The term ‘thought leader’ seems to have proliferated, and come to mean different things to different people. So we thought it might be helpful to do a bit of thinking about what it really means in our terms, and in particular how it applies to B2B selling.

A working definition

Russ Prince and Bruce Rogers suggest that for a company or individual to be a thought leader, it needs to be recognised by peers, competitors, clients, intermediaries, and in fact, anyone else, as the go-to resource on that particular subject. So the individual or company not only has to develop the knowledge to make them the ‘go to’ resource, but they also have to communicate that knowledge to others. Prince and Rogers then suggested a second strand of the definition: that the company or individual needs to be able to capitalise on being considered the definitive resource. So they must be able to make money out of the recognition and the knowledge, by, say, selling on the back of that expertise.

SAP’s Michael Brenner suggests that it was about being able to provide the best answers to your audience’s questions. The agenda, then, is set by your target audience, probably your customers. To become a thought leader, and therefore influence them, you need to be able to address their key concerns, and do so better than anyone else. Others, commenting on Brenner’s article, suggested that thought leaders might even identify the questions that customers should be asking, and respond to those.

With this addition to the definition, it becomes easier to see why thought leadership is so crucial to B2B sales, much more than B2C.

B2B context

Let’s think about this a moment. In B2C, your customer base is probably enormous. You, as an individual within the company, cannot build a personal relationship with every consumer of your company’s products. But in B2B, relationships are key. And the concept of thought leadership, and the idea of sales reps as thought leaders, offers a way to capitalise on existing relationships with customers. A ‘thought leader’ is no longer seen as someone who visits a company to sell them something. Instead, you become welcome as the person who can help them solve their problems, both before and after sales.

And by becoming that person, you can then influence sales. For example, you may be able to  influence your customers to adopt the recommended solution and so shorten sales cycles, or help your fellow sales reps to improve their sales conversion efficiency in the same way. And by allowing your customers to lead the conversation and set the agenda, you can get a much better grasp on their problems, meaning that you can bring other solutions to the table, and generate sales leads on alternative options that you might otherwise never have thought of offering.

You can also help reduce the risk of poor project implementation. By building on your strong relationships, and status as an expert, you will be the first port of call when something goes wrong. More importantly, you will be able to prevent problems by sharing knowledge and best practice from elsewhere, to support implementation. And as you do so, your status as thought leader develops and grows still further.

Creating thought leadership

Michael Brenner sets out five essential steps to creating thought leadership: first of all, identify all the questions that your customers are asking, then answer them in a way that speaks to your audience. Daniel Rasmus suggests that you need to address a very specific audience. Generic thought leadership, he says, is rarely useful.

Next, make sure your answers are interesting and that they stand out from the competition. You also have to make them freely available, without requiring customers to register or pay to receive them. A thought leadership campaign needs to put the information out in multiple different ways: conferences, blogs, Twitter, websites and more. The more channels, the more people are likely to read your content. And finally, invite customers to participate: make it a two-way process, and create their involvement and buy-in.

Looking ahead

Thought leadership cannot be created on a one-off basis. It is a long-term and consistent effort that builds on, and grows from and with relationships. It can be both a way into new relationships and enhance existing ones. Above all, although it’s not necessarily an easy option, it is hugely rewarding in both personal and business terms.


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