Traditional B2B Sales is Dead, Long Live the UCE?

In the land of disruption, there’s always something dying and something lining up to replace it, so we’re pretty used to hearing things like “on-premise is dead, long live SaaS.”  Sometimes, they’re right.  Despite the 2008-era views of our resident luddite below, SaaS really did kill on-premises.

Sometimes they’re wrong.  Despite years of hearing, “the data warehouse is dead, long live the data lake,” the data warehouse is doing just fine, thanks.  Snowflake can tell you 60 billion reasons why.

Sometimes, they’re both right and wrong.  Data lakes are doing pretty well, too.  Not everything is zero sum.

You don’t hear this just about technologies, but business models, too.

When the Internet eliminated sellers’ monopoly power over information, I heard, “traditional B2B sales is dead, long live facilitating buying processes.”  This was right and wrong.  B2B sales wasn’t dead, it just changed.  When buyers can get more information themselves and advance further without needing sellers, reframing sales as facilitating buying is a good idea.

When product-led growth (PLG) became the rage, you started to hear it again:  “traditional B2B sales is dead, long live PLG.”  While companies like Atlassian really did dispense with traditional B2B sales, other companies — like Zendesk, Slack, and Twilio — showed the power of blending the two models.  Heck, even Atlassian eventually blended them.

I think of PLG as embracing the continuation of a trend already started by the Internet.  In phase one, buyers no longer needed sellers to get basic product information.  (It’s almost hard to believe, but back in the day, if you wanted even a white paper let alone a demo, you had to talk to a seller.)  In phase two, buyers no longer needed sellers to get hands-on product trial.  It’s the same transformation, just applied to the next two phases down the funnel.

While some companies consider trials customers (and ergo need to count them in churn), I think most enterprise startups should consider trials leads, and the ones who do the right things with the product become leads worthy of passing to sales.  Because they’re qualified by product usage and not marketing actions, they’re called PQLs instead of MQLs.  (Ask my friends at Correlated, or any of the new PLG CRMs, to learn more.)

The other day an old friend of mine, now a highfalutin GM at a big-name software company, forwarded me this article, Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing are Becoming Obsolete.  So, anticipating the content, I donned my “it’s PLG and enterprise, not PLG or enterprise,” gloves and got ready to fight.

But I was surprised.  Instead of saying, “B2B sales is dead, long live PLG,” the article threw me a curveball:

“B2B sales is dead, long live the unified commercial engine (UCE).”

Huh.  The what?

Who wrote this, I think?  Ah, it’s some guy from Gartner.  Before I can add, “and they should stick to IT prognostication,” I see that “some guy” is Brent Adamson, coauthor of The Challenger Sale, one of my top five favorite sales books.

Darn.  Now I have to read this eight-page article and figure out what I think.  The rest of this post is the result.

The Article:  Summary and Analysis
The article argues that it’s no longer enough to try and integrate (in the sense of align) sales and marketing, we should instead unify them.  That’s because buyers have more access to information (including hands-on trials), buyers have access to that information via multiple channels (e.g., vendor websites, review sites), and buyers don’t want to interact with salespeople (which is not exactly new, though he argues that younger people want to interact with sellers even less than older ones).

Sales is thus fighting for relevancy in the buying process and seeking to regain customer access.  The linear model is dead, long live the unified model.  In short:

Helping today’s B2B buyers buy isn’t a sales challenge, nearly so much as an information challenge (or, alternatively, an information opportunity).

He begins with motherhood and apple pie:

The companies that best provide customers the information they most urgently seek, specifically through the channels they most clearly prefer, are in a far better position to drive commercial success in today’s rapidly evolving digital commercial landscape.

He moves into rhetoric to amp things up:

While once a relatively accurate proxy for the underlying buying behavior it was meant to approximate, the serial commercial engine is hopelessly out of date — and dangerously out of sync — with how today’s B2B buyers buy.

With a requisite Gartner dash of profundity:

Today’s buyers are not only channel agnostic in terms of behavior, they’re digitally dominant in terms of preference.

I think that means people like to research shit online before buying it.  Got it.  Stipulated.

I always say that any good sales pitch is 80% tee-up and 20% knockdown.  Now, on the receiving end of such a pitch, I need to advise some caution in that approach.  At some point people want to hear your solution; I’m on page 6 of what’s barely 8 pages and still waiting.  It’s always easier to agree on the problem than the solution (e.g., child poverty, wealth inequality, climate change).  It’s why the 80/20 formula works — you get people agreeing with you, sounding smart, heads nodding, and then you shift to a credible solution that drives your agenda.

But you can’t wait too long to shift to the solution (so I should probably revise my rule to 60/40).  And you should introduce the solution from first principles, not via a case study (which you can always present later, as proof). And if you’re going to introduce the solution via a case study anyway, it shouldn’t be a 1300-person company based in Calgary that I’ve never heard of.

Yet, here I am, about to learn how SMART Technologies found the answer to this pervasive problem by “rebuilding it from the ground up.”  But first, I need to learn about SMART Technologies.  I am now at page 6.75 of an 8.25 page article and still not heard the solution.

The answer:  completely dismantle traditional sales, marketing, success, and service altogether and reconfigure them into a unified commercial engine (UCE).

I’m now thinking:

  • Can you partially dismantle something?
  • Can you completely dismantle something without it being altogether?
  • Where did success and service sneak into things?  While I’d certainly, almost definitionally, want to put all customer-facing teams into a unified engine, how is it that success and service are totally omitted from the argument’s tee-up?

You create a UCE by:

Careful mapping of customers’ buying journeys across a range of predictable “jobs to be done” as part of a typical educational technology purchase.

Never one to miss a gratuitous Clayton Christensen reference, I have to observe that while I am big believer in his work and the jobs-to-be-done framework, I think this is something of a misapplication.  Christensen’s point was about innovation — if you think of products as hired instead of bought, and hired to do specific jobs, then you will anchor yourself in the customer’s point of view when contemplating new products and features.  Think:  not how can we make this milkshake tastier, but how can we make this milkshake more effective when it’s hired as a one-handed commuter breakfast.  What we’re talking about at SMART is simply mapping customer journeys.

When you do that careful mapping, this happens (or, at least, this is what happened at SMART):

Through that initiative the team identified five common buying jobs (Learn, Buy, Order/Install, Adopt, Support) and established an internal team specifically deployed to support each one, reassigning nearly every member of legacy marketing, sales, service, and success staff as a result. In all, over 250 team members received new job designations as part of the process.

You can’t do a re-org these days without creating a center of excellence, so SMART created three:

SMART created three centers of excellence, where they consolidated otherwise duplicative efforts across traditional functional boundaries, one for data and analytics, and one for customer insights and positioning, and one for creative and digital experience.

Those, by the way, sound like a good idea.  I like centralized, specialized support teams, particularly in areas where we’re trying to present one face to the customer.

And then, the re-organization:

Finally, the team then deployed their staff in geographically aligned “pods,” where each pod contains members supporting each of the respective five buying jobs. So, the pod for the southeast United States, for example, is made up of combination of individuals tasked with supporting the entire range of customer jobs from Learn to Support across all relevant digital and in-person channels (including third-party distribution).

In short, run your regions in the USA more like you run countries in Europe.

It’s neither a bad idea nor some insanely different approach.  It does create the need, however, for sophisticated regional leaders who are capable of aligning on both dimensions of the matrix.  Concretely:  is the French country marketing manager part of the French team or the marketing team?  Answer:  it’s a trick question.  The answer is both and they need to learn which way to look, when, as they face managerial decisions — e.g., look to the CMO for questions on messaging and positioning, look to the French country manager when prioritizing campaigns and investments.

I’m going to ignore the end of the article where the VPs of sales and marketing proudly introduce themselves “the former heads” of their respective departments, because they both seem to still work at the company and do something, though the article doesn’t say what their new titles and jobs are.  I’ll assume, hype and semantics aside, that they’ve implemented some sort of functional vs. pod matrix.  As one does with countries in Europe.

Before wrapping up, let me challenge some of the more detailed points in the tee-up.

  • Yes, the machine is by default linear.  But that’s just the first pass.
  • Contacts that don’t make it MQL or SQL get put into nurture and nurture is not linear.  Nurture is a popcorn machine where we dump kernels in, expose them to heat, and over time and in a pretty random order, the kernels pop into recycled MQLs.  I’ve run companies where half of all MQLs are recycled.
  • There’s the question of whether we should nurture people or accounts, as we would in account-based marketing.  Nurturing accounts is definitely not linear, it’s like having one popcorn machine per account.
  • There is no 11th Commandment where God said that nurture shalt be digital only.  While a lot of nurture is automated digital, marketers should remember that a nurture track, broadly defined, can also involve live events (e.g., C-level dinners), dimensional marketing (e.g., mailing a coffee-table book or a Moleskine), and live interactions  (e.g., SDR or AE outreach).  Nurture doesn’t definitionally mean a sequence of emails, nor should it.
  • The part of the linear handoff I detest is when sales “waives off” marketing once an opportunity is in play.  This happens less frequently than it used to, but it reveals a deep lack of trust that should be fixed by destroying walls, not erecting them.

I’ll conclude by saying I think the article misses the most important point in organizational design.  When it comes down the game on the field, who calls the plays and the audibles?  Sure, we have a playbook, and we all know the play we’re supposed to be running.  But things have changed.  There’s a new participant in the meeting.  They mentioned a new competitor who we didn’t know was in the deal.

With a group of talented people, they’ll usually be several different and vocal opinions expressed on how to proceed.  The AE may want to reschedule the meeting.  The SC wants to proceed with the demo.  The consultant thinks we shouldn’t be in the deal in the first place.  The sales manager thinks we can win it because the champion has our back.  What do we do?  Who calls the plays and the audibles that modify them?

In my mind, the person with the quota wins.  As the old joke goes about breakfast:  the chicken is participating, but the pig is committed.  In a world where accountability for results legitimizes decision-making authority, it’s not enough to have a pod/commune and say we can all work it out.  Sometimes we can’t.  And often we can’t fast enough.

Whether you call that person the regional pod leader or the country manager, the role needs to exist and they need to take lead on deal strategy. Everything else is a supporting resource.  Which is why I think marketing alignment with sales is enough.  Yes, we need to collaborate and yes we need smart managers to work in the functional/regional matrix.  Yes, in the case of marketing, we need field marketing to ensure ground-level local alignment.

But do we need to reorganize everything into regional pods?  No.  We just need to work together and be aware that buyers have more information, options, and control than ever before.

# # #

End note
The irony is I ran a company in a pod structure, MarkLogic, where we had vertical pods (aka, business units) where we didn’t have sellers, SCs, and consultants.  We had Federal sellers, Federal SCs, and Federal consultants — all working for a VP/GM of Federal.  Ditto for information & media.  But we did it not in the name of “traditional B2B sales is dead because buyers have more information,” but in the name of a vertical go-to-market strategy where we wanted specialization and alignment.  Pods can work.  It’s all about strategy first and organizational design to support strategy.

12 responses to “Traditional B2B Sales is Dead, Long Live the UCE?

  1. Dave as always brilliant. I read the same piece and felt the SMART example was post hoc fallacy land. Yes they were successful but because of the reorganisation, or despite it? Was it the change of focus that delivered the result? Same as companies like Siebel, were they successful because of the brutal “chop the bottom X% of performers each year, or despite it?”. PeopleSoft didn’t do that and they did OK. Oracle Internationally didn’t do that when I was there, they did OK too.

    One of my favourite Gartner stats at the moment is related to the one thing that influences a customer to buy. It’s not what I was taught, but it is what I have learned, that is a salesperson’s ability to leverage digital channels to engage the wider buying group at the customer. That needs a salesperson. Not with the skills I needed when I first set out, but skills of empathy, curiosity, and customer centricity. Still all sales skills. No BANT rant this time :) Mike

  2. Oscar Forsberg

    Hi Dave!

    Regarding your top-5 sales books. What are the other four? And what books would you recommend reading to a fairly new Business Development Manager in SaaS?

    Thank you in advance.

  3. John Santangelo

    Well that’s one way to approach it.

    Seems very Gartner-like in that it’s not based in reality. Let’s take the SMART example for the Southeast US. So what happens when leads created, opportunity pipeline created, deals closed from other regions. The demand generation function is not incentivized in any way to really think hollistically if they are focused only on (and assuming here, measured on) regional activities.

    Yes modern B2B buying has evolved drastically. But this isn’t the approach.

    • Thanks and I’ve never made an official list, but I said “top 5” because I could think of a handful of others … now, top of mind I’d say:
      This reflects my bias towards B2B enterprise selling:

      The Qualified Sales Leader (the hottest today imho)
      Solution Selling (classic, but like it better than the new version, Customer Centric Selling)
      The Challenger Sale (provocative)
      Mastering the Complex Sale
      How to Master the Art of Selling (classic, old)

  4. Came here through a link shared on LinkedIn. I’d like to add that JTBD has evolved past a framework. It’s now a theory.

    And it goes beyond just Innovation now. It also applies to sales and marketing. Product, sales and marketing are all interconnected parts of a system — working together to help Customers make progress.

    I’d love to talk more on this with you.

    And there’s a book on aligning sales and marketing based on Jtbd. “Demand side sales by Bob Moesta. Jtbd actually originated from him.

    Of course, you may know this. But I can’t guess that.

    • Thanks for reading the post and your comment. I was not aware of the book but will read it. By that point of the article, I was clearly a little jaded so I felt the JTBD reference was gratuitous and seemingly just customer journey mapping, dressed up. I’ll read the book and see if I still think that afterwards. I first heard of JTBD from CC and it was presented in a speech on innovation and it made enormous sense to me. I can imagine it being extended but am TBD on whether that’s going to be theory over-extension or a really good idea applied to multiple contexts. DM me if you want to chat @kellblog on Twitter.

  5. I’m always leery of people who claim a one-size-fits-all approach. It seems to me that while the UCE engine might work for some companies, it won’t for others. Where it might work is for products where the buyer has acquired that product before and has experience with it; or where the problem is well known and the prospect is just trying to decide which of a bunch of products to buy. But, for highly complex products if falls short. (Think products to the left of the “Chasm”.) Companies like DataKitchen who is defining the new category of “DataOps” and is new, highly complex, difficult to implement, and something people don’t have experience buying are not likely to adopt UCE and the traditional B2B, consultative sale is paramount.

    BTW, this is also my problem with the Challenger Sale. Again, while it may work in some instances (prospects in Even Keel or Overconfident mode), it definitely won’t work for many prospects in Trouble mode. Imagine you’re basement is flooded and you’re standing there with a plumber and the plumber starts “challenging” you! You’d say “hell no, just fix the leak!”

    So, let’s stop with the one-size-fits-all selling concepts and start defining for what conditions they are applicable!

  6. Great analysis Dave. My favorite 3 takeaways from your piece are:
    1) Perspective on Product Led Growth: “continuation of a trend already started by the Internet. In phase 1, buyers no longer needed sellers to get basic product information. In phase two, buyers no longer needed sellers to get hands-on product trial”…etc Yup!
    2) Reminder of how Jobs To Be Done work: “Christensen’s point was about innovation — if you think of products as hired instead of bought, and hired to do specific jobs, then you will anchor yourself in the customer’s point of view when contemplating new products and features. Think: not how can we make this milkshake tastier, but how can we make this milkshake more effective when it’s hired as a one-handed commuter breakfast.” Easiest way to align is not just organizational but around the customer journey.
    3) A reminder for how sales actually works: “There is no 11th Commandment where God said that nurture shalt be digital only”. 100%. People buy from People.

  7. Dave,

    I’ll have to go back and read the article, but I don’t remember suggesting that UCE was *the* right answer, only *a* right answer. And in this case, a right answer specifically for SMART. My goal was to spark a conversation, so mission accomplished, I guess. For SMART, it’s proven to be a fantastic story. For others, if they choose to take nothing from it, that’s totally fine. But even then I wouldn’t think that one should conclude that the story was therefore unworthy of telling. But that’s ultimately up to individual readers to decide, based on their own lived experience.

    The European structure is an interesting analogy. I’ll give it more thought, thanks! No question, there are some similarities. The COE point is equally well taken. The caveat there is, SMART wasn’t creating COEs, but consolidating and re-aligning existing ones–something most companies would likely be equally well served to do, I’d imagine. In many ways, I’d argue that that need for consolidation explains much of the momentum around things like “rev ops” and “revenue enablement” these days.

    I hear you on point that not everyone has heard of SMART. We’ve run into the same thing with the best practices we’ve profiled from MarkLogic. But I’d respectfully suggest that those examples were equally compelling.
    Interesting ideas can be found in unexpected places. To be fair, that’s purely a personal opinion, but one borne out by years of finding really smart business practices in sometimes completely unexpected places. It’s the highly curated hidden gems that in many ways can be most valuable, as those are ideas others are less likely to find on their own.

    I had to laugh at the “typical Gartner” commentary, as many at Gartner frequently remind me that I’m not very Gartner-y. To be honest, I wasn’t really trying to be profound. If anything, the article is by and large pretty prosaic. It is, after all, about how people buy and sell stuff. That said, it’s not surprising that some find my language a bit baroque at times, which, I think, leads to assumptions about both my intentions and personality. At the end of the day, though, I’m just a schlub from Omaha writing about stuff I find interesting, using a writing style I’ve acquired after decades of academic writing. It’s like a nervous tic. No question, I’m always better with an skilled editor who’s bent on ensuring I atone for my syntactic crimes and semantic sins.

    As far as JTBD, much of our early work on JTBD at CEB was conducted in partnership with Bob Moesta. Really great guy. Did you know that he came up with the idea of the arrow on your car’s gas gauge to tell you which side of the car the gas cap is on? Brilliant! With Bob’s help, a JTBD application to B2B buying has proved especially helpful in developing our work on both Sense Making and Buyer Enablement. It’s a fantastic framework and he does a great job of laying it out in detail vis-a-vis sales in his recent book.

    Thank you for the feedback on the article’s structure. I have this debate endlessly with others as well, and most would agree with you: Get to the solution faster. My wife would agree with you, too. For what it’s worth, the approach is laid out in detail in The Challenger Customer and comes from years of working with disruptive ideas. So there is a method behind the madness. But that doesn’t make the method right, necessarily. Either way, thanks for the shout out on the Challenger work!

    Bottom line, my sense is, your takeaway is, “Nothing new here, and not all that interesting.” That’s totally cool. In many ways, that’s a fantastic takeaway, as it likely indicates you’re already way ahead of most. And that’s a great place to be.

    Cheers, Dave!

    • Brent,

      Thanks for the comment, for reading the post so thoroughly, and for your friendly tone in the comment! As a fellow schlub, (from the NY suburbs in my case), I enjoy both reading and writing about this stuff, too. On the MarkLogic as best practices case, yes, much as I loved the company and my time there, well, even I would try to avoid it as a case study due to its relative obscurity and its recent, ten years after I left, rather unhappy ending.

      I was pleased to learn I’d taken the side of Ms. Adamson in the cut-to-the-chase debate. To be clear, I am a HUGE fan of that approach, but being on the receiving end of it didn’t make me like the approach any less, but it did serve as a reminder that the balance should be more 60/40 than 80/20. Let’s be clear, I think the real selling happens during the tee-up, not the knock-down.

      I will quibble with your summary of my summary, which I thought came off harsher than I intended it to be. What I meant to say was: “not unlike how companies run countries in Europe,” but I don’t view that as a trivial insight at all. Ironically, I think most American software companies give more local autonomy and (likely inadvertently) foster more unification among the functions because they run a pod-like structure in Europe, i.e., countries. I think most Americans have no idea how that works and I have often wondered why US software companies don’t run regions more like countries — and interestingly it’s a question I rarely hear asked.

      As for a few snarky moments in the post, I appreciate your taking them in the spirit intended and Gartner, well, Gartner, I have many good friends who work and/or have worked there and while Gartner has its quirks every industry needs its bellwether.

      Finally, as for The Challenger Sale, it is one of my top favorite sales books and I absolutely love the approach.


      • By the way, on the Bob Moesta reference, in an odd coincidence (karma?) I just purchased his most recent book a few weeks ago and have it near the top of my reading list. Thanks for the reference and for ties to JTBD in more of a sales context. I heard CC speak on it once but admittedly it was at an innovation-themed event so it got imprinted as innovation thing (and it’s great for PMs, btw) in my mind.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the sales process. Really appreciate your efforts. Keep up the good work!
    B2B Sales Process Consulting

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