The role of salespeople in 2022

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If you digitize your sales processes, what happens to the sales team?

A famous Forbes article addressed this question nearly five years ago. Its title, “Death of a Salesman”, is misleading because the author, Marie Wiese, saw a future for salespeople who were able to adapt to the brave new digital world.

But that was before COVID-19 hit.

In this article, I will return to this topic in light of the lockdown experience, which caused the traditional sales channels of face-to-face contact and trade shows to shut down overnight, for many months.

Sales teams adapted, although it was much easier for B2B companies that were already moving towards digital maturity.

The pandemic has also accelerated thinking about the changing role of salespeople from the hybrid model envisioned by Forbes in 2017.

The omnichannel battle is won

In 2017, many B2B companies were still undecided about whether to engage in omnichannel e-commerce. These doubts have since disappeared. 94% of respondents to McKinsey’s survey of B2B decision makers agreed that omnichannel is at least as effective as the sales model they used before the pandemic. Lockdowns have been decisive in changing perceptions; in April 2020, when COVID caused the partial shutdown of the global economy, that “approval rating” stood at 65%.

As B2B companies were forced to explore new sales channels, their confidence in omnichannel grew. The proportion of B2B leaders who say omnichannel is “much more effective” than traditional sales methods at reaching and serving customers has tripled, according to McKinsey research. However, at 33%, this level of belief in omnichannel must go even further.

The more digitally mature your business is, the more an omnichannel sales strategy works for you. A digital experience platform can give you the power and flexibility to create relevant, frictionless customer experiences; the role of sales is to intervene at the touchpoints of this journey where they can bring their expertise in the most profitable way.

This started to happen significantly when COVID hit, and sales reps had to transition from face-to-face selling to fully realized digital selling.

Changing the analog mindset of sales and marketing

German manufacturer Dörken understood the importance of COVID-related lockdowns early on. Sales and sales processes needed to be digitized — quickly — and people needed to continue selling to buyers they had cultivated deep, longstanding relationships with by reimagining those relationships digitally.

Dörken is a manufacturer of industrial coatings and sells industrial paint and paint products to wholesalers. “The paradox of manufacturing is that usually the production processes are state-of-the-art, but the sales team finds it hard to let go of their traditional way of doing things,” says the head of digital at Dorken. “And that’s also true of the wholesalers who buy from us. Their outlook and practices are – or were – very similar.”

COVID has created a context in which an industry that was not particularly receptive to digital transformation has had to adapt to its inevitability. Dörken has made this easier by making the new digital processes as recognizable as possible. A trade show for wholesalers featured live interactive demonstrations of new ideas or products, with lively Q&As to mimic the traditional trade show booth as much as possible.

“At first we were worried that no one would listen or that the wholesalers would fall asleep, but that didn’t happen. We kept the sessions short and fast,” says the digital manager.

The digital breakfast meetings were made more engaging through gamification: attendees earned points for watching 60 minutes of video or clicking company links, which made them eligible for a weekly prize.

These digital encounters are gaining momentum, especially now that Dörken has built his own studio to host them. “It gives us more control and gives us more possibilities,” says its digital manager. “Events are getting more sophisticated with breakout sessions to further engage our customers with new products.”

Dörken knew the message had gotten through to wholesalers when several of them approached the company for help in digitizing their own processes. “And now we have come full circle so to speak and are helping our customer base in their digital transformation, by digitizing our ecosystem.

“Everyone in the industry agrees, even our older salespeople: there is no turning back,” concludes Dörken’s head of digital.

How B2B sales teams pivoted

B2B companies have adapted in different ways. Fruit and vegetable wholesalers who could no longer sell to restaurants and hotels began to sell directly to consumers. Brewers have also turned to the D2C business model as their traditional route to market has been closed.

Businesses had to think fast to digitize sales workflows. A good example is an English textile company with a large export market in Milan, one of the first regions in Europe to be battered by the pandemic.

Travel being impossible, sales reps could no longer show up in person to show buyers a sample book, as they used to do two or three times a year. The textile manufacturer had no choice but to digitize its entire collection of fabric samples, comprising some 10,000 references.

Buyers in Milan and elsewhere can inspect all samples digitally; they can zoom in and get all the product details and check a box next to the ones they want to request physical samples from. This is where the hybrid sales approach comes in. Sales representatives in England check sample orders and add value by suggesting that if you like this colour/material/price, you may also like that, and they send additional samples to the customer.

Thus, with the time saved on travel, salespeople can put their expertise and knowledge of the customer to good use in a more advisory approach.

Towards composable sales

Sales activities, like the digital experience platform (DXP) that supports them, become “composable” in nature as the sales rep moves seamlessly between social media, web conferencing, online meetings, face-to-face and emails to cement customer engagement. The success of hybrid selling depends on the reps, their customers, the warehouse, and the company’s fulfillment partner all getting the same real-time, up-to-date product and price information.

To anchor omnichannel to this single source of truth, it is crucial to deploy an API-driven DXP that integrates effortlessly with core systems where inventory and financial data is stored.

As analytics technologies advance, the consulting aspect of hybrid sales takes on greater importance, as the data helps the representative anticipate demands and developments that the buyer did not anticipate.

It’s selling without selling, where the representative works together with the customer to create business value, for the customer. This shift in focus from B2B to B4B is, as always in digital transformation, part cultural and part technological.

And just as technology will continue to advance, the role of the sales representative will continue to change. The latest development is the emergence of digital salesrooms, microsites where sales reps and B2B buyers collaborate and access content relevant to the sales cycle.

Buyers do not flow into a purchase in a linear or logical progression. Instead, they loop from site to site (or site to sales rep), across different devices. The advantage of digital auction rooms is that they offer buyers a single place, a point of reference, to which they can return throughout the cycle.

Buyers want to go it alone, but only half the time

B2B sales teams have skills and knowledge that cannot always be replicated digitally. Routine tasks of manually filling out order forms can hardly be considered a skill, and automation and digital self-service free up valuable time for sales reps.

Numerous statistics suggest that many B2B buyers would prefer to do business without the intervention of a sales representative, which is perfectly feasible for certain types of transactions, for example spare parts orders.

It’s no surprise that Millennials are the most committed to full digital autonomy, but even there it’s just over half (54%). The takeaway is that nearly half of millennial B2B buyers still need and want to talk to sales.

This is especially true for products and services that are highly configured or have complex pricing and discount structures.

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The digital transformation is constantly rewriting the job description of the salesperson, where consulting and data skills are increasingly highlighted.

Post-COVID, sales reps will remain a key part of the B2B e-commerce process.

The commercial is dead; long live the business!

More resources on sales reps and digital sales

How to Upgrade Your Sales Teams for Remote Success

Three Ways to Tailor Your Sales Content for Virtual Selling Success

How to Complete Distance Selling Challenges and Rise to the Top of the Rankings