by: Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer
Over the past 20 years, information technology and digital channels have changed the way consumers shop for products ranging from cars to homes to electronics. Those forces are dramatically changing the way B2B companies and their customers approach buying and selling, too.
Business buyers are more connected and informed than ever before. Sellers must respond. For buyers and sellers alike, this creates complexity, anxiety, and opportunity all at the same time.
From the buyer’s perspective, information technology and digital channels provide access to information and enable self-sufficiency. When a buyer wants to learn about virtually any product or service, an internet search yields thousands (if not millions) of results, including online articles, videos, white papers, blogs, and social media posts. In addition to supplier websites that showcase specific solutions, there are likely to be online sources (ranging from the self-serving to the unbiased) to help buyers learn and compare solution alternatives. Buyers can also use self-service digital channels for new or repeat purchases and for training and support. Using information technology and digital channels, buyers can take over many steps of buying that salespeople once cherished as their source of value.
Buyers are at different levels of self-sufficiency: any single buyer can be at one level for some purchases and at a different level for others. Sometimes buyers prefer to eliminate the salesperson completely. According to one corporate technology buyer: “Our supplier’s customized self-service purchasing portal makes it easy to place reorders, track shipping, and return products hassle-free.” Other times buyers seek help from salespeople. The same corporate buyer relies on salespeople when evaluating new technologies: “It’s more efficient to work with a few trusted salespeople, compared to spending hours on my own sifting through all the information and misinformation that’s out there.”
Because of the diversity of buyer self-sufficiency, the traditional methods sellers use to customize their selling approach for customers are no longer enough. Considering factors such as customer potential and needs is still relevant. But today, customer knowledge/self-sufficiency is a growing driver of how customers want to buy. At one end of the spectrum are the “super-expert” customers, skilled in gathering information from many sources and self-sufficient in using that information to make purchase decisions. At the other end of the spectrum are the “information-seeking” customers, who want help with examining and evaluating the plethora of information. Many customers are in between these two extremes, or are at different points at different times or for different purchases.
Smart sellers match their selling approach to the customer’s level of buying knowledge and self-sufficiency. For example, when leaders at Dow Corning observed in the early 2000s that some customers wanted an easier, more affordable way to buy standard silicone products, they created Xiameter, a brand that includes thousands of less-differentiated products sold exclusively through a low-cost, no-frills, self-service online sales channel. Customers who desired a higher-touch approach could still purchase products under the Dow Corning brand name, which also includes specialty silicones backed by research and technical services.
As sellers need a more customized approach to reaching customers, they have a big arsenal of data and technology at their disposal. Systems (e.g., CRM), tools (e.g., data management, analytics), infrastructures (e.g., mobile, cloud), and information (e.g., big data) give sellers knowledge about buyers and enable sales force members to make smarter decisions. And sellers who once connected with customers primarily through personal selling can now use an array of digital communication channels to supplement or supplant face-to-face sales efforts.
Consider the impact of information technology and digital channels from the seller’s perspective. Here are examples from several industries.
- Finding banking customers: “Social media allows us to cost-effectively reach out to more prospects and showcase our services.
- Understanding specialty chemicals customers: “Big data and analytics help us improve customer targeting and achieve more cost-effective deployment.”
- Acquiring advertising customers: “We now have richer demographic information to help us create more powerful sales messages, resulting in more sales.”
- Serving and growing business logistics customers: “Our salespeople use a business review app to guide quarterly account reviews with major customers. By sharing data about performance and cost savings, these discussions enhance customer value and retention.
Information technology and digital channels can help sellers become more effective and efficient, but they can also be a source of disharmony and confusion if implemented without thought. Too many sellers have wasted millions of dollars on sales technologies such as CRM systems and data warehouses that never lived up to their potential.
Success for sellers requires many sales force changes beyond information technology and digital solutions. To start, salespeople need new competencies. Customers are no longer interested in meeting with “talking brochures,” so salespeople must do more than share product information. They must adapt to each customer’s level of knowledge and self-sufficiency. They must use email, social media, webinars, video conferencing, and other tools judiciously to maximize their own productivity and make things more efficient for buyers. They must help their companies coordinate customer outreach across multiple communication channels to ensure buyers get a well-orchestrated and consistent message.
For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, gone are the days when the majority of physician education occurred through face-to-face contact between salespeople and physicians. Companies are now tracking individual physician communication preferences and are reaching out with the combination of face-to-face visits and/or digital methods (e.g., websites, email, podcasts, virtual detailing, video conferencing, mobile apps) that best meets each physician’s needs. Salespeople need competencies as orchestrators who can ensure an effective and efficient connection.
Developing new sales force competencies is just a start. Sales leaders must also reengineer their sales forces by implementing changes across the entire range of sales force decisions: roles, size and structure, hiring, training, coaching, incentive compensation, performance management, and sales support systems.