By Ian Altman
Each year I have the honor of observing business trends as a keynote speaker and business advisor. For the fourth consecutive year, I am pleased to share the top business trends that leading companies embrace to drive success. Some trends are in their infancy, and others have become part of the mainstream. These patterns emerge regardless of company size. Feel free to take a look at my past predictions using the links at the bottom of the article. Here are my predictions for the Top 10 Business Trends That Will Drive Success in 2017.
- Subject Matter Experts Become The New Rainmakers
Subject matter experts who understand and can help guide the sales process drive growth in top performing B2B companies.
Consider three different buying personas: an order taker, a salesperson, and a subject matter expert (SME). The order taker merely takes an order, and provides a price and delivery schedule. That function can be easily performed by Amazon (often with better results).
Of the remaining two personas, which one would you want to encounter as a customer? Would you want the person with a mission to sell something to you, or the expert who you might be willing to pay to meet with because of their deep expertise?
When I present these options to executives, they often resist the notion of meeting with a salesperson, but would willingly meet with the SME to gain insight.
Whereas you can hire new sales-people right out of college, SMEs can be harder to scale. However, most organizations have a stable of SMEs who currently do not play a role in growing revenue. The best organizations offer integrity-based sales training to build a sales culture within the organization and empower the SMEs as keys to growth.
Businesses used to throw bodies at sales goals, and accepted that most of the people would fail. With SMEs, businesses place a premium on proper lead qualification and narrow focus on the right opportunities to make efficient use of scarce, yet highly effective resources. SMEs won’t tolerate wasting time pursuing bad opportunities.
- Crowd-funding Validates New Products
When you think of crowd-funding, you might envision films or artisan leather wallets. To the surprise of many, globally crowd-funding is trending to surpass venture capital by the end of this year.
According to crowd-funding and marketing expert Clay Hebert, “Smart companies are using crowdfunding to not only raise capital, but to validate products before making substantial investments in product development.”
Smith & Bradley, Ltd., a U.S.-based tactical watch manufacturer has launched seven Kickstarter campaigns to validate new designs for their line of watches. Five of the campaigns received market validation. The other two didn’t make the cut.
“When we wanted to produce our first watch, we used crowdfunding to raise the funds needed to go to market,” co-founder Ryan Bradley said. “What we didn’t realize was that we had also discovered a way to validate the market for a product before we went into production. Now, each new product idea has a crowdfunding component to validate the market. Based on the velocity or success of the crowdfunding effort, we shift our resources to meet market demand.”
Bradley still spends his days as an attorney, so staying focused on the right designs keeps their business operating at peak efficiency.
Big companies are capitalizing on this trend as well. GE Appliances created and funded FirstBuild, a “global co-creation community and microfactory” in Louisville, Kentucky to “harness the brainpower of the maker movement to change the way major home appliances are conceived, designed and manufactured.” FirstBuild uses crowdfunding to validate new home appliance product ideas. They’ve already successfully crowdfunded Opal, a nugget ice maker and Paragon, an induction cooktop, on Indiegogo, both of which you can now buy through their website.
Before launching Paragon, FirstBuild assumed the killer feature was sous vide, a popular method of immersion cooking at a specific temperature. But as they engaged their community, they found a significant group of passionate consumers who also wanted to improve how they cooked using other methods, from warming to deep-frying. So they pivoted to include these features in the product design, positioning and marketing. When they launched on Indiegogo, Paragon was almost 600% funded, raising over $360,000. More importantly, they validated the product with over 2,100 backers.
From watches to washing machines, using crowdfunding for product validation allows any company to engage and learn from a small and passionate user community earlier in the process, speeding up time to market, and reducing both the cost and risk of new product innovation.
As Hebert often reminds companies and startups, “The best focus group in the world is the market itself.”
Hebert offers a guide to determine if your idea is right for crowdfunding.
- Sales and Content Marketing Become Fully Integrated
As customers and buyers continue to do more online research, top performing organizations continue to integrate sales and content marketing. The goal is to ensure that when customers search for risks, challenges, and implementation strategies associated with your solutions, they will find your content to address their questions.
When I purchased my Tesla, I did research online, and scheduled my test drive the same way. The Tesla consultant coordinated the test drive and helped me select the right options (in many cases talking me out of features I didn’t really need). I then completed the purchase form online using a tablet in their store in a shopping mall. Ultimately, I placed the final order via Internet browser, from home.
Tesla provided articles and videos to help educate me as a consumer, and build trust surrounding the purchase. Through its marketing, Tesla established an innovative brand that helped me conclude that they have a long-term vision and position for the company.
As Marcus Sheridan teaches, top companies engage their front-line sales teams to identify topics for content marketing, and the content marketing team helps sales professionals to effectively use content in the sales process.
The people at Sales-Mango also have an interesting take on this concept.
- Video Becomes Essential
According to a recent Forbes study, video is becoming a critical source of information for executives:
- More than 80% said they are watching more online video today than they were a year ago.
- Three-quarters (75%) of executives surveyed said they watch work-related videos on business-related websites at least weekly; more than half (52%) watch work-related videos on YouTube at least weekly.
- Overall, 65% have visited a vendor’s website after watching a video.
Hubspot’s Consumer Behavior Survey confirms this trend. Over half (55%) of users say they consume an entire video, compared to 29% for blogs and 33% for interactive articles. If you want your entire message to be consumed, video tends to be the preferred medium.
Early in the days of television, advertisements were highly effective because the platform was relatively new. Using video to run ads today is a waste of effort. However, providing video as a source of valuable content to address issues or answer questions helps the consumer to feel like they know you better than if they had just read an article.
When you combine deliberate production with technology, video can provide great flexibility. Based on the user’s interests and other details you know about them, you could assemble a video on the fly addressing the user’s specific questions by pulling various snippets of video content. The video snippets are then assembled into one seamless video message.
- New Collaboration Tools Require Rethinking Email
Collaborative tools like Slack are replacing email for internal communication. Started in 2013, Slack surpassed 4 million daily users in October 2016. Though this does not mean that companies will abandon email all together, it does change how you need to think of email. (Lee Gomes wrote a nice piece about Slack)
In an organization where internal and external communication happens within email, you can count on the fact that most users will spend much of their day with their inboxes open on their desktops.
Organizations using tools like Slack for internal communication might have less need to have their inboxes open throughout the day. Instead of spending eight or more hours with their inboxes open, it could shift to less than one hour. At that point, the only emails will be from external sources. With professionals spending less time in their inboxes, you’ll have even less time than before to make a positive impression with your email communication.
So, how do you reach your B2B audience if they are not paying attention to email? Smart companies will use precision targeting with Facebook and other social media tools to capture the attention of potential customers who shift to platforms like Slack, and start to pay decreased attention to email. Valuable content will attract, and self-serving hype will repel customers. Look for video-based Facebook targeting to grow substantially in 2017.
- Brick and Mortar Stores Without Expertise Disappear
Brick and mortar stores that merely offer merchandise without expertise or curation will continue to suffer.
Recommended by Forbes
Nordstrom gives fashion advice. Home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot offer education. But why does Costco work so well? Costco customers have come to believe that the retailer curates a narrow set of the best products at a great price and stands behind them with exceptional service. If they offered 15 alternatives for a given need, they’d fail. By curating quality and delivering value, they build trust.
Brick and mortar retailers that let you find things on your own will continue to lose market share to Amazon and others. If you have to discover the products on your own, it’s easier to do so online. USA Today reports on vast numbers of traditional retailers closing stores. If you look at the stores listed, they all fit the model of retailers that offer products without expertise. The Balance shared similar information.
- Subject Matter Experts Get Sales Support
With a shift in subject matter experts (SMEs) to grow revenue (Trend #1), organizations understand that SMEs might not have the ideal professional or interpersonal skills to drive the buying steps for customers. Without proper support and training, SMEs could miss opportunities. However, customers still prefer to work with SMEs over traditional salespeople.
Top organizations recognize that SMEs often have broad roles in the organization. Their time is valuable, and you cannot afford to have them work inefficiently. This means three key components drive SMEs’ success:
- Build and reinforce skills to understand the sales process to better appreciate how customers make decisions and how to “sell” with integrity;
- Deploy sales support professionals who manage proposals, track details, and ensure continuity with clients who are primarily serviced by SMEs; and
- Implement automation tools to keep important tasks from falling through the cracks and ensure focus on the right opportunities.
The sales departments will evolve to support SMEs. Top organizations surround SMEs with resources and tools to help manage follow-through, assign tasks, and track progress. This support network prioritizes follow-through based on rules, and ensures that the organization can be responsive and proactive at the right times. Tools like Salesforce, Contactually, and Infusionsoft provide dashboards and notifications to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
- Narrow Segments Capture Attention
When you go to the doctor, you don’t want a diagnosis most people get, you want the report for you and you alone. In a restaurant, you don’t want what most people would enjoy, you want to order exactly what you feel like eating. Marketers and sales professionals are reaching the same conclusion.
You can tell when you get a mass-generated email or see generic content marketing articles. Even if the topic may be of interest, you’ve been conditioned to ignore generic messages. Whereas automation had been used for delivering the same message to thousands at a time, innovative companies have embraced automation for one-to-one messaging.
In his bestselling book, Ask, Ryan Levesque illustrates how to segment your list, and how companies across industries have followed his approach to grow their businesses at incredible rates with narrowly defined segments.
Levesque says, “One of the biggest fears I hear entrepreneurs express in segmenting their market is that their different market segments are too small to be worth addressing individually. So they rely on ‘one-size-fits-all’ products and messaging. But the reality is when you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to nobody. Companies, both big and small, that are adopting a segmented strategy are thriving more than ever in today’s marketplace.”
This goes beyond inserting the recipient’s name at the top of a message. Rather, by asking the right questions and knowing their interests, market leaders tailor content to exactly what each recipient wants.
The same way Netflix and Amazon suggest products you might like, the best companies are delivering content and communication tailored to your preferences.
- Recurring Revenue
Companies continue to shift from single, up-front payments for products to recurring revenue for a service. Financial markets reward predictable, recurring revenue. Whether it be monthly or annual, smart companies recognize that recurring revenue with a high renewal rate demonstrates perceived customer value. High renewal rates become an incredible marketing message.
Look for innovative vendors to waive long-term contracts and put their money where their mouth is. When sellers either feel a need to lock you into a long-term agreement or get payment up front, they are implying that you might find a better alternative. If the vendor assumes the risk of delivering and maintaining value by not requiring the long-term commitment, then the customer will reward the seller with more trust.
Just look at what John Legere did with T-Mobile. They went from being on the verge of disaster to thriving by removing contracts and listening to customers.
If you give your client the choice to renew or leave every month, then you’ll have your finger on the pulse of your market.
- Millennials Groomed For Leadership
Millennials now represent the largest segment of the U.S. population, according to Pew Research. Just like past generations, millennials will emerge as the next set of managers and executives. Top performing companies will work to magnify their strengths and build systems to compensate for their perceived deficiencies. This same evolution has happened in past generations, too.
According to Bard Szollose, cross-generational leadership expert in NYC and author of Liquid Leadership, “You can’t put someone in a leadership role assuming they have the skills to lead, only to train them 10 years later. If you want Millennials to succeed, invest in their leadership development today.”
The Bersin by Deloitte report predicts the most disruptive year ever. They highlight, “This year, more than 3.6 million company chiefs are set to retire as younger professionals ascend to managerial slots. Companies are busy planning this transition in order to cope with the massive loss of boomers.”
Millennials represent the largest generation of our time, as illustrated in this Goldman Sachs report. Of special note is how millennials are more inclined to embrace fractional or shared usage versus purchasing. Over 55% said that they either had no plans to purchase a vehicle or were indifferent. Many feel that using services like Zipcar or Uber when they need transportation is more convenient.
This notion aligns well with the shift to recurring revenue models for businesses going forward (Trend #9).