The B2B sales profession is under tremendous, unprecedented pressure. With Forrester forecasting the elimination of one million B2B sales roles and frequent media coverage of how AI and other technologies will replace salespeople, it can feel like the entire sales profession is on a foundation of quicksand.
So what’s going on in B2B sales?
Here are five major challenges the B2B sales profession must understand and respond to.
1. A savvier, more knowledgeable buyer
Buyers have wholeheartedly embraced the digital world, which has totally transformed the buying process. As recently as 10 years ago, buyers relied on the knowledge and expertise of salespeople to find the right solutions for their business challenges. Today, with the rise of online reviews, video product guides and tutorials, FAQs and e-commerce platforms, the majority of buyers complete the bulk of their buying journey before ever contacting a salesperson.
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In fact, according to SiriusDecisions, 67% of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally, while CEB says 57% of the buying process is completed before the customer even engages with a sales representative. When they do engage, it’s often only to process their order.
2. An increasingly complex buying process
Corporate buying processes have become more complex. This is largely due to the rise of the buying committee. Significant purchases often mean change for the buyer’s company and so there will be a plethora of people involved in the decision. According to CEB, an average of 6.8 people are involved with corporate buying decisions and up to 17 in complex enterprise-level decisions. This means sales representatives are rarely dealing with a single buyer, as even senior staff — including CEOs — have limits on their decision-making and buying authority.
Building up business cases and aligning the right folks to get your deal through the buying committee takes a lot of skill that goes way beyond traditional ‘relationship’ or product-selling skills.
3. Product commoditisation
Increased commoditisation of products and services is a fact of life. As products and markets, especially technology products, have become more mature, it has become harder to maintain competitive advantage and differentiation. If we have product and feature advantages they are usually transient and not enough to win deals on their own. Customers just see a ‘sea of sameness’ with multiple vendors able to address their requirements.
It becomes more critical to differentiate with our sales capability and make sales interactions memorable. If we don’t then price becomes the key decision-making factor.
4. Significantly higher CX expectations
According to a Walker study, by 2020 customer experience (CX) will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, and 86% of buyers will pay more for better customer experience. Additionally, with more businesses focusing on delivering outstanding experiences to their customers — both in the B2C and the B2B space — buyers won’t settle for anything less than a stellar experience. And they will judge their experience throughout the sales process as indicative of their likely experience once they become customers. According to research conducted by Zendesk, 62% of B2B buyers purchased more after a good customer service experience, while 66% stopped buying after a bad customer service experience.
With everyone focused on delivering great CX to their customers, winning new customers and dislodging incumbent suppliers becomes harder. And it won’t just be our sales capabilities and relationships that will determine our sales success, great CX has become table stakes to even get a seat at the table.
5. The impact of technology on the sales function
Many sales roles selling lower value products have already been eliminated as customers get more comfortable buying online and companies divert more resources to e-commerce platforms. The use of AI, chatbots and other technologies are helping consumers to make routine purchases just as or more efficiently as they would have with salespeople.
From a business perspective, replacing the sales function with technology has a significant impact on the bottom line, which means many vendor businesses are looking for an opportunity to replace the sales function with technology, putting many salespeople, teams and leaders in a precarious position. The sales teams that will survive are those that effectively augment their processes with tech to increase their productivity and value exponentially. Those that don’t just won’t be competitive.
The digital revolution enabled buyers to build an advantage over sellers and I believe that overall buyers have gotten better at buying faster than sellers have gotten better at selling. But there is a new breed of sales leader that understands these challenges well and knows how to address them, those that are transforming their teams aggressively are enjoying huge success in this new environment.