Rutger van der Pol, B2B Marketing & Sales Operations | Co-founder The Sales Strategist

Rutger van der Pol has 9 years of experience in marketing, of which the last 6 years in B2B. The drive to bridge the gap between the ideal strategy and operations, bringing forward the best in teams and helping great companies to reach their potential, is what made him and his cofounder start the consultancy firm The Sales Strategist in 2020.

Why did you choose a career in marketing, how did you start?

When I was in University in Amsterdam, I honestly didn’t really know what marketing was all about and I just really wanted to work in advertising. I wanted to be a strategist, working with the biggest clients, coming up with all the cool ideas and working closely together with creatives (without holding the creative burden myself).

So when during my studies I had to find an internship, that’s what I went after and I started as an intern in the strategy department of one of the biggest ad agencies of the Netherlands, working for some of the largest brands. During my internship I supported senior strategy managers with their projects and campaigns, and I was responsible for testing and implementing a social media monitoring tool.

Back in those days it was very exciting the first time we thought we could see, measure, and understand directly the opinions and sentiments of consumers on such a large scale, and trying to find insights in this data. Those were the first moments that I discovered I loved working at an agency: working with different clients on many varying types of projects, having the chaos and excitement of all those different projects at the same time, the clients demanding the best of you, and the ultimate reward when things go well.

It was also the first time I discovered the importance and difficulty of working with data and data analysis: getting well-structured, complete, and reliable data that you can actually work with and get some valuable information from. Thinking about where I am now, I can still definitely see the roots all the way back to those days.

Tell us a bit about your professional path until now. 

After finishing University in the Netherlands, I moved to Madrid, Spain, where I started my first ‘real’ full-time job. I started working as an SDR doing prospection and cold outbound sales. I absolutely hated it, but that’s where I learned invaluable things that still help me to this day. After that, I moved into a consultant position where I worked with my B2B clients to develop their sales and marketing activities; analysing the commercial processes, toolstack, and commercial materials to identify improvements aimed at shortening the sales cycle and optimising conversion rates. It was in that position that I also returned to marketing, but for B2B clients this time, mostly SaaS companies. This was the position I started learning and understanding the role of inbound marketing and the support of marketing throughout the whole B2B sales process.

From this position I then transitioned into a more marketing and sales engineering role, focusing on the technical aspects of how to integrate and connect marketing and sales through CRM and other supportive tools, measuring every stage of the sales cycle, and making use of the data to professionalise the sales operations of the SaaS scaleups we worked with.

After a few years, I decided to quit my job to pursue a life-long dream of making a long backpacking trip through South America; I bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires and ended up travelling for 6 months until I finally decided to return from Peru. During this trip, I started to form a new dream: my own company, working and living with much more flexibility and location independence, and the ability to truly build it my own way.

Soon after I returned from this trip the pandemic hit and things didn’t look so well, however at this moment my friend and colleague from the consultancy firm reached out to me, because he had seen the same opportunity and we decided to do this together. We’ve been working incredibly hard ever since, but the past year has been absolutely awesome. We’ve not only had the opportunity to work with amazing clients, who helped us develop and grow, but we’ve also been able to build our own thing into something that is able to support us and our families.

And we’ve done it regaining our flexibility and achieving location-independence: I am currently in Brazil and my partner has taken his life onto the road and is working and traveling throughout the south of Europe. All that while we’re working hard and having a lot of fun working with our clients, you can imagine that we’re much happier for it.

What advice do you wish you got when you started your career in marketing? 

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with the senior people on your team! Dive in and get to know everything about how they think, how they look at businesses and brands, how they come up with ideas, how they test them, and how they decide that those ideas have merit or not.

Many people love enthusiastic starters with a genuine interest in learning and improving. It’s the best way to improve your knowledge and to show people around you that you’re ambitious. Now that I’m much less self-conscious about the things that I don’t know or can’t do, I’m much more open about this to other people; I’ll ask them anything about how they work, what they think, and I get far greater feedback about the things I do and think, which really helps me to improve and have a better understanding of the things I am doing at this moment from the perspective of people that have far more knowledge and experience. 

Top 3 learnings in your marketing career that brought the most value?

Working with clients: if there is one thing that has taught me the most, it is working with clients. Nothing drives you to go this far, to take care of things to the fullest, and to make sure that everything is absolutely perfect, than when a client asks something of you. And all the questions that can be fired at you at any time ensure that you have to be extremely well prepared and know as much as you can about everything that relates to that company and specific project. This is what we as professionals should fully take advantage of and we should praise ourselves when we have a tough client, because those are the very ones who make sure we are at our best.

Doing sales: as I mentioned before, it is invaluable for any marketer to have sales experience. If you are currently working in a company in marketing and you have no idea what is going on in the sales department and how the people there do their work, or if you actually don’t know how you would explain your products or services to another person in a face-to-face conversation, you have to get up right now to organise an exchange with the sales department. The understanding that a few months of sales work will give you (even if it’s just a day a week), will 100% sure help you for the rest of your career as a marketer.

Understanding data: where it comes from, how to use it, knowing when it’s reliable and if it actually tells you something or not. Don’t waste time looking at vanity metrics, but also avoid creating Excels with 10 sheets of calculations that make it extremely difficult to interpret and make use of the data. Usually, measuring a few critical points throughout the sales process can be enough to know if something is working or not.

One result you are really proud of as a marketeer

One result I’m really proud of is a project we did recently for a client, with whom we have achieved a complete turnaround of their marketing and sales operations by building up their marketing and sales organisation from scratch in about 6 months. Doing this, we allowed both marketing and sales departments to perform at their best, and through removing friction and frustration open up much more space for creative ideas and awesome campaigns.

As it was already a fairly-sized company, there were existing marketing and sales teams in place. One of the issues was that they worked in silos and there was no mutual understanding, but instead a lot of frustration about the functioning of the other. Furthermore, in this situation management had no visibility on what was really happening on a larger scale and therefore had no clear image of what was working or not – and how to then further drive growth.

In short, we helped them develop their G2M strategy, including a new focus on inbound marketing and digitalising their sales approach and supporting this with a content-focused enablement strategy for sales. Based on this new strategy, we developed new internal processes, helped select and set up the right tools to support this commercial process, and structured their marketing and sales teams with clear roles and responsibilities for each team member.

This has led to the teams going from not working together well, and working in an atmosphere of ‘we’re not doing well, things aren’t working, and no-one has any clear solutions’, to really create a way of working in which both marketing and sales support and reinforce each other. In particular it was so nice to see how, by properly organising the marketing and sales operations, both teams started to improve together because they began to understand how to work together and make positive impacts on each other’s work. Especially, because the full buyer journey and process flows had been mapped, it finally gave them the ability to talk the same language about the same moments where their work overlaps, and really visually see where in the lifecycle of a client they can cooperate.

The new strategy has helped the marketing department reach new parts of the market through better focused content, and has helped the company achieve a growing amount of incoming leads. Furthermore some beautiful content initiatives have come from this, on which the sales department can also capitalise and make use of in their day-to-day interactions with prospects and clients.

In the end they have the same goal, bringing in new clients, making sure existing clients are happy, and thus grow the company’s revenue. I’m really proud that we helped this company exactly achieve that!

What’s one important B2B marketing trend that will gain popularity in 2021, in your opinion? 

The buying experience in B2B will continue to move towards one that more and more is similar to B2C. This means that the buyer is looking for a similar experience in terms of the ability to do their own research, complete their own purchase and check-out and, if possible, installation, without any interruption of the company they are buying from. It has to be completely frictionless. Think ecommerce-style buying, but then for complex B2B enterprise solutions.

B2B marketers need to think about how they can embrace B2C strategies: really focus on the experience of interacting with (and buying from) your company. Especially in B2B, you have a lot of potential in making this experience individually tailored and personalized if you fully understand your buyers. Even if it is a complex enterprise software solution, the buying experience has to be frictionless and the buyer has to be able to move at their own pace. In this sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has been another nail in the coffin of cold calling, as so many people are currently at home and it’s made it that much harder to reach them. Putting information out there is crucial; allow your buyers to research your company and your solutions so they can come to their own decisions. Interruptions by salespeople are annoying and instead, we need to focus on putting these salespeople in the right place to provide assistance once a buyer asks for it – or is about to.

Which is the strongest social media channel in 2021, and why? 

A very strong social channel for B2B companies is YouTube. It provides a place where marketing can support sales throughout the whole sales cycle: attract new visitors, educate them on solutions to their challenges, and in a later stage explain about the things you or your products do. It’s a strong way to show your expertise, and build and connect with a community. It is also a channel through which marketing can make an active contribution to the sales process: for example, the classic demo typically done by sales can be performed by marketing through videos.

And as per the previous question about marketing trends, anything from showing product features, integrations/installation, and onboarding can be explained fully exhaustive in video playlists, allowing anyone interested in your product or service to completely nerd-out and dive in, self-educate, and move themselves through various stages of the sales cycle.

What would you recommend to businesses that want to grow in 2021? What about the tactics they should avoid?

Don’t make it too complex and just get going. Once you start doing you can actually learn, iteration is very important. This way you can quickly see the value of the things that are working for your company. If you make it too complex, you’ll just delay starting, and after that, you won’t be able to truly interpret the results of what is working or what is not, as it will be too complex to understand what individual components are actually performing.

Build a small operation that allows you to talk to and understand your clients, which you can adapt to these learnings and grow as you go along.

Can you name one digital marketing tactic that you find overrated?

Resorting to maximising volume (spam) in order to generate as much leads as possible and hide inefficiencies in your process. This is lazy. In B2C you don’t need to know everything about each and every client, if you are selling to thousands you can go after the big mass.

In B2B however, you need to know exactly everything that drives each of your individual clients if you only have 20 or 50. Especially buying databases and mass mail spamming is such a waste of money, and honestly of everyone’s time. These databases have been bought by many companies before you, so the people in them are sick of receiving spam, you’re not targeting them with content that is relevant, and leads you do generate are one-off while you’ve been burning through the rest.

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