The international crisis brought on by COVID-19 meant that stay-at-home or work-from-home guidelines impacted every B2B function—rom procurement to sales. As companies—both B2B buyers and sellers—continue maintaining or adjusting their remote work environments, many leaders are developing an appreciation for the role digital sales and marketing platforms will play in their future competitive standing. According to analysts at market research firm Forrester, the distinction between field and inside sales will become blurred or invisible, and 80% of the sales cycle will move to digital. They add that even the most traditional sellers are "finding their digital mojo."
Key drivers in accelerating digital transformation are the buyers, most of whom were—or still are—also working from home. As McKinsey framed post-crisis B2B buyer expectations: buyers are “no longer willing to accept less from their professional experience as B2B purchaser than they are accustomed to getting from their personal experience as consumers.”
In another whitepaper McKinsey adds that digital transformation was often a when-we-get-to-it issue before the coronavirus crisis erupted. Then the pandemic made it a business continuity priority, and it has now evolved to become a necessity. The experience of maintaining customer relationships remotely has proven the value of digital customer service and go-to-market strategies, from simple operations such as eSign to virtual showrooms that are now replacing canceled or postponed trade shows.
Start By Asking, Then Listening
As B2B marketing columnist Mark Semmelmayer writes, “Consider many of your buyers and influencers just spent weeks interfacing with PCs more than people. Might that change how they find and consume information for purchase decisions? Might some voice-of-customer research provide insight into sources that have become more valuable? Probably.”
With that voice of the customer in mind, he recommends five common sense messages to consider:
- Consistency: We're always here for you with products you can trust.
- Community: We can work together to make tomorrow brighter.
- Integrity: We don't just want to get back, we want to get better in meeting your needs.
- Agility: We're listening and planning to capitalize on the future.
- Contingency: To our teammates - what did we learn and what can we do better?
Additionally, consulting firm McKinsey is taking the pulse of the B2B marketplace. In a survey of global decision-makers, they found three trend lines worth paying attention to when considering upgrades to IT capabilities:
- Sales interactions: The preference for digital is now approximately twice that of traditional sales interactions; with self-serve, digital ordering methods now prioritized.
- Remote selling: 96% of B2B companies have shifted their GTM model during COVID-19; 64% believe the new model is just as effective or more than before (up from 54% in early April).
- Sales model changes: 32% are “very likely” to sustain these shifts 12+ months after COVID-19 and another 48% are “somewhat likely” to do so.
Not as Simple as Flipping the Sales Switch
One thing has not changed: Successful sales and marketing strategies are driven by customer preferences. Failure to build a customer-centric sales culture is full of risks.
As Accenture research shows, “To survive in the digital ecosystem, some B2B sellers have focused on digital upgrades only to find themselves disconnected from meaningful dialog with long-time customers. Other sellers remained doggedly focused on organic 1:1 sales cycles, disregarding digital tools critical to modern commerce. Both scenarios create a buyer-seller service rift that compromises even the best B2B relationships.”
Supporting that research is a recent Salesforce survey finding: 65% of B2B customers will switch brands if a company doesn't make an effort to personalize communications to them. On the other hand, B2C online reports that 79% of B2B companies that are exceeding business goals have a documented personalization strategy.
Building that strategy requires:
- Understanding which channels are most effective for your buyer
- Delivering the most compelling message
- Communicating at the right time - when it matters
- Reaching your customers when they are ready to buy
The End of Silos: A New Team
CIO magazine frames the need for culture shifts as hinging on a CMO and CIO partnership in order to effectively utilize and operate next-generation marketing and customer experience systems.
Cynthia Stoddard, CIO and SVP at Adobe® agrees that the CMO and marketing team will benefit from working with the CIO and IT team to ensure that IT is optimizing both the operational and security aspects of marketing’s digital systems. This is particularly important as these systems become more complex and contain more data.
The solution suggested by digital conference organizer Worldwide Business Research is to integrate IT and digital development teams with the sales team that has been successful in forging customer relationships. Their research shows that digital channels have become complementary to the efforts of salespeople, adding new dimensions for customer interactions rather than detracting from them. Several companies in the study reported that sales teams played a critical role as they customized and developed e-commerce solutions; their deep knowledge of customer needs made them well-suited for determining requirements, features and other fringe aspects of e-commerce solutions.
Tips for Building CIO/CMO Relationships
Digital transformation requires teamwork beyond just the IT department, notes Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Addressing the team-building that must take place for effective digital transformation, and the competitive edge that comes with it, is critical. The Enterprisers Project, a collaborative effort between Harvard Business Review and global software company Red Hat®, shares lessons and advice distilled from innovations in building true partnerships between the CIO, CMO and their teams.
Here are seven steps for leaders to consider as you build an integrated digital marketing team:
- Create joint accountability for business success.
- Communicate—every day
- Speak the same language, using business strategy vocabulary rather than “trade lingo.”
- Create teams across all levels of marketing and IT
- Make planning and strategy meetings cross-functional
- Challenge each other’s assumptions
- And gather after hours—whether in-person or virtually—and get to know each other.
Competitive Challenge for the New Next
The rapid switch from in-person sales and customer support to the “digisphere” has rippled across the B2B landscape. Gone are business lunches and in-person sales calls. Here to stay are videoconferences, webinars and chatbots. In a matter of months, digital transformation moved from what was often a back-of-the-pack strategic priority to the top of the list for companies as they compete in a transformed business environment.
MIT research affiliate and Wall Street Journal columnist Irving Wladawsky-Berger urges: “Digital infrastructures have kept nations and economies going during Covid-19, the biggest shock the world has experienced since WWII. The pandemic has now made the case for accelerating the rate and pace of a company’s digital transformation. Enterprises should embrace and scale the changes they were forced to make to help them cope with the crisis.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: the value of sound advice, particularly as you adapt to the next normal for both your team and your customers. As you consider the role of digital transformation in your company’s growth and competitive stance—and the investment of dollars, time and talent that it will likely take—it’s wise to call on objective outside experts. They can deliver informed perspectives, both technical and financial, that can rise above the headwinds of internal inertia and focus team energies on new ways of adding value to customers and your bottom line.