“Your value will be not what you know; it will be what you share”, says Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM.

That perhaps sums up what it means to be a thought leader.

The stats back this up: buyers are five times as likely to engage with a seller who can provide them with new insights into their business, and three quarters choose the ‘buying route’ that is the first to add value and insight, according to IBM’s own research.

This is probably validation of what you already know, but perhaps you’ve never put it into the context of ‘thought leadership’, or deliberately built the concept into your SE programs?

Thought leadership generates demand

It seems B2B marketers and salespeople are seriously underestimating its impact on lead generation and sales efforts.

A 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study found that 58% of decision-makers choose a business because of their thought leadership, and 61% say they are willing to pay premium prices to work with a brand that articulates a clear vision through thought leadership. However, only 14% of sellers believed they had this level of influence.

Sellers undervalue impact of thought leadership

This is often perpetuated by the view that thought leadership is the preserve of high-powered business leaders, politicians, or celebrities. Or that it ‘belongs’ to marketing, and is therefore only applicable to top-of-funnel activities to drive awareness. However, this gap between what B2B buyers say sways their decision and what sellers believe to be true means your sales team could be missing a way to engage more deeply with customers who are ready to buy.

And it’s not just new customers whose buying decisions are persuaded by thought leadership; the Edelman-Linked report also found that repeat business, and cross-sell and upsell opportunities were also significantly influenced:

thought leadership drives growth with existing customers

What does thought leadership actually mean

Thought leadership, in this context, refers to “free deliverables that are offered by an individual or organization on a topic of their expertise when they feel others could benefit from their perspective”. It’s about quality over quantity, and being customer-centric, rather than sales-centric.

The key features here are:

  • Offering something unique, interesting, authentic and even thought-provoking
  • Becoming a go-to source of advice and insight
  • Expecting nothing (immediately) in return

We’ve also heard these principles referred to as ‘generous intent’, which means being able to offer something of value - such as advice, resources like a whitepaper, or a free trial - as a step towards engaging in conversation and developing genuine leads.

Brian Goonan, Principal, Sales & Service Consulting, Customer Practice at EY, has another phrase for it: ‘gracious acts’. He says:

“[Gracious acts are] things that we can do for customers that are free, and they can be on a personal or business level. But there may be things like handing over some knowledge capital, right, if I know you're standing up an inside sales group, I say, ‘hey, listen, we just did a case study with this other customer, would it be helpful for you to walk through that?’ or ‘I can send you some material about some of the pitfalls we've seen with other clients?’, or ‘oh, there's a gentleman who's looking for an opportunity to lead inside sales, would you like me to connect you with them?’. Things you can do that don't cost anything that will build trust with clients. And that's the key.”

Why should sales enablement care about thought leadership?

Isn’t our ambition as sales enablers to empower sellers to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that offer real value to the customer, rather than taking a transactional, ‘I-need-to-make-my-quota’ approach? As the stats above show, thought leadership is a much more powerful tool for this than many sales reps - and even SE practitioners - think.

High quality, high value relationships are created when reps demonstrate credibility, intelligence and integrity in their interaction with new and existing customers.

Our aim needs to be to turn sellers into trusted advisers that customers look to for innovation and guidance on how to survive and thrive during the pandemic. We want them to think for themselves, and proactively identify where they can offer their help authentically, rather than regurgitating what’s already out there in order to push a sale.

Relevance is key: 66% of decision-makers say it’s critical that the topic is something that relates to something they’re currently working on. We need to enable sellers to personalize insights and content, and make them unique - something customers wouldn’t find elsewhere and that makes your brand stand out.

What skills and competencies does this involve?

  • Confidence and passion to offer their own viewpoints, backed by research and data, into the industry, the challenges faced by customers, and the solutions that your organization can offer: how can your products truly help improve their lives?
  • Energy and enthusiasm to take ownership of their own learning, and the hunger and curiosity to keep finding out more, amplifying their knowledge, and become specialists in their subject, including being able to offer visions for the future.
  • Storytelling: being able to identify when and how to put insights into the context of each customer’s specific circumstances.

How do you transform behaviors?

  • Reinvent training to evolve from purely top-down learning, to require self-initiated, asynchronous, and continuous learning. Foster a culture where reps take control of their development and that encourages discretionary effort to do this.
  • Provide the materials to refer back to, such as simple narratives, use cases, and research, plus the coaching and practice needed to put it all together for a client.
  • Provide them with the tools and opportunities to stay informed and take part in discussions with peers and communities - both within your organization and more widely. Useful sources include LinkedIn groups, industry reports, networking events, social listening platforms, Quora, Reddit, and discovery tools like BuzzSumo, Ahrefs or Google Trends.
  • While providing grounding content and tools, coach them to establish themselves as trusted, respected, credible within your industry’s community by creating their own blog, LinkedIn articles and podcasts.
  • Analyze the market to find opportunities where your brand can own and lead timely conversations, for example, where high-quality insights and/or content are lacking in the industry. Encourage salespeople to do the same: are there themes emerging in the questions or concerns raised by customers or prospects?
  • Inspire creativity and innovation - emphasize the personal and career development benefits of being bold enough to transform the way they see and present themselves.
  • Create the kind of content that’s easy to share; 57% of decision-makers in the Edelman/LinkedIn study found shorter, ‘snackable’ content the most engaging.
  • Develop an attribution strategy: a way to link business wins back to specific pieces of thought leadership so you can gauge what’s working and what isn’t and feed this into future plans.
  • Similarly, align goals across teams, data and technology to measure success and drive outcomes.
  • Encourage engagement through gamification, for example, competing on SSI scores, views of their blog posts/podcasts, or be rated by peers on the knowledge they share internally - salespeople are naturally competitive!

Mary Tafuri, Chief Sales Enablement Officer, VP - IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software, IBM, says:

“[Sales enablement] can give some guidance and provide some answers, but really you want to be the catalyst for experiential learning and create a platform where they learn from what you share, but also from what others can share in the ecosystem around them.”

You may be thinking: we already expect our reps to absorb a huge amount of information! How do we justify the time and resources needed to implement this? Try running a pilot program to measure the effectiveness.

Done right, thought leadership has tangible business benefits, and not just in terms of revenue generation: studies have shown that a culture of greater autonomy improves motivation, productivity and talent retention.

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