that a company trying to sell me sales enablement & training demonstrates it is even close to being any good at what it is trying to sell…!!! Where’s the value in that?

    Actually, I’ll tell you – and the senders of such emails would be horrified to learn it’s not in the area they think!

    In fact, in a recent series of trainings for our 1000+ field sales folks around the world, I took half a dozen such emails (many were actually several from the same people, ‘following up on’ previous emails they’d sent…)

    … I took these emails and had a discussion with the 1000 folks about where, why and how these were all terrible(!) examples of how to reach out to clients and prospects, and how to be different and better…

    Sure, vendors of these automation tools will tell you that you can customise the messages for the recipient. Great.

    I don’t want CUSTOMisation. I want PERSONalisation. THat’s something quite different. Can these tools deliver on that? Probably. Will the reps spend the time needed to research & investigate in order to get that level of detail needed to be effective in personalising? Not when they have managers breathing down their necks for more useless reports, and not while they are worried about their commission checks and being able to afford to take the family on a great annual vacation, as they’ve come to expect…

    Automation can HELP, but it can’t REPLACE the fundamentals a professional and effective rep needs to apply every day, in every interaction with a client.

    • As usual, Martin, there is so much here, I’ll only tackle a few of the issues (the rest will probably be fodder for future posts).

      Providers of sales/marketing tools and services are among the worst at practicing what they preach. I take the point of view their approach is indicative of what they will suggest and do for your company. They key issue is, “Is that the way you want to engage your customers.” As you rightfully do, these go on the shameful performance pile and will never be considered. If they can’t execute well, how will they help your team execute well?

      While they probably shouldn’t have to, customers must hold vendors accountable for value realization. Too many of the solutions we spend so much money on, don’t produce the expected value. Yes, there may be implementation issues on the customer side, but the vendor needs to address that head on and help the customer achieve the value they get. There is some light at the end of this tunnel. SaaS companies are seeing dramatic drops in renewal rates, for the simple reason that customers aren’t realizing the expected value. They are now being forced to stay engaged and involved.

      But the key issues, which you and I have had so many conversations about. Automation and other tools are an aid to the sales person/manager. They don’t replace critical thinking, problem solving, and disciplined execution, but they support us in doing so. Too many on both the vendor and buyer side hide out behind automation. It’s easier to blame a tool then to blame the inability of sales people to figure things out (because we have the wrong people, we don’t provide them the right skills, we don’t coach and drive critical thinking).

      Off my soap box! Thanks so much for the great comment.

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