A computer is not selling? Really?

frédéric vendeuvre Published by Frédéric Vendeuvre

There was a commonly held belief among sales managers a decade ago, what seems like an eternity. I would often hear, “You don’t sell computers, you sell people!”  Nowadays, of course, you hear much more nuanced perspectives. Mass-market retail and e-commerce have provided ironclad proof of the efficiency of online and automated sales. B2B has lagged behind but is coming round. A FEVAD study[1] has found that B2B transactions are shifting to the web—B2B e-commerce is growing by 30% annually and 1 in 4 sales will soon be completed online.  In the United States, a study by Frost & Sullivan concluded that e-commerce would account for a quarter of all B2B transactions in 2020. A lesser known fact: that already represents double the value of B2C e-commerce. So this is a shift on a fundamental level in the midst of the covid crisis, which has led many companies to ramp up investment in online sales models.

Obviously, while the trend may be clear to see, the path to success is still being worked out— you can’t simply cut and paste B2C methods to B2B.

B2B customers are more cautious and have less time to spend on online purchases. They need to find products and SKUs faster, record their order history, and have access to custom reports. But they also often need support when making a purchase, meaning that they are required to talk to their manager or other people in their organization. The immediate decision is less spontaneous. They have to come back to the order cart at a later time and use various interfaces for payment and issuing a purchase order, for example when they are “supervised” by a master account that centralizes purchasing at the company.

As a result, this shift has been accompanied by a rise in remote selling supporting telesales centers. In B2B, e-commerce and telesales will surely go hand in hand and are set to take off, spurred on by the easy purchasing process and cost controls, as well as demand from customers used to buying online. Hybrid technological solutions will be the key to success. The sales channel will be driven by the ability to demonstrate products to customers online; use and share a price configurator; and help customers find the right SKU quickly.

This means that the B2B market is splitting in two, with telesales and remote selling via e-commerce on one side, and complex sales to very large accounts on the other. In the middle, there is a “soft spot” in the market that will shrink. As in any competitive market, there is little room for the “middle.”  We are witnessing the same trend in the B2B sales channel and sales force. Problems that have laid dormant for years are set to explode due to the crisis. In 2019, many studies (e.g. CSO Insights) had already shown that two thirds of buyers didn’t really want or need to meet their salespeople, and a quarter had absolutely no desire or need to do so, as they considered it a waste of time and a loss of value added.

  • If I’m a customer, I may have a first-rate professional who listens to me and understands me, who teaches me new things, and so I let them pay me a visit and/or have in-depth discussions with them. If that’s not the case, then I buy online or remotely.
  • And if I’m a supplier, I may have key customers who are looking for value and innovation, and need me to take a detail-oriented approach to sales so that I can help them, so I send out teams to meet them and/or have in-depth discussions with them. If not, that means I have customers who care about price, reliable supply, and ease, in which case it’s more efficient and profitable to sell remotely.

But obviously this major shift—remote selling and e-commerce on one side, and value sales and key account sales on the other—is not so clear-cut. There are many other hidden complexities that sales organizations will have to learn to manage and organize.

Firstly, strategic customers, or key accounts if you prefer, form a system that can be likened to living, organic matter. The contacts at the customer company do not all buy the same thing at the same time. Including with a specific supplier.  Each person has their own goals and resources, which can differ to a fair extent.  And suppliers’ incoming business with a single customer can cover a wide array of products, from highly innovative solutions with strategic complexity to offerings that are similar to others on the market or even completely commonplace. So with a single customer, interfacing with a single decision-maker or multiple contacts, I have to maintain a remote relationship that is automated or semi-automated, as well as a high-level personal relationship on other topics of discussion.  In other words, developing a strategic relationship is not a vaccine that prevents price competition on certain ranges of products and services, for example.  It’s an exercise in “cooptition” most often put into practice by the customer. For all these reasons, companies will have to rework their sales processes to seek out the best mix for reducing sales costs and increasing sales performance, which aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, why pay a visit to a customer who prefers videoconferencing? Why call a customer to sell them something when you could talk via videoconferencing?  What’s keeping you from having a high-level discussion remotely?

Bibliography [1] Fevad/DGE study made by Next Content and Credoc

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