What is the place of sellers in the digital world?
Business-to-business selling relied primarily on face-to-face meetings. Even before the pandemic, many interactions were shifting to digital; during the pandemic, video conferencing has become the norm. As businesses look to the future, they must reassess the role of personal selling in finding new customers and expanding sales to existing customers.
Face-to-face meetings between customers and salespeople were once at the heart of B2B buying and selling. Today, digital communication is integrated into all aspects of business. This had led some organizations to look to the future and ask a simple question: Will we still need salespeople?
This question is not new. However, two powerful forces are reshaping the response. First, personal and organizational digital literacy is skyrocketing, even among those who have experienced digital before. Second, evolving technologies allow businesses to engage customers in ever-richer experiences, both digitally (eg, websites, mobile apps) and virtually (eg, live video calls).
Or To do are the sellers adapted to the digital world?
The critical roles they play
The role of salespeople as talking brochures and order takers has been disappearing for some time. Yet sellers continue to play a vital role in many circumstances. Even as customers spend more time interacting through digital channels, salespeople bring value to new and existing customers, while helping to align buying and selling organizations around a mutually valuable solution.
They attract new customers.
Salespeople still have an important role in customer acquisition. At the start of 2019, the Google Cloud Services (GCS) sales team was less than a tenth the size of major competitors AWS and Microsoft. Seeking to increase its share of the growing enterprise cloud market, GCS launched a wave of hiring. It tripled its sales force coverage in one year, hiring industry-specific sales executives. This move has helped GCS penetrate many other enterprise accounts, resulting in revenue growth significantly outpacing that of the overall cloud market. In such complex situations, digital connections alone are not sufficient for salespeople’s ability to bridge mutual knowledge gaps with new customers. Salespeople can learn about customer needs and uncover latent needs. Salespeople can orchestrate offer shaping and highlight sources of customer value. This is particularly critical when the solutions are not completely defined (eg services) or have uncertain dimensions (eg logistics requirements).
They bring value to existing customers.
With the expansion of sales, the role of salespeople as bridgers of the mutual knowledge gap continues. And even as more and more cross-selling and up-selling move to self-service digital channels, companies are adding roles to help customers realize value, especially when products or services are based on subscription (eg SaaS) or consumption (eg cloud services and consumables). Customer usage is the key to renewal and growth, and usage depends on value. Tech companies have customer success managers who work primarily over the phone and video to help existing customers maximize the ongoing benefits of their purchase.
They align buying and selling organizations around a mutually valuable solution.
When a buying organization has multiple decision influencers, sellers strive for consensus. An underestimated role of salespeople is also to harmonize thinking within their own organization. While a sales manager focuses on sales statistics, a marketing manager thinks about product line, and a finance manager strives to maintain margins. A technology buyer at our consulting firm, ZS, praised an account manager at our cloud service provider: “She connects us with their experts around the world. She also negotiates on our behalf. to make sure his company gives us the best deal.”
Finding the Sweet Spot for Virtual Connection
As simple seller-buyer engagements pivot decisively to digital, customers continue to look to sellers for help in the face of complexity. However, many connections once made in person have gone virtual. Inside sales roles and hybrid roles (that is, where salespeople interact with customers virtually and occasionally in person) are quickly replacing traditional field sales roles.
Virtual works when sellers and buyers have a relationship of trust.
In such cases, almost all sales activities can be done virtually. Examples abound. A vendor of custom enterprise software has created an internal sales team to sell ancillary products to customers after installation. A business supplies salesperson has replaced its entire middle sales force with inside salespeople. Other examples show field sales roles turning into hybrid roles. A media industry sales team shifted 80% of sales retention activity for midsize customers from in-person channels to digital and virtual channels, refocusing in-person efforts on acquiring new clients. A nonprofit is now using informal virtual small group discussions to supplement in-person meetings with loyal donors. The strategy was very effective in generating ideas and support.
Virtual jobs for motivated buyers and differentiated offers.
In these cases, virtual selling can work for new customers and products, not just repeat sales. The pharmaceutical industry has traditionally launched new products by requiring salespeople to meet health care providers face-to-face. During the pandemic, there have been several successful, mostly virtual, launches of new treatments for serious conditions. But new drug launches less differentiated from existing therapies have been less successful without in-person sales efforts.
Leverage the power of virtual selling and avoid the pitfalls
Sellers are quickly learning that effective virtual selling requires more than just moving what used to be done in person to video or phone interaction. Yes, answering a call is easier than jumping on a plane. And virtual meetings are convenient for remote clients. The true power of virtual is realized by leveraging its unique advantages. Buyers and sellers can bring together stakeholders and experts from multiple locations. Meetings can be recorded. Participants can quickly find information and share it on the screen. Numerical and AI-based prompts (e.g. what similar customers find useful) can guide discussions.
However, virtual sales are not suitable for all situations. Virtual doesn’t work for some hands-on activities, such as demonstrating physical aspects of products. And virtual is less effective with customers who typically don’t spend time in front of a computer. (For example, an agricultural products company found it difficult to interact with farmers virtually). A key account manager succinctly summed up a few reasons to interact in person: “Half of my opportunities come from casual conversations with customers. And off-the-record conversations never happen over video. And another salesperson shared: “I feel what customers feel when I’m with them.”
Adapt to changing buyers and changing technology
Tailoring offers to customer needs has always been part of a successful sales playbook. Now it’s also about personalizing ways of communicating, finding the right mix of face-to-face and virtual personal selling, as well as digital outreach and customer self-service. Success requires tailoring connections at each buying/selling stage to buyers’ knowledge and preferences, which in turn are rapidly changing.
As technology continues to advance, the metaverse promises increasingly immersive remote virtual experiences. Thus, the inexorable shift from face-to-face to hybrid connection continues. The question is no longer: will digital technology replace salespeople? Instead, the question becomes: how can sales and digital work together to create unparalleled customer value and trust?