How to Escape the Conversion Paradox

Four Dangerous Assumptions
That Disintegrate Sales and Marketing
– and How to Avoid Them

The head of sales and marketing for a systems integration firm was stumped.

His good marketing created impressive traffic to his company’s trade show booth. He and his team members had great conversations with more than a hundred people there, and arranged many follow-up conversations. On the flight back home he wondered how his team could handle all the opportunities they had found.

Yet a week after the event, it was as if the conference had never happened. These same prospects did not respond to emails or return follow-up phone calls. Those he managed to connect with were not interested.

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Four Case Examples from David Bullock
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He had stumbled into a difficult paradox: prospects who looked ready to convert at one moment, but not the next.

That head of sales and marketing was me, and I had bumped into both sides of the conversion paradox. I have since learned that the paradox has four false – and deadly – assumptions, and only one way out.

The First Two Dangerous Assumptions (Out of Four)

Being both marketer and seller entitled me to be humiliated by the first two false assumptions simultaneously.

The first assumption was made by me, the marketer, whose ego said, “All these ‘leads’ are worth following up.”

Then, I turned into a salesperson and began making the follow-up calls. Thirty-five or forty calls convinced me something was wrong.

That’s when my sales ego jumped to the second false assumption: “These so-called ‘leads’ are worthless – they’re a waste of time!”

We spent all that money on the trade show, and what did we have to show for it? It was a pile of leads, but from the salesperson’s perspective there was nothing there!

Perhaps you, too, have seen this scenario play out countless times. It happens with all kinds of marketing campaigns, not just trade shows.

And, if you’ve read this far, I bet you know what causes this problem:

The Third Dangerous Assumption

The third dangerous assumption is: you understand what the customer wants.
If expressing an interest in you and your offers once or twice made someone a prospect, selling would be easy. Even further, if having a project, a budget, and a time frame meant they were a prospect, selling would be easy.

And, in the rare cases when that actually happens, it is easy.

Unfortunately, most prospects live a more complicated life. They normally don’t have complete control over the decisions their company makes, even if they are the decision maker. Everyone struggles with conflicting priorities, political challenges, technical problems, misguided perceptions of others, understaffing, overtime, frustrations with employees and budgets, and bad moods that prevent progress, just to name a few.

It is fun to visit a trade show or visit a website and learn something interesting. It is enjoyable to learn new things from skilled and knowledgeable salespeople.

Yet this sends signals that are misinterpreted by overoptimistic sellers, who think they can get prospects to do things they are not ready to do.

Discovering Your Customer’s Journey
Being in the eye of the storm at the little systems integration company gave me an advantage: my alter egos could argue with each other around the clock until I figured out what was going on.

The marketing ego said, “Just because prospects weren’t ready to buy doesn’t mean they are worthless.” The marketing ego was right.

The selling ego said, “Just because prospects were interested once doesn’t mean they are worth my time.” The selling ego was right too.

Instead of expecting the customer to start dancing with us, we needed to be less assumptive. We needed some kind of intermediate interaction, some sort of small talk, if you will. “Can you tell me a little about your family?” “What would you like to know about my family?” “Who else did you come with?” “What songs do you like to dance to?” and so forth.

We needed to create a reason to have more of a relationship before we started stomping to the music. Had we done that, we could have created a reason to continue talking with them long after this particular encounter.

Instead of going for a possible close immediately, we would have earned enough trust to learn where they are in their customer’s journey.

The amazing thing is, if you ask customers about the stages they go through, they’ll usually tell you. Of course, in B2B, there are multiple people to ask. Every customer and market segment varies to some degree, but there are patterns and similarities.

It is extremely profitable to take advantage of these patterns and customer motives.

If you understand them you can avoid wasting time on the wrong prospects, you can develop relationships with the right ones, and you can base your relationships on what is valuable to them (other than price) far more easily.

As a B2B organization, however, you can do those things if, and only if, you overcome the last hurdle.

The Fourth, and Most Deadly, Assumption

Searching for new ways to market several years later, I had lunch with at least two executives of marketing firms and discovered something else about the conversion paradox.

Each one told me how effective they were at generating leads for their clients. They described one of their toughest problems: when a client’s sales department failed to follow up on the leads they provided, or could not close the deals when they did follow up.

Sensing an opportunity, I proposed a partnership: “My team and I are experts at dealing with sales organizations,” I said. “Why don’t we go in together on a small project or two? You do the marketing side, we’ll do what is needed on the selling side, and the client will get more revenue as a result.”

Each of these talented fellows thought this was just a great idea, until they realized I was serious. You could see them back pedaling, squirming, trying to melt under the table.

Why would they do that? A couple of reasons:

  • First, and probably foremost, they were afraid of the accountability. How could they control a wily and resistant bunch of salespeople when money was at stake?
  • Second, most B2B companies go to market looking for either marketing services or selling services. They are not “smart enough,” as organizations, to combine those things. So, there probably was no market for this good idea in any case.

After that experience, my alter egos continued battling between my ears, going over and over the false assumptions, trying to solve the riddle:

  • Marketing assumes leads should be followed up
  • Sales assumes marketing’s leads are worthless
  • Both assume they understand what the customer want

Gradually, I realized another deadly assumption was lurking in this swamp. It was insidious, because it had grown out of the others. And it was tricky, because the error occurred in two opposite forms:

  • Marketers (outside firms as well as internal marketing departments) assume “salespeople’s job is to convert customers, and yet they won’t!

Marketers shouldn’t be held accountable for something they cannot control!

  • Sellers (distribution channels as well as direct-sales departments) assume “salespeople’s job is to convert customers, and they will!

Whether they are salespeople, sales managers, outside sales trainers, or other kinds of sales consultants, they all carry the sales hammer.

To them, everything looks like a nail! They mistrust things they do not understand, like marketing. They will work harder and harder. They will overcome.

Except, of course, when they don’t

The result is a sort of catch-22, where failure makes each side cling more tightly to its own roots, ignoring the customer.

The result is the disintegration of sales and marketing in B2B organizations. Literally. Marketers continue doing marketing, while sellers continue doing selling. Nothing can get any better until the organization finds its way out of the conversion paradox.

Why You Must Get Out of the Conversion Paradox: The Internet

You can escape the conversion paradox by developing effective interactions for each stage of the customer’s journey. How to strike up a relationship with small talk, how to listen for signals they want to move ahead, and so forth.

Some people in your organization may know this already. However, they will be limited by old-fashioned functional notions until the team realizes that any tactic is good if it gets customers to take an action step along their customer journey.

We’re talking organizational change now. Organizations, especially big ones, require lots of compromises just to exist. Why should this issue be any more important than all the other problems companies struggle with?

Answer: It wouldn’t be that important, if not for the incredibly disruptive gold rush we’ve been living through for the last ten years: the rise of the Internet.

  1. Internet search engines have changed how prospects and customers go about solving their problems. Why should they horde trade magazines or accept cold calls from people they don’t know when they can find valuable answers to most questions more easily on Google?
  2. While customers are searching the Internet, B2B marketers have continued to market, and B2B sellers continue to cold call. They have not learned Internet marketing. They have not placed themselves where their prospects and customers are looking, or figured out how to initiate profitable relationships once they are found.

The Internet is unique, because it requires you to solve the conversion paradox: understand how to get people to take the actions you want them to take.

Finding your way out of the conversion paradox may not be hard. That depends on your industry, and your competition. It requires at least some degree of marketer’s insight for media, copywriting, strategy, and analyzing data. It also requires the seller’s insight for people, relationships, and motives. It requires some insight into Internet technologies.

Mostly, it requires your company to behave the way your customer sees you: as a single, integrated entity. Once you solve it, translating those marketing and selling tactics to the Internet is a cake walk. If you haven’t solved it, nothing will work, no matter how much money you spend.

If you don’t solve it, someone who does will own your customers very soon.

No doubt you know this already. I doubt I’m telling you something new.

However, you might be interested in knowing that some insightful, professional help is available this Thursday, at 3:00pm Eastern time.

That’s when I’ll be interviewing David Bullock, ex-engineer, entrepreneur, and Internet marketing expert, about how to optimize Internet B2B marketing and selling processes:

Optimizing B2B Internet Sales Processes

Four Case Examples from David Bullock
Thursday June 4, 2009, 3:00pm Eastern

David is the author of “Barack 2.0,” a fascinating and authoritative study of Barack Obama’s use of social media to win the presidency. He will reveal the fascinating mixture of marketing and selling intelligence required if B2B companies are to successfully leverage the Internet for lead generation, as well as revenue generation.

Visit the Optimizing B2B Internet Sales Processes page on my website, and reserve your place for this unique event.

Michael Webb
June 2, 2009

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
David Dodd - June 2, 2009 Reply


Great post! Another good resource on this topic is the Marketing Interactions blog ( I think you would find Ardath Albee to be a kindred spirit on this topic.

Best regards,

David Dodd

Michael Webb - June 2, 2009 Reply

Thanks David.

Ardath did a nice review of my book back in 2006 when it came out. I’ve never spoken to her, but would like to.

Based on your suggestion, I think I’ll start paying a little more attention to her blog. Thanks for the heads up!


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