B2B technology marketing is having its Star Trek moment: It’s going where no man has gone before.
New technology, new processes, and new responsibilities (having sales targets! sacré bleu!) mean that today’s B2B technology marketers are operating in an environment that’s more demanding than ever before—and unique in its history.
How do we chart our way forward? How do we know what will work? One way is to go back to the start. To revisit our understanding of the audiences B2B technology marketers serve: IT decision-makers.
Few IT decision-makers can help us do that better than Anjani Kumar, CIO, Digital Transformation Leader and Chief Digital Officer at Collabera. (Editor’s note: Anjani Kumar has since moved to Nissan, where is he is CIO for the AMI region, tasked with implementing digital transformation.)
Anjani is a rare breed. He has been IT decision-maker, an IT marketer, and an IT salesperson.
As a CIO at Safexpress, one of India’s leading logistics companies, he introduced cutting-edge technology with big business impact. His work has won him multiple prestigious technology awards. He is also one of the few CIOs who has made the leap to CDO, a key transition as more companies embark on digital transformation journeys.
At IBM, he has been part of RFPs of upto $250 million, working with pre-sales and sales teams, and channel partners. A significant amount of his time was spent engaging with enterprise IT teams in either exploratory meetings (to understand their priorities and roadmaps), or handling customer requests and RFPs. His time at IBM, as a Digital Strategy and Sales Leader, left him with a deep understanding of what it takes to sell technology products and solutions.
In this interview, he shares sales and marketing tactics he believes works for B2B technology marketers.
You are on the receiving end of a lot of marketing. How would you describe the state of B2B technology marketing today?
Let’s say it has been better in the past. Let me give you an example. Today, as a customer of X (Editor’s note: we’ve masked the provider’s name the safeguard relationships), I am connected to their top executives, and my staff know their account managers. These top executives know my two-year roadmap.
But then I get a call from a pre-sales rep, from the same company, asking me if “I have a need” for their product. Or “what are my needs for the next three months.” All of this gives me the impression that the provider isn’t well-organized.
I also feel more companies today sell in a very generic way. They aren’t looking at what I could need…they are just reaching out for the sake of it.
Could you give us an example?
So, an Open Source provider reached out to me asking if I was looking for a Linux environment. Now, I’m completely a Windows shop. A little research, even just on the Internet, would have told him that.
I’m not saying he shouldn’t have reached out to me because I am a Windows shop. I’m saying research would have ensured that he tweaked his pitch to me.
You’re saying marketing needs to be more personalized.
Yes. You can’t have the same pitch to everyone. At least have two or three variations based on the segment a customer falls in.
Going back to my observations about why marketing is poorer today. There’s the whole multi-channel aspect. Customers are being targeted by email, by phone, and by other channels, for the same product, by different people.
It’s a waste of their time, and as a buyer I start taking them less seriously. It seems to me CRMs aren’t being used the way they should be!
That’s my biggest complaint to technology marketers: You sell technology, use it. Use analytics! (laughs).
Like you, a fair number of IT leaders think poorly of B2B technology marketing. But at IBM, you’ve stood in the shoes of marketers and salespeople. How would you defend your former colleagues?
I’d say it’s a lack of exposure. First, an exposure to proper training. Think of an entry-level salesperson joining an organization who doesn’t receive the right training. I’ve got calls from salespeople–as marketing call–at 8:30 PM. Basic training would have corrected that.
Also, they haven’t been exposed to the right tools. Today’s tools offer a more holistic view of customers.
Alternatively, it’s possible that despite the existence of the right tools, it’s hard to get a 360-view of a customer because data is so dispersed.
So, what do marketing and salespeople, who are under pressure, do? They just call the customer directly without having much insight or a targeted pitch.
What would be your suggestion to B2B technology marketers and salespeople?
Use the right tools. There are great tools today. These allow you to get a more holistic understanding of customers, to analyze their interactions, and to orchestrate targeted, multi-channel strategies more efficiently.
I’d also add: Do more research. Today, name a company, and within an hour or two of research, I’d be able to tell you what they’ve done in the past, what their current priorities are, what their competition is doing, etc. Armed with this, it’s possible to do much better marketing.
Sometimes, when sellers speak to me, I smile and listen. Having been in their shoes, I know they aren’t pitching their product right, even when the product fits my need. I can imagine many CIOs, who haven’t been in a seller’s shoes, dismissing them outright.
I’d also advise them to push cross-industry stories. There’s a lot of IT leaders who want to learn about the successful use of technology in other industries.
Could you elaborate?
When I joined Safexpress as their CIO, the logistics industry in India was a poor adopter of technology. No one was applying technology well. No one had mobile apps, for example, and I’m talking about 2014! FedEx and DHL had apps, but those were basic in nature. IoT was not used much.
So, I didn’t look at what other logistics companies were doing with technology. I looked at what banking and FMCG were trying to accomplish with technology and whether it was applicable to Safexpress. That’s how I was able to bring about change.
Since 2013-14, we’ve heard how tech budgets have moved to lines of business–especially marketing budgets. As a result, many marketers target non-IT execs, sometimes, exclusively so. How valid is this thinking?
In many companies, especially B2C ones, think of the top consumer goods and retail companies, most marketing budgets do not fall, and have never been, under IT’s purview. I’m talking about budgets for campaign software and analysis, social media tools, digital marketing, etc.
The exclusion to this rule are the more digitally-inclined companies, where are there is a CDO portfolio. In these companies, marketing budgets could fall under the CDO. But, there is a caveat as many CDOs, at least in India, come from a digital marketing background.
Let’s look at other enterprise applications. Today, CHROs have gotten more vocal, demanding HR management systems (HRMS). In the past, the HR department has been neglected from an IT perspective. Or take CRM systems. Often, I’ve seen investments for these applications coming from outside IT.
The challenge is that these systems cannot work in isolation. They need to be integrated with other software, ERP software, for instance. So, a year down the line, these departments come back to the CIO organization. At that point, if the vendor, or the line of business, hadn’t previously come via the IT department, then they go through long cycle of discussion and feasibility of integration and eventually cost is much higher too.
Vendors who have products that need to be integrated (not a standalone product), could see near-term success from selling to lines of business. But, in the long-term, they are hurting their own brand, and their ability to create good relationships with companies from whom they need repeat business.
My advice to marketers? If you have a standalone product, target non-IT stakeholders. But otherwise, don’t. The moment you do, you might close a door for the future.
Let’s talk about selling IT solutions vs selling products. In my mind, it’s harder for marketers to sell solutions, because solutions don’t have clear contours. Do you agree?
I’d say it used to be easier to sell products. Today, products are associated with rigidity. And buyers in most IT-mature businesses believe their operations are unique, so they need a unique solution. The idea, then, is to show that it’s possible to customize products.
In less mature companies, buyers want to know how to get rid of manual processes. They look up to more mature companies in their space and ask, “What software are they using? I’ll use the same.” Selling products is definitely much easier there.
Let’s look at the solutions. Your ability to sell solutions is linked directly to how good your salespeople are. By good, I mean that they will be able to share ideas and success stories around a solution. They can tell what can be achieved, and what can’t. They can take a conversation to a different level.
With products, even someone who isn’t high-caliber salesperson can do some selling. Not so much with solutions.
The conversation you’re describing is a little further down the buying cycle. It’s at a point where a customer is having a face-to-face with a vendor representative. But most marketers do not get that chance. What would you suggest to marketers?
It’s much harder for them. Their conversation openers depend on email, on a subject line. They only have a few seconds to get my attention and entice me to engage.
One thing that works are references. CIOs often ask each other for suggestions on WhatsApp groups. For example, one CIO will ask the group for suggestions for an HRMS. If a few CIOs suggest a tool, say they are using it, and are happy with it, there’s a high likelihood of that tool getting considered seriously.
Inversely, if even one CIO says something negative about a tool, I’d be skeptical about it.
I feel marketers do not take word-of-mouth seriously. They need to realize that one CIO’s bitter experience has impact. At IBM, we said we would never leave any customer dissatisfied–even if it meant incurring a momentary loss on an individual account. Because we knew that overall, it would improve our returns, in the type of references we would get.
What sort of content gets your attention?
I think if I heard about success stories, or industry-based use cases of technology I’d be interested. If I hear from my peer group, or read on LinkedIn, about a couple of success stories, especially at large companies, there’s a good chance I’ll click on a link.
Final question: What’s the best way for a B2B technology company (who you don’t currently work with) to let you know they have a new offering?
Here’s the order that works best for me: Technology media, event, social media, and email (with a catchy subject line).