Did inbound finally replace the sales rep? - In the bubble in 2016

Sales News Marketing Feb 16, 2024

Sometimes it is good to look to the past to predict the future. In this blog, our founder Juha Leppänen looks back at the inbound boom of eight years ago and reflects on how the visions for the future of sales and marketing made in 2016 came true - or did they?

Future business drivers of change

Business change is driven by new technologies and ways of doing business. In the general discussion, they tend to change everything and if you're not on board, sooner or later you'll mess up. 

Digitalisation was the talk of the town, especially in Finland, about ten years ago. Around the world, it was more a term for business transformation, driven by technology. The hot bubble of the moment is, needless to say, AI, but I won't go into that here. As technology continues to change business models, processes, ways of doing work, etc. at an accelerating pace, it goes without saying that "buzz-tech and bubbles" will keep repeating themselves and there is good reason to be aware of them. At the very least, a curious, preferably timely adopter, but also a critical evaluator.

I dug out my article from about 8 years ago "Sold wrong. In the inbound bubble?", which dealt with the hottest revolution in sales and marketing at the time, inbound. In a nutshell, it was about customers looking for solutions for themselves, especially through content, and choosing a supplier largely before contacting the supplier/vendor. Content marketing was a particularly hot topic and content now had to be produced and distributed by everyone. Social selling was a natural way to raise one's own profile and also to promote the company represented, at that time mainly on LinkedIn. Especially the "traditional" sales reps were terrified and there was a real concern about losing sales commissions if a customer buys from someone other than me even though I did the selling (= content).

How accurate was my prediction at the time and did everything change in terms of sales?

“I'm a bit worried. There's a lot of talk everywhere about the sales and marketing revolution and the change in buying behaviour. The rules of the sales game are being completely rewritten as content marketing and social selling determine the customer's buying decision.”

It goes without saying, of course, that sales have changed. A company's digital visibility in the customer's purchase path plays a very important role. Either at the very beginning of the path (awareness) or at the latest when seeking confirmation of the purchase decision. However, I would argue that, especially in B2B expert sales, trust is still won on a personal level and through human interaction. Trust is of course reinforced by references, which are still often secured by asking questions in person. Even HubSpot, the "inventor" of inbound, admitted some 4-5 years ago that the vast majority of their leads at the top of the sales pipeline also come through referrals "word of mouth"

With informal statistics (and of course with confidence) I can also say that at Kaksio Labs, sales leads come roughly as follows:

  1. Personal recommendations from our customers 40% (word of mouth)
  2. HubSpot staff referrals 30% (word of mouth)
  3. HubSpot partner listings and customer referrals read from there 20% (inbound)
  4. Website and some 10% (inbound)

In the context of inbound, the discussion also turned to so-called modern sales. OK yes - there was an attempt to turn the focus from selling to helping people buy, but inbound guides and content were not the way forward. The over-transparency of content marketing and the over-supply of content-numbed readers. The criteria for a hot lead were too broad and content consumers were approached with too sensitive 'buy' messages.

“Not all your customers or people in different job descriptions are necessarily modern buyers. It is a huge risk to go into the woods by modernising sales (and salespeople) without knowing what the customer expects. So don't do something just because others are doing it.”

One major mistake I have unfortunately witnessed too often and it was the main reason for writing this text. We continue to forget that the individual is the driver and enabler of change. Significant sums are invested in technology and system projects are rolled out in the organization as trend-driven technology projects, not as development projects to be better, more customer-focused, or even smarter (I'm not saying more efficient).

Still, a large proportion of "IT-driven" projects fail. I dare say that even sexy inbound projects have failed a lot in Finland, even if the technology was the best in the world. In other words, a strong focus on technical implementation instead of people and doing things in a new way. The "why" question is the most important start of any project and leading change from the front is also such an obvious necessity.

Here are six more of my tips for "modern sales and marketing" from 2016. I still dare to subscribe to these:

  1. Understand your own ability to create value. Whether our services and value proposition are valid in the "traditional model", i.e. whether our elevator pitch works face-to-face.
  2. Know your customers and their buying path.
  3. Make sure your whole organisation understands its role in the change and your culture supports the new way of doing things.
  4. Communicate your value to your customer in their language and help them buy.
  5. Leverage technology to deliver modern sales and marketing.
  6. Engage the customer - customer loyalty determines your success.

So don't correct me. Be bold and question. Don't externalize change. Consider each individual.

The original article (published 11.5.2016) is still available in Finnish on our site.


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