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

A famous Forbes article tackled that question almost five years ago. Its title, "Death of a Salesman," is misleading because the author, Marie Wiese, did see a future for sales reps who were able to adapt to the brave new world of digital.

But that was before COVID-19 struck.

In this article, I'll revisit this subject in light of the lockdown experience, which resulted in the traditional sales channels of face-to-face contact and tradeshows closing overnight—for many months.

Sales teams did adapt, although it was a lot easier for B2B companies that were already making progress toward digital maturity.

The pandemic also accelerated thinking about how the role of sales reps will evolve from the hybrid model that Forbes envisioned in 2017.

The Battle for Omnichannel Has Been Won

In 2017, many B2B companies were still sitting on the fence about the necessity of committing to omnichannel e-commerce. Those doubts have since disappeared. A full 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. The lockdowns were decisive in altering perceptions; in April 2020, when COVID led to 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. A threefold increase has occurred in the proportion of B2B leaders who say omnichannel is "much more effective" than traditional sales methods in reaching and serving customers, the McKinsey research found. Nevertheless, at 33%, that level of belief in omnichannel has further to go.

The more digitally mature your company is, the better an omnichannel sales strategy works for you. A digital experience platform can give you the power and flexibility to create relevant and friction-free customer experiences; the role of Sales is to intervene at touchpoints in that journey where it can most profitably bring its expertise to bear.

That started to happen meaningfully when COVID struck, and sales reps had to pivot from face-to-face to fully realized digital selling.

Changing the Analog Mindset of Sales and Marketing

The German manufacturer Dörken grasped the significance of the COVID lockdowns early on. Sales and sales processes had to be digitalized—swiftly—and people would have to continue selling to the buyers with whom they had cultivated deep and long-standing relationships by reimagining those relationships digitally.

Dörken is a manufacturer of industrial coatings, and it sells to wholesalers in industrial paint and paint products. "The paradox of manufacturing is that usually the production processes are state of the art, but the sales team has a hard time letting go of its traditional way of doing things," says the head of digital at Dörken. "And this is also true of the wholesalers that buy from us. Their outlook and practices are—or were—very analog."

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

"At first we were scared no one would listen or that the wholesalers would fall asleep, but that did not happen. We kept the sessions short and snappy," says the head of digital.

Digital breakfast meetings were made more attractive through gamification: Participants won points by watching 60 minutes of video or by clicking on company links, making them eligible for a weekly prize.

Those digital encounters are gaining traction, especially now that Dörken has built its own studio to host them. "This gives us more control and gives us more possibilities," says its head of digital. "Events are getting more sophisticated with breakout sessions to get our customers more engaged in new products."

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

"Everyone in the industry is agreed, even our older salespeople: There is no going back," concludes Dörken's head of digital.

How B2B Sales Teams Pivoted

B2B businesses adapted in different ways. Fruit and vegetable wholesalers that could no longer sell to restaurants and hotels began to sell directly to consumers. Brewers also pivoted to the D2C business model as their traditional route to market was closed.

Businesses had to think on their feet to digitalize sales workflows. A good example of that is an English textiles company with a significant export market in Milan, one of the first areas in Europe to be laid low by the pandemic.

Travel was impossible, so sales reps could no longer turn up in person to show the buyers a swatch book, as they had been used to doing two or three times a year. The textiles manufacturer had no choice but to digitalize its entire collection of fabric swatches, comprising some 10,000 SKUs.

Buyers in Milan and elsewhere can inspect all the swatches digitally; they can zoom in and get full product details and mark a checkbox next to the ones they want to request physical samples of. That's where the hybrid sales approach comes into play. Sales reps back in England check the sample orders and add value by suggesting that if you like this color/material/price, you might also like that, and they send additional samples to the customer.

Accordingly, with the time saved on travel, sales reps can use their expertise and knowledge of the customer in a more consultancy-type approach.

Toward the Composable Sales Rep

Sales activities, like the digital experience platform (DXP) that supports them, become "composable" in nature as the sales rep moves fluidly among social networks, Web conferencing, face-to-face meetings, and email 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 up-to-date real-time information about products and prices.

To anchor omnichannel to that single source of truth, it is crucial to deploy an API-led DXP that integrates effortlessly with the core systems where inventory and financials are stored.

As the technologies of analytics advance, the consultancy aspect of hybrid sales assumes a greater importance, as the data helps the rep anticipate demands and developments the buyer had not foreseen.

That's sales without selling, where the rep works in collaboration with the customer to create business value—for the customer. That shift in emphasis 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 rep will continue to change. The latest development is the emergence of digital sales rooms—microsites where sales reps and B2B buyers collaborate and access content that is relevant to the sales cycle.

Buyers do not move toward a purchase in a linear or logical progression. Instead, they loop from site to site (or from site to sales rep), across different devices. The advantage of digital sales rooms is that they give buyers a single location—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. The routine tasks of manually completing order forms can hardly be considered a skill, and automation and digital self-service is freeing up valuable time for sales reps.

A lot has been made of statistics that suggest many B2B buyers would prefer to do business without the intervention of a sales rep altogether, which is perfectly feasible for certain types of transaction—orders of spare parts, for instance.

It comes as no surprise that Millennials feel most strongly about complete digital autonomy, but even there it is barely more than half (54%). The takeaway is that almost half of millennial B2B buyers still need and want to talk to Sales.

That is particularly true for products and services that are highly configured, or where the pricing and discount structures are complex.

* * *

Digital transformation is constantly rewriting the sales rep's job description, wherein consultancy and data skills are increasingly coming to the fore.

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

The sales rep is dead; long live the sales rep!

More Resources on Sales Reps and Digital Sales

How to Upgrade Your Sales Teams for Remote Success

Three Ways to Adapt Your Sales Content for Virtual Selling Success

How to Conquer Remote Selling Challenges and Reach the Top of the Leaderboard

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It's 2022: Do You Know Where Your Sales Reps Are?

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image of Su Kent

Su Kent is the content and communications director at Ibexa, a digital experience platform. Having worked in the software industry for 20+ years, Su joined Ibexa to build brand awareness through digital marketing, influencer relations, and customer community.

LinkedIn: Su Kent