Walking Hand-in-Hand: Partner with Customers for Lasting Success

 

partnering with customers for lasting success

It was 2017 and, by all measures, we should have been very pleased with how things were going. After more than 20 years in business, our company had a superb reputation and a loyal base of customers that ranged from high-profile universities to the R&D laboratories at small tech startups and Fortune 500 companies.

About PVD Products

 

PVD Products Inc. is a leading manufacturer of custom thin-film deposition systems. Customers use these systems to deposit a range of materials in thicknesses as low as fractions of a nanometer onto a variety of objects. This exacting process is critical for developing many important products and technologies—from medical devices to semiconductors, and from military radar systems to alternative energy.

 

Despite our success, we were restless. We had deep and unique expertise, and we customized our products to meet the extraordinarily complex needs of our customers. Our experience and business sense told us the market opportunity for our products was going to grow quickly, but we also knew we had opportunities for improvement in two key business areas: sales and marketing.

 

When we attended industry tradeshow events, we frequently spoke with prospects who shared their struggles to get other vendors’ systems to work for their company’s specific requirements. As we listened, we realized that our products would have been a better fit. Inevitably, we left these conversations asking ourselves, “Why didn’t they know about us?”

 

With a clear understanding that we needed to focus more energy on sales and marketing, we sat down and identified four simple—but critical—goals:

  1. Reduce the energy required for each sale
  2. Increase our win rate
  3. Increase our average selling price
  4. Build and strengthen our sales pipeline with more qualified opportunities

Prioritizing Our Market Challenges

 

We looked outside for an expert who could enhance our internal skillset. Based on a recommendation from a trusted source, we engaged with Neil Baron of Baron Strategic Partners and agreed that he would work alongside us, training us to tackle our strategic goals. After interviewing our key PVD team members, Baron gave us a process we could use to identify our five most critical opportunities to boost our strategic marketing and selling success.

 

Opportunity 1: Enhance Understanding of Our Sales Pipeline

Our lack of sales opportunity analysis meant we didn’t really know our true sales order pipeline. Simply put, our revenue and the predictability of our revenue both needed improving.

 

Opportunity 2: Create a Sales Qualification and Prioritization Process

Everyone at PVD was committed to superior customer service. Companies interested in our products received our full attention—regardless of whether they deserved it. We spent too much time chasing low-margin opportunities and prospects who were outside of our wheelhouse and opportunities.

 

Opportunity 3: Improve Access to the Full Market of Opportunities

Our reactive approach to marketing meant we only saw a small percentage of the real opportunities available (perhaps less than 10%).

 

Opportunity 4: Focus Selling Efforts on Our Best Customer Prospects

PVD is not a low-cost provider. Our products are highly customized to each customer’s requirements and applications. We needed to focus on reaching prospective customers with more difficult problems to solve—that’s where we excel.

 

Opportunity 5: Rethink Marketing Tactics

We had a marketing agency creating social media content for us, but it was generic in its messaging. It lacked the right level of focus that appealed to our primary customers. Also, our marketing metrics (e.g., impressions and “likes”) weren’t strategic. These efforts weren’t providing the kind of ROI we needed and, while we saw a slight boost in traffic to our website, it had not had a significant impact on our actual sales pipeline.

 

After identifying these opportunities, we then established the following priorities:

  • Better understand what we were doing well, along with opportunities for sales and marketing improvement
  • Identify our true customer value and define our best customer value propositions
  • Identify our strongest and best target marketing opportunities based on our true customer value
  • Define the marketing and sales strategies that would help us better find, attract and approach the right prospects that align to our true customer value

 

Listening to Our Customers

Companies often believe they understand the value they deliver to customers, but biases get in the way and customers often disagree. The true value customers receive is often hidden from view. To unlock that hidden view, interviews by objective and skilled interviewers are needed.

 

With that in mind, Baron Strategic Partners demonstrated how to conduct in-depth interviews with customers to address our previously established priorities. Going into the process, Baron told us, “It’s tricky to manage customer conversations and avoid the natural biases that can distort how we hear and interpret customer feedback. Careful probing is necessary to unlock the true value vendors deliver.”

 

But the exercise of interviewing and listening to a select number of customers helped us challenge key assumptions. We accessed a clear, unbiased view of our customers’ underlying needs. The process also sheds light on the fact that, for complex, technically challenging problems, we offer the kind of customized service that make us an ideal solution.

 

This discovery and validation process also confirmed our thinking and clarified where we were most likely to be successful. The ability to create a more focused definition of our true customer was key, and we identified additional value we brought that, prior to the exercise, we weren’t aware of.

 

Identifying Hidden Opportunities

We identified an important trend by analyzing our customer feedback and sales data: Our most successful customers tended to have very difficult technical challenges. In addition, the type of customers that faced these challenges typically were leading-edge researchers in several key industries (i.e., major universities with advanced physics and material sciences departments, industrial companies with advanced R&D facilities).

 

We had a significant customer base among world-leading academic institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, Harvard University, Northwestern University, and the University of Leeds. And the team discovered that most of these university customers had excellent relationships with us and were willing to openly talk about their use of our thin-film deposition solutions to develop new innovations.

 

The question was how to best leverage this loyal customer base to boost the effectiveness of our marketing and sales efforts. There were obvious ideas (e.g., testimonials, success stories), but we were looking to more proactively involve our customers in our marketing efforts. Was there an opportunity to partner with some of these high-profile customers in a win-win way?

 

Partnering with Our Customers

University researchers and professors typically are experienced in giving technical talks about their research and findings. In fact, they are actively encouraged by their university to give these talks, as it benefits both the university and the experts’ careers to gain positive exposure for their innovative research and results. Would they be willing to talk to prospective customers about their use of PVD thin-film deposition solutions?

 

We developed a plan to approach a high-profile university customer to gauge their interest in a joint webinar. PVD would host and manage the effort, and the customer would serve as expert speakers. We set our sights on a major university customer with a superb history and reputation for innovative leadership: MIT.

 

Bringing in a New Marketing Agency

We recognized that our customer would rely on us to implement this webinar with high attention to detail and professional execution—and with minimal resource involvement from the university. The planning, marketing and implementation had to be right.

 

With Neil Baron’s recommendation, we engaged with Rod Griffith, co-founder and chief client officer at MarketReach. He brought in their project management and creative teams to help plan, manage and execute the webinar and gauge whether the pilot program was effective in attracting new customer prospects.

 

The first thing Griffith and his team did was assess our current prospect list, which we managed with marketing automation platform HubSpot. Fortunately, our previous agency had done a good job of maintaining a clean prospect list. It wasn’t huge—approximately 1,110 contacts—but we had good, quality contacts.

 

Leveraging Customer Recognition for Real Results

Once the MIT speakers confirmed their participation and planned their presentation abstracts, MarketReach developed and launched a scheduled series of email invitations to the list. They strongly leveraged the MIT name and brand for its recognition and reputation, and co-branded with PVD.

 

The webinar was held in June 2019 with excellent results. MarketReach’s audience acquisition campaign delivered a response rate of over 9%. As expected with free, live webinars, about half of the preregistered contacts attended. But a surprising 68% of the preregistered contacts proactively requested (by opting in) to receive further PVD Products information and/or be kept informed of future webinar offerings.

 

Repeating the Partnering Success

Highly encouraged by the test program’s results, we had one critical question: Was this a fluke or could we repeat the same success with another university? With that in mind, plans for a second webinar were quickly set in motion. The next customer was The Ohio State University and an aggressive October 2019 webinar date was set.

 

MarketReach implemented the same outbound program with high attention on the co-branding with the university. Again, the effort was successful (even more so). This time we achieved a 20% increase in preregistered attendees and a response rate of almost 11%. And a full 74% of preregistered contacts proactively requested to receive either additional product solutions information and/or future PVD webinar offerings.

 

We would have to go to a lot of trade shows and conferences to generate the same number of leads that we created with the webinar series.

 

Building a New Future

We are in the business of creating technological innovations, and we fully recognize that buying highly complex technology is not a short sales journey. Similarly, the marketing of such complex solutions requires a real commitment to strategic thinking while still being open to innovative approaches—and consistently sticking with those approaches.

 

The journey to revamp and reinvigorate our strategic and tactical sales and marketing efforts has had a significant and measurable impact on our business, across all elements of our marketing and sales.

  • Leading indicators. Our sales cycles are by design lengthy, spanning multiple years. So, at this stage, we find that leading indicators such as pipeline growth are the most relevant to track marketing success. Since we began working with Baron Strategic Partners, the number of deals in the sales pipeline grew by 38%, and more important the value of the deals in the pipeline increased by more than 80%. We are attracting more valuable leads, not just more leads. We are confident that this will convert into revenue growth.
  • Sales pipeline strength and accuracy. We are receiving more RFQs from organizations that have not reached out to us before. There are more industrial customers and more high-margin qualified leads in the pipeline, and we’ve landed several major new customers. We have more knowledge and confidence in our sales pipeline information, which means we can forecast more accurately. And the forecast looks positive.
  • Sales effectiveness. By taking the first step to truly listen to our customers, we significantly improve our ability to target customers who are most likely to buy; communicate value propositions that resonate; align the organization and focus on high-potential opportunities; and prioritize feature development based on value delivered to target customers.

Having a stronger account-planning process for reviewing and prioritizing sales opportunities also has made a significant positive impact. We score each opportunity based on parameters we learned directly from our customers. We more quickly disqualify opportunities that either aren’t real or aren’t a good fit—and politely walk away from the tire-kickers.

It wasn’t easy to learn to say “no” to sales opportunities, but it was vital. In some cases, we even suggest other solution providers. We focus our attention on real, winnable opportunities based on the scorings. We also have sales strategies that allow us to better customize our sales approaches for each opportunity.

  • Marketing effectiveness. By shifting investments from broad, awareness-focused social media efforts to targeted marketing efforts focused on true lead generation, we have gained a stronger, more measurable ROI.

The two webinars we’ve presented to date had a 10% average response rate, and more than 70% of respondents have opted in to receive further communications from us. That’s a vastly better result than all our social media marketing efforts of the past two years combined. With MarketReach’s help, we have also implemented a follow-up lead-generation effort to the webinar registrants. These marketing initiatives from the past year have more than doubled (2.5x) the size of our prospect contact list.

 

The Bottom Line

With our new strategic focus and more effective tactical marketing, we have turned the corner toward a new, brighter future. The long-term impact across our business is clear:

  • More energy on proactively pursuing the right deals
  • Higher close rate
  • Increased average selling price
  • Improved allocation of engineering resources
  • Higher ROI on marketing spend

 

We think more strategically about sales and marketing. We know where our future sales will come from. And we know how to approach those sales opportunities more effectively. We’re even looking to expand our resources to better pursue and deliver on the large number of opportunities we already have in the sales pipeline. And that’s not something we could have said two years ago.


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Jim Greer is president of PVD Products. He can be reached at jgreer@pvdproducts.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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