Author: Mark Roberge, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, former Chief Revenue Officer at HubSpot.
There are many factors of inbound selling, from hiring salespeople to executing an inbound sales strategy to properly using technology. But in this article, we’re going to talk about the best practices of inbound selling for the individual salesperson.
We’re going to focus on actionable tips that you can apply on your next sales call. Whether you’re selling on a daily basis or coaching someone who is, this information can be applied right away.
As a salesperson, one of the best things you can do is to improve the experience you provide to your buyers. To do this, you need an inbound sales strategy. This is different from your sales process, which is made up of the steps you’ll need to take between the time you get a new lead and the time you close the sale. Every company’s sales process is unique, and the steps in the process are defined by the company’s product, customer base, sales cycle, and various other factors. But an inbound sales strategy can be applied to every salesperson at every company. That’s because an inbound sales strategy focuses on providing a personalized experience based on the buyer’s context.
Regardless of how big or small your team is, regardless of how complex or transactional your sale is, there will be four phases in your inbound sales strategy:
- First, the identify phase, where you identify potential buyers who may have a goal or challenge you can help with. These potential buyers become leads.
- Second, the connect phase, where you connect with leads to help them decide whether they should prioritize the goal or challenge. If a lead decides to prioritize the goal or challenge, they become a qualified lead.
- Third, the explore phase, where you explore a qualified lead’s goals and challenges to help them assess whether your offering is a good fit for their context. If it is, they become a sales opportunity.
- And fourth, the advise phase, where you advise a sales opportunity on the ways your offering is uniquely positioned to address their goals and challenges. If they decide your offering is best for their context, they become a customer.
Let’s discuss these four phases one at a time, focusing on the experience you’ll provide to your buyers during each one.
- First, the identify phase. The identify phase is the first part of your inbound sales strategy, and what you do here will set the trajectory for the rest of your strategy. If you’re going to provide an excellent experience for the people you work with, you need to put serious effort in at the beginning of your strategy. Gather as much information as you can about each individual prospect so you can better understand their situation. Then, when you talk to them for the first time, you’ll be able to offer help and resources from the beginning, rather than trying to figure out if they’re the right person to talk to. The key thing to keep in mind during this phase is that many buyers enter the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey long before they engage with salespeople. Focus on providing an experience of helping them make progress in a journey they’ve already begun, rather than trying to force them onto a journey that starts with a phone call and ends with a contract.
The hallmark of an inbound sales strategy is finding ways to attract people to you. How you do this depends a lot on the behavior of the people you’re trying to attract. You might find the blogs your buyers are reading, then read those blogs and comment on them. Contribute to your company’s blog and help promote it. Find the LinkedIn groups your buyers ask questions in, then join those groups and answer questions.
A key part of inbound sales involves using social media. Follow the thought leaders your buyers follow and share insightful comments and content. Not only do these activities help you identify active buyers, they’ll also position you as a thought leader with your buyers. That will give you more authority, credibility, and trust than other salespeople. Over time, more and more buyers will reach out to you for guidance and advice and to learn how you can help them.
As an inbound salesperson, you’ll also be mindful of passive buyers in your space. These are the people who aren’t yet looking to buy but might be in the future. You’ll only work on identifying passive buyers after all of the active buyers have been identified, and then you’ll use information online to understand as much context as possible about these passive buyers before reaching out to them. The experience you want to provide here is that feeling of giving a name to a problem you didn’t know you had. If you can share insight with someone to make them better understand their own situation, they will be grateful for it — and that makes for a much better first impression than a cold email pitching a product they don’t think they need.
- Next up, the connect phase. The connect phase is the second part of your inbound sales strategy, and it’s where you introduce yourself to the prospective buyer for the first time. The experience you provide here should make it clear that you understand their context. This context could be the buyer’s industry, role, interests, common connections, and more. In your opening outreach, make an offer aligned with the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey — or whichever stage the buyer is in at that moment.
Many salespeople jump straight into trying to demo their product, even if the buyer doesn’t fully understand the problem they’re trying to solve. As an inbound salesperson, you’ll offer content or consultations to help the buyer diagnose their situation, and then you’ll be there to guide them through the rest of the buyer’s journey.
When you get a buyer on the phone, identify the buyer’s interests and priorities and offer guidance. Show a genuine interest in helping them accomplish their goals and overcome their challenges. Doing this deepens the trust that you developed in the identification phase and increases the likelihood that the buyer will want to move forward with the solutions you suggest.
- Next is the explore phase. The explore phase is the third part of your inbound sales strategy, and the experience you want to provide here is expert consultation. Instead of launching directly into a canned presentation, use your buyer’s initial interest and your own credibility as thought leaders to probe deeper into the buyer’s specific goals and challenges.
You’re the expert here, so you can assess whether you can help the buyer more efficiently and thoroughly than they can on their own. Through proper positioning of value and the right questioning process during the explore phase, you’ll guide your prospects to the right conclusions. And it’s important to note that the right conclusion will sometimes be not to buy from you. But by using a consultative, inbound approach, you’ll be able to identify unqualified leads quickly so you don’t spend your time working with people who are never going to buy from you. And ultimately, that will give you more time to focus on the people who want your help.
And that brings us to the advice phase. The advise phase is the final part of your inbound sales strategy, and it’s the grand finale of the experience you’ve been providing. During the exploratory conversation, you’ll confirm that the buyer wants and needs your help and is prioritizing the goals that you’re uniquely positioned to help with. So when you get to the advice phase, you’ll come prepared with a personalized presentation to explain why you’re uniquely positioned to help. Examples of tailored presentations include:
- A Powerpoint deck emphasizing only the value propositions aligned with the buyer’s needs, using the buyer’s terminology.
- A product demonstration illustrating only the features important to the buyer, in order of importance to the buyer.
- An ROI analysis customized to the buyer’s metrics and business.
- A proposal or contract that spells out a client’s goals, the agreed-upon scope of work, and metrics that indicate success.
By uncovering the buyer’s context and tailoring the presentation accordingly, you’ll add tremendous value to the buyer’s journey beyond the information available online. You’ll serve as a translator between the broad messaging found on your company’s website and the unique situation of the buyer.
It’s important to remember that your buyers don’t need you to provide them with general information at this point. The modern buyer has already seen the generic slide deck, the product videos, the two most popular case studies, and the ROI analysis. They can get all of that from your website — and if they can’t, they’ll find it somewhere else. More than likely, your buyers are drowning in a flood of information overload. You need to focus on helping them connect your company’s broad positioning to their specific challenges. The experience you want to provide here at the end of the sale is one of connecting the dots and identifying a clear path from where they are to where they want to be — and how your offering is uniquely positioned to take them there.
To recap, your inbound sales strategy will flow through four phases: identifying potential buyers, connecting with them, exploring their needs, and then advising them on a path forward. Throughout all four of these phases, your top priority should be providing a helpful, human experience to your prospects, guiding them on a path that leads them to success