Distributors may realize marketing helps drive sales, but they don’t always understand how.
Ian Heller of the Distribution Strategy Group spoke with three marketing experts about the link between sales and marketing. Panel participants included:
- Sheila Hernandez of Summit Electric Supply
- Susan Merlo of The Digital Distributorä
- Cynthia Lovely of Chadwell Supply
Missed the webinar? You can watch it on-demand here.
Meeting Customers Where They Live
COVID is where distributors often draw the dividing line when customer expectations shifted. COVID changed many things in B2B, including driving many customers online, where they would research products before speaking to a sales rep, and even look to complete the transaction digitally if they could. They wanted less face-to-face. In a 2022 DSG report on The State of Distributor Customer Experience, 22% of customers said they never want a field sales rep to visit; 20% said an onsite once a year is enough.
According to Forbes, 12.7% of employees work from home full-time, while 28.2% split their time between in-office and remote. However, by 2025, 32.6 million Americans will be remote. Hernandez confirmed an out-of-office effect of COVID has lingered into 2023 for distributors. “There’s a number of customers that aren’t in the office now,” Hernandez said. “Also, I think the willingness to do events, whether it’s trainings, open houses or a lot of the traditional things distributors used to do has declined. I think it’s having a significant impact on how distributors do business.”
And it’s increased the importance of marketing in the sales equation.
Merlo suggests these changes differ by sector. “For some verticals, like building supplies, those customers still want to see their salespeople. What is changing is that they want to research online and have more purchase options. We have to make sure as marketers that we are convincing them online by delivering the same information that a salesperson would face-to-face by market segment.”
Hernandez said the growing customer focus online requires human sales reps to “offer something different, something more advanced, to be still relevant.” Sales reps must elevate their efforts to be trusted advisors, “bringing packages, bringing integration, bringing services, because a lot of the fundamentals are found online.”
Cross-Departmental Collaboration to Drive Sales
Strategy across departments is increasingly important in an omnichannel buying environment.
It’s not uncommon for the sales and marketing departments to undervalue the contribution of the other. Heller asked the panel, “Have we achieved peace between those departments—or is there still a ways to go?”
Merlo said the rift is healing. “Now with the way digital works, marketing has so much more to bring to the table. Marketing can capture the lead and bring them on a journey so that when they pass that lead over to the salesperson, it is a little more nurtured. If you have tracking in place, that lead is so much more valuable because marketing nurtured it and captured a little bit of intel on what the customer is looking at online, their behavior and their interest. Now marketing can hand salespeople these leads that are warm or even hot.”
Hernandez takes this even further, calling it “the evolution of marketing as a whole, but particularly within industrial and electrical.” She said that lead generation and targeting is much more sophisticated in the digital era. “Different parts of the sales team look for different things. What we do for one part of the team and how we craft the characteristics of what we’re looking for is different than what we might do for another part of the sales team.”
She acknowledges this growth is largely made possible by marketing tools with amped-up analytics. “It’s much easier to see what’s happening, to define what success is and put metrics around it and drive revenue.”
Technology, Change Management and Sales
While the panel agreed that the latest marketing tools enable the evolution of sales, change management remains an issue in most companies. “There is that element of winning them over to new tools and processes,” Lovely said. “Until they realize what the technology can do, they may ask, ‘Why do we need this?’ It’s a constant education, but it’s a partnership that we value.”
One of the areas where technology could make a huge impact is through artificial intelligence (AI). AI-enabled software could be a game changer for sales and marketing teams in proactive intelligence, automation, upselling and more.
But Lovely cautioned: “I’m adamant that AI should be used responsibly to enhance personal relationships. It should never take away from or try to replace. And I think that’s a lot of the fear, and it’s warranted because if AI is not used correctly, it is kind of a wrench in the works.”
What is the Role of Digital Marketing in Growing Sales?
The panelists shared applications for digital marketing to attract customers and increase sales, including:
- Managing customer lifecycle
- Prospecting new customers
- Online self-service for existing customers
- Providing fresh collateral for sales teams
“We are doing a variety of things around digital, really trying to focus on how we can use it to engage with new customers and how can we use it to attract them in and now to start to build a relationship,” Hernandez said. She said the big question for marketing teams is: “How do we use digital mediums to connect and find new people to engage them, and then how do we attribute that, so we know what’s successful and what’s not?”
Lovely’s company takes a different approach.
“We don’t use digital as much for lead generation because our customer target is very narrow. But in the last several years, as we’ve expanded geographically, one of our biggest focuses has been on just distributing that brand and message consistently from Miami to Las Vegas. We were relatively contained, and now we’re speaking to people in entirely different markets. So, it’s been very much a brand-building focus. Also, our biggest drive in digital right now is employee advocacy, empowering them to carry the brand because the best channel for our message by far is our people.”
Tracking Marketing’s Effect on Sales
“If it’s digital, you can measure it, if it works, if it doesn’t work, and you can make these little, tiny changes and see what tweaks are making a difference,” Merlo said. But how do you truly measure marketing when you can’t always precisely track the journey from a website browser to a call, email or sales visit?
Tracking leads is always challenging. You’re dealing with 50 (or 500) manufacturers who send sales leads. Leads come in from field and in-house teams. Then there are inquiries from the ecommerce site, emails or even prospects that send in spreadsheets for a quote. Attributing these leads to the right source is always hard with so many possible channels.
Hernandez pointed out some of the difficulties inherent in using traditional marketing data. “Things like clicks and views and time on page and those types of things, I think they’re very helpful for us in marketing, but I don’t think it really resonates very well with either leaders or sales. It’s helpful to us, but I don’t think it will convince anyone that our programs are successful.”
She said her team is exploring new ways to evaluate the leads from specific campaigns, with metrics including “How many new customers came in, new accounts set up or new customers that bought, and the at-risk customers that were leaving, were we able to engage some of those customers on the product lines we were marketing?”
Lovely said sometimes marketing is a loss leader. “A lot of what we measure in dollars, we will never be able to tie back to what we’re doing. We must accept that to some degree. That might change, but we just can’t make that direct link even where we think it’s there.
“I think it’s important to select what we can measure that we think will move the needle and what we want out of a campaign or program. We do a super cart giveaway every other year, and we’ve been able to measure year over year what new customers entered this year that didn’t enter before, what new customers set up accounts that came to us from this campaign, but then also over the next year, did their sales increase? Did their buy-in increase? Did their communication increase?”
She recommended organizations set benchmarks that are trackable and relevant to the C-suite. Finally, “much of this comes back to marketing’s core customer, which is our sales team, and where they feel supported and can see that our effort is making a difference in those one-on-one conversations.”
Merlo said the bigger the company, the harder it will be to measure. “You can do more targeting if it’s a smaller company or a bigger product. I have a client who is a truck parts distributor, and they also sell tankers. It’s a small arm of the business, and so every tanker they sell is $90,000 to $120,000. We made slight changes to a landing page on their website, and suddenly, all these leads started coming. It made a huge difference because every one of those sales is a lot of money. So even if they had 10 leads in the week and they closed one, it’s a home run, and that was because of marketing, but that’s a very small distributor with a very big product.”
The Final Word on Using Marketing to Drive Sales
“The big shift for us in the last couple of years has been from traditional marketing to being a revenue engine to create growth. I do think that’s changed for us,” Hernandez said.
Lovely thinks marketing teams “will keep focusing on our customers as people. Even though it’s B2B, we’re talking to people. I think the more tools we have and the more information we have about them, the better we can build those relationships. Then, partnering with sales to understand what these customers need to keep fostering relationships.”
Merlo counseled caution when making marketing shifts. “Do not boil the ocean,” she said. “This is a journey. The most important thing is to remember it’s the salespeople generating the income and to have a marketing team that does everything it can to support the sale. It must be a full collaboration.”
Get the full story. Watch the on-demand webinar.