Global disease pandemics like COVID-19 threaten more than internal commercial activities. It destroys lives and livelihoods and continues to do so in many communities around the world. Although world won’t ever fully understand the extent of COVID-19’s impact, what’s clear is that the impact will be extensive and far-reaching.
It is the latest reminder that sales organizations have unique challenges that arise during large-scale disruptions to business,” says Steve Herz, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner. “Handled appropriately, such crises — whether health pandemics, natural disasters or other uncontrollable acts — represent tremendous downside risks, but good decisions made now can position the organization to thrive in the long term.”
For chief sales officers (CSOs), risk management related to the COVID-19 pandemic extends beyond the sales organization to risks originating in the customer ecosystem, and the supply chain. The sale strategy, planning and execution decisions CSOs make today will help the sales organization to weather the crisis as it unfolds — and position sales well for the recovery phase when it comes.
Taking care of their people and customers must be a top priority. They also need to adjust how their organizations sell in the face of new customer habits and trying economic times. In many ways, the changes in customer behavior are an acceleration of digital trends that were in motion before the pandemic hit.
We are at a digital inflection point, where B2B sales operations going forward will look fundamentally different from what they were before the pandemic.
Clearly there is a great deal of uncertainty, but we are seeing plenty of signals that indicate an acceleration of previous trends— omni channel selling, inside sales, tech-enabled selling, e-commerce—rather than completely different behaviors.
— Spend. While companies are generally reducing spend, a sizable number are increasing or maintaining it, with rates depending on company size, sector, and—more than any other factor—location in the world.
— Digital. Looking forward, B2B companies see digital interactions as two to three times more important to their customers than traditional sales interactions.
— Remote. Almost 90 percent of sales have moved to a video conference (VC)/phone/web sales model, and while some skepticism remains, more than half believe this is equally or more effective than sales models used before COVID-19.
The shift in spend
Given some of the grim economic signals, you would have expected more drastic reductions in spending. However, a sizable number are maintaining or even increasing it, at least for now. That is especially true for large B2B companies, 53 percent of which expect to increase or maintain spend. In 85 percent of the cases, the rate of change in spending—either up or down—was no more than 25 percent of total spend
This thread of optimism carried through across sectors, with those in pharma, medical products, technology, and media expecting the greatest increase in spending, while travel and global energy & materials expected the least.
These spending patterns play out in a similar way by geography, though US companies cited increasing or maintaining spending at a higher rate than their European counterparts. Chinese and Indian decision-makers cited even higher rates of increasing or maintaining spend, with Indian companies notable for the vast majority responding that they are changing spend—36 percent increasing it and 46 percent cutting back—while only 16 percent are maintaining it.
The shift to digital
Similar to what we’ve seen in the B2C environment, the importance of digital channels for B2B companies has grown significantly in the past few years and has radically increased since the COVID-19 crisis began. Sales leaders on average rate digital channels approximately twice as important now as they were before, with B2B decision-makers in Spain and the UK rating them even more highly (close to triple their previous importance) while those in Japan and South Korea, at the lower end of the scale, rated them closer to 1.5 times more important than before the COVID-19 hit. This shift in the importance of digital interactions is reflected in customer behaviors.
When researching products, customers’ preference for digitally-enabled sales interactions has jumped significantly, with suppliers’ mobile apps and social media or online communities showing their sharpest increase since 2019. Mobile apps are twice as important for researching products among
Chinese buyers as they are for those in the UK or Germany. Interestingly, the importance of a supplier’s web page did not change much, likely because customers were already actively using supplier websites for this part of their journey.
In making a purchase, buyers cited a strong preference for self-service, with suppliers’ mobile apps more than doubling in importance. This carries on a pronounced trend of preference for self-service channels across every stage of the customer decision journey.
But it is not enough to give customers multiple self-service options. Consistently getting the options right matters a lot. Buyers no longer are willing to accept less from their professional experience as B2B purchasers than they are accustomed to getting from their personal experience as consumers. Results in our 2019 survey showed that those suppliers who provide outstanding digital experiences to their buyers are more than twice as likely to be chosen as a primary supplier than those who provide poor experiences, and about 70 percent more likely than those providing only fair ones.
Within that context, they found that “getting it right” means delivering on the three things buyers value most: speed, transparency, and expertise.
Those priorities apply across all channels, and they are more pertinent now than ever. For example, 33 percent of buyers rated the option of live chat during the research stage of their buying journey as one of the top three requirements for a best-in-class supplier. Live chat, for example, is an option that delivers speed, transparency, and expertise—things that customers value most.
To deliver outstanding digital experiences and encourage loyalty, B2B companies need, at a minimum, to address customers’ most pressing pain points and frustrations. When we asked our sample of decision-makers to select their top-three most frustrating issues with suppliers’ websites, 36 percent cited the length of the ordering process, 34 percent the difficulty of finding products, and 33 percent technical glitches with ordering. Other common concerns were confusing websites, a lack of information on delivery and technical support, and difficulty setting up payments.
The move to remote selling
Like almost all functions in essentially every sector, the shift to remote selling was born of necessity as lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and quarantining has forced people to stay at home.
B2B sellers have reacted with astonishing speed: around 90 percent of them are working via videoconferencing or phone.
This sudden and massive shift to remote working prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the “consumerization” of B2B buying that already underway had profound implications for how companies sell to and buy from one another.
Sales leaders are already moving aggressively to adjust to the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to adjusting sales forces to remote working, about 70 percent of companies have also established multi-disciplinary commercial nerve centers to manage sales operations during this time.
While most sales leaders accept the need for a move to increased use of digital channels (many, in fact, have made significant adjustments since quarantines started), it’s not as simple as just “moving to digital.” The sharp rise in the use of digital and self-service channels means that companies need to be thoughtful not only about how to enable effective digital interactions but also about how to deploy their sales reps to best effect
Re-orchestrating the customer experience and the accompanying sales processes across channels should be at the top of the list for sales leaders trying to manage effectively through this crisis and plan for recovery. So should determining how best to deploy sales professionals across channels to help customers and provide support when it is most needed.
Sales leaders should focus their planning on three key objectives to address the risks associated with the coronavirus outbreak. They should calibrate their responses and navigate their organizations through the three phases of the COVID-19 response.
1) Prepare for risks to the organization, customers, and suppliers
Internally, communicate the importance of keeping the sales organization safe, as sellers need to know the company prioritizes their health over short-term sales outcomes. Back up this commitment to seller well-being with a willingness to proactively manage sales compensation plans and quotas as a result of coronavirus-related disruptions to the business. Scope their planning efforts for such disruptions beyond the sales organization. Prepare for softening of demand and longer sales cycles, and plan for inevitable order cancellations. Equally important in many industries are the risks to the supply chain and available inventory, as many sales are not considered complete until the product or service is delivered to the customer.
2)Prepare for rapid, precise execution
As the health crisis grows and business slows, create, and evolve rules for responsible governance and efficient decision making that are relevant to the unique challenges the sales organization will face.
During a crisis, consistent messaging, transparency and communication discipline is indispensable to help instill confidence and reinforce new governance processes. Also create metrics to track sales activities, identify new issues, and track adherence to emergency policies and priorities.
Actions to improve remote sales interactions for B2B sellers
1. Shift face-to-face sellers to digital channels.
Use The Digital Channels To boost your internal sales and service capability. Convert Chatbots Into live chats reps. Equip reps with digital tools (Skype, Zoom, WebEx, etc.), train them to run customer meetings via video conferencing, and create a“pod” of digital-enablement experts to help sellers use new tools and deal with customer queries.
2. Prioritize Your Pipeline And Provide information reps.
Mine Recent online customer searches for leads, focusing on customers who express a need and would likely welcome outreach. Host Dedicated Time slots and customer-relationship management(CRM) sessions for reps to follow up on those leads.
Block off time for reps to connect with customers. Personalized Digital marketing messages thoughtfully and with the customer clearly at the center. Pull in senior executives to support outstanding proposals or account reviews to help reps and reassure customers.
3. Enhance Customer Intimacy Across traditional and digital channels.
Host Multi-customer virtual product demos with phone follow-up from reps.Schedule Ten-minute video conference check-in with your entire book of business. Hold virtual lunches for information-sharing sessions with selected customers, and email tailored content that reflects your customer's needs and current reality.
4. Use any free tech and marketing capacity to fix self-service pain points.
For Companies With The Ability to redirect resources, we recommend taking no-regrets actions that will benefit customers: upgrade online information to make searching easier; radically reduce the information customers have to provide before getting information; make digital journeys more relevant with“who I am” and“ why I’m here” routing; and eliminate unnecessary steps click-to-order or click-to-request for faster service.
3)Strengthen the organization’s competitive position
Choices made now can strengthen the sales force’s competitive position when the crisis subsides. The top priority is to invest in customer relationships and channel partnerships, so sales leaders should look to increase and reward loyalty from key stakeholders. In addition, they must find ways to help equip key customers, channel partners, and suppliers to succeed during and immediately after the crisis.
Act deliberately to strengthen the sales culture and protect team morale during the disruption. How CSOs lead now will set the tone and pace for a powerful and career-making experience for everyone in the sales function.
Actions to improve buyers’ digital experience B2B sellers
1) Improve the self-service options you already have.
On your websites, ensure buyers can readily find information, compare options, make purchases, and receive service without live support from sales reps for less complex needs.
2) Rapidly fix what’s broken on websites and mobile apps.
Watch for technical issues in real-time and resolve them as they appear. Such no-regrets moves could deliver incremental revenue and improve the digital experience in ways that promote increased loyalty.
3) Keep the human touch for complex interactions.
Have your sales reps on-call to support buyers by phone, videoconference, or webchat, whenever they need it; a 24/7 or 24/5 live presence can be especially meaningful when remote interactions are the only options.
4) Think like a consumer.
Ensure any e-commerce channel provides a B2C-like experience for every product or service, whether a new purchase or a repeat order. Link e-commerce sales goals to your overall sales targets and incentive systems. Be willing and able to double-count credit when customers interact both digitally and with sales reps.
5. Measure your progress.
Are you a primary or secondary supplier? What is your churn rate, loyalty score, rate of customer satisfaction? Does your performance vary between digital and in-person interactions?
In an environment where habits and practices have changed so quickly and will likely continue to do so, sales leaders need a clear view of what their customers want and what steps their company can take to address their needs. Traditional face-to-face interactions have given way to sales and service support by video conference, webinar, phone, human chatbot, and other means. In this remote and digital world, however, there is still a crucial role for the human touch.