There is probably a point in one's life when you stop having the dream about showing up late and unprepared for your final exam. I'm still waiting. And it doesn't help when cognoscenti like Brent Adamson, principal executive advisor at Gartner, challenge the very definition of marketing—let alone the way most business-to-business brands approach the customer acquisition process. Of course, as the co-author of "The Challenger Sale" and "The Challenger Customer," books that rethinks selling from the ground up, Adamson's words are likely to make any experienced marketers feel like a student again.
In our extensive interview, Adamson points out that marketers are doomed from the moment they describe the buyer's journey as a linear process. This antiquated worldview creates an artificial line in the sand between when marketing ends and sales begins. It also leads to content that doesn't serve the needs of the buyer and ultimately, causes harmful inconsistency between sales and marketing. Adamson's research highlights the need for a different and more consistent approach, one that focuses on the "jobs to be done" by the various decision makers and providing useful tools and content for those individuals.
What's your definition of marketing?
I don't have one. I've attempted at different times to come up with a definition of marketing and a couple of things are important to consider. One is the organizational context within which any marketer operates. There are probably thousands of thousands of definitions of marketing across them as their roles are going to be the product of the context within which they're operating. I think at the task level there are lots of different things that marketers are involved in and some probably more valuable than others. But I think for any definition of marketing you'd probably find some exception to it. Now, if you were to ask me what is it that marketers should be focused on more than anything else? Figuring out a way to help our customers buy our solution.
What do you mean by "help our customers buy our solution" in the context of marketing?
What I'm advocating for is that some part of a b-to-b organization needs to be focused on how buying happens. What are the mechanisms of buying? What's the process of buying? Who's involved? What are the challenges of buying? How does that whole thing evolve over the course of a purchase journey? And who owns that inside of the organization? What's interesting is that traditionally we say sales owns part of it and marketing owns part of it but your customers don't look at it that way.
Whether or not we have a function for brand and whether or not we have a function for product development, or whether or not we have a function for something else like customer service…probably all of those things are important. However, what I'm now seeing in our research is the need for an organization to have some cohesive, coherent function that is specifically on the hook for understanding the buying process. This function needs to influence that buying process in a material way through all the channels through which we have access to our customers, whether they be digital or in person.
What are some of the basics of b-to-b marketing that most companies don't understand?
If you think about how we've traditionally thought about sales and marketing in a business-to-business space and adapting to customers and helping customers buy. We've expanded the scope to think from the very moment a customer identifies a problem, whether we're the ones that taught them they have a problem to begin with, through what we call commercial insight—where they've identified a problem on their own, but from that moment on through that entire step-by-step journey to the ultimate decision of making a purchase. And how we think about that and organize around it is ultimately the key. We tend to think of that as a linear process.
Can you explain the old linear model a bit more?
We think of it as linear because it's an abstraction that helps us practically organize around that view of buying. Early on in that purchase journey, it's largely a marketing role, so marketing owns the early part of the funnel. We create demand, we generate demand, we identify demand, we find those leads, we qualify those leads, we nurture the leads, we drip those leads, we feed them little bits of content, and the whole idea for the model and the marketing side is that we're trying to drive up consumption of our content. Because if we can drive up consumption of our content, that is a sign that our customers are engaged with whatever we're doing. So, if we can drive up content consumption that equals customer engagement and if they're engaged with us, that must mean that they're progressing along that purchase journey. Until ultimately, we can stamp them as qualified for sales.
So, how does b-to-b buying really happen?
Perhaps you're familiar with the approach to buying called "jobs to be done" which is the Clay Christensen and Bob Moesta model that's become quite popular, or at least well-known, the last couple of years. Working directly with Bob Moesta as a consultant on the project, we surveyed a series of senior leaders at large b-to-b corporations. They were all involved in the purchase of some complex solution in their organization, applying their "jobs to be done" framework, trying to understand what b-to-b buying looks like. When you study buying from that perspective and try to understand how buying happens, what you find is that there are "jobs" that make up a typical b-to-b purchase.
What are these "jobs?"
The jobs are problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building and supplier selection. And where any purchase process that doesn't involve the customer successfully doing those things, you have to identify a problem and figure out if it is a problem worth solving. We're going to call it stages 1, 2, 3, and 4, put it in the linear order and just jam everything in at some point in the middle of a handoff. But buying happens all over the place. It's the same for validation, in fact. We've found that the validation of information is constantly flowing into a purchase decision and consensus creation.
Do you have specific advice for CMOs to bring to their marketing right now?
Top of mind for me right now is when you ask customers where they go for information, where they go for help to get their buying jobs done, and it turns out they are agnostic as to whether they seek or find out from a sales rep or a website. One thing they're not agnostic about is the degree to which they find consistent information across those channels. So, nugget number one is to make sure your website offers buying support to your customers that is consistent with the kind of support that they might get directly from a sales rep. Show me the specific information that helps me complete my job that is consistent with what I'm hearing from my sales reps.
Why is consistency so important?
We live in a world now, in b-to-b, of multi-channel buying. That's old news for b-to-c. It is absolutely our reality for b-to-b and if we're not consistent with the information and the help that we provide across digital and in-person channels, we are at a serious disadvantage in the eyes of our customer. Your customers don't think about the information companies provide in terms of a handoff from marketing to sales. We've got to think about not building what I call the "serial commercial engine" where it's first marketing then sales, first digital, then in-person. Consistency across channels to the very end is a joint opportunity for marketing and sales.