Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of a Salesman” chronicles the demise of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman as he slips into senility and eventually death. The story, a social commentary, highlights the potential fate awaiting a person unable (or unwilling) to change when experiencing severe levels of stress.
While maybe not as extreme as Loman’s predicament, today’s salespeople have undoubtedly experienced prolonged stress during the pandemic. Being in a state of perpetual lockdown, salespeople have been unable to travel and meet with clients. And even if they were able to travel, there were no customers to meet, since those folks were all working from home.
Is It Kaput for the B2B Salesperson?
The sudden transition from office to work from home drove workers of all stripes to become more self-sufficient in everything from how they run meetings to how they evaluate and select software tools for their teams. As a result of physical remoteness, during the pandemic business buyers became less reliant on traditional salespeople to learn about new products and services.
Does that mean it’s kaput for the B2B salesperson? I don’t think so. In fact, the human touch is more important to B2B sales than ever before, albeit in a completely new way. The challenge is understanding this new opportunity and how best to transition to the new role.
To understand the new role for salespeople, it’s important to understand key market trends, including an increase in B2B buying cycle complexities, changes to B2B buying patterns and widespread availability of sales-enablement tools.
Let’s examine each of these trends, in turn.
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Buying Cycle Is More Complex
The universal availability to product information and trial offers has vastly increased participation in the buying process, by many new business stakeholders. As a result, the typical B2B buying cycle has become more complex. According to a recent Gartner report entitled, “5 Ways the Future of B2B Buying Will Rewrite the Rules of Effective Selling,” the number of individual stakeholders involved in a typical B2B purchase 10 years ago was five; now that number is 11, and it occasionally flexes up to 20.
Similarly, a Forrester Research survey entitled, “Three Seismic Shifts In Buying Behavior,” found the number of buying interactions (i.e. the number steps in the buying journey) jumped from 17 to 27 on average during the pandemic.
This prolonged buying cycle naturally increases the amount of information to which buyers are exposed. This product "information overload" leads to serious consequences.
For one, as the amount of information increases, paradoxically, it becomes more difficult for buyers to make a buying decision — a psychological condition known as the "paradox of choice."
Also, because digital experiences of self-service buying are largely undifferentiated, customers struggle to see nuanced differences among suppliers. And without the intervention of salespeople to sense of it all, buyers struggle to make sense of all the information. The result? According to Gartner, customers who prefer rep-free buying, experience 23% higher buyer’s remorse.
So, there is clearly an opportunity for humans in B2B sales, but what exactly?
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Changes in Buying Patterns
Changes in the buying cycle depend on the type of product being evaluated. A recent McKinsey study entitled “B2B Sales: Omnichannel everywhere, every time” found that lower value, less complex sales are being done more online while first-time, high-value and complex sales still require the human touch. For those high-value sales:
- 76% of respondents describe in-person meetings as an indication of how much a supplier values a relationship.
- 72% say videoconferencing is just as good as in-person meetings.
Unfortunately, only 20% of B2B sellers say they are as effective at selling virtually as they are in-person, which explains why 74% of CSOs say they are currently updating their seller skills profile for virtual selling.
So, there is clearly an opportunity for humans in B2B (remote) sales, but what is it?
New Digital Tools, New Rules
COVID pandemic lockdowns hastened the proliferation of sales-enablement, marketing-automation and AI tools geared to reducing the dependence on human interaction during the sales process. Examples of such tools include digital sales rooms, digital content management and analytics and engagement tools. These tools simplify and automate some of the traditional salespeople tasks, like deciding which sales collateral to send to potential clients or calculating the best time to reach out to prospects with offers.
To be sure, these tools provide a lot of value, but they leave gaps in the buying process, gaps that provide opportunities for a new generation of B2B salespeople.
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Salespeople Help Make Sense of It All
While new automation tools have a place in B2B sales, no matter how good they get, they are not going are not going to replace salespeople any time soon. The ability for humans to understand context, nuance and to synthesize complex requirements into suitable solutions will not be replicated in software anytime soon.
This is the opportunity for tomorrow’s salespeople; to intercede in the buying process by providing advice that can only be perceived by human intellect. But those human interactions need to occur at strategic points during the sales process, exactly at those points where potential buyers need help making sense of all the information they have collected. Notably, these points occur during all stages of the buying process; specifically:
- Problem Identification: Help the customer frame the problem in terms of the organization’s business goals.
- Solution Exploration: Scoping the capabilities of the solution in terms of the defined problem and making sense of conflicting and overlapping options.
- Requirements Building: Help define the capabilities needed to solve the core problem.
- Vendor Selection: Provide context to make sense of competing vendor’s claims.
Renaissance (of the Sales) Man
Engaging at the right time with the right touch is the key to the success of the modern salesperson. The new role for salespeople is to help customers achieve their business goals through consultative selling and by guiding them through digital touchpoints, rather than selling product. Today’s salesperson will be successful when they can help their customers achieve their business goals, not simply pick the best product for the job. This new collaborative partnership involves a new level of "give and take" where customers confide their business strategies and salespeople provide professional advice and direction.
This transition will not be easy because it requires a change in mindset and behavior. Not everyone is built for change. Bill Rago was. The down and out executive portrayed by Danny DeVito in the 1994 movie Renaissance Man faced a choice of transitioning into a new role; in his case, from an advertising exec to becoming a teacher in the US Army. Against all odds, Rago made the change, and both he and his students became happy with his new role.
The choice is yours. Do you want to end up as Willy Loman or as tomorrow’s B2B sales “Renaissance Man?” As Bill Rago himself concludes, “All I know is the choices we make dictate the life we lead. To thine own self be true.”