William Gibson – the sci-fi author whose 1987 novel, Neuromancer, gave the world the term “cyberspace” – once quipped, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

I was reminded of his words last week during an event we held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The event – focused on the convergence of data, content, sales, and marketing – was keynoted (if that’s a word) by Philippe Marinier of Salesforce and included a panel discussion featuring Philippe along with Theresa Kushner, Vice President, Information Innovation Center at VMWare, Dominic Archibald, Director, Acquisition and Customer Marketing for LinkedIn Sales Solutions, and Marie Martin, Senior Content Editor at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

1. What would you do if you had unlimited access to customer data?

Philippe kicked things off with a very high level discussion of the way that companies are currently using data. Right off the bat he posed the question, “What would you do if you had unlimited access to customer data?”

He was not being merely rhetorical or looking to a time in the distant future when such accessibility would become possible. He was asking because, in many respects, such an unprecedented level of customer insight is already possible.

Considering the question itself for a second, it’s not difficult to imagine what one could do with such a total view of the customer.

Knowing whether an individual buyer was in-market or not would allow you to efficiently allocate sales resources and avoid chasing deals that will never happen. Knowing what content was resonating and what wasn’t could help you refine your content strategies. Knowing budgets would enable you to more and more accurately configure and price offers customers couldn’t refuse. And so on.

At the same time, before getting lost in the world of infinite possibility, one needs to take a step back and consider the operational implications of Philippe’s question.

First of all, think of the enormous amount of data suggested by the phrase “unlimited access.” Now multiply that amount by the number of customers you have (which, for some B2C brands numbers in the millions and may number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands for B2B brands).

Now, ask yourself whether or not your organization would be able to manage all that data.

As Theresa Kushner pointed out during our discussion, you can in no way assume that your organization could, and there’s a high probability that it couldn’t. If you do not have proper data governance in place, she said, if you can’t ensure the accuracy of the data, and if it is not easy for people within in the organization to use the data or ask it questions, then “unlimited access” will be meaningless because useless.

2. Are we moving into a post-persona world?

After delving into these data management issues, I asked HPE’s Marie Martin to comment on the relationship between data and content and how companies might use data to map content to the buyer’s journey. In response, she voiced a healthy skepticism about the notion of the buyer’s journey itself.

Specifically, she warned the audience against falling for the metaphor of the journey. The buyer’s journey, she said, is not linear nor can it be said that each customer follows the same path to purchase.

Instead, she said, we need to think of the buyer’s journey as a framework that helps us plan content production, ensuring that with our content we are answering the critical questions customers have, be they fairly general or intensely detailed.

Marie’s thoughts on the limits of the concept of the buyer’s journey resonated with questions that Theresa raised about personas.

First, Theresa asked us to think about how many different email addresses we each have. She then pointed out that each of our different email addresses actually map to different personas.

Likewise, she asked, “How do you create a persona for a five-person buying team?”

In other words, like the buyer’s journey, personas, too, are simply heuristics that help us, in fairly broad terms, “type” various buyers or people in the buying process.

We do not, however, sell to personas. As Philippe said during his introductory remarks, “We sell to individuals.”

The promise of unlimited access to customer data asserts itself again here. The more we know about individual buyers, the less we need to rely on personas.

Imagine using data to sell and communicate with customers in totally personal and relevant ways. Can you truly say you are doing that now?

3. Is selling going to become a (more) high pressure job?

In the context of such personalized and relevant communication, Philippe spoke of a coming micro-optimization of sales and marketing tactics. Data, after all, can not only serve as a guide when it comes to reaching out to the right people at the right time with the right offer/information; it can also reflect how effective we are when doing so.

It is this latter application of data that led Philippe to say, “Selling is going to become even more high pressure.”

What he meant was that sales folk will come under greater and greater scrutiny. In a world where every action (potentially) becomes trackable, companies will know everything that sales people do, from how long they spend on the phone with prospective buyers to how effective, based on semantic analysis, their email communication is.

Given his interest in helping sales teams become more data-driven, I asked Dominic Archibald whether he, too, thought that selling was going to become even more challenging.

He did not. On the contrary, he was of the opinion that, given the amount and type of data to which sales people now have access (including, of course, all the data available on LinkedIn itself), selling should become easier. In this world, sales people should be able to have more targeted and informed interactions – with prospects and customers alike – than ever before.

“Buying is a burden.”

Philippe said something else, however, that pointed to a brighter, better future for selling: “Buying is a burden.”

While shopping may serve as therapy in the consumer realm, when you need to make an enterprise purchase of any magnitude, it can be a real grind.

Alleviating this burden should be the goal of every sales professional today (I have heard this approached described as “helping people buy” rather than selling to them).

Data can certainly help in this regard, to the extent that it lets sellers anticipate needs and align offerings with them. And buyers can help themselves, Philippe suggested, by being more open with their data when inviting companies to respond to RFPs, for example.

The bottom line is, people making complex purchases seek guidance and direction, and sellers, as “trusted advisors,” can provide exactly the assistance they need.

Data as the Universal Lubricant

Philippe continually said that data can and should be used to reduce friction in the buying and selling process. It does so, in part, by removing the guesswork. Dominic talked about how this can happen, for example, thanks to the insights sellers can glean from data sources such as LinkedIn.

Of course, for it to work this way, you need to take friction out of the data management process, as Theresa advocates. Inaccurate and out-of-date records along with data silos (among other things) create internal friction around data. That needs to be eliminated.

Finally, and most importantly, data can help us overcome friction by countering our biases and influencing both strategic and tactical decisions, particularly, as Marie noted, when it comes to creating content that customers will truly find useful.

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