23 March 2015

Yesterday´s sales methods equal inferior results

If your B2B sales continuously moves brilliantly forward, do not waste your time reading this blog. But at least I, who started my B2B career by selling electronics to various industries and continued with mobile networks, sit constantly at school. Many of the traditional truths, such as importance of customer business and purchasing process understanding, are still valid. But many things have changed and are changing. Customers are looking for information on websites and social media, buyers are becoming better informed than sellers. Sales efficiency is going down, although costs go up.

As a result, a straightforward addition of sales efforts seldom leads to company growth and profitability. Instead of just replicating old way-of-working, you should reconsider your sales methods and reinvent customer acquisition approach - also in the business world, winners take it all. This blog will focus on, in particular, why reducing sales complexity is vital for B2B firms and how this is done in practise. After reading you will have fresh ideas to boost your sales efficiency and tackle new customer segments.

Sales methods

Sales efforts required to get B2B deals vary enormously depending on sold products or services. Tens or even hundreds of selling company persons are involved in the selling process of nuclear power plants, mobile networks or luxury cruisers, the process will take months or years of calendar time and the cost can be easily millions or tens of millions of euros. Some products, again, can be sold online with self-service, without direct involvement of seller.

Sales methods can be roughly divided into three categories, according to new customer acquisition costs (CAC):
  1. Self-service: Customers are attracted to company's web sites, by making use of, for example, search engine marketing and optimisation, content marketing and e-mails. Deals will be closed automatically, seller personnel do not have to participate, because the product is easy to understand and the value for customers is clear. Customer acquisition costs are mainly digital marketing costs, typically 30 to 200 € per new customer.
  2. Inside sales: This model is built on top of the self-service model. Customers are nurtured towards deals by responding to queries and questions by e-mail, telephone and video chats, as well as by showing demos over the network and by using other digital tools. Besides dedicated sales persons, also technical experts may be involved to clarify the details of the product or its use. Typical CAC is 600 to 6000 € per new customer.
  3. Field Sales: Applied in case of the most complicated purchasing processes, where the decision-making process involves several or even dozens of buyer representatives. Customers are met face to face, often numerous times. Sales will involve technical and other experts, and various customer pilots and other tools decreasing buyers´ uncertainty are common. New customer acquisition costs are typically more than ten thousand euros, and there is actually no upper limit for them.
Costs of selling through channel partners are between inside and field sales, but we are not going to discuss this further.

Sales method applicability

Organising and expansion of sales activities often fail, because it is forgotten that lifetime customer contribution need to exceed customer acquisition costs. And even this is not enough. The total contribution, i.e. total sales margin euros need to cover not only customer acquisition-related costs, but in addition R & D and administrative costs, depreciation, amortisation, interest expenses and income taxes - and, hopefully, there will be some profits left after that.

At sufficient level of accuracy, it is possible to define for each of the three sales methods required minimum customer contribution in euros, see the picture above. In each method, the green area shows acceptable contribution per customer, in the red area operations are not profitable. The line between green and red area is not carved in stone, as illustrated by the yellow zone between green and red areas.

At this stage, many people may raise their hands and say, that the above does not apply in their business, because the revenues are accumulated over a long period, and the first deal is only a spearhead. This is true, total customer contribution must include entire customer relationship lifecycle - in  a similar manner as customer acquisition costs need to cover costs over the entire lifecycle. But in case of business logic, where the profitability of a company is not so important, you may be able to ignore these laws. This often happens, for example, in startups; the idea is to make potential takeover candidates, with different kind of monetisation logic, more interested.

Sales development

In developing its sales activities a company thus has two basic recipes for success: to get more revenues from customers or reduce sales complexity, see the picture on the right. It is possible to get more revenues from customers by bringing more value to their business, by differentiating from competition and by avoiding tough competitive tendering. Although getting more revenues from customers is the ultimate must for sustainable long-term competitiveness, growth and profitability, it will not be discussed on more detail in this post.

By reducing sales complexity it is possible to switch to lower-cost ways to acquire customers; in practise face-to-face selling is replaced with inside selling, and self-service is used instead of inside sales. Some factors, however, make the simplification more challenging, e.g.:
  • Evaluating of the product or service is difficult and it involves a lot of buyer's representatives
  • The product or service is of vital importance; for example, if the selected product does not work, it may result in major economic or health loss
  • The product or service is expensive, requires major changes in buying company practises or other systems
  • The specification or contract of the product or service to be delivered is complex
If a company does not constantly seek to simplify its sales, it is not able to take advantage of the entire sales potential and it faces a serious threat to be outpaced by competitors. There are, however, a number of ways how companies willing to grow and renew can aim for a better market position through simplification:
  • Building easiness to sell in product or service already in development phase: for example, by implementing product configuration so that it is supporting customers' processes
  • Creating a business model that makes selling easier: for example, free or very low-cost pilots, or more cost-effective execution of field sales through channel partners
  • Improvement of sales and marketing machinery: e.g. aggressively using digital marketing methods and tools for demand creation, utilisation of self-service and inside selling for deal-making, whenever possible
Utilisation of various selling methods and tools is not a simple yes / no decision. In practise, you should consider using the available options by product or service, by various stages of sales process, by market segment or as an internationalisation tool. For example, when one of my cooperation partners made a transition from using field sales to self-service enriched by light inside sales, it was able to target also SMEs, besides earlier served major corporation accounts. Similarly, mental barriers to internationalise have several times been decreased by making the first steps through inside sales, instead of building immediately own local presence.


Many companies and industries have already taken the path of continuous sales renewal, at the forefront are ICT and such successful companies as Oracle. Also, necessary tools for change and successful references can be found in plenty. For example, for B2B inside sales, both dedicated service platforms for building own operations and special companies offering inside sales as a service are available.

Because you've got this far, you might want to get better sales results. Do you find answers to your specific business situation by renewing your sales strategies or sales models, or do you have challenges with your sales process?

23 February 2015

Try to avoid competitive tendering

In business to business (B2B) trade companies are looking for - and, in most cases are also achieving - undeniable advantages through competitive tendering. It makes it possible to systematically choose suppliers, get information about the options available in the market, evaluate supplier candidates' ability to understand client's requirements and make estimates of potential cooperation fluency. And the icing on the cake, competitive tendering also provides a quite reliable picture of the value of various options in relation to their price.

But ill-advised and performed tendering can be detrimental not only to the buyer and the selling company, but also to our entire economy.

Buyers or sellers do not need to powerlessly follow the challenges of competitive tendering world - with the right strategies it is even possible to improve competitiveness of a firm.

Buyer shall not get renewal impulses

Narrow-minded tendering easily solidifies buyer's development activities to focus on marginal product improvements and extensions. Instead of keeping eyes and ears open for new external ideas and solutions to make bolder innovation leaps, strict requirement definitions reduce the role of supplier partners as an implementer of buyer´s prevailing worldview.

A system integrator, for example, believed to know the future software needs so well that the implementation of major components could be effectively outsourced through competitive tendering. As a result, hourly charges of acquired work fell, but on the other hand, the life-cycle cost savings were not achieved. At the same time, the existing vendor partnerships, producing continuously new insights and innovations, were destroyed, affecting negatively company's competitiveness.

In particular in Finland, there is a pressing need for cooperation with supplier companies, instead of the rigid tendering principles. According to a research paper, companies in the country rely too heavily on internal know how and resources in generating new product ideas. Similarly, the companies invest more lazily than their international benchmarks in projects, which generate new businesses or entirely new, genuine innovations. And since customer experience improvement and customer engagement often occur with new business models, achieving higher margins often remains a dream.

Seller's growth and profitability challenges

In principle, competitive tendering gives a selling company an equal footing to compete with other sellers, and in general, competition makes tougher and stronger. The problem is that participation in competitive tendering is shaping a company in a way, that makes opportunities for profitable growth narrower and narrower:
  • Detailed definition of the solution to be acquired, to make a comparison of the proposals easy, leads to price emphasis on the selection criteria
  • For sellers, this means, in addition to thinning margins, also collapsing opportunities to stand out from the competition through innovation
  • In the longer term, the development of competitiveness thus focuses on marginal product improvements, increasing operational efficiency and continuous cost-hunt 
The company gets stuck, therefore, in the vicious cycle of competitive tendering, see the picture below.

Vicious cycle of competitive tendering will destroy company growth and profitability. 

There are many companies in this vicious cycle, just now, small to large. A story of a component supplier, based on my own experiences, is illustrative: Customers complained about the prices and through competitive tendering compared them and the characteristics of our products with those of the competitors. As a result, we focused on adding new features to our products based on customer requirements. The competitors did the same, so customers did not see big differences in the solutions, and prices came under increasing pressure. We had to shave our cost structures. The story did not have a happy end...

Boost for the economy and companies

The vitality of Finland's economy and its enterprises is dependent on the diversity, dynamism and innovation capabilities of the ecosystem. One of the main drivers are new products, services and business models. But this is not enough, innovations also need customers. Especially for SMEs and startups it may be difficult to acquire far-away reference customers. And if you can not find nearby customers, who have the courage to look over the tendering practices to new innovations, you are missing another important growth driver. 

But there are a lot of things that can be done to improve the situation:
  • Buyers can enhance the role of suppliers from being a mere implementer to becoming a true, active innovation partner
  • Sellers can, through their own actions, affect buyers´ views before decisions on competitive tendering have been made, thereby increasing the weight of their own strengths in purchasing decisions - or thus even been able to completely avoid competitive tendering
  • With targeted public incentives and measures in place in our domestic markets, there is a possibility to create more willingness to acquire and deploy innovations.

29 October 2014

10 sales acceleration cornerstones

Very few products sell without extra efforts. Well-oiled sales processes, on the other hand, understand customers´ thoughts and needs and help to significantly increase sales. Next we shall discuss ten sales process cornerstones. In addition, of course, you need to carefully craft sales strategies with implementation plans and resourcing, but without an effective sales process, a company will run short of what would be possible to achieve.

Link customer buying process with your sales process

The knowledge of customers' purchase process will help you to understand how they buy and what kind of steps they take to end up buying. When a company´s way to sell is adapted to purchase process, it ensures attention to the activities that customers deem valuable. For company salespeople, this provides a solid backrest to focus on the essentials that advance sales at all stages of the purchasing process. If, on the other hand, company sales are driven by the factors not related to customers, sales resources are not allocated in an optimal way and the focus is on the wrong things.

Define sales process stages

Definition of sales process stages creates a common language for the sales team. If this common language is missing, the results may be good in individual cases, but in the longer term execution is not satisfactory. And when it is time to grow sales muscles, a well-defined process effectively transfers sales know-how to new persons and thus brings more results more quickly.

Criteria for the transition between the stages are the glue which makes the sales process ticking. The criteria must be based on customer behaviour. This ensures that customers will move a sale forward, instead of seller's pre-defined plans, hopes or dreams sitting on the driver´s bench. The seller's task is, of course, to affect customers so that they are continually advancing in their purchase process.

Define buyer personas

By identifying and defining key buyer personas that have major influence during the purchase process, a concrete direction for sales tool development is created. All personas have their own objectives, needs, desires and fears. On the basis of describing buyer personas, a successful business can focus on exactly the right measures that will increase customer confidence and remove the uncertainties. To secure that the sales process is advancing smoothly, the definition of personas needs to be made for each stage of the process.

Specify major customer interactions

In almost all successful customer cases - and also in less successful ones - it is retrospectively easy to identify those interactions that substantially contributed to the final result. When an effective sales process is in place, this is done in advance. By developing well-defined patterns to respond to customer interactions that are either advancing or stalling opportunities, sales persons will have a more professional approach and also sales cycles will become shorter.

Harness all customer interface functions 

In a modern organisation, sales, marketing and other customer-facing teams work seamlessly together to provide value to customers. Thus the sales process can not be separated from other customer-related processes. Shared objectives will guide team operations, supported by coordinating processes, practises and tools to achieve the objectives.

Typically, demand generation activities made by marketing people produce qualified leads that sales persons start to work with. When a deal is done, various other functions - depending on the type of business - will be involved in fulfilling the customer promise. And after this, the round starts again to retain the customer, make upselling and cross-selling, etc. If sales just sub-optimises its own operations, it also builds barriers to its long-term success.

Make sales process an everyday tool

If a sales process is merely a forgotten document in a file, it does not bring any results. The most important thing is to make the process a part of everyday way-of-working. This is easiest to achieve by embedding it into the customer relationship management system; the system of course, can be of any kind, implemented through modern service or through excel tables. Thus, for example, sales pipeline management as well as planning and forecasting activities are done as part of the sales process. This will force everybody involved in sales to adopt the process quickly.

Focus on tools that bring value to customer interactions

It is easy to find and develop new sales tools or methods that claim to enhance operational quality and results. However, you should be careful with this. Sellers' time is very limited. By far the most important criterion - and often the only one - is how well a new tool or method can assist sales persons to work more productively with clients. It is too often that new things only increase paper work and other routines, thus taking time from customer value-adding activities.

By rapidly introducing right tools and methods, it is possible to create competitive advantages for the company, so even on this front you should do active development work. If a new tool or method that really improves customer operations is identified, it is vital that sales persons actively start to use it.

Measure adherence to sales process 

Measuring adherence to sales process is a good way to ensure that results are achieved. In addition to measuring the development of sales pipeline, e.g. forecast accuracy, completion of key interactions in each stage of the sales process or use of sales tools are worth regular follow-up. The principle of using metrics also paves way to process, way-of-working, team and individual development.

Coach sales persons

Managers have a crucial role to play to secure sales process adoption. If managers do not show an example how the process generates excellent results, it will be considered only a top management gimmick with no value. Also, the acceleration of best practices sharing is an integral part of  managers´ coaching role.

Continuously develop your sales process 

When the world changes around us, also purchasing processes change. If we are not able to further develop our sales process and the way we respond to changes, we shall find ourselves using a typewriter in the age of the Internet. This has a devastating impact on the ability of our salespersons to successfully fight against competitors. Therefore, continuous development to respond change and learnings of current process weaknesses is the key to good future sales results.

Start now

Now is the right time to start sales development activities. If you know what to do, try to achieve first wins as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you are unsure of your business performance and of where to start, a quick test on this page will help you to evaluate the health of your sales process and to prioritise your development efforts.

16 October 2014

Find the most compelling export countries

One of the best ways to stimulate growth is successful market entry to new, international markets. But first you need to identify the most compelling markets - and these decisions are better to be based on the facts. I have also in my own career come across with internationalisation cases, where the key motivations were, for example, the language and cultural knowledge of decision-makers, coincidences or emerging romances.  It is of course possible to be successful just by counting on luck, but a more systematic approach will probably produce better results.

Here we shall go through methods to identify the most lucrative markets, introduce a tool for Finnish companies to facilitate the first steps of the job and walk you through an example of the use of the tool. The methods are suitable not only for international market expansion, but also when evaluating country priorities in new product, service or business model commercialisation.

Methods to identify the most compelling markets

Both company internationalisation researchers and experts of the sector appear to have broad consensus on the priority-setting and choice of international markets:
  • First, select the markets worth taking a closer look, based on macro-economic variables of the markets
  • Secondly, study the market potential for company's products in selected countries, and 
  • Thirdly, estimate the sales potential of company's products in relation to required  investments
The main factors affecting the market selection are thus:
  • Company related: e.g. the type of product or service, management characteristics, the size of the company, or experience in internationalisation issues
  • Target market related: e.g. the attractiveness of the country or market, marketing infrastructures or competition
  • Target market entry barrier related: e.g. country risk, customs and other barriers or physical and psychic distance
According to the model set out above, the made plans are indeed systematic but also mechanistic. They often lead to substantial investments, without the possibility, if necessary, to change the plans.

Of course, these things can be studied by means of desk studies, but a more in-depth view can only be found by having closer contacts with customers and markets. Traditionally, the tool has been own or outsourced market research, but its disadvantage is significant time, money and resources required. Globalisation of consumption and purchasing decisions, along with online methods, has created new, more cost-effective methods; international market selection can be made more iterative, avoiding too early choices that can easily lead to waste of resources.

Internationalisation Heat Map

Internationalisation Heat Map was developed as a tool for Finnish companies to easily and rapidly evaluate the attractiveness of entering various European markets. The tool encompasses all the European countries with the exception of mini countries, as well as some of the Balkan and Eastern European countries, where no reliable information is available.

Six elements were selected as the key factors of the Heat Map, with a user giving weight to each of them:
  1. Market size: measured by the population of a country 
  2. Purchasing power of the market: the measure is country's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita
  3. Ease of doing business in a country: measured using a World Bank comparative study on barriers and incentives of doing business in different countries
  4. Market openness: measured by using a comparative study by the International Chamber of Commerce on international trade openness in different countries
  5. Physical distance from Finland: measured using distances of country capitals from Helsinki, Finland
  6. Psychic distance from Finland: there are numerous, complex formulae developed to evaluate this, but here we use a good approximation of country's total trade (exports + imports) with Finland
The tool is used so that a user will assess the significance of each of the factors 1 to 6 from his or her business and internationalisation point of view, giving each factor a number value between 0 and 100. If the number is zero, then the factor is not taken into account in assessing the attractiveness of the country. Similarly, the number one hundred means that the factor is extremely important. Each factor should be evaluated individually, but a user gives each factor a weight based on what is important in company business. Each country gets an end result between zero and one hundred: the higher it is, the more lucrative the country is for market entry.

An example of Internationalisation Heat Map use

As an example, the tool is applied to analyse internationalisation plans of Ludus Helsinki. I was heavily involved in the business operations of the consumer product company aiming for rapid international expansion. Its products inspired children and young people to move, using a gaming-based service concept consisting of the Internet, software and dedicated devices.

 The most important factors of Ludus Helsinki internationalisation plans were market's purchasing power, ease of doing business in the country and country's psychic distance from Finland. The basic reasons behind this were
the facts that the product was quite expensive compared with its benchmarks and that it required a specific distribution and retail infrastructure. The size of the market and its openness were also important, but distance from Finland was not considered to be a very vital factor. The weighting of the various internationalisation factors is illustrated in the picture above.

The factor weighting produced the results of the chart on the right side. The most interesting export destinations seemed to be Germany, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark. The only surprise was Russia ending up so high. The importance of Russia, however, decreased significantly, when other important points for the Ludus Helsinki business were taken into account:
  • Tablet and Smartphone penetration in the country
  • The importance of non-competing physical activity for children and young people in the country
  • Sophistication of using digital marketing methods and tools in the country
The results were also very consistent with the conclusions of Ludus Helsinki digital marketing efforts: highly ranked countries generated more customer interest and the distributors and retailers in these countries were also the keenest to start to sell the product.

The used tool can be found here

5 October 2014

Growth financing for Finnish SMB companies

Lately I have been contacted by several SMB entrepreneurs for bank loan challenges. Indeed, access to finance is a key obstacle to the growth of many Finnish small and medium-sized enterprises. If you do not have deep enough pockets, or, for one reason or another, you do not want to rely solely on bank financing, you might want to look into what kinds of instruments public sector and private investors are able to provide. Bank financing, services offered by insurance companies or bonds for SMB companies with the First North provided marketplace, are not discussed here. If a company is in a startup phase or finds crowdfunding opportunities attractive, other potential funding sources are listed here.

The focus is on company growth and, in particular, organic growth. Thus we are concentrating on situations, where a company aims to increase its product or service sales on existing markets, to grow revenues through international expansion, or to create more turnover by developing and bringing to market new products, services or business models. Growth paths that, for example, utilise acquisitions, ownership or industrial arrangements, are not discussed here.

Financing sales growth

Growing sales require financing for e.g. manufacturing and service delivery capacity, working capital or for marketing and sales machinery. On the other hand, significant new investments in product development are usually not required. From funding point of view, just boosting sales is, therefore, often not so sexy compared with internationalisation or innovation initiatives. This is not, of course, how it should be; if a company cannot reach its revenue potential with current products on its current markets, it will also fail with new products or on new markets. A good and credible plan on how to use the new funding and how it affects enterprise value, makes it considerably easier to secure financing.

Company development grants by ELY centres are the basic public sector tool for financing sales growth. A grant may be used for investments, e.g. in land, buildings, machinery, equipment and furniture. In addition, it may also be used to finance development activities, for example, to hire external experts to develop company's strategy or sales and marketing. A small business may also apply for a grant for wage and salary expenditures required to create new jobs or for other expenditures relating to expanding business.

European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is running a programme that improves competitiveness of SMBs, granting funds for business development and job creation. ERDF also partially finances the company development grants of ELY centres.

Finnvera may participate in the financing of investments and working capital with loans or guarantees. Depending on the amount of the grant requested, Finnvera can either be the sole financier, or funding requires co-financiers, or sufficient amount of the total financing must come from the company itself.

Private investors like Bocap, Korona, Fenno Management, MB Rahastot and Noweco Partners are among the ones that offer equity, loans or other financing to grow company revenues. Besides credibility of the business plan, many funding players have preconditions for the size of the funded company, as well as for investment size and industry focus. Garantia is, in turn, guarantee insurance company that guarantees funding and other liabilities of Finnish companies, as well as insures risks associated with investments.

Financing internationalisation

International market expansion gets a lot of interest and attracts potential public and private financiers.

Company development grants of ELY centres and SMB competitiveness development programs of ERDF can be also used for internationalisation.

Finnvera loans and guarantees can be used to cover the need for working capital arising from exports or to finance the international operations of a Finnish parent company. Export guarantees, export credit and interest equalisation services protect companies against the risks associated with export customers, banks and countries and help in the funding of export projects. Equity investments can be made together with private entities in technology-intensive or innovative service enterprises that have the potential for developing into international growth enterprises.

Suomen Teollisuussijoitus (Finnish Industry Investment) makes, together with other investors, own capital based investments to companies going international. Investments can be equity, capital loan, convertible bonds or mezzanine financing.

Tekes supports planning for global growth; it gives grants, for example, to test a new concept or product to potential clients, to develop marketing strategy and to make studies on intellectual property rights and their protection. Applicable until the end of 2014, Tekes Team Finland Explorer program gives loans to purchase professional services for e.g. target market expansion studies or new market business plans. Under Young Innovative Enterprises (NIY) business development framework, it is also possible to obtain a grant or a loan for internationalisation.

Finnfund finance companies that operate or plan to operate in developing countries or in Russia: the instruments are equity, investment loans, mezzanine financing or their combinations, as well as in exceptional cases, guarantees. Business partnership support by Finnpartnership includes grants for establishing operations in developing countries, which can be used in project planning, development and training phases.

In practise most of the private financiers require that a company is engaged in and is seeking to expand international business. For example, Conor Venture Partners, Folmer Management, Helmet Business Mentors, Innovestor and Tutor Invest underline their willingness to finance companies going international. Besides industry and size preferences, investors have - depending on their background - varying preferences on internationalisation directions.

Financing innovation and commercialisation

Tekes has traditionally been the cornerstone of developing new things: its research and development funding provides grants and loans for developing products, services, production methods, business models and competence. A mere development project does not, however, create company growth, and Tekes has rightly been criticised for supporting only technology exercises. For this reason, it is now offering also loans for demos, piloting and commercialisation, which can be used for, inter alia, machinery and equipment rent or depreciation, materials or supplies costs and for other commercialisation costs. Commercialisation costs can be also covered by NIY funding.

Company development grants of ELY centres can be used, for example, for patent rights of technology transfer initiatives, licenses, know-how or acquisition of unpatented technical knowledge. ELY can also cover raw material and semi-finished product costs related to product development, as well as salary and wage expenditures. In addition, also ERDF supports creation of new business activities in small and medium-sized enterprises.

EU Horizon 2020´s SME Instrument supports growth-oriented, innovative small and medium-sized enterprises. The program assists in the development of new concepts and solutions, in testing and commercialisation. The programme has identified certain priority areas, such as ICT, biotechnology and sustainable energy and transport.

Private investors are more interested in the results of innovation and commercialisation than just doing something new. Most of the investors, however, do appreciate new approaches and consider well functioning innovation and commercialisation machine as a precondition for funding. For example, Auratum, Folmer Management, GTW Group, Joy Group, Nordic Growth and Vision Plus emphasise the importance of innovation.

More information on Finnish SMB funding

All of the above mentioned financial instruments and sources require an application and negotiation process, with always uncertain end results. By pinpointing the right potential funding sources that have strategies matching with the business situation and objectives of the company, and by running the application process professionally, the odds of success can be significantly improved.

More information on the sources of funding for small and medium-sized Finnish enterprises can be found on the webpages of financiers and by contacting them directly. There is also a summary of financing sources available with more information on general conditions of funding, as well as on possible company and industry focus.

24 September 2014

More growth with marketing automation

Finnish small and medium-sized businesses have been slow to take advantage of marketing automation. The seriousness of the situation will become clearer when we notice that a company's growth and profitability strongly correlate with the use of the new digital methods and tools. The technology itself is not the solution, but as a part of systematic renewal, it will help the company to stand out from its competitors. This blog will discuss the benefits and utilisation of marketing automation, especially from business-to-business (B2B) SMEs point of view.

Why marketing automation?

B2B companies, small and large ones, are facing the disruption brought by digital channels: since customers´ purchase processes more and more rely on web based information, ignoring traditional discussions with sales persons, it's much harder than before to reach them at the right time and with the right messages. In addition, customers have adopted global approach, they are looking for products and services well beyond domestic markets.
This will make room for marketing automation. It enables companies to get better visibility on what buyers really like and how they behave; thus it will be possible to boost the implementation of growth strategies, to increase sales by improving market share, to facilitate expansion to new international markets, to support the development of new products and business models or to enhance go-to-market programs and processes.

How marketing automation creates growth?

An American study found that 63% of the companies that are using marketing automation, grow faster than their competitors. Another research revealed that 79% of the top performers have utilised it for over 2 years. A study on Finnish B2B SMEs gave similar kind of results. Next chapters discuss in more detail how marketing automation supports some key growth strategy components.

Sales growth

Marketing automation increases sales, inter alia, through the following mechanisms:
  • The results of marketing campaigns can be accurately tracked and thus campaign effectiveness is better: it is possible to get more results for the same money or the same results for less money. 
  • The number and quality of customer leads grow: there will be more closed deals. 
  • Business relationships with customers will get tighter and it is possible to identify changes in customer behaviour and needs: cross-selling and upselling opportunities with existing customers can be realised. 
  • Sales and marketing cooperation intensifies: sales persons also market products and marketing persons also sell products. 
There is plenty of backing for the above. For example, a Forrester research found that B2B companies utilising marketing automation get considerably better results in their marketing campaigns and also their sales and marketing functions have much tighter cooperation.

International expansion
When expanding business into new market areas, marketing automation can ease the process, for example, in the following ways:
  • It is possible to reliably assess already in the early stages of internationalisation planning, whether potential target country customers and distribution channels are really interested in the company's products: target country prioritisation and selection can be done faster, with lower costs, and the risks with selected alternatives are smaller. 
  • Even before the business is launched, it is possible to get good insights on the needs and purchase processes of potential target country customers: necessary changes to offerings, as well as to marketing and sales channel processes can be done in a timely manner. 
To support this, a study on Finnish B2B SMEs revealed that digital marketing maturity clearly correlates with the relative size of international operations.

Support development of new products and business models

Marketing automation will bring more insights to new product and business model innovation and decrease uncertainties related to it. The corresponding mechanisms include e.g.:
  • At an early stage, it is possible to obtain customer feedback, whether there is enough demand for a planned product or business model: return on investment of the development projects is higher, because they can either be stopped in time or the changes appreciated by customers can be built in. 
  • It is possible to see at a sufficiently early stage, what customers need in order to take a product or business model into use and to then use it actively: expanding the core product with customer valued extensions, either by the company itself or with partners, will bring greater yields. 
The agile new development model has brought good results in the domain of digital services and startups and now it is rapidly spreading also to more traditional sectors.

Enhance go-to-market

Go-to-market of products or business models can be enhanced with marketing automation e.g. through the following ways:
  • By finding the right ways to generate customer attention and interest, as well as by identifying the most suitable sales channels to customers: quantitatively and qualitatively enough customer leads, which results to more closed deals. 
  • It is possible to find early enough marketing messages that resonate with customers and a positioning that stands out in the market: company products will get attention in the marketplace and the importance of price in purchase decisions will be reduced. 
  • Marketing and sales functions cooperate effectively and aim at the same goals: sales revenues can be maximised.

What companies should do?

Utilisation of marketing automation is already in full speed also in European companies. The pioneers are technology, financial services, life sciences and energy, followed by, for example, telecommunications, manufacturing and professional services. In Finland, for example, the following small and medium-sized B2B companies are leading: Basware, Vaisala, Deltek, Metos, CRF Box, Nebula, Asiakastieto, Zeeland and SSH.

The starting point for efficient exploitation of marketing automation is the definition of company strategy for the renewal and growth; in other words, from which direction, by what means and resources, the company is trying to find a new way to prosper. Overlapping with this are company personnel and development of their knowledge, skills and attitudes, as well as implementation of processes, required by the new strategy. Only then it is the time for marketing automation as the technology and the solution, which enables and glues together the strategy, the people and their competences, and the processes.

When selecting a solution, the key is the vendor's ability to support the company's business; the key parameters include, for example, solution features, customer segments that a vendor is targeting, possible industry focus and pricing models. All these are compared in a review, which also lists Finnish company references that the key marketing automation vendors have.

15 September 2014

Where to find assistance for Finnish SME internationalisation?

Many Finnish SMEs have a good market position in their existing markets and the customers appreciate their products, but these companies are still reluctant to go international. The reasons are many. It may be missing courage, not understanding the opportunities and requirements of new markets, not having the necessary expertise in-house or missing funding or resources. There are, however, means to overcome all these obstacles. A company is not alone, when figuring out the challenges of internationalisation - there are a number of sources available that can give advice and assistance.

Internationalisation assistance needed?

Systematic internationalisation can be divided into four phases, each of which requires different skill sets:
  • Strategy: Why and in what way internationalisation serves company growth and other objectives
  • Direction and capabilities: Requirements and prioritisation of target markets, as well as identification and development of required own competences
  • Research and plans: Deeper investigation of target markets, creation of market entry plans
  • Implementation of market entry: Starting and developing operations in selected new markets
In most cases, the steps are not taken in a serial manner, i.e. it is often necessary to return to the previous steps and iterate on the basis of the latest findings. It is therefore important that an internationally expanding company itself stays at the rider's bench whole time - enabled either through permanent staff or a temporary help closely integrated with the company's objectives.

Digitalisation has brought an enormous amount of different kinds of information within reach of a company going international, but here we focus on four sources that can provide advice and help for the Finnish SME:
  • Finnish public sector agencies
  • Internationalisation consultants
  • Target country public agencies
  • Target country local consultants
The role of the advisers at the various stages of the company internationalisation is assessed in the table below: the more pluses the cell house, the bigger the typical contribution in internationalisation activities. The estimate is based on the needs of the Finnish SME, but also startups and major companies can at least partially use this reasoning. This paper does not focus on the importance of external finance as an important potential enabler of internationalisation. Therefore, public sector financial aid for internationalisation is not reflected in the assessments of the table.

Finnish public sector internationalisation agencies

Internationalisation services of the Finnish public sector are centralised under Team Finland brand. A company can get help by contacting a regional contact person in Finland or a Team Finland coordinator in a target country. The network consists of 73 teams around the world and of 15 local teams in Finland. Individual services are produced by different units working for internationalisation, such as Finpro, Tekes, Finnvera, Finnfund, Finnpartnership, cultural and scientific institutes, MEK, ELY centres, the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce and the Finnish-Swedish Chamber of Commerce. Services include, inter alia:
  • Business idea coaching: Finpro offers companies expertise in international business and its challenges. Service provides feedback on company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, as well as support for internationalisation issues. Free Of Charge.
  • Internationalisation test: With Yritys-Suomi service of TEM, a company can assess and analyse its internationalisation capabilities. Free Of Charge.
  • Business opportunities:  Concrete business opportunities throughout the world identified by the experts of Finpro. Free Of Charge.
  • Team Finland Future Watch:  Reports on changes in the international markets, brought by Tekes. Free Of Charge.
  • Networking with business and public actors: Finpro will advise how to obtain information about target markets and helps to network with public target market actors and Finnish companies already present in these markets. Free Of Charge.
  • Export trade financing expertise: The objective of the Finnvera programme is to improve financing competences required by export activities. A basic programme is Free of Charge, Charges Are Applicable for extra sessions arranged by Finnvera training partners.
  • Shipping handbookFinPro's document, contains information from 190 countries on free trade agreements, import restrictions, required documentation and legalisation of documents, special certificates, product packaging and labelling, provisions laying down special conditions governing sending of samples as well as other goods. Charges Are Applicable.
  • Advice to enter Russian market: Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce provides useful advice and concrete assistance to Russian business operations, at all stages of the planning. Charges Are Applicable.
  • Advice to enter Swedish market: Finnish-Swedish Chamber of Commerce can advise on all matters relating operating in the Swedish markets, as well as consult companies to start exporting to Sweden. Advice is Free Of Charge, in consulting Charges Are Applicable.
  • Advice to enter developing countries for the purpose of projects: Finnpartnership advices on issues related to developing country business activities. Free Of Charge.

Many cities and regions also provide internationalisation services. For instance, EnterpriseHelsinki is active in Helsinki and BusinessOulu in Oulu. Organisation for regional development organisation in Finland, SEKES, has a listing of regional players on its website.

These services are able to provide the basic knowledge both for planning internationalisation strategy and for analysing own capabilities, as well as for acquiring basic information on potential new markets. And because the services are, as a rule, free, they should also be used. On the other hand, public sector services provide little help for deeper, company-specific internationalisation activities, such as building a detailed strategy, closing the competence gaps or getting a deep understanding of new market opportunities. This is, of course, caused by the fact that the services provided are largely productised and generic, thus leaving very little time and resources for extensive company-specific assistance.

In addition, the contributions provided by network experts vary in quality and quantity, depending on personal skills, experience and service attitude. For example, I have sometimes been able to make experts of the network as an integral and high value-adding part of the team, sometimes their help equalled results that half an hour of Internet browsing would have given.

Internationalisation consultants

In the name of internationalisation consulting, a variety of services are offered: training, compiling of reports for international organisations, research of new markets, starting operations in new market areas, opening up sales channels to certain customer segments, marketing communications, strategy work, etc. Both small and big domestic players as well as international companies with their Finnish offices are present.

According to my experience, the big threat for SME is that a consultant focuses the project on his own areas of strength, not on the ones that would be the most important and useful for the paying company right now. It is, for example, dangerous to let consultant´s considerable target market experience lead to deep market studies, when internationalisation strategy and sufficiency of own competences are still in the making.

Another important consideration is that many times an SME business needs only one versatile and seasoned professional, not a bunch of constantly-changing consultants with very narrow areas of expertise. This ensures that the consultant is a solid part of hiring company operations and the company can really lead the process of internationalisation. Certain nuances, related to the organisation of work, are then manageable: for example, whether it is about consultancy or interim management cooperation, or whether it is the consultant working hands-on in the project or primarily transferring his know how to company employees.

The role of consultants is the largest in the creation of internationalisation strategy, in setting direction and in defining required capabilities, see the table above. Depending on the consultant's background, he can be - in parallel with local contributors - also an important factor in the thorough target market investigation and actual market entry.

Target country public agencies

Almost all countries have the desire to attract foreign companies to invest in the country. To this end, public sector all over the world have been busily setting up specialised agencies for this. In Finland, Invest in Finland is the name of the active public player, and the world association of agencies, Waipa, has produced a good listing of its counterparts in other countries.

The agencies that are assisting market entering companies can usually provide useful information about the target country, its market and competitive situation, market entry alternatives and setting up operations in the country. For example, GTAI, German Trade and Invest, offers mainly free services in the following areas:
  • Information about Germany, its economy and business life
  • Industry information, including market situation and news about recent developments
  • Consulting services to create market entry strategies, to make evaluations in the country and to establish operations
  • Guidance on the different market entry questions
An internationalising company should definitely check out, how target country public actors are able to assist. For the assessment and prioritisation of target markets, it is possible to get - and in most cases free of charge - important building blocks. Also, good advice on setting up local offices can be obtained. Depending on the country, more customised free advisory services may be available, in which case tailored information, contacts and services can be acquired. It should be noted, however, that willingness of agencies to help depends besides the abilities of individual experts also on the objectives of the market entering company. A big business always gets more personalised service, and planned product development or manufacturing activities always get a warmer reception than mere sales office ones.

Target country local consultants

When it's time to explore your potential target markets in greater depth, to set up a business in a new market or to expand an existing one, local consultants are often utilised. Local specialists, however, are not enough to get the business up and flying; the hiring company must ensure that the basis of internationalisation, including the role of international operations in the company´s growth strategy, initial prioritisation of target countries and trimming of the company for internationalisation, is solidly in place.

The scope of consultants´ work can vary, some examples given below:
  • Market research and competitor analysis
  • Establishment of a local company
  • Identification of potential clients and creation of contacts with them
  • Search of distribution channels and partners
  • Financial, legal or environmental issues, marketing or HR 
In most countries, you will find plenty of willing local companies to assist in market entry, see, e.g. an extensive overview of various Market entry consultants in European countries, with detailed information about the contacts, served markets, services offered and industry focus. The Association of Finnish Entrepreneurs, Suomen Yrittäjät, has also an international network with Finnish-speaking contacts.

Probably the biggest pitfall for Finnish SMEs is the correct identification of local aid. For example, when I was once looking for a local consultant to tighten cooperation with potential customers, the selected person turned out to be the best in finding a suitable office space and in helping us to manoeuvre through local bureaucracies.