Digital Selling is Here to Stay

By Jennifer Stanley, Partner, McKinsey & Company
A women wearing a mask holding a folder and checking here cell phone

Even before the pandemic, B2B sales already was going digital in response to customer demands. Then, as the crisis unfortunately continued, what had started as a response to an urgent need to work remotely became the next normal – resulting in major implications for how B2B buyers and sellers do business.

McKinsey & Company has been surveying decision makers globally across industries since the crisis began, and the resulting data indicates that the big digital shift is here to stay.

More than three-quarters of buyers have said they prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions. What’s new is that, after some initial concerns, B2B sellers are expressing the same preference – a sentiment that has steadily intensified since April of 2020.

Safety is one reason, of course. But self-serve and remote interactions also have made it easier for buyers to get information, place orders, and arrange service. And customers have enjoyed that speed and convenience. Only about 20% of B2B buyers say they hope to return to in-person sales – even in sectors where field sales models have traditionally dominated, such as pharma and medical products.

The most notable sign that digital sales have come of age is the comfort B2B buyers feel in terms of intent of making large purchases online – whether for new products or reorders. The prevailing wisdom used to be that e-commerce was mainly for smaller-ticket items and fast-moving parts. Not so anymore. Notably, 70% of B2B decision makers say they are open to making new purchases in excess of $50,000 in a fully self-serve or remote fashion, and 27% would spend more than $500,000.

In addition to spend intent, the experience of B2B decision makers globally has also shifted. Survey respondents report that online and remote sales are as effective as (or even more effective than) in-person engagement. It’s not just selling to warm leads, either. Sellers believe digital prospecting is as effective as using in-person meetings to connect with potential customers.

While they originally adopted digital in reaction to the widespread COVID-19 shutdowns in the pandemic’s early stages, many B2B sales leaders are clearly becoming more convinced that digital is the way to go. And, according to survey respondents, these patterns are likely to become permanent. Close to nine in ten decision makers say that new commercial and go-to-market sales practices will be a fixture throughout 2021 – and possibly beyond.


  • Develop new talent profiles: With customers demanding omnichannel experiences, B2B sales organizations will need different capabilities than they have today. We’ll see “hybrid” sales reps who can move easily between physical and remote environments and serve as points of customer continuity. We may also see increased need for specialized skills that can provide niche expertise for key verticals. Others, such as demo specialists and chat specialists, can help organizations deliver high functionality in core areas more efficiently. Training and reskilling will also become critical to ensure new ways of working are firmly embedded.

The dramatic increase in digital adoption presents a seminal opportunity for B2B organizations. The shift to virtual sales can help sales organizations lower their cost per visit, extend their reach, and significantly improve sales effectiveness – while delighting customers who are demanding these new ways of interacting. B2B leaders who commit to further digitizing their go-to-market models can derive competitive advantage in the form of more – and more loyal – customers than their slower-moving peers.