May 26, 2021

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The "new normal" of selling post-COVID

Last year was a massive disruption across the globe. Ways of working, interacting, and even engaging with other people were interrupted, cancelled, or forced online. With the world opening up this Spring, life is beginning to return to normal for many. But some things are forever changed. Across business and personal interactions, there are elements of the pandemic that we would all happily leave in 2020. But there are also many learnings and habits made on an individual and global scale that we’ll be keeping with us.

One of the positive shifts in business has been a global acceleration of digital transformation across sectors. Industries and businesses that were lagging in the transition to technology had to sprint to catch up to the needs of distributed workers. Trends like working from home and digital collaboration quickly went from optional to essential — and many sales cultures were shaken to the core as a result. Teams that relied on in person meetings and entertainment to close deals, manual forecasts, and weekly meetings to keep tabs on sales activities experienced a rude awakening.

But let’s be honest — some of those teams might not have been succeeding in the “old normal,” either. According to CSO Insights, over the last six years, the percentage of salespeople hitting their quotas dropped from 63% to 53%. Can you think of another area of business where 50/50 odds are acceptable? Even 63% wasn’t a great number to start with. That means close to 40% of businesses have been lagging in sales forecast accuracy since at least the mid-2010’s.

There are multiple factors that have contributed to this gradual decline in efficacy, including the slow pace of digital transformation in many industries. Sales teams that were slow to move to digital were fighting the inevitable, relying on old school tactics — and some bad habits — that resulted in a failure to meet modern customer expectations. As the drop in sales slowly manifested, they struggled to catch up using the same methods that got them there to begin with, often falling further and further behind.

2020 was a hard reset for many sales teams — but distributed work also presented a fresh start to align with the “new normal” of B2B sales. Today, the sales game in every industry has officially, forever shifted from analog to digital. There’s no going back to the old way of doing things. Here’s how the shift occurred and why selling as we know it will be changed forever.

Distributed work forced digital sales transformation

Even the most old-school sales teams moved into digital workflows in 2020. Some industries — like pharmaceuticals and medical products, real estate, and heavy machinery — have historically relied on in-person sales. But the pandemic made it apparent that anything can be sold online. In fact, many people on both sides of the sale now prefer it that way. McKinsey found that 75% of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions.

This isn’t exactly a new expectation from the consumer side of things. As far back as 2013, Sirius Decisions reported that 67% of the buyer’s journey was digital at least 50% of the time. But B2B sales were an exception in many of those cases. It’s been easy for a long time to research, compare, shop for, and purchase even high-value consumer products online. The shift post-COVID is that B2B customers now expect that complex, big budget transactions can happen online as well. The new normal of selling artificial intelligence

70% of B2B decision makers are open to spending more than $50,000 making new, fully self-serve, or remote purchases, and 27% would make a new purchase of more than $500,000 online, according to McKinsey. This means no matter what your B2B business or price point, customers now fully expect to self-educate and even transact online when it comes to making purchases.

But if you’re picturing just one buyer in this scenario, think again. One of the biggest shifts happening in the world of sales right now is wide acceptance of consensus buying. Cross-disciplinary stakeholders must now agree on the solution that will meet all their needs. One survey by Harvard Business Review determined an average of 5-6 people must sign off on a B2B purchase. Sales teams not only need to catch up in the digital landscape, but also their approaches to relationship management and sales forecasting to include these buying teams.

The role of sales in new digital dynamics

In a world where customers find a company themselves, research, and make purchases on their own, what is the role of sales? It’s this question that has delayed sales teams from adopting certain digital solutions, in the hopes that delaying the inevitable will preserve their own relevance. But holding onto bad habits isn’t a safety net. Especially if it results in lower sales revenues.

Digital transformation isn’t about replacing sales leaders and professionals. If anything, the right tools can elevate the role of sellers to partner with customers to solve problems rather than pitch them new products that may not meet their needs.

In the post-COVID economy, expecting sellers to go it alone is setting them up for failure. Here are some of the new digital sales dynamics that professionals must master to survive and thrive:

- Proactive outreach to understand customer needs: The customer personas targeted before the pandemic have been made virtually obsolete, thanks to the increased emergence of consensus buying. A seller may now need to target multiple people during the sales process, and some that they haven’t identified before. Additionally, the pandemic has changed what services and support businesses need. Even existing customers who stuck with a B2B partner through the trials of 2020 have different needs today than they did a month ago, let alone over a year or more. As the labor force returns to work and the economy recovers, business needs are changing yet again and sales teams need to gather insights and adapt to understand how the needs of customers today can be met with greater value.

- Include customers in the sales process: Collaborative selling is a new model that is helping many sales teams succeed as they transition to digital sales. What is collaborative selling? It’s a type of selling that involves working together with different individuals on the buying team to understand how your product or service will solve their problems. Rather than selling to the customers, you are selling with them, involving each in creating their own customer experience. This not only leads to more satisfied B2B customers but also sets up great long-term relationships with multiple stakeholders and end users.

- Use technology to exceed customer expectations: With customers today wanting to self-direct and self-serve, it’s important to choose the right tools to support them at the right time. Chatbots, self-service payment, reordering portals, and digital marketing content are some of the ways you can furnish customers with the digital tools they expect while also minimizing repetitive tasks for sales and customer service. But a chatbot that’s not helpful is no better than a misinformed seller. Sellers have a responsibility to pick up with the tech leaves off to help build trust and develop a partnership that serves the customer.

These strategies reframe sales from a seller-focused process to a buyer-focused relationship. What is buyer-focused selling? Outreach that focuses on the buyer’s needs — what the prospect is doing, searching for, and seeking. This small shift in thinking from selling activities at stages to be checked off a list creates rich opportunities to better-satisfy customers and decrease churn. Selling is now about aligning a B2B vendor with customer needs to achieve a perfect fit, not examining a high volume of leads to see which customers can be converted to work with the business as-is.

“Right now we have two different sales teams, because we want to learn as much as we can about our business,” Jeff C., a Senior Manager of Sales and Operations told Collective[i]. “Both media sales and site sales are tasked with transparency and pipeline hygiene. Sometimes confidence is extremely low, because we can’t always remove external factors out of our control. But accurate data helps.”

Rather than put the full burden on sales reps to keep up with these perpetually-changing responsibilities, it’s important to equip them with tools that will help them meet growing customer expectations.

How prescriptive analytics supports selling to a consensus

According to Forrester,prescriptive analytics represent a new approach to forecasting that is revolutionizing the sales pipeline process. Leveraging the cutting-edge application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify the different needs a prospect is bringing to the table, and the right internal stakeholders to deliver a solution, prescriptive forecasting shifts the forecast from a target to beat (or miss) to a diagnostic tool used to assess the health of a pipeline and give recommendations on how to improve it. Here are some of the ways this new approach to selling leverages technology to support sales teams.

- Use emerging data to meet emerging needs: Data like social media sentiment, prospects’ historical buying habits as well as political and cultural events is now readily-available, but human sales professionals may not access those insights until it’s too late to positively impact the deal. Prescriptive analytics sales forecasting platforms aggregate all this data in one place, in real-time, to give insight into what is happening today that might be impacting the emotions, attitudes, and needs of customers.

- Easily track multi-threaded deals: What are multi-threaded deals? This innovative approach to sales means that one sales professional has multiple points-of-contact at a prospect’s business who are all engaged in the sales process. Each of these decision-makers is helping shift sentiments and advocate for the salesperson on the inside. This strategy helps win more deals but requires complex knowledge of which decision-makers to target on the buyer side. Networked intelligence can analyze the social media network of a sales professional and help them map a path to get the right introductions to make multithreaded deals a reality.

- Agile insights inform real-time strategies: Understanding market changes is the first step to addressing them. Many sales forecasts look backwards to inform forward-facing sales actions. But even the most robust historical sales data cannot predict changes in the market or internal shifts at a target buyer’s business. To truly be informed on factors impacting their deals, sellers need to look outside their own organization. Neural networks that connect to APIs can now bring that information to the foreground for sellers. The next step is collaborating across departments to create a unified approach. Features like virtual deal rooms allow every member of the sales team — even those outside sales — to brainstorm and contribute. This includes lawyers, marketers, executives, IT support, and more. With this collaborative feature integrated with your predictive analytics platform, the tool truly becomes a one-stop source for insights and advice that empower the sales team to serve customers.

These are some ways artificial intelligence works on behalf of sales teams to make their lives easier. After the pandemic, the power of digital transformation and its potential to make an impact on the world is more obvious than ever. Prescriptive analytics is an example of the way AI and machine learning platforms make the work of humans more meaningful and rewarding.

Win the game of sales with Collective[i] There is one thing that hasn’t changed about sales: it’s a game teams want to win, and any small competitive edge can be the advantage that wins a deal. Collective[i] is an end-to-end sales modernization platform that puts sellers levels ahead of the competition. Successful sellers today partner with buyers. Which is what we focus on with our clients.

“Just like our customers, we are looking for more partnerships with people who truly understand our business,” Jeff C. said. “Conversations with Collective[i]I have been exactly that — a lot more of a partnership than forcing us into an out of the box solution that won’t work for us. As a partner Collective[i] stands for where we’re trying to go as a company. We know data is king, so how do we leverage that to make better decisions?”

Our platform integrates historical company info, third-party data, and real-time market insights to provide highly accurate sales forecasting that adapts to present conditions, rather than limit sellers with recommendations tied to past assumptions. Features like Intelligent WriteBackTM also provide each individual sales team member with recommendations for the next and best steps they can take to close deals and move others down the funnel. And integrated virtual DealRooms allow everyone to align on the buyer-focused approaches that will move the needle for each individual customer — on their terms.

Explore Collective[i] today and learn more about the market-leading platform helping B2B sales teams win in the post-COVID economy.

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