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As B2B purchasers increasingly diversify their channel usage, it becomes imperative for B2B vendors to follow suit.
The concept of hybrid selling, initially an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is anticipated to evolve into the most prevalent sales strategy by 2024. This transformation is largely attributed to the changing preferences of customers and the emerging trend of remote-first interactions.
Notably, hybrid sales tactics have been observed to generate up to 50% more revenue. They achieve this by fostering a broader and more profound engagement with customers and accessing a more varied talent pool, as compared to conventional sales models.
B2B firms that are outperforming their peers are progressively transitioning towards a more hybrid sales workforce. They are adopting four key strategies that serve to facilitate this successful transformation.
Modern B2B customers have explicit expectations from their suppliers: an increased diversity of channels, enhanced convenience, and a personalized experience. They desire an optimal blend of face-to-face interactions, remote communication via phone or video, and self-service e-commerce throughout their purchasing journey. To adapt to this evolving dynamic, B2B companies must transition from 'traditional' and 'inside' sales models to 'hybrid' models that align with the customer's journey.
Our extensive research, which includes data from over 2,500 sales organizations, a decade's worth of interviews with sales executives, and our B2B Pulse data, provides clear evidence. More than 90 percent of businesses are planning to maintain the alterations implemented in their sales force structure over the previous year to facilitate hybrid selling. This approach is favored by customers, and it offers sellers the flexibility they seek in their work routines. To meet these objectives and enhance sales ROI, B2B sales organizations must continue their shift towards a hybrid, remote-first model and adopt four time-tested success factors.
Even before the pandemic, the transition towards a more hybrid, digitally-enabled sales model was gaining momentum. Our most recent B2B Pulse survey indicates that by 2024, hybrid sales are expected to be the most dominant sales strategy. In a market with numerous channels, both buyers and sellers not only plan to continue remote engagement but, interestingly, two-thirds of them prefer it over face-to-face interactions at many stages of purchasing.
Omnipresence of Omnichannel Sales:
Hybrid selling manages customer interactions across multiple touchpoints, making it a vital feature of the omnichannel ecosystem. Hybrid selling isn't merely a remote call center with salespeople operating from their home offices. It's a flexible, scalable, and often more profitable method of reaching buyers. It employs a mix of channels, including remote and e-commerce, to cater to customers according to their preferred buying locations. Due to its omnichannel character, it facilitates broader and deeper real-time customer engagement.
From the seller's perspective, as of December 2021, over 90 percent of B2B sales organizations considered the current B2B omnichannel model to be as effective or more effective in reaching and serving customers than it was prior to COVID-19. This percentage has steadily climbed from 54 percent since the pandemic's onset (Exhibit 1).
Likewise, B2B buyers are becoming more at ease utilizing digital and online channels to fulfill their purchasing requirements. Intriguingly, B2B buyers employ up to, and occasionally more than, ten channels, incorporating online and digital, for any single purchase. This figure is twice the number of channels used five years ago and represents an increase from seven channels just two years ago (Exhibit 2).
While buyers have readily adapted to the increasingly expansive omnichannel ecosystem, sales organizations have often lagged, questioning the extent of buyers' willingness to spend within a wholly remote or hybrid model. However, many buyers are indeed prepared to make substantial investments using remote or self-service models. Seventy-one percent of buyers are open to spending more than $50,000 in a single transaction, and 27 percent would even spend $500,000 or more.
Many buyers actually prefer these channels. When asked what they wanted most from their sales representative, one executive responded, "Please stop asking to meet with me in person. I'm already swamped as it is." Other executives appreciate the swift and convenient access to their suppliers' product and subject-matter experts that remote engagement offers. As one executive put it, "I no longer have to wait three months for a date when everyone can travel to the same location at the same time. I can consult with experts more frequently and on shorter notice." The ongoing impact of COVID-19 has rendered the logistics of in-person meetings challenging. Since the pandemic's onset, companies have announced office-space reductions of 20 to 50 percent and indefinitely extended full- or part-time work-from-home arrangements for their employees. This makes remote meetings easier and more practical for many buyers.
Sales teams are also increasingly at ease with a remote-first model. While some teams are keen to resume traveling, many are in no rush to return to the nomadic lifestyle. They believe that digital engagement serves just as effectively, largely due to enhanced technology connectivity.
Greater Reach, Greater Growth:
The most persuasive argument for the permanence of remote sales is its proven efficacy. Remote sales representatives can engage with four times as many accounts in the same timeframe and generate up to 50 percent more revenue. Even marginal shifts can yield substantial performance gains. B2B buyers seem to concur. In 2021, over two-thirds chose remote human interactions or digital self-service throughout the sales process. This underscores the necessity for sellers to provide a balanced mix of in-person, remote, and digital self-service interactions if they aim to meet buyers' expectations.
Four Strategies to Boost Hybrid Sales:
Successful teams invest in systematic changes to enhance remote sellers' ability to understand and react to customer needs by emphasizing agility, customer insights, capabilities, and technology. Concentrating on the following four areas can help other sales organizations join the ranks of the high achievers.
- Agility: Opt for Remote Where Feasible and Preferred by Customers, but Don't Entirely Abandon In-Person Sales Hybrid sales structures build on the pre-pandemic concept of inside sales, fostering an agile organization where the bulk of selling occurs virtually and resources are dynamically deployed in response to customer opportunities. In-person engagement isn't entirely eliminated but is reserved for specific accounts and pivotal moments—such as for substantial customers with intricate needs, or for critical opportunities like purchasing a new product or solution, where buyers have indicated their preference for face-to-face interaction.
Forty percent of customers using a new supplier prefer to purchase only if they've met the sales representative in person. Providing an opportunity for in-person engagement when customers prefer it is an interaction option that most sales organizations need to maintain.
Remote sales structures also offer increased planning flexibility for managers. Rather than reviewing account coverage annually, as is common, high-performing B2Bs update account priorities and reallocate resources as often as once a month. Flexible planning and teaming structures are also more suited to companies that predominantly sell solutions, as they facilitate collaboration between sellers and specialists across the business in designing the best-fit offerings for customers. Many high performers, for instance, establish dedicated marketing and engineering teams that assist sellers in working across product lines, translating technical specifications, and designing tailor-made offerings.
Lastly, part of embracing agility also involves understanding how and how often in-person interactions should take place, and aligning sales team expectations accordingly. For example, buyers express that they expect an equal balance of traditional (in-person), remote (video conference or phone), and self-service (e-commerce) interactions throughout the entire purchasing journey—the "rule of thirds." Achieving the right balance across channels requires organizations to listen and respond in a novel manner.
One Fortune 500 financial-services company utilized agility to adapt to shifting customer expectations and achieved 20 percent more customer meetings. At the onset of the pandemic, the organization experienced a decline in client engagement outside of traditional face-to-face meetings, and sales teams' confidence in remote-selling skills was self-reportedly low. The company turned to its customers to comprehend how they wished to be engaged and discovered that over 90 percent had not been asked about their engagement preferences since the pandemic began.
The company decided to take swift action. Cross-functional agile teams were deployed to address key issues, including determining the appropriate balance of remote and in-person sales engagement to meet evolving client needs, and identifying the new skills required to succeed in a remote-first selling environment. Taking a customer-backed view of the sales funnel led to a new approach and confirmed that customers preferred remote interactions for over 50 percent of sales activities.
In parallel, other teams adopted a test-and-learn approach to identify the necessary skills, content, capabilities, and technology to execute an omnichannel combined sales and marketing strategy. The results yielded a competitive edge: a more satisfied customer base, a more productive sales force, and a more diverse sales talent pool not limited by geographical location.
2. Insights: Leverage End-to-End Customer and Seller Insights In a hybrid setting:
The necessity for sales representatives to record accurate and detailed information in customer-relationship management (CRM) systems remains, but the returns are significantly higher. When qualitative and manual inputs are amalgamated with data from digital customer interactions, a more vibrant, timely set of actionable insights emerges. In a traditional, in-person-based sales model, many sales teams find it challenging to gather and analyze insights from the sales process. Collecting qualitative information is particularly difficult, as it depends on individual representatives taking precise notes, faithfully logging calls and meetings, and accurately recalling conversations. In a hybrid environment, collecting information and generating actionable insights becomes somewhat simpler, as digital and automated interactions can be automatically recorded and analyzed. Automated analytics can monitor customer interactions over digital channels, generate specific recommendations, and make knowledge sharing less frictional. Digital enablement and tooling systems also allow representatives to log notes more quickly, for instance through transcription of phone or video conversations.
During the sales process, emails, phone calls, and chats can be recorded and integrated into the CRM, creating a large data pool for activity analytics at the lead and opportunity level. This information can assist sellers in determining which buyers to prioritize and the most effective ways to utilize their time, ultimately informing go-to-market decisions, including segmentation, engagement channels, and content strategy.
For instance, at the top of the funnel, data around buyer expressions of interest can provide sellers with valuable signals, such as the duration a customer spends on a particular webpage, which reports or videos customers access, and which materials they are completely bypassing. One technology organization managed to launch campaigns three times faster by using behavioral insights and A/B testing to identify which marketing collateral was most informative and which enablement material was most effective in enhancing representative productivity. This approach allowed their sales team to prioritize the "warmest" leads and increased the quarterly lead-to-opportunity conversion rate by approximately 10 percent.
Another organization aimed to stimulate growth in its B2B business specifically, having identified the sales development rep (SDR) role as the overall bottleneck in lead-to-opportunity conversion. They restructured the team to specialize roles, enhance omnichannel sequences (digital and human touches), and route leads to different channels based on a newly implemented lead-scoring system. This led to a twofold increase in the SDR lead-to-appointment conversion rate and a fivefold increase in the appointment-to-opportunity conversion rate.
Connecting product-purchase data across product silos is another example of how customer behavior analytics can deliver sales impact. For instance, an e-learning company used a machine-learning algorithm to predict, based on historical purchase patterns and product usage, which customers in their install base would be most likely to purchase another product in the organization's portfolio. The exercise identified a 5 percent uplift in total revenue.
3. Technology: Optimize Tech for a Remote-First Environment
The pandemic has spurred the increased usage of a vast array of excellent technology tools that sales teams can utilize to their advantage—while also pleasing customers across all stages of the funnel. However, the plethora of options can be overwhelming, and sales organizations risk overcomplicating their IT environment if they allow next-generation features to distract from core needs.
Outperforming sales organizations employ several strategies to facilitate thoughtful adoption of new technology. They begin by addressing critical pain points within their core sales processes. Most sales organizations know where their biggest productivity barriers lie. For instance, at several sales organizations, remote sellers had to log into four different applications to obtain needed customer insights. This issue was resolved with the creation of an integrated seller dashboard with a single sign-on, a relatively simple fix that greatly improved seller productivity, allowing reps to spend 10 to 15 percent less time chasing down information and more time interacting with customers.
Tech-optimizing organizations also seek opportunities to optimize remote customer interactions. For instance, at one B2B company, while front-line sellers could easily interact with customers over video, the conversations lacked the dynamism of in-person interactions. Investing in virtual whiteboards helped fill that void, allowing sellers and decision-makers to engage in richer dialogue and arrive at better solutions.
Another B2B company created a decision tree to help employees choose the right form of interaction depending on the situation. The result was a 30 percent reduction in internal meeting time and a more dynamic rhythm of communication for those who felt "Zoom fatigued."
Lastly, outperformers evaluate where not to invest in technology and where to optimize existing technology. Some organizations may benefit from optimizing their current platforms by reconfiguring dashboards, reorganizing enablement portals, or enhancing integrations between existing systems.
4. Talent: Cultivate Next-Gen Sales Capabilities and Attract More Diverse Talent by Becoming a Learning Organization As sales structures have evolved, so have traditional sales roles, such as field sales and inside sales, with many settling into a hybrid approach. A hybrid seller has the same set of responsibilities as a traditional field-based representative, but hybrid sellers use videoconferences, online chats, and the support of e-commerce to close deals, spending at least half their time working remotely. Hybrid roles also allow for more diverse and inclusive organizations, by removing barriers for talented people who were excluded from job opportunities in the past because they were unable to travel daily to an office, including primary caregivers, people with disabilities, and people facing economic housing limitations.
Many companies are seizing this opportunity, actively focusing on growing new sales roles and building the talent that fills them. In 2021, 60 percent of companies increased hybrid sales teams, and 62 percent added to their digital sales teams. These changes outpaced growth in more traditional sales roles, where increases also occurred, but at a slower rate. Companies anticipate these trends to continue into 2022 and beyond.
With the fast-paced evolution in sales team composition, organizations need to escalate hiring, training, and capability building to ensure they are not only recruiting new hybrid sellers but also enabling their existing field and inside sales representatives to transition to hybrid roles. One sales organization, for instance, restructured to focus on sales pods—groups of representatives dealing with specific accounts or territories. This allowed pods to strategically contemplate their territories and create mentorship and coaching opportunities for newer members. Another organization aiming to augment its hybrid sales force concentrated on widening hiring criteria to incorporate new geographies and a diverse range of talent profiles, thereby appealing to potential hires who would have been less attracted to a field-sales position in the past.
Traditional apprenticeship and mentoring have typically been in-person activities, so when COVID-19 confined sellers to their homes, these activities significantly decreased. Experiential learning also became more complex, as representatives couldn't casually pose questions to their more experienced colleagues. Plus, remote-selling models introduced new cultural dynamics, such as the need for more deliberate networking across digital channels, due to fewer in-person interactions reducing opportunities to establish new relationships.
These challenges necessitate sales organizations to reinvigorate how they train new and existing employees. Our research shows that outperforming sales teams are likely to have made four changes in their learning models.
In a remote-first world, the strategic advantage will go to B2Bs that are quickest to implement the following four actions:
- Change the Model:They adapt training formats to virtual environments by shortening sessions, breaking long modules into series, and developing clear learning road maps for individual roles and, in some cases, for individual representatives. All-day video conferences, which are tiring for employees and result in lower levels of information retention, are a thing of the past. Distributing content over several days or weeks and combining self-paced learning with synchronous learning with peers can enhance employee engagement and accelerate progress.
- Implement Holistic Learning Journeys:Leading sales organizations widen the range of learning topics to include remote-specific skills, such as sales conversations on video, virtual negotiations, CRM utilization, and training on digital-pricing and product-recommendation tools.
- Coach More—and More Often:Sales leaders create structured mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities for new and existing sales reps. They mandate mentorship for all managers and senior sales reps. They assign coaches to each sales rep and incentivize regular one-on-one sessions, such as virtual “ride alongs,” where the mentee can listen in on sales calls, and “virtual coffee chats” for informal catch-ups. Such targeted approaches help sales reps ramp up more quickly, develop a strong peer network, and feel more connected to the wider organization.
- Embed Hybrid Roles Fully:Successful organizations view hybrid selling as a new capability that is here to stay and requires a new set of skills. Individuals who are organized, digitally fluent, comfortable presenting on camera, and capable of making data-driven decisions often thrive in a hybrid sales environment. Also, with voluntary turnover increasing in the talent market—40 percent of employees surveyed said they are somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months—rewriting job descriptions to emphasize these capabilities can attract talent from non-traditional sources with more compelling value propositions.
The pandemic has compelled most organizations to experiment and restructure on the fly. Now is the time for them to contemplate what changes they want to maintain permanently to create more compelling customer and employee value propositions. Where there are open questions, there is an opportunity to conduct agile experimentation to determine what works and what could be scaled for the benefit of employees and customers. In a remote-first world, strategic advantage will go to the B2Bs that are quickest to take action.