If there’s one thing the 2020s have revealed to us, it’s that digitization alongside shifting buyer expectations are now facts of life. More than ever, B2B buyers prefer online interactions and self-directed research over the traditional face-to-face sales meeting. While this preference for digital interchanges has been fairly commonplace in B2C contexts, it has now clearly bled over into the B2B world. In fact, according to the Forrester 2021 B2B Buying Survey, 54% of buyer interactions are now self-guided versus 46% personal engagement.
This phenomenon makes total sense. Consumer habits have made us accustomed to searching for and finding exactly what we need – or else receive personalized suggestions without having to interact with a single human. Then, when we make purchases, we get (and fully expect) total transparency. We know when we’ll get our order, know how we’ll get it, and can usually track the delivery so closely that we even know when it’s on a truck just two or three blocks away.
Gone are the days when B2B buyers awaited the formal, face-to-face sales call to explore solutions to their business challenges. Buyers identify a problem, self-diagnose the solution, and, in the blink of an eye, can have countless options before them on their screen – no human mediator necessary. In short, digitization and shifting buyer expectations make it much more difficult for sellers to connect with buyers. And that, much like an asteroid barreling toward Earth, poses a huge threat to salespeople. But, believe it or not, this isn’t the end of the world. Salespeople can remain relevant if they revise their paradigm and take action.
In our book, Agile & Resilient: Sales Leadership for the New Normal, my colleague Russ Sharer and I introduce the concept of the hybrid seller. The hybrid seller understands the critical importance of aligning with the buyer journey (across channels) and knows how to use a combination of virtual and in-person selling tools to get results for their customers and themselves.
Since B2B prospects and customers experience more (or most) of their buying journey online, salespeople must adopt this hybrid approach to remain compelling. That not only means understanding how to use technology, but also knowing what technology their customers use and what their customers experience as value in the buying process. Sellers must be adept at working across multiple channels to support the buyer in their decision process and to ensure the overall customer experience is seamless.
Although self-directed online research is the name of the game among B2B buyers, this preference creates a new problem: confusion. When a lack of expertise in an area intersects a literal onslaught of digital information, the waters become too murky for prudent decision making. The result? Buyers often either rush into a poor purchasing decision or they make no decision at all. But the solution is actually simple: Since conflicting information is the hallmark of online research, the right background knowledge and a discerning eye are necessary to make the right purchase. This is precisely where sellers must redirect their focus.
The salesperson’s job now is to listen, to understand what’s most important to the buyer and present a value proposition that specifically speaks to that. In a word, the salesperson must become an effective guide – helping prospective buyers parse complex and conflicting information to make an educated decision. Adaptability is key, and that means deploying various tools (understanding when it’s more appropriate to meet virtually, for instance), asking engaging questions and adjusting accordingly, effectively planning, and ultimately presenting a solution that conveys value (and minimizes buyer risks or emotional costs).
It’s easy to assume that with digitization comes decreasing dependence on relationships during the sales process. After all, buyers tend to avoid connecting with salespeople if they can help it. But this tendency only reinforces the notion that, when buyers and sellers do eventually connect, the relationship between them must be solid to generate a sale.
In the old days, sellers often felt that, if they could just somehow land a face-to-face meeting, their likeability would be enough to give them the win. Back then, sellers could make up for a whole host of shortcomings (like a lack of planning) with this approach. That “relationship” was a shallow one at best. Nowadays, a potential buyer won’t even accept a meeting without a clear understanding of the value the seller brings. When sellers approach, buyers automatically ask themselves:
In short, trust is the new prerequisite, and trust is built on the understanding that the seller has the buyer’s best interest in mind.
Sellers need not fear extinction. That’s because current buyer expectations create a new opportunity for sellers to differentiate themselves and, believe it or not, become more important to customers than in bygone eras. It’s all about remaining mindful, open, and adaptable to position yourself well with your customer and bring value.
So sales leaders need to be asking themselves the following questions:
Leaders who can answer these questions in the affirmative have a huge leg up for 2023 and beyond.
Continually refining skills through coaching should remain an ongoing effort. For teams that come up deficient, there is also a way forward. It all starts with understanding your team’s current capabilities. This will give you a baseline from which you can begin actively working on skill development (like pre-call planning, value selling, the ability to have effective conversations and craft proposals with value, and so on). Assessments and training are absolutely critical.
Many organizations can accomplish this in-house. But it’s often necessary to bring in outside expertise to help get the ball rolling more quickly and effectively. Organizations like The Brooks Group can not only get your sales teams up to speed, but can also help turn them into revenue-generating machines.
Whatever path your organization takes, your next move should be grounded in a clear understanding of where you are as an organization and where you want to go. Then, you must take action.
Michelle Richardson brings over 25 years of experience in sales effectiveness functions to spearhead industry research initiatives, oversee consulting and diagnostic services, and facilitate ROI measurement processes with partnering organizations at The Brooks Group.