Prior to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, most B2B sales organizations were divided up along neatly defined lines with inside sales, outside sales and ecommerce all serving more or less separate functions and separate customer types.
Fast forward to 2023 and those lines have definitely blurred. After the Covid-19 shutdowns effectively made all salespeople inside salespeople, the boundaries that once delineated these two groups and ecommerce from each other became irrelevant. What mattered most was servicing the customer during a time of great upheaval and uncertainty.
Three years on, many sales organizations have discovered they have much better results with this new hybrid-sales team approach, where inside sales reps, outside reps and ecommerce overlap with the customer at the center, said Claudia Hughes, senior vice president and chief sales officer at Global Industrial, a B2B supplier of maintenance, repair and operations equipment. Prior to Global, Hughes spent 27 years selling office equipment and supplies.
“When you're talking about hybrid sales organization, you're really talking about team selling,” she said. “I don't need to have 1,000 people in the field. No company does. Because you can touch so many more people with an inside organization.”
This does not imply that outside sales teams have become unnecessary, she added. They are still important. Site visits and handshaking are very much a part of high-dollar B2B sales, particularly when they involve engineered solutions.
“So if you were ... doing a huge expansion and you're talking to your inside account manager about conveyor belts, I'm going to send my person in Dallas to go check out your application and probably find a lot of other opportunities that will help us build our pipeline,” Hughes said.
Prior to COVID, Global Industrial was set up like a traditional sales operation. Today, it has embraced the hybrid sales concept and combined it with a robust ecommerce website that often serves as its customers’ first stop along the buyers’ journey.
“Customers are now saying, I can be reliant on ecommerce to basically take me 70 to 80 percent of the way and then engage with my salesperson when I'm at that transition point,” said Hughes. “If it's one air compressor, I can buy it myself. If I have a huge project, maybe I'll give Mike [their account rep] a call or ... an inside salesperson can take the sale a really long way.”
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COVID Served as the Accelerant for B2B Buying Trend
Like so many other changes to the world we live in today, Covid served as an accelerant to a B2B buying trend begun many years before with the consumerization of B2B sales, said Candace Lun Plotkin, a partner in McKinsey’s growth, marketing and sales practice. Basically, business buyers have for years wanted the same frictionless experience that they experienced in their personal lives.
According to McKinsey’s April 2023 B2B Pulse — Global Edition survey, The Multiplier Effect: How B2B Winners Grow, “Companies that increased hybrid sales teams by more than 10 percent are 79 percent more likely to be market share winners.”
To explain business buyers’ purchasing preferences today, Plotkin uses the Rule of Thirds: a third of buyers want to see someone face-to-face, a third are happy with a remote interaction and a third are comfortable buying online. Of course, what they're buying, how big a purchase it is, and how much help they need with products and services, all factor into when each of these touchpoints is required.
“The really interesting thing about hybrid teams is they can operate face-to-face, they can operate remotely,” said Plotkin. “They're really well equipped also to bring in ecommerce and every other possible channel. They're natural orchestrators of this omnichannel experience. That really is what buyers are looking for.”
Buyers’ comfort level making very large purchases online is another change COVID accelerated. Today, business buyers are willing to spend millions of dollars online without ever seeing a salesperson. According to McKinsey’s survey, B2B buyers’ willingness to spend $10 million or more online has increased by 83 percent.
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Getting to Know You: Personalization
Another aspect of B2B sales that hybrid teams are able to capitalize on is personalization. In the past, outside salespeople definitely had the edge when it came to knowing their customers. Today, with the hybrid approach, outside reps can share that knowledge with inside salespeople. And, with the ubiquitous use of video calling, inside salespeople also have the ability to literally see into their clients’ facilities as well as read body language, said Hughes.
When integrated with the extensive use of customer data regarding purchasing history and intent, along with features such as next-best-action or next-best-product recommendations and chatbots to enhance ecommerce interactions, the hybrid approach increasingly provides exceptional service to customers.
“I'm a firm believer that technology should not be the tail that wags the dog,” said Plotkin. “However, the role of technology is quite significant here. Because, done right, it is the glue that facilitates knowing what the customer did before and what you hope they will do next. And it facilitates working across the channels. We have a lot of data that shows companies that are using advanced sales technology are driving much more significant share gains.”