Digital Selling: Transforming B2B Sales (2020 Update)


Shifts in Consumer Behavior And Technology

Four years ago, Andy Hoar writing for Forrester Research, famously postulated that a million B2B sales representatives would be displaced by 2020. Andy asserted that the combination of digitally enabled self-service models and the retirement of previous generation buyers who are replaced by digital-native buyers would form new buyer loyalties. Early in 2019, Allen Bonde of Forrester wrote that B2B buyers are accelerating their shift to Self-Service and demanding higher-quality interactions with sales pros. Bonde goes on to foresee deep changes how B2B buyers buy, especially in low-consideration product categories. In high consideration product categories, Bode sees the role of the seller evolving to place greater weight “enlightening” buyers through the purchasing path.

This parallels the Gartner positioning of “Sense-Making” for B2B buyers. Mary Shea and Meredith Cain of Forrester expanded the view last December discussing The State of Digitized Selling. Shea and Cain paint a picture of B2B needing urgently to re-align their sales strategies to meet the demands and expectations of an increasing digitalized B2B buyer community. Again, the prediction is clear that the status quo of B2B selling is not in a stable state and rapid change is upon us.

These authors, and several others, all paint a picture of dramatic change in B2B selling. Fewer people employed as representatives, more reliance on digital selling and much greater demands on the skills of the sellers trying to influence digitally oriented buyers. Lions and tigers and bears for B2B sellers. The good news is that all this is perfectly normal. For as long as there has been innovation, there has been disruption caused by that innovation. Innovation in the B2B selling world is no surprise. A quick look at either Sales Mastery’s infographic on AI for Sales and Marketing or Chiefmartec’s Supergraphic on Sales and Marketing software to see indisputable evidence that innovation is flourishing in the B2B space. The result of all these innovations and their impact on B2B sales is just the most current iteration of creative destruction at work in our economy. They can not help but force change on the way B2B sales are conducted. Messy change is an inevitable byproduct of innovation.


An Act Of Creative Destruction

A little historical perspective is helpful. The term creative destruction was first used by the Austrian – American economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Creative Destruction refers to the process by which old processes and technology are replaced by new technology. The new processes and technologies destroy the old through innovation. It is innovation, according to Schumpeter, that drives economic progress and growth. The theory of creative destruction stresses the fact that the replacement of old systems, processes, and technologies with newer, more innovative versions can be sudden and frequently is a, well, messy process.

“The same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that revolutionizes the economic structure from within, destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. Schumpeter also was the first economist to use the term Entrepreneurship to describe the leadership of innovative creators of new technology who are responsible for economic progress and growth. It is only through change that growth can be realized. Again, look at the speed at which new software offerings are entering the Sales and Marketing space and it is easy to understand why mature and formerly stable models like B2B sales are being disrupted.


The Winners And Losers Of B2B Sales

The critical questions are which individuals or institutions of B2B selling will be the winners and losers in this cycle of creative destruction and how can we in the profession best prepare ourselves to meet the wave of change? A critical concept is to understand that change does not happen at a single point in time, change happens as part of a business trajectory and change has momentum. It just so happens that the momentum behind the change in B2B selling has increased dramatically of late largely due to the plethora of information available to buyers through the internet. Like the prediction that one million B2B reps will be displaced over the next five years, the continuing changes anticipated in B2B selling will be gradual but dramatic.

The topics I discuss come from my conversations with dozens of customers and prospects, almost all of whom are Sales or Sales Enablement leaders. Here are some of the topics and questions I hear over and over. Several of these topics are interconnected and interdependent.


Prioritize Your Resources

The most common question I hear is about the prioritization of Seller resources. Although marketing resources include any number of lead scoring tools, Sales leaders struggle to understand whether their sellers are investing their time in the most valuable potential target accounts and how to determine whether the highest potential value opportunities passed from Marketing to Sales are receiving the appropriate level of attention and resources. This question manifests itself in several ways.

First, how does the marketing group determine which subset of accounts from all the accounts in their total addressable market are the best prospects? Second, once Marketing passes a lead over to Sales and it looks like a good lead, how do Sales prioritize the effort for that opportunity relative to all other opportunities? Third, how does a Sales leader measure and relate the effort being exerted by each seller relative to the value of the accounts or opportunities that each seller might be working on? Is each seller working on the right accounts and opportunities? This is prime territory for exploiting the power of Artificial Intelligence for sales management. The debate over the value and meaning of Artificial Intelligence is still raging but assuming a construct using a real self-learning, pattern finding, proactive True AI system, these questions are fertile ground for use of AI for sales.

Rob Kall, CEO of Cien, an application that uses AI to determine the objective value of leads, accounts, and opportunities, says that “AI is the key to understanding the contribution of value made at each step of the sales process from lead creation through a closed deal. This logic can be deployed to take the understanding of value creation out of the realm of gut feel and make hard dollar assessments on which to base business decisions.”


Allocate Time For Training, Not Just Selling

Another common question I hear is about optimizing Sales leaders’ time for coaching and training. Most sales managers agree that less than 10% of their time is spent helping their sellers be better, more effective sellers. The average tenure of a first-line sales manager today is less than 2 years. It’s closer to 18 months.With that short a tenure, the sales manager just barley starts to understand the role, the customers and the company before moving on. The pressure on sales managers to perform and deliver results is immense and their training is to sell, not to teach their seller teams how to be more productive. I draw two conclusions from this trend.

First, the role of the Sales Manager as a mentor will change. Second, that tools and processes will be introduced that automate the mentoring role that previously was the purview of the Sales Manager. Sellers, especially high-end enterprise sellers of high consideration products and services must be able to take control of their processes. Just as buyers are embracing self-service on the buy side, sellers will embrace self-service guidance to help optimize their performance.

Again, I see AI as being a potential source of hope in providing ongoing, detailed insight into the behaviors and skills that make sellers successful. Reporting systems can keep track of the activity statistics of pipeline management, but the intangible factors that control the likeliness of seller success, which have been the exclusive responsibility of the Sales Manager to monitor and develop can be made available to sellers as a self-service solution, taking or at least lessening the burden of skills development and monitoring off the shoulders of the Sales Manager.


Redefining Sales Territories

Another treasured artefact of B2B sales that I see as falling to the forces of creative destruction is the geographic territory. With all the tools available for digital presence with the customer, why do we constrain ourselves to have opportunities assigned to sellers based solely on geography? Other than for the rarified world of very large enterprise sellers, the digital technologies that surround B2B sales today obviate the traditional logic of geographic sales territories. Since face to face communication via conferencing can easily reside on every desktop, why not use more sophisticated models to determine the best fit between seller and customer?

Make the process of assigning accounts, leads or opportunities to sellers based on multiple variable factors such as level of engagement or vertical expertise. Give the next lead to the seller most capable of winning that opportunity for the company, not just the seller who happens to be assigned or live in a given geography. Breaking the chains of geographic assignment provides flexibility for management and more importantly provides an avenue to ensure that the buyer is matched with the seller who best will understand and positively impact his buying experience.


Get Sales And Marketing In Step

This paper has been focused on the impact of digitalization on sellers, but the impact on marketers can not be understated. Customers know more about a market place than ever before. Much has been written about the new role of the seller as a Consultant or provider of enlightenment or seller as sense maker. But before even the very best Challenger seller will not get his turn at bat unless Marketing provides the right level of accurate, credible and targeted background information to the prospective buyer at the earliest stages of the buying decision. This points out to be the absolute criticality of Marketing and B2B sales being in absolute partnership in understanding the prospects and customers delivering effective messaging.

Again, the industry has well-documented the extent to which prospects and customers are overwhelmed with information. Marketing must provide the presence and credibility to provide the seller with the opportunity to stand out as the consultant for the customer. I suggest that another presence we will see in this digital selling world will be a common metric of value delivered by Marketing so that all parties in the sales cycle will have a clear and accepted appraisal of the value of each lead passed from Marketing to Sales. Marketing and Sales bickering over the quality, quantity, and value of leads and opportunities is a luxury the evolving B2B marketplace can no longer afford.


Measure The Value Created At Each Stage

Whether an organization subscribes to the Challenger Sales methodology or Consultative Selling or MEDDIC or Strategic Selling or any of the other viable choices, the fact remains that pressure will increase on the seller to justify his existence. I believe that the extinction of the B2B seller is a premature prediction, but the job is changing. It will continue to change. One of the most important roles of salesmen in America for decades was their role in disseminating information on new products and best practices to their clients.

That role is changing, as the clients have access to more information than they absorb. The role of the successful and valuable seller is that of the trusted partner who helps the customer sort through all the frequently conflicting information presented to her and find the threads of reason on which she and her fellow stakeholders can base a sound decision. That ability to differentiate based on being an asset for the customer, presenting facts and perspectives that help form a clear vision of success becomes the value that the successful rep brings to the table.


The Difference Between A Software Salesman And A Car Salesman

This is not that different, at least in the world of high consideration sales cycles, then it has been since the days when IBM taught sellers to “upset the homeostasis” or consultative selling was first documented. The great difference in this age of digital selling is that the customer has volumes of well prepared and seemingly credible information in hand. Using the tools at hand to help the client find her way to a favorable decision becomes a more difficult challenge. Sellers must be better prepared to embrace the role of thought leaders and reliable experts. A Systems Engineer (pre-sales engineer) once told a joke at a customer meeting that the difference between a software salesman and a used car salesman was that the used car salesman knew when he was lying. It was a valid observation, but the evolving market of B2B sales has no room for anyone who is not an expert and an asset for the customer-buyer and the process.

The need for expertise is not limited to sellers who are selling high consideration products or services to enterprise accounts. Sales Development Representatives who are frequently the first line of contact between a prospect and the company will need increasingly sophisticated capabilities to understand business applications introduce value to the prospect. The digital selling universe affords too many options and alternate paths for prospects to have any step of the process become a speed-bump for the buyer. The SDR should be able to deliver valuable business-context sensitive guidance for the prospect, helping the buyer journey. Success measured by “getting the prospect to make an appointment” is not enough. Measure success by the degree to which the prospect feels he has made progress in his project to find a product or service. The buyer-centric mindset of the company can be exposed to the prospect right from the very earliest stages of the process, but that requires skill and desire and the right training and tools for the SDRs.

I would not be surprised to see more and more sales organizations moving away from the High-Velocity model leads going to SDRs who qualify the lead and turn it over to an Account Executive to get the deal. If we are dealing in a world of well-qualified leads, why not have the first contact of the buyer experience be the guide and partner for the entire experience? Again, there are high consideration opportunities or enterprise considerations that may suggest the need for a senior-level seller to take over the opportunity, why disrupt the buyer experience with multiple steps? Looking at it from the buyer perspective, wouldn’t it be an easier journey with a single, very well qualified guide? This model supports centralized seller activities that take advantage of the tools of content management and customer contact that are key to digital emersion.


Engagement And Trust

Engaging customers has never been more difficult. Customers know more and there are more stakeholders engaged in every decision than ever before. Customers have more options and face more opinions. It seems that with the dearth of information available, everyone’s an expert. Mary Shea of Forrester states that “78% of sellers say their biggest internal challenge is dealing in their internal decision process with multiple stakeholders with different agendas”. What this tells us is that B2B sales are getting more difficult. The skill of building consensus within a client organization has never been more critical.

Every stakeholder can research any topic in intimate detail. Each will form opinions and the inability to foster support among several stakeholders will kill any deal, large or small. The earlier discussion on the need for Marketing and Sales to be in complete lockstep is nowhere more demonstrated than an examination of the need to build consensus. Clear, the reliable messaging mist is available for each stakeholder in the manner of consumption each stakeholder prefers. This stage of consensus building is when the seller can add great value by being the provider of enlightenment or the maker of sense for each stakeholder. Even in the age of digital immersion of B2B sales, this role of adding value as the thought leader will remain indispensable.

This last discussion may be the most salient. While my career perspective leans towards the high consideration, high dollar enterprise sale, that is but one thread in the fabric of B2B selling. The concept of the remote representative who is far from the office and manages his territory as though it were his own business may be in jeopardy. The need for presence that justified having representatives located near their clients is waning. The stack of tools and technologies discussed in Forrester’s Continuum of Digitally Immersive Selling obviate the need for the constant physical presence of sellers. The vertical segmentation of accounts and opportunities from the lowest level lead to the highest level account, passing through SDR’s and AE’s and Customer Success Managers along the way can give way to a horizontal perspective in which the buyer enters a selection process and is met with a single resource who has all the expertise, tools and resources available to manage the customer’s buying experience from beginning to end.

It represents a much more efficient and perhaps more democratic process. The technology and capabilities of digital selling provide us with the ability to eliminate the need for layers of sellers and technical resources. It seems a logical next step in the evolution of B2B selling that is in keeping with the evolving needs and desires of the customers. The goal is to sustain a level of experience loyalty with the customer that meets or exceeds the level of brand loyalty that has been the hallmark metric of customer success. Some old models such as geographic territories and sales management roles will be destroyed, but the opportunity to be full-service digitally-enabled account partners will flourish.


This article was written by Matt Hoffman, Cien’s Chief Revenue Officer. With Cien, all reps can make quota. We show you how.

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