The process of business-to-business (B2B) buying is changing. Buyer expectations, demographics and channels are shifting so quickly that sales organizations are fighting to stay relevant to their customers. Yet with all the focus on buying, what’s happening to the other half of that equation -- selling?
In 2017, Andy Hoar published the evocatively titled “Death of a (B2B) Salesman: Two Years Later.” It examined the likely role for sales execs by the year 2020, and how in some cases that role may disappear entirely. Yet despite the shift to digital, he also saw an enhanced role for certain kinds of B2B salespeople and how fulfilling the needs of complex sales aligned with complex buying processes.
CSO Insights’ “Anatomy of a World-Class Sales Organization” (registration required) paints a similar picture -- one in which the role of the sales exec, powered by technology, could become the critical differentiator in the sales process itself, as they can take data and turn it into usable insights into buyer needs.
In fact, with product life cycles accelerating, and online sales channels delivering global access to customers, your digitally enabled B2B sales rep may be one of your most potent differentiators. Yet how can businesses utilize sales execs more powerfully at precisely the same time as more buyers gravitate toward digital channels just so that they don’t have to speak to a person?
The answer is to allow the role of the B2B sales team to evolve to meet the demands of the digital business. This role changes from the facilitator of the process -- hitting quotas and hunting for new opportunities -- to adding essential value at every step of the buying cycle in only the ways that the buyer needs. This places a huge burden on your sales teams. The sales exec must connect more directly to their buyer’s needs and more quickly than their competitors if they expect to deliver the differentiated experience that is becoming the primary criteria for competitive selection.
In other words, the new B2B seller needs to be more agile and better informed than their competitor if they want to win.
While digitally enabling your sales force through technologies like CRM is a standard practice, increasingly there is a desire to supplement not just the process of handling information but also the quality of information and insight available to sales execs. Better and more thorough information will enable sales teams to predict what buyers need, even ahead of the buyer themselves. It will provide the capacity to deliver a truly consultative selling interaction and therefore will not only improve competitive win rates but potentially help grow revenue with each customer.
Doing so, however, requires the sales executive to have encyclopedic knowledge and access to a slew of rapidly changing factors, from supplier costs to contract requirements. And as the complexity and speed of business accelerates, so does the need to ingest and understand greater volumes of raw data.
As I’ve written before, the ability to deliver actionable, prescriptive insight in highly complex, global businesses is going to be produced more and more by task-focused, dynamic AI tools.
You likely interact with a number of these AI tools daily. Many e-commerce sites utilize the “customers who bought that also bought this …” type of recommendation. Here, a task-specific AI tool has learned what sets of products tend to go together to offer suggestions on what else you might buy. Likewise, video streaming services try to learn what you like in order to continue to serve similar types of content in the future.
Now, extend that idea to members of a B2B sales force who need to quickly understand future buyer behavior. AI technologies can be trained to process transactions and extract from them the key insights into what a buyer needs now, how they like to buy and even how much value there is in the products they purchase.
For sales leads looking to take advantage of AI technologies, the most important first step is to have a long conversation with your sales and marketing technology teams. AI projects stand or fall on the data you feed them, and often that data is poorly curated or downright neglected. Start by asking some basic questions:
Where is the data held? (It’s likely to be in more places than just your CRM.)
- Who maintains data integrity?
- How many databases are there? (Many organizations have multiple databases that hold overlapping, partial or even contradictory information.)
- How much data is there on our customers and sales transactions?
- Have we considered General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) yet?
This last question is important because dealing with the privacy demands of GDPR, even for U.S. companies, can have a significant impact on the ability of your customer data to support an AI-based sales tool project.
Nevertheless, with the right data preparation, and a realistic appraisal of the work involved to get there, the project can move forward and start to deliver the kind of supplemental guidance that will soon become the norm for the AI presence in businesses. While some have sounded the alarm that AIs might be replacing jobs, a more realistic perspective is that jobs are complex, and AIs are much more likely to automate tasks within those jobs rather than the whole thing. In the case of B2B sales teams, AIs won’t replace them; they will enhance their capability to focus on the core part of the job -- making customers successful.
Soon, B2B sales execs will expect this kind of AI-driven insight as a standard part of their business tools in much the same way that they expect access to a CRM, email and a phone.
The two-headed nature of the sales exec (one human, one AI) will present a new model for selling -- a model that is more informed, more agile and more attuned to delivering what the customer wants, even before the customer knows they need it.
Long live the new B2B salesman and his AI friend.