Top teams tailor tools to the task.
Tools are everywhere. In the revenue engine, there are marketing automation tools, sales automation tools, CRMs, customer success tools, and finance and billing tools. For instance, here is the landscape for marketing automation tools:
Image Source: Scott Brinker, Chiefmartec.com, “Marketing Automation Technology Supergraphic” (2016).
Given this explosion of tools, it’s not surprising CEOs, and their marketing and sales leads find themselves confused about what tools to acquire and what to do with the tools they already have. The factors that drive the choice of tools are so varied it’s downright vexing.
Your choice of tools will be influenced by:
- Your stage of company growth
- Your business model (ranging from Very Low LTV — i.e., media, gaming and B2C marketplace companies; to Very High LTV — i.e., B2B enterprise SaaS companies)
- The revenue engine domain you seek to address (Top of Funnel, Mid / Bottom Funnel, Customer Success, or Finance)
- Your business strategy (audience versus leads versus account based)
But when it comes to tools — no matter what your company stage, business model or strategy — some universal principles apply:
- The measure of a tool is the leverage it provides to people and workflows
- If you want to get tools right, first get data right
- Tools don’t stand alone — they are linked to workflows and receive, generate, and transmit data throughout a whole system
- The control over data structure, data flows, tools acquisition, and tools configuration must be centralized: it’s the only way to keep the whole system integrated
- There is a rational sequence to tools optimization: work outward from the Mid and Bottom Funnels
Very Low LTV Business Models
If you run a media company, consumers enjoy a free product experience. There is, therefore, no separation from Top, to Mid, to Bottom Funnel: a new visitor is an addition to “audience” and immediately monetized. Deeper engagement yields more monetizable page views, but even the first visited page is monetizable.
Tools can support the extension of reach to new visitors and the testing and optimization of site design based on observed visitor behaviors.
For a gaming or marketplace company (i.e., companies with a Very Low LTV business model), your product natively guides a fully automated journey from prospect to customer. Likewise, the free part of a freemium business model — either B2C or B2B. To move prospects along that journey, your most important “tool” is your product. As noted in Chapter 8 — Product, for such companies the “first mile” of the prospect’s experience is key (the Top of Funnel product utility, the home page, the browsing features, the first required actions, the empty states, etc.). Success depends on the speed with which you can deliver significant customer value.
Once you have achieved a baseline threshold of prospect-to-customer conversion, you can explore marketing automation tools and distribution partnerships to increase Top of Funnel. Tools and vendors can help you increase reach via the following Top of Funnel pathways:
- Online media (desktop and mobile)
- E-commerce / marketplace
And there are a wide variety of tools and vendors that help you to take advantage of Top of Funnel amplification levers:
- Advocacy / referrals
- Public relations
- Community / reviews
- Feedback / chat
- Affiliate marketing
- Interactive content
All Other Business Models
However, if you run a company with a business model that ranges from Low LTV to Very High LTV, human beings are in the mix. People interact with tools to advance prospects and customers along the journey. Here, the revenue engine’s horsepower is a function of the people / tools / workflows / metrics flywheel. Tools are essential, but they exist only to support people and workflows as tracked by metrics — all must be in sync.
The rest of this chapter will be dedicated to business models from Low LTV to Very High LTV — i.e., those business models that include people. As the CEO of such a tech company, how do you approach the build-out of your tools stack?
As is often true, it’s best to go back to first principles. Revenue engine tools exist for just four reasons:
- To increase reach of prospects most likely to convert
- To convert more new customers more efficiently
- To make the serving of existing customers more effective
- To make the management of the business more metrics driven
The revenue engine is a whole system. Tools apply mainly to the following four broad domains in the system:
- Top of Funnel (marketing automation tools)
- Mid and Bottom Funnel (sales automation tools)
- Launch / Stabilize / Expand (customer success tools)
- Unit Economics / Financial Plan (metrics and business reporting tools, along with the billing and accounting tools that drive financial plan inputs)
For the tools in these four domains to perform their functions well, the following must be true:
- All steps in the journey of a prospect or customer are clearly defined
- All the data attributes we seek to track at every step of the prospect and customer journey, from top of funnel through transaction-detail accounting records, are clearly defined and universally applied inside tools
- The structure of data (the definition of a lead, definition of an account, the definition of the parent / child hierarchy, the key affiliate relationships, all active account statuses, etc.) is delineated clearly and universally applied inside tools
- In each domain, people, tools, and workflow come together to get work done; this interaction has been mapped out
- Each tool is used in the right way by the right people, making a critical workflow more efficient and effective
- Each tool integrates well with adjacent tools and workflows
- There is centralized control over tools configuration and integration under someone who possesses a comprehensive whole-system design and demonstrable systems integration skills
- Metrics dashboards are in place to make workflow performance visible
- Workflows are rationalized for efficiency and effectiveness
Unfortunately, for many tech companies, the above descriptions do not apply. Too often, a look “under the hood” quickly reveals wiring problems. Problems include:
- Messy data
- Multiple sources of truth
- Thousands of unused or little-used fields in Salesforce
- Ill-defined prospect and customer stages
- Tools that don’t speak to each other
- Formal workflows that don’t account for all use case permutations
- Poorly trained people working around (not within) formal workflows and existing tools
- Tools configured incorrectly
- Tools used improperly or not at all
Why have so few CEOs successfully solved for these problems?
There are two reasons. First, it’s hard to create simple. Few executives have the skill, patience, time, and stubbornness to work methodically from high-level system design down to every atomic-level permutation to get it right. And second, the power to acquire a tool has been delegated to functional teams without visibility of the whole system.
A distributed — as opposed to centralized — decision model results in disconnected systems.
If your company’s current state matches the “wiring problem” described above, then you have important work to do: the cost of these inefficiencies is very high. It’s akin to a car engine that’s missing three spark plugs, has an oil leak and runs with a faulty alternator.
Don’t add one more tool until you clean up what you already have. Take control by centralizing tools and information architecture decision making. Go back to basics: assess your data hygiene and data structure, and your prospect / customer journey stage definitions. Starting with Closed Won and working backward, redesign workflows in each domain. Clean up the data. Properly configure the tools. Train the folks. Prove to yourself that each stage is solid before moving to the next.
Once ready, the introduction of tools into workflows has a natural sequence. In building out or fixing your tools stack, the proper sequential order is as follows:
- Mid and Bottom Funnel
- Unit Economics / Financial Plan
- Launch / Stabilize / Expand
- Top of Funnel
Mid and Bottom Funnel
It’s important to start here because as you nail down the data elements and data definitions at Mid and Bottom Funnel, you set the data foundation for all other domains. So job one is to align people, tools and workflows towards the task of converting prospect interest into a Closed Won customer.
It starts with data. Your data must be clean. You must define all relevant data attributes, build a clear data structure, tightly delineate the data flows, and establish clear stage by stage performance metrics within each domain. With these data elements nailed down, you then build them into tools such as the contact data repository, CRM system, and sales email system.
If you sweat the details here in the Mid and Bottom Funnel domain, you create a secure foundation for all other domains.
Scott Albro, CEO of sales and marketing consultancy TOPO (the Gartner Group for the sales and marketing world), and his team are leaders in articulating the importance of the sales development role and defining best practice. TOPO defines the fully mature sales development reps’ (SDR) tools stack as follows:
For companies with a Mid LTV business model or higher, in building out your Mid and Bottom Funnel, you might begin with one sales pod — perhaps two SDRs and an account executive (AE). Here’s the sequence:
- Ensure all data elements (the first six items on the checklist) are at least at a “level 4” maturity (see assessment tool, below)
- Ensure reporting analytics are at least “level 3” maturity
- Ensure the team’s execution of contact prioritization, research, initial outreach, and follow-up disciplines (using LinkedIn and other contact data, the sales email system, and CRM system) have achieved at least a “level 3” maturity
- When conversion rates are financially viable and repeatable, you are ready to expand the team
- As the team grows, you begin to introduce dialing automation, predictive analytics, marketing automation for nurture, and other enhancements — depending in part on your business model
At the outset, you might simply have a sales platform such as Outreach.io or Salesloft, contact data from LinkedIn, and basic email capabilities built into your sales platform or augmented by an email tool such as Campaign Monitor. At scale, you have probably shifted to Salesforce as your CRM tool, a high-end marketing automation tool such as Marketo (with its lead scoring and predictive analytics capabilities), dialing automation tools such as InsideSales, sales intelligence tools such as InsideView, and so forth.
But don’t get ahead of yourself: keep the choice of tools aligned with your stage of growth.
Tom Grubb, Chief Strategy Officer for Digital Pi, a company that cleans up the marketing and sales automation tools stack and can directly manage a company’s marketing campaigns, asserts that very few companies do the work necessary to take full advantage of powerful tools like Marketo. It takes both knowledge of how to do it, prioritization of the time and resources, and the discipline to get it done. In his experience, too many companies fall short, costing them significant lost revenue opportunity.
For B2B companies, a major problem often exists at the intersection of a lead and an account. Accounts may be linked to multiple contacts. A number of them might have submitted leads. Gaining visibility into the leads associated with accounts is a difficult challenge. These days, vendors such as LeanData and Engagio have taken on this challenge. Both Engagio’s CEO, Jon Miller, and LeanData’s CEO, Evan Liang, are leading evangelists for account-based marketing (ABM). Liang built his company on the premise that account-based data (linking leads to accounts) is the key to any account-based strategy.
When contemplating additions to your tools stack, it’s helpful to assess your current state. Use the following checklist to determine your Mid and Bottom Funnel maturity from 1 (nascent) — 5 (fully mature):
Unit Economics / Financial Plan
Next up is Unit Economics / Financial Plan (billing, accounting, and business reporting). You must correctly price, contract for, and bill the customer. Sales incentives need to be calculated accurately. The accounting function must execute with precision. The financials must be tracked, and actuals compared to projections in the financial plan. Reporting and analytics must be bolted down end to end.
Tools play a major role here.
Once again, you start with the data — define all data attributes, data structure, and data flow stages. Clean and de-dupe all data. In this domain, the transaction detail record is the litmus test: if you executed the data layer well, this record accurately captures all possible permutations of customer status. Chapter 13 provides more information on this transaction detail report:
Tools such as Docusign (for contracts), Zuora (for billing and payments), Quickbooks or Netsuite (for accounting), Xactly or CallidusCloud (for commission calculations), and a broad range of business intelligence tools are a part of this domain.
Assess the maturity of your finance systems by grading each of the following from 1–5:
With the data elements clear, you can build out the tools stack, once again working to optimize the intersection of people, tools, and workflows.
Launch / Stabilize / Expand
This is the third domain in the sequence. Now that you can move a prospect to Closed Won with acceptable levels of repeatability; and bill, account for, and report on a customer at an acceptable level of fidelity; it’s time to Launch / Stabilize / Expand a customer in a tools-supported, data-driven way. Once again, you start with the data, making sure data hygiene, structures, and flows are solid. Then, you can introduce a tool if it makes people and workflows significantly more efficient and effective. Customer success tools such as Totango and Gainsight are often used by B2B SaaS companies to provide visibility into customer usage rates and to monitor customer health.
Top of Funnel
In all three of the previous domains, your goal is clear: to optimize people, tools, and workflows so that they perform at high quality, in an efficient, consistent, and repeatable way. The goal, even when undergoing a process redesign, is to arrive at a “standard operating procedure.” In these domains, the variables are mostly or completely within your company’s control.
This fourth and final domain — Top of Funnel — is different. The mission at Top of Funnel is to create leads by acquiring quality names and initiating early engagement with them. Here, continuous experimentation is the order of the day. Many of the variables that impact performance at Top of Funnel are outside the company’s span of control and always shifting — such as customer needs, emerging trends, competitive dynamics, and so forth. So the actions that drive success in one month might prove ineffective the next. Therefore, you must test and iterate campaigns at Top of Funnel constantly. Even tools themselves can and should be the subject of experimentation and iteration.
How do you figure out what’s working? If your sales cycle is relatively short, you can apply attribution rules and track the Closed Won performance of each campaign. If your sales cycle is longer — say, four months or more — an attribution approach will be insufficient. There’s too big of a time gap for rapid iteration and optimization. In this situation, scoring becomes key. Given the ideal customer profile (ICP), you measure reach and engagement for ICP prospects. You set rules determining how the number and types of engagement (white paper downloads, webinar attendance, email opens, etc.) will impact scoring of the lead. With these rules defined, scoring thresholds can be used to identify readiness to buy and to drive nurture activities and sales interventions.
Why is Top of Funnel the final domain to work on? Because to do otherwise is a waste of time and money. If a campaign can’t be tracked accurately from Top of Funnel to Closed Won, it’s impossible to assess campaign performance.
If your data is unclean (i.e., duplicate data, inaccurate data), if you don’t have a consistent data structure, if you haven’t defined journey stages, if your Mid and Bottom Funnel tools are misconfigured or don’t accurately measure conversion, if prospect conversion is too low, or you can’t bill, track, or serve customers well then you are wasting leads, abandoning prospects, and flying blind. So earn your way to Top of Funnel tools by first making the other domains as solid as a rock.
Always remember you are building a whole, integrated system. Here’s an entirely built out B2B SaaS tools stack for a Mid-LTV business model. You’ll notice everything links together:
Build vs. Buy
There’s a good rule of thumb when you’ve determined a tool is needed to fix a workflow problem: buy when you can and build when you have to. Building takes time and money and diverts your engineering team from the product road map. While a buy decision forces you to adopt the native workflows within the tool (within configuration parameters) vs. growing your own, that may be a good thing. Be open to the workflow requirements of leading tools. Remember that any market-tested tool has years of development behind it. The vendor has probably thought it through more than you.
Evaluating Competing Tools
When searching for a tool to solve the next workflow bottleneck, it’s common to have multiple alternatives. How do you assess them? First list the features you seek then map these features to the features available in the tools you are considering. Phone a friend — seek references. If multiple tools offer all the features you require, have a strong service and support record, and have been confirmed to deliver high reliability and quality, then you’re free to choose based on price and “extras.”
The Role of Leadership
A high power revenue engine features seamless, efficient workflows. These workflows are powered by tools used correctly by people in service of prospects and customers. Data flows smoothly from step to step and from tool to tool across the whole system.
To make this happen, define workflow stages within each domain. Determine data attributes. Establish the entire data structure with its parent / child and affiliate relationships and the definition of an account. Choose the right tools at the right time, so they are well configured to support the workflow and the people.
How to do this with the rigor necessary?
Expert central control is the distinguishing factor. An executive team member must have the authority to design the whole system, build the data standards, and control tools adoption and configuration. This person must first have a deep understanding of the business and strategy. She must be able to work cross-functionally and be responsive to the needs of various functions. And, she must also possess the rare capability of envisioning the whole system from high level down to the details of data structure and data flows.
It’s not an easy hire — the skills to do it well are in short supply. In the beginning, it’s probably you — the CEO. As you scale, it might be the VP Finance, or eventually a VP Business Operations. Just make sure that at every stage of growth, someone owns this vital role. It’s fundamental to a well-designed tools stack.
Tools yield leverage when smartly selected and implemented with precision.