What’s impacting the progress and effectiveness of B2B sales transformation?

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Business-to-business companies are, for the large majority, still selling in a traditional way with sales teams on the ground dealing with long sales cycles and negotiations. This way of selling no longer matches the expectations and new behaviors of B2B Buyers who tend to “shop around” favoring smooth digital experiences and limiting their interactions with sales teams. How can businesses adapt to this digital selling shift and reinvent the way they sell?

“Shopping around” may exaggerate reality, as it would undermine the importance of the relationship and trust between a vendor and its customers. Yet there is a definite trend of B2B buyers moving to online webstores and marketplaces; they are progressively adopting omnichannel behavior and favoring frictionless buying experiences. This also means that their relationship with salespeople has changed. Today we are seeing only 23% of B2B buyers preferring to deal with vendor salespeople in sales processes (CSO insights, 2018).

On this topic, Forrester scarily forecast in 2015: “One million B2B salespeople will have lost their jobs by 2020” in its now infamous Death of a (B2B) Salesman report. This has been heavily commented upon during the past couple of years, particularly when observing that this prediction was over estimated. In many ways it seems that the dangerous shift announced in this early report is taking more time than predicted. And, before looking at how B2B companies will have to accelerate their transformation moving forward, especially now in the light of Covid-19 lockdown, it seems relevant to understand why this process has been slower than expected.

Overestimating B2B e-commerce?

Analyzing this slower transformation from 2015 to 2020 begs us to ask the question differently: what’s been impacting the speed of this selling transformation for business-to-business companies? (Let us assume that we look at medium-to-large B2B companies with an average or given digital maturity.)

Digitalizing “business complexity” rather than customer-facing activities.

The first, obvious and well-known aspect of the slower digital transformation in B2B is the complexity of business. Typically, many B2B companies deal with more integrated and tailor-made business processes that make it more difficult to change. As a result, businesses selling very sophisticated products require a high level of complexity when it comes to production, warehousing, logistics, delivery, distribution via resellers etc. These businesses often carry with them legacy systems which can make it hard to transition to digital.

B2B leaders are aware that they need to invest in the digitalization of their business, no matter how complex their business is. Saying that B2B companies have not started nor reacted to the warning from Forrester in 2015 is wrong. Indeed, they have massively invested in their digital transformation but typically more around their core business than in digital selling. As an example, manufacturing companies have invested heavily in their factories, to make them more connected, produce faster and more cost-efficiently and become active as Industry 4.0 businesses.

On the other hand, businesses dealing with simpler products or even B2B services have had the possibility to explore more options, innovate more and digitalize the way they sell. The aim of automating selling processes, gaining agility with a self-service approach is obviously easier for them. We will look later on at how this “complexity” aspect impacts decision-making when it comes to digital sales channels and if there are different strategies for these different types of companies.

Overall, it seems that B2B companies’ leaders have mostly invested in digitalizing core business processes and not progressed as fast as Forrester predicted in digitalizing their selling activities, however it does not mean they have stayed still on the sales and customer-facing sides.

The evolution of B2B salespeople

Indeed, they understood clearly that they needed to address the growing skepticism from B2B buyers towards vendors’ salespeople. B2B leaders have taken action when it comes to the roles and the profiles of their sales teams. In many industries (including our enterprise software industry), salespeople have worked on bringing more value to their dialogue with prospects and customers.

Today, sales teams are more knowledgeable about their offerings than they used to be and aim to play a consultative role to gain credibility with their clients as trusted advisors. And it is not only something they have been told to do by their management teams. Many of them have experienced that buyers, thanks to the growing amount of online information every day, sometimes knew even more about the products or services they were selling than themselves and needed to step up their game.

This triggered a reaction for self-development. In many ways, this knowledge-based evolution of B2B salesforces has made them more relevant further down the sales funnel and this may have been a deciding factor to stay with the status quo. It has also contributed to the rise of new disciplines in the sales world such as Customer Success aimed at delivering more value all along the customer lifecycle.

It seems fair to say that businesses have reacted to some of the new expectations of buyers with a more value-driven sales approach. Sales teams have become less of a proxy involved only at the beginning of a sale. Now, they know more and help prospects further along the buyer journey.

Expanding the role of digital marketing

In parallel, the marketing department has also taken progressively a different role related to the change of mindset in sales that I just mentioned. Since buyers start their journey online, digital marketing now has the mission to not only create brand awareness but also start a digital dialogue with prospects.

This dialogue, traditionally handled by sales teams, is further qualified until an online interaction becomes “sales ready”. This automation of the initial engagement has been facilitated by the rise of martech platforms and has directly contributed to pushing sales intervention further down the sales funnel. As a proof of this phenomena, B2B marketing qutomation software market has grown from $1.8bn to $7.250bn from 2015 to 2020 (according to Sharpspring).

This sales and marketing shift happening in B2B companies is taking time and only a small proportion of B2B organizations have digitalized their complete sales funnel leading to a full e-commerce use case. When only 10-12% of all B2B transactions happen online, it proves that most companies have not yet or only just started this transformation.

B2B e-commerce: not a systematic answer

It seems to me that The Death of the B2B Salesman has underestimated the conversational/ engagement part of the sales discipline and assumed that transforming sales to digital selling in B2B is in short about implementing e-commerce. It has overestimated It has overestimated the importance of the act of buying online – the transactional part – against the discovery and conversational that needs to happen before.

In my opinion, a better moniker for the 2015 report would be: “The Deep Dive of a B2B Salesman” in terms of knowledge of their offering and position in the sales funnel. It will take time until no (or very limited) human interaction will be needed from the first touch point until the transaction. There’s no doubt that many companies should implement B2B Commerce to complete their sales transformation. But do all companies need to go the whole hog? There may be several ways to look at this challenge and diversify how to sell; e-commerce (in the sense of an e-shop) being one way, the most integrated and automated way.

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