I was delighted to be asked to contribute the following article to the International Journal of Sales Transformation's special report on "Emerging from the Pandemic". I chose to focus on issues that I believe B2B sales leaders should be prioritising in 2022. As always, I'd welcome your comments.
As we head towards 2022, sales organisations are emerging from a tumultuous two years. Across many markets and industries, the sales function has had to cope with transformational changes that have been compressed into a short period of time.
Inevitably, some sales organisations have managed to adapt better than others. They have embraced virtual working and are now trying to understand what the “new normal” is going to look like - almost inevitably some sort of hybrid model that combines digital, virtual and on-site selling.
Just as inevitably, some salespeople have managed to adapt better than others. The best and brightest have embraced new ways of working, mastered new skills and refocused their energies on redefining, identifying and engaging their most promising sales opportunities...
B2B buying behaviour has changed
But let’s not forget the customer in this picture. Changes in B2B buying behaviour that were already underway have been accelerated. Customer expectations have changed, and they have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that - even for complex buying decisions - an increasing amount of vendor interaction would be best handled through digital and self-service channels.
Regardless of what traditionalists might wish for, and even if a hybrid model of selling becomes the norm there it’s clear that there is no going back to the “good old pre-pandemic days” (which were in reality not that great, anyway).
So, if we accept that we face a world of continuing and potentially somewhat unpredictable change, what should B2B sales leaders be prioritising in 2022?
Start with your people
In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins shared this timeless advice for leaders: ‘If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’ This is as true today as it was when the book was first published in 2001.
The skills, experience and attitudes we need may have changed over time, but the fundamental principle remains the same. In complex B2B sales, no matter how much technology assists and enables them, we’re still going to need great salespeople.
But the competencies we expect them to master have evolved. Some of the changes are obvious. We need the salesperson of the future to be digitally adept, to be comfortable with hybrid selling and to make effective use of technology. But we also need them to be agile, adaptable, and have an always-be-learning attitude.
I don’t think this is age related. It is mindset related. We need to assess whether our existing salespeople and the people we plan to hire have the necessary DNA. We can’t achieve this through observation and interview alone. I believe sales leaders need to formally assess their current and potential sales organisation against the competencies they are going to need to succeed.
Adapting to the “everywhere customer”
In their recent research report, “The Future of B2B Sales”, Gartner identified that sales organisations need to embrace their existing and potential customer’s preference for what I’ll call hybrid buying - a combination of digital, self-service and personal interaction.
Sales leaders need to work with their marketing colleagues to ensure that customers are able to get the information they need, in the way and at the time they want to consume it. One of the obvious implications is that sales leaders need to ensure that this information is consistent, no matter how each customer chooses to consume it (and different customers will clearly have different preferences).
This also means that the old model in which marketing and sales “owned” the top and the bottom of the funnel respectively is utterly inappropriate to today’s buying behaviour. Marketing and sales now need to collaborate throughout the buying journey.
The salesperson as buying facilitator
One of the reasons why we need the right salespeople in the right seats on our sales bus (and heading in the right direction) is that B2B salespeople increasingly need to act not just as promoters of their so-called “solutions” but also as facilitators of their prospect’s buying decision process.
Gartner’s research has shown that one of the factors that stops an apparently promising sales opportunity turning into a sale is the customer’s buying decision group’s lack of confidence in the decision they are being expected to make - something that has been amplified by the increasing number of stakeholders in most complex buying decisions.
Rather than being primarily sources of information, salespeople increasingly need to demonstrate the ability to help their prospective customers cut through the clutter, to make sense of what might seem to be an overwhelming amount of potentially confusing and conflicting information, and to become confident in both the need for change, and in the choice of their preferred option.
This is particularly important where the project is a discretionary rather than an inevitable purchase, and where the buying group is on unfamiliar rather than familiar territory (for example, when they are trying to buy something they have little previous experience of).
A digitally competent salesforce
The past two years have been a “sink or swim” experience for many salespeople who had been used to working in a largely face-to-face selling environment. Many of those with no appetite or talent for this virtual selling landscape have already moved on (or been moved on).
I don’t believe that salespeople need to be digitally native - in fact if that’s all they are good at, they will struggle in a hybrid selling world, but I am convinced that they need to be digitally competent. They need to be as effective in managing a virtual meeting as they are when face to face with a prospect.
They need to make smart use of the tools that are available, whilst being cautious about trying to automate tasks that are still best done with some level of intelligent and sentient human involvement. They need to take advantage of digital platforms to collaborate with both their customers and their colleagues.
Laying the foundation for future technologies
Let’s be clear - artificial intelligence will inevitably have an increasingly important role in the B2B sales process, when properly and thoughtfully applied. It can already help to identify patterns that can help salespeople to make smarter, better-informed decisions.
AI will increasingly power transactional sales (and make many transactional salespeople redundant). Rather than automating salespeople out of complex B2B sales environments, I see AI as progressively supporting the sales process - perhaps in ways that we cannot currently anticipate or imagine.
But it is not a magic wand. The thoughtless application of AI and machine learning has - regrettably - made it easier for less intelligent salespeople and the organisations they work for do stupid things far faster than they could have done previously.
I believe that 2022 will be a year of thoughtful experimentation and application of appropriate AI technologies. Sales organisations that take this approach will inevitably find themselves on an accelerated learning curve that will prepare them to take full advantage of these new technologies as they mature.
Making your salespeople more effective
As you’ll gather from the above, I believe 2022 is a year in which enlightened sales organisations will ensure that they get the most out of their sales talent by equipping them to relate more effectively to the buyer’s changing priorities - and as a result, to both make 2022 a resounding success as well as laying a solid foundation for the future. What do you think?