How E-Commerce SMBs Can Step Up Sales Engagement

“Sales engagement” is a term that has been popping up more and more in the sales and marketing world. It’s not a new concept, but the premise around its application has matured over the last few years. So, what is it? Good question. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s the process of engaging with new sales opportunities quickly and persistently, with a cadence designed to connect, using multiple channels such as telephone, email, SMS and social media.

Said another way, it’s a formalized process and methodology intentionally designed to connect faster with your buyers on the channel of their choice, with the sole objective of closing the sale.

Many sales and marketing professionals believe they already are doing this. They have their technology stack components in place that capture new sales leads, nurture them via email with great content, score and grade them, and eventually move them over to Sales once they are deemed ready.

Typically, this all happens through a combination of e-commerce platforms, marketing automation, and customer relationship management. Some vendors combine all of these capabilities into a single platform, but the essential process flow is the same.

Despite such automation and process rigor, the actual conversion rate from a marketing-qualified lead (MQL) to sales-qualified lead (SQL) to closed deal is much lower than it should be.

You’ve spent money to have your products found, and you’ve spent more money to move those prospects through the sales funnel, so when a potential sale stalls, goes silent, or is captured by a different provider, then the money you’ve spent is gone and never will be recouped. That’s not a way to grow an e-commerce business.

Instead of declaring that spent money as simply “the cost of doing business,” best-in-class organizations have been implementing sales engagement platforms to realize dramatic increases in the conversion of new leads into new sales, without investing in any additional staff or marketing programs.

I’ll be candid. E-commerce is a game of margins; the more money you can generate off of your current lead flow volume, the more margin you make. That’s found money. That’s why sales engagement is so hot.

To truly understand if sales engagement is relevant to you, it’s helpful to dig deeper into where it can be applied, and then to examine the issues within an organization that make it a candidate for such a solution.

First, it’s worth recognizing that a growing number of products that are complex, require a supported sales process, or are intended for a business-to-business buyer are moving through e-commerce channels. This means businesses that might not have relied on e-commerce in the past suddenly are finding that they need to sell smarter.

That said, if your e-commerce play involves selling commodity products that are purely transactions — there is no perceived risk to the sale, the price is fixed, and the buyer does not require additional information beyond what is available on the product page — then full-service sales engagement won’t help you, and you probably can stop reading now.

You certainly can add elements to your e-commerce website and social channel to improve automated engagement and information sharing.

If, on the other hand, your e-commerce model involves custom products or is a complex sale — there is perceived financial risk or personal exposure if the purchase doesn’t deliver as promised, or the product is difficult to set up, or the product requires a third-party to assist with the implementation. If any of those apply, then sales engagement is exactly what you need, and you should read on.

The Battle of Marketing vs. Sales

The classic lament between is that Marketing doesn’t generate enough high-quality leads, and that Sales doesn’t follow up properly to work the leads in a timely fashion.

There is some truth to these stereotypes, but in most cases the onus falls to sales, as you’ll see. That’s where sales engagement can make a huge difference.

Sales engagement is designed to address the sales shortcoming. You’ve seen the stats. Following are some research findings about common sales issues:

  • Forty-eight percent of new sales leads never are followed up. That essentially means that one in two new leads never is engaged — not even through a single email or phone call. Fifty percent of the leads, or inquiries, that you’ve spent money to generate are ignored. That’s not good business.
  • On average, most sales professionals make two attempts to connect with a new lead. If you’re like most people, a rep will need to make anywhere from four to 12 attempts to reach you live. If they stop after two attempts, then that is more money you’ve wasted on demand generation.
  • Most sales reps take 35 to 60 hours to follow up with a new lead. The typical buyer’s journey now involves the lead not reaching out for assistance from a sales professional until the middle of the funnel (MOFU) or later. When they do, they want immediate answers. They’re ready to buy. If everything else is equal (i.e. price, warranty, etc.), then the organization that responds first usually gets the sale. Not following up promptly is like burning money.

Now, if you could implement best practices and overcome these issues, what should you be doing? Consider the following conclusions reached from a Telfer School of Management study of more than 130,000,000 sales interactions (raw data provided by VanillaSoft):

  • Speed-to-Lead — The act of following up with new leads quickly, rather than waiting the 35 to 60 hours that is more typical. Specifically, check out these numbers, which suggest that contacting a new lead within 30 minutes is optimal when it comes to the percentage probability of actually connecting with the lead in a live conversation:
  • 5 minutes — 7.1 percent
  • 15 minutes — 12.3 percent
  • 30 minutes — 14.3 percent
  • 60 minutes — 13 percent
  • 1 day — 5.4 percent
  • Persistency — The number of repeated attempts made to connect with the lead in order to close the sale. Past studies, including research by Oldroyd, McElheran and Elkington, have shown that 10 percent of sales are closed after four follow-up contacts, and 80 percent of sales are closed after five to 12 follow-up contacts. Telfer published similar findings based on its study. Overall, researchers found that the average number of contact attempts needed for a positive outcome with a lead was 5.9 times for business-to-consumer companies.
  • Cadence — The schedule of when you will reach out to the lead, along with the channel you use in that contact attempt — phone, email, SMS, social media, etc. Telfer found a trend in spacing contact attempts tactically. The majority of leads won had an average of three to four contact attempts made within the first four to five days of a lead entering the sales cycle. Afterward, contact attempts were spaced widely for another five days. This cycle then would repeat itself at least once more.
  • As you can see, best practice differs substantially from what most sales professionals actually have been doing. So, the question needs to be asked, why is that? One possibility is that the problem is not necessarily due to poor sales skills, but rather to deficiencies in the CRM technology being used.

    The Problem With CRM

    Customer relationship management has been around for decades. It has become the backbone of most organizations and provides a single record of truth around the customer. When it comes to sales engagement, however, that is a problem. CRM was designed to manage the customer relationship. Sales engagement was designed to start the relationship. Because they have fundamentally different requirements, they require different approaches to achieve their objectives.

    CRM uses a list model. Sales reps are presented with a list of their tasks as soon as they log in, along with leads to follow up on. That list constantly expands and contracts as new leads are added, and as old leads are worked and eventually removed due to having been won or lost.

    A list requires a conscious effort by the sales rep to intentionally click on the next item. That human involvement introduces the possibility for a sales rep to skip items on the list. Here’s a classic example: The rep signs in and sees three new leads at the top of a lengthy list — Joe’s Garage, IBM and ABC Manufacturing.

    The list is sorted based on a prioritization filter that management has recommended, and Joe’s Garage should be contacted first. However, the rep typically will skip Joe’s Garage and instead choose IBM, based on the assumption that IBM has more money and is more likely to purchase.

    The rep is compensated based on closed sales — hence we have created this very “cherry picking” behavior. What this means, in reality, is that Joe’s Garage potentially will never be contacted because it will fall down the list quickly as new leads are added. This is a perfect example of one in two leads never being contacted — or if they are contacted, then it only happens two times, because out of sight, out of mind.

    Because CRM requires a rep to create a follow-up activity manually for every attempt to contact a lead (i.e. call again in seven days), there is no built in cadence. The rep will call or email the prospect once a day for three days, followed by four days of no contact, followed by another two days of contact — once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

    CRM just wasn’t designed to recommend and enforce such a sequence of touches. This is bad, because the data clearly shows this is how to increase dramatically the chances of engaging with a lead.

    Finally, CRM doesn’t facilitate any mechanism for speed-to-lead follow-up. When a new lead comes in, it simply goes into the list. There is no ability to force the rep to contact that new lead within the hour, as the Telfer study recommends. This is why the typical lag time for a first follow-up attempt is 35 to 60 hours, and by that time the lead probably has purchased the product from another vendor.

    The problem with CRM is its requirement to use a list — and sales engagement has emerged as the solution to this shortcoming.

    How Does Sales Engagement Work?

    Sales engagement starts by removing the sales qualification (SQL) process from CRM. In this new tech stack, marketing’s e-commerce platform or marketing automation platform delivers the marketing-qualified lead (MQL) to the sales engagement platform, and not to the CRM.

    It is here that the system is designed to ensure that sales development reps contact every lead quickly, persistently, with an appropriate cadence, using multiple outreach channels. Only once it has been sales-qualified is the lead passed along to the CRM system for an account executive to work and include in the active sales pipeline.

    What’s interesting is that many research organizations, such as Topo, now believe that CRM will be displaced entirely by sales engagement platforms, throughout the entire sales process, within the next few years. CRM will continue to be the corporate data repository, but it increasingly will be used to onboard and support customers once the sale is made.

    There are many vendors that offer a sales engagement platform. They include, but are not limited to, companies such as VanillaSoft, SalesLoft, Outreach, and Most of these vendors offer free trials, and it is a good idea to test drive each to determine which one works best for your specific requirements.

    Regardless of the sales engagement provider, the platform requires you to set up your various cadences. You’ll see examples that suggest a cadence of seven touches in seven days, or nine touches in 18 days, or 18 touches in 35 days.

    A touch could be a voicemail (call first, but leave a message if nobody answers), an email, a ghost (calling without leaving a message, but they’ll see you called on their call display), or a LinkedIn connection request or InMail.

    You can set up the cadence any way you want. The duration and number of touches really depends on your industry and the product you’re selling. It’s best to do some A/B testing to determine which cadence generates the best results.

    Once a cadence has been defined, any MQLs that enter the sales engagement platform from an e-commerce or marketing automation solution immediately enter the cadence. Subsequently, the sales rep is advised by the platform exactly what to do every single day when it comes to making phone calls, sending emails, reaching out on LinkedIn, etc.

    In the more sophisticated cadences, the emails can be sent automatically. This removes the rep from the equation and ensures the action takes place, and also frees up the rep to do other things.

    One difference you’ll notice among the sales engagement vendors is the user interface. One is a list paradigm, just like CRM. Now, to be clear, the lists are sorted by the activity — you’ll have a list of calls you need to make, another list of emails you need to send, and another list of social touches you need to make.

    The lists often are broken down into time segments, such as morning activities and afternoon activities. While this approach is more specific and more task-oriented than a classic CRM list, it still is vulnerable to sales reps’ cherry-picking leads or skipping items on their list.

    The other approach is a queue-based model that does away with lists altogether. In a queue, the rep logs in and sees the next lead, or contact, to engage with, along with the recommended activity. That’s all the rep sees. Once the rep takes care of that activity and then dispositions it, based on the action taken (left voice mail, sent email, etc.), the next-best-lead appears on the screen with the corresponding recommended activity, based on the cadence.

    Hence, in this scenario, Joe’s Garage would have appeared first, and IBM would have appeared only after Joe’s Garage had been dispositioned. A queue has multiple benefits in that it completely eliminates the list, it eliminates cherry-picking, and it maximizes sales rep productivity.

    Further, when a new lead is entered into the system, it can be placed at the front of the queue dynamically to ensure a true speed-to-lead follow-up response. The queue constantly reprioritizes which leads are engaged with, based on the lead prioritization rules.

    Both approaches — list and queue — work. By taking advantage of the free trial, you can determine which methodology is best for your environment.

    Life After Implementing Sales Engagement

    What should you expect if you implement a sales engagement platform? Will your reps mutiny? Will your productivity initially drop? Will you be paying for one more piece of technology in your stack, but not necessarily generating sufficient incremental revenues to offset the costs? All of these are good questions.

    On average, organizations that implement sales engagement will see 3x more pipeline activity and revenue. That’s a direct reflection of the speed-to-lead, persistency, and omnichannel cadence tactics that previously didn’t exist with CRM alone.

    Organizations that deploy sales engagement also show much higher employee satisfaction among their sales teams, because reps generate more deals and more commissions without any substantive increase in effort.

    When employees are happy, they stay longer and learn more, which results in a higher closing conversion rate, because they are more experienced with product knowledge, objection handling, and closing techniques.

    Most impressively, these same organizations generate substantially higher returns on their marketing spend, because the leads are being pursued without delay and without neglect.

    All of this is to say that your reps will not mutiny, your productivity will increase dramatically, and your increased ROI on marketing spend and increased revenues will more than justify the nominal investment in the sales engagement platform.

    Perhaps most intriguing, life after implementing sales engagement is more harmonious. Sales and Marketing work better together. There is less discord and more alignment. For many organizations, that is reason enough to embrace sales engagement.

    As you think about becoming a more sophisticated e-commerce seller, I hope you’ll take the time to test and consider sales engagement tools. They can improve efficiency, performance and — ultimately — selling outcomes!

    Darryl Praill is chief marketing officer of VanillaSoft. A high-tech marketing executive with more than 25 years of experience spanning startups, re-starts, consolidations, acquisitions, divestments and IPOs, Praill has been a guest lecturer, public speaker and radio personality, and he has been featured in numerous podcasts, case studies and best-selling books.

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