Some of CEB’s best known work describes how B2B sales has changed dramatically over the past decade or so but, while the idea of consensus buying has made sales teams reexamine every part of their processes – from who they recruit to how they sell – it doesn’t mean there aren’t more changes on the horizon.
Based on thousands of interactions with sales execs around the globe, dozens of conferences and summits, and hundreds of thousands of data points, here are five trends that sales teams will likely battle with this year.
Firms will make it easier for their sellers to “just sell”: Sellers are often overwhelmed by the complexity of their job. In a 2015 CEB survey of over 1,000 sellers, 70% classified their jobs as moderately to highly complex. Sales managers should ask, “How much of that complexity is caused by our own company?”.
A lot of sales teams have adjusted to the changes in buyer behavior by simply continuing to make the seller job bigger in scope. Sellers today have to not only be knowledgeable about more products, more solutions, and more industries than ever before, but also coordinate with a larger set of internal stakeholders, all while complying with higher regulatory requirements, and using an ever changing welter of technology.
To make help reps be more efficient in an increasingly complex role, sales teams should go beyond simply identifying time-wasting activities and offloading administrative tasks to support staff. In 2016, more and more firms are likely to rethink the entire scope of the seller job to allow sellers to “just sell,” rather than spend time finding the right customer or working on customized collateral etc.
Early-stage qualification will become even more important: CEB data show that the best sellers — “challengers” — shape demand by whittling down their leads to only the best ones. Fundamental shifts to not just customer buying behavior but also the rising cost of pursuing opportunities, means that sales teams must be more selective about the opportunities they choose to pursue and the resources they dedicate to convert these opportunities.
High-performing sellers already do this. They qualify leads based on how easy it will be to “disrupt” that person’s beliefs and behaviors, and they opt out customers early on who are unlikely to buy, managing a small pipeline of highly selective opportunities all the way to the end. To add in more home-based imagery: their sales funnels are shaped less like a wedge and more like a nail.
Translating this practice to the broader sales force is the one of the biggest opportunities in front of sales organizations today. They won’t just need better opportunity screens, but also better ways of verifying customers’ intent and predictive analytics that allow sellers to focus their time, effort, and resources on the right opportunities.
Suppliers must provide a better purchase path, or overwhelmed customers will punish them: B2B customers have more access to information, typically involve more people than ever before in the decision making process, and can choose from more options available to them when it comes to selecting providers. This certainly makes selling to them harder than it used to be.
But, as anyone who has participated in a buying group decision already knows: buying is hard too. Rather than feeling empowered, customers report feeling overwhelmed and confused. This has serious repercussions for suppliers. When customers are overwhelmed, they struggle through the buying process and often end up regretting the purchase they end up making. This purchase regret is costly, leading to a 14% decrease in customer loyalty for the winning supplier.
The very same trends that once empowered customers (i.e., more information, more people, and more options) are in fact paralyzing B2B buying groups. To make matters worse, the prevailing approach of being responsive to customer needs — giving customers any information they request to make their decision, providing plenty of options to fit their exact needs — only exacerbates this problem.
More and more sales teams will have to learn a way to help customers progress through the buying process, guiding them to the information, decisions, and options that matter most in the purchase decision, and providing a set of clear recommendations that ease their movement toward a purchase decision.
Talent strategy will change to attract, engage, and retain millennial sales talent: Over the next few years baby boomers who were born between 1946 and the mid 1960s will be retiring. Those labelled generation X (born between the mid 60s and the early 80s) will take on leadership roles, and the much talked-about millennials (early 1980s to early 2000s) will fill the sales ranks.
But few firms are well-placed to change with the tide. CEB’s Global Talent Monitor which surveys more than 18,000 employees in 28 countries shows that B2B sales employees in the 18-29 age bracket — which roughly correlates the millennial age group — report the lowest level of engagement among all B2B sales employees. Only 22.4% report a high intent-to-stay at their current organization, and only about 1 in 10 of them report high discretionary effort.
Overturning this alarming statistic will require a concerted effort, from creating an employee value proposition that appeals to millennials, to providing professional development opportunities that engage millennials and increase retention.
Content strategies will change to improve lead generation: B2B firms have made significant investments in content marketing and lead generation technology, and they expect to see high returns on these investments.
But the way firms measure content consumption and track demographic information about the consumers of that content often fails to identify whether customers are ready to buy, or are even ready to have a sales conversation at all. Simply put, volume of content consumed is a poor indicator of a buying group’s willingness to have their minds changed by a disruptive idea (see point 2).
Leading marketing teams are rethinking their content strategy from the ground up. They’re building and tracking the consumption of content that clearly indicates sales readiness. You should expect a company’s B2B marketing efforts to focus on identifying the key questions customers will typically need to address at each stage of the purchase path, and providing content to address those questions. That way, by seeing what content is consumed will help marketing and sales understand the type of lead they have.
Sales functions, in turn, should make sure to a) give Marketing all they need to understand a typical customer buying journey, and b) partner with Marketing to encourage them to identify the right leads and then sellers to take them on and use them.