Digital Selling: New B2B Capabilities to Build Competitive Advantage in the Age of Elusive Buyer

Chris Hergesell, Executive Director, Ernst & Young LLP
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Chris Hergesell, Executive Director, Ernst & Young LLP

Chris Hergesell, Executive Director, Ernst & Young LLP

Business-to-business sales are still largely an analog world. Salespeople continue to call prospective customers, go to meetings in offices and attend conferences. Their use of digital technologies is typically relegated to email or calendar systems and the unloved, often underutilized, CRM system. However, this is changing very quickly, and organizations that fail to build digitally enabled sales organizations may find it difficult to compete.

  To be relevant in this changing environment, sales must build new digital selling capabilities 

Consumerization of B2B Buying

Customers are becoming increasingly elusive—harder to find and harder to keep—because of two key factors. First, the level of competition and disruption has increased dramatically. Customers are finding more product and service options than ever before as product life cycles become shorter and shorter. Second, B2B buyers have become more empowered. They are educating themselves about their options through more transparent marketplaces, online content and digital communities, and social media. According to IDC, more than 50 percent of a buyer’s decision-making is complete before ever contacting a sales rep. In short, B2B buying behavior is starting to look more and more like B2C.

In this environment, traditional sales tactics often fail. More than 90 percent of buyers don’t respond to cold calls—and yet 74 percent of buyers choose the company that is the first to add value. Sales organizations must change how they sell to respond to changing buying behavior.

Selling Must Evolve

To be relevant in this changing environment, sales must build new digital selling capabilities. These capabilities allow sales to engage these elusive buyers earlier in the buying process, better understand their needs and respond with appropriate value propositions and solutions. This necessitates developing a foundational set of technologies that comprise four key components:

1) Social networking: Social media and digital communities should be used to establish and build relationships with customers. Organizations that do “social selling” well empower their sales teams with tools to better identify, establish, curate and maintain customer relationships at scale—typically through the dominant business-oriented social media platforms we are all familiar with. Sales reps use these platforms to find prospective buyers and a means to engage. They identify key stakeholders at their target accounts and look for commonalities such as shared educational or work experience and common relationships. Or they listen for what people are saying in these digital communities—what articles they’re posting, what comments they’re tweeting—and use that to understand the buyers’ agendas. Armed with this information, sales reps can connect with their targets and engage in a way that begins to build trust.

2) Relationship intelligence: Of course, not all available information resides in social media. A number of organizations are now beginning to harness their existing relationship data to enable digital selling. Using tools and analytics that sit between the company’s calendar or email server, CRM system and ERP system, a company can empower sales teams with tremendous insights about their customers. By monitoring calendar or email activity and looking for patterns, organizations can understand the strength and evolution of relationships at the individual and company level. Bringing in customer interaction information from customer service platforms and the account receivable system provides insights into the ongoing quality of the relationship. Combining that with the active opportunities in CRM enables sophisticated sales pipeline analytics that enable organizations to make better decisions about how to deploy sales assets to maximize winnability.

3) Sales and marketing integration: As organizations move to digital selling, they must not only be able to understand relationships, they must empower their sales teams to build relationships by engaging customers and prospects with compelling marketing content. To accomplish this at scale, marketing and sales need to collaborate. As sales engages with customers earlier in their buying process through social and digital channels, sales collateral needs to be relevant to the buyer and digitally shareable and measurable. This necessitates a technology infrastructure that connects content development to marketing automation to social media management to employee advocacy to CRM to social listening. Stringing together these point solutions is complex, but it also enables organizations to integrate marketing and sales as never before. At the same time, it allows organizations to understand the impact of marketing efforts on pipeline and sales—the holy grail of return on marketing investment calculation.

4) Omnichannel experience: B2B selling is no longer the sole domain of the sales rep. Customers are expecting to be able to buy products and services however they choose, via whichever channel is best for them—be it from a field sales rep, an inside sales rep, resellers or agents or digital channels. While doing so, they are expecting a consistent experience. This necessitates a similarly consistent CRM and master data infrastructure and to be able to understand customer needs, preferences and history to be able to offer the right products or solutions at the right price through these myriad digitally-enabled channels.

Proof is in the Results

Many businesses investing in their digital selling capabilities are realizing tremendous benefits. Recently, one innovative EY client declared that it is seeing a return of $50 on every $1 invested in digital selling efforts. Given this enormous ROI, investment in digital selling seems self-evident. And yet most companies continue to operate their analog sales organizations as they always have. In the age of the elusive buyer, that could be a high-risk proposition.

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