Is Thought Leadership Selling an Oxymoron?

By Julie Schwartz, ITSMA, jschwartz@itsma.com

Is Thought Leadership Selling and Oxymoron?
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ITSMA is doing a major research project on “Thought Leadership Selling.” Everything was going great until last week. Last week, one of ITSMA’s members made some comments that stopped us in our tracks. This member said, “The goal of our thought leadership program is to enhance our reputation. It’s not about selling.” That got me thinking….

Is Thought Leadership Selling an oxymoron?

Uh oh! ITSMA’s formal definition of thought leadership appears to support this member’s point of view:

Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without selling.

Oh my, I am certainly contradicting myself here. Only one thing to do: Change ITSMA’s definition of thought leadership. Thought Leadership Selling must go on! Sales people need to reinvent themselves and add thought leadership selling to their repertoire, or risk failure.  Here’s why:

Buyer behavior demands it. B2B buyers use web search to seek answers, often before they have even figured out what the problem is. That means buyers aren’t looking for what marketers have traditionally offered—product specs or brochures—at least not at first. What buyers seek first are ideas, ideas that speak to their particular circumstances and spark epiphanies. In ITSMA research, buyers say thought leadership is critical to their buying decisions. But getting—and keeping—buyers’ attention requires the participation of the entire company—not just marketing. The “entire company” includes sales.

The marketing and sales disconnect is unsustainable. I came up with the concept of Thought Leadership Selling about two years ago in the course of doing research on sales enablement. It occurred to me that marketing had changed. In response to changing buyer behavior, marketing now uses relevant thought leadership-based content to create and nurture relationships with customers and potential buyers. However, when marketing passes the leads to sales, the sales organization is selling the same old way. Marketing is educating; sales is pitching. There is a major disconnect. Do you think the buyers don’t notice??

There aren’t enough subject matter experts (SMEs). Buyers would rather talk to SMEs than anyone else at your company. Access to SMEs is the #1 value that sales people provide during the purchase process. SMEs hold all the credibility cards. But SMEs are usually required to be billable. And they are spread way too thin. So, what if your sales people could be SMEs in their own right? What if your sales people were trained on thought leadership content and how to apply it to unique buyer situations (think customer insight!)? What if your sales people had the credibility of an SME?

Rising B2B social buyers want more value from sales. B2B social buyers, the large group of executives who are gaining decision-making clout within their organizations, want more from their sales interactions. They have higher expectations for sales to deliver value by:

  • Providing unique perspectives on the market and solutions
  • Challenging their thinking
  • Educating them on issues and opportunities in their industry
  • Providing benchmarks and best practices
  • Helping them navigate among alternative solutions and make the right decisions

To be successful in light of changing buyer wants and needs, sales needs to modify their approach and build thought leadership selling skills.  So now it is time to revise that ITSMA thought leadership definition to get me out of the oxymoron zone. I like to keep things simple. So how about this:

Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without pitching.

Using thought leadership while selling is OK. Thought leadership has to be part of the sales process. Pitching, however, can never be part of thought leadership.

One comment

  1. Pingback: 4 Types of Thought Leadership That Work Later in the Purchase ProcessB2B Services Marketing

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