Recent rapid shifts in three primary strategic forces have made it imperative to change how enterprise sales teams engage with customers.
First, the macro-economic dynamics related to the global remote work phenomenon have forced sales teams to adopt remote selling as their primary process, compared with traditional in-person meetings that have dominated sales strategies for decades. This is a paradigm that will continue well after the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.
The second critical change is the demand for frictionless customer-driven engagement. This was underway well before the 2020 pandemic and has been significantly influenced by individuals’ B2B online research and buying behaviors. As e-commerce has grown dramatically since the mid-2000s, consumers have become more and more insistent on a high- performance digital customer experience, which is now translating into their expectations for their buying processes at work.
The third revolution in the modern enterprise is the co-existence of four generations of employees within the same organization, each exhibiting different operating behaviors. These multi-generational requirements have made it imperative for companies (and their vendors and partners) to create flexible engagement models suited to optimizing how different individuals consume information and make decisions.
What implications do these changes have with respect to the processes, roles and technologies on which enterprises rely?
One Size Does Not Fit All
The products and solutions that B2B companies offer range from simpler (sometimes more commoditized) products to highly complex (often custom engineered) solutions. It makes sense to create engagement models tailored to the kinds of questions and decisions that customers need for these distinctive offerings.
At the lower end of complexity, the market will shift to a highly self-service model, where customers interact with digital systems at all stages of their omnichannel problem-solving journeys, from early-stage research, up to and including the final transaction stage. Digital systems are also appropriate post purchase to provide all the guidance and assistance that customers need to track their orders, perform installation functions, troubleshoot problems and perform maintenance operations.
At the high end, where more complex products or services require specific engineering services, computer-assisted processes will form a basis for customers and vendors to share information, evaluate alternatives and inform decisions.
Specialists and experts from both organizations will play key roles in these processes (as they do today), but they will also benefit from the optimization of the solutions and the processes due to increasingly intelligent and interactive digital platforms.
In between these extremes of complexity, a digitally augmented process will become the primary engagement model, wherein customers can use either human or digital interactions depending on the individual’s level of knowledge, their preference for self-guided or assisted workflows, and their own psychographics and behaviors.
These transformations are not just technological, they are also role transformations for enterprise sales professionals such as sales development representatives (SDRs), account executives (AEs), systems/sales engineers (SEs), and even post- sales services. Rather than answering questions about speeds and feeds, all seller personas are now required to provide strategic analysis of a customer’s situational fit. Particularly with more complex solutions and processes, they become an integral part of the customers’ problem-solving process, further building trust and alignment between the customer and the vendor/partner.
The primary technology enablers for these different engagement levels are visually interactive digital customer experiences, customer engagement platforms, artificial intelligence and digital collaboration solutions.
Interactive Digital Customer Experiences
Cognitive science has shown that humans do not absorb or retain complex information unless they are highly focused.
This is especially true in distracting environments such as websites or virtual events. In order to help prospective buyers understand and remember a company’s complex competitive differentiators, it is important to ensure that they are paying attention.
When sales or marketing communicates highly complex information in the same manner to a variety of people, this will result in a lack of consistency in audience comprehension of these key facts. That is the exact moment in time to provide individuals with the ability to interactively discover relevant information for themselves, rather than relying on a message delivered to them by a person or a Web page.
Interactive engagement is a key requirement because research has shown that when individuals are passive in an information transfer process (such as watching a video or a slide presentation), they lack the attention needed to learn, understand and retain complex information. By being actively involved, their attention is highly focused, allowing them to learn at their own pace and in their own sequence.
Understanding and retaining information is based on a combination of:
- Multi-sensory interaction – Touch, mouse actions, sight, sound, etc.
- Relevant knowledge transfer – They choose where to go in the experience based on their interests
- Building an emotional connection – Their sense of agency and control releases higher amounts of dopamine, resulting in heightened pleasure
This kind of digital interaction serves the needs of customers and vendors by creating consistency for both sales and marketing in how customers engage with the company at all phases of their omnichannel journey.
The Emergence of Artificial Intelligence
In 21st century corporations, judicious investment in automation to augment the sales experience is critical to providing agility and consistency at scale. According to Gartner, 68% of sales organizations are planning to increase their sales tech spend. In 2022, they identified seven sales tech disruptions as:
- Multi-sensory sales experience
- Generative AI of outbound messages
- Metaverse-ready with AR/VR
- Emotion AI
- Digital Twin of the Customer – predictive customer engagement
- Digital Humans – augmented customer experience
- Machine Customers – human-to-machine and machine-to-machine selling
Service Providers – Human-to-human relationship selling is still very much alive when deep technical knowledge of complex solutions remain paramount. However, they may choose to meet in the “real-verse” for a multi-sensory demo or in the Metaverse to design solutions for bespoke outcomes.
Enterprise – Human-to-human enhanced selling with a tool stack provides omni-channel communication to meet customers in their preferred manner (from Web to virtual collaboration, to in-person) while evolving from just-in-time enablement to serving up predictive in-workflow customer engagement that may include content created by generative AI.
Mid-Market – Augmented selling with a healthy tool implementation can automate the mundane parts of engagement to provide efficiency for when human buyers choose to engage with human sellers only after they’ve hit the limit of their own self-service with or without the aid of a digital human. Think AI-assisted sales cadence, call coaching, calendar integrations, mutual action plans, etc.
SMB – Automated selling with a robust tool stack across marketing, sales, and customer success is already taking shape to save time on renewals and other frictionless transactions where AI can provide predictive sizing, contract, payment, and fulfillment for machine to machine transactions.
As digitally native generations who prefer no or low live interaction with sellers mature into roles as influencers and even decision makers, we must respect how and when they want to interact, whether asynchronously or in-person. A generation of YouTube learners has a voracious appetite for efficient consumption of digitally curated experiences and low tolerance for navigating through inefficient processes.
Digital Collaboration and Consensus Building
Research has shown that enterprise buying has become significantly more complex. As the increasing number of roles has become integral to making purchase decisions (e.g. IT, operations, procurement, security, facilities, customer experience, etc.), sales cycles have increased correspondingly.
Much of the increase in sales cycles is due to the linear nature of interdepartmental problem-solving and decision- making. Once a solution is evaluated by one group, it is sent along to the next group for its review, and so on. The compounding factor is the inherent iteration of the process — when one group asks questions or makes changes, the previous buying/decision-making teams must re-engage to accommodate these new factors.
It would be optimal to find ways to help teams engage in problem-solving and decision-making together — sharing their groups’ needs, requirements and concerns so the collective team can evaluate alternatives concurrently.
Because of the remote nature of much of the enterprise workforce, bringing disparate teams together has become increasingly difficult, while simply hosting a video conference has been shown to be less effective as a problem-solving forum. What is needed are digital collaboration solutions that address the key needs and value for each stakeholder while allowing for engaging participation. This new generation of interactivity (i.e. multi-user, concurrent interactions in the same digital workspace) will transform the company’s internal decision process and reduce unnecessary decision-making delays.
Digital-Enabled Process and Transformation
The next generation of enterprise sales and marketing organizations will thrive not because they have tactically adjusted their methods and tools, but because they have strategically revolutionized the way they do everything. At the heart of this revolution is the need to focus on customer outcomes and experience rather than what the company is trying to sell. Based on this philosophy, the sales process is designed around who customers are, what critical challenges they face, when and where they prefer to interact with the vendor, and how they make decisions.
These transformations are digitally-enabled, but they are not limited to the technology. They include all aspects of the go-to- market strategy. The foremost priority regarding how the next generation sales and marketing teams work is to facilitate a digitally augmented frictionless customer’s experience at the center of every decision, giving them control of the process, timing and venues for how they collaborate with their partners/ vendors.
This transformation will require a confluence of key digital platforms, technologies and bold vision that is not for the faint- hearted. Rather, this future will be built by those who believe in creating a culture of continuous innovation.