A fundamental shift in customer behaviour is presenting companies with a major challenge when it comes to winning new business. Gone are the days when buyers waited for vendors to approach them through outbound marketing, or when buyers would head straight to the shop floor to chat with a salesperson. Today, according to iMedia Connection, 93% of B2B customers turn to Internet research to begin the buying process, weighing up their options carefully and making their own well-informed decisions as to which vendors to approach.

When you also consider that in a tough post-GFC business landscape, many companies are finding themselves facing the ever-present challenge of generating leads likely to convert into customers, it’s no surprise that salesforces are struggling to reach demanding targets. This can leave a disjoint between marketing and sales, with sales disillusioned by receiving scores of underqualified leads and marketing feeling that their hard work is being wasted, as their leads continue to disappear into the sales ether.

This changing customer landscape is a game-changer for marketers, who now have to completely re-think their approach: with consumers moving to websites, online advertising, email and social media for research and guidance, marketers have to move to these channels too to build trust and inform people about their products. This shift also means that companies have to be ready to engage with prospects earlier than ever before during the initial research phase.

The companies getting ahead in this tough business landscape are those making smart use of their IT software, particularly when it comes to nurturing their leads ready for sale. By intelligently employing their marketing and CRM software to engage prospects, companies can banish the marketing/sales blame game, making both teams more productive and guaranteeing that leads are qualified long before any sales talk begins. The major tool in the smart marketer’s arsenal? Quality, tailored content that establishes the company as a leader in its field, that gradually works the lead without the hard-sell.

Clever deployment of CRM and marketing automation software can work wonders when it comes to generating high quality leads. CRM software is capable of recording each and every interaction a company has with a prospect, and a quick analysis of this data will reveal which pieces of content are converting leads into sales opportunities – what is attracting prospects initially and what’s pushing them further down the sales funnel.

This insight enables marketing to refine their communications right down to the individual and create a unique content map for every individual’s lead journey. This makes the initial piece of content that brings a lead into the CRM the springboard to a stream of communications that gradually warm the lead.

CRM platforms often have some marketing automation functionalities built in, and most have the capacity to be integrated with a separate piece of automation software – the crucial element for executing a smart inbound marketing strategy. Marketing automation does exactly as its name suggests, and automatically delivers marketing content to prospects in response to their online activity.

This means that leads receive a unique stream of information based on the content they are consuming – if a lead reads a blog about a particular issue, for example, this acts as a trigger for marketing automation software to send them a whitepaper that further addresses the problem. The opening of this email then acts as a signal for the next piece of content to be sent – a webinar invitation for example – enabling marketing to build a profile for that lead and gauge their level of interest in the company’s product.

An automated scoring system sitting within the CRM, moreover, awards prospects points based on their consumption of content, with each piece scored according to its influence on the conversion process. For example, a website visit could see a prospect given five points, a webinar watch ten or a whitepaper download fifteen.

Once a prospect reaches a certain quota, they are automatically sent to sales through the CRM. This means that salespeople don’t waste their time as they get to work with only the prospects most likely to buy, while undercooked leads are sent back up the sales funnel for further nurturing.

The major benefit of an automated content marketing strategy is the insight it provides on how leads are behaving in response to content – this is an invaluable source of intelligence, enabling marketing to tweak communications and become more effective in generating strong leads. It also provides sales with data on who their leads are, what they’re looking for, when they want it and how much they’re willing to spend.

Any concerns they may have are also clearly laid out, enabling sales to refine an individual approach to every lead and address their pain-points precisely. Once the deal is closed, the CRM and marketing automation software still continue to work in unison, providing new customers with aftercare and customer service by sending out communications.

At the centre of any inbound marketing strategy is CRM and automation software, so it’s crucial that both marketers and salespeople know how to make the most of the platforms available to them. Clever use of these tools can facilitate a close-knit collaboration between marketing and sales departments and a closed loop of information that sees no lead wasted, as everything a company knows about their leads is used to engage them.

The result is marketers and salespeople are no longer arguing about poor conversion rates, customers are receiving the information they really want, and most importantly, sales are increased. Getting smart with your software can see you getting smart with sales – something no business can afford to miss out on.