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Prior to the pandemic, many organisations were already responding to the changing needs of buyers by undertaking sales transformation and digitisation programmes.  Research from Gartner conducted over the course of 2018 and 2019 showed that 87% of senior business leaders reported that digitisation was a company priority, whilst 66% of CEOs expected to change their company’s business model in the next 3 years.

However, these were not delivering the expected benefits, with 72% of leaders reporting that corporate digitisation initiatives were missing revenue expectations.  In fact, the ‘democratisation’ of information has, alongside other factors, created a sales journey that is more convoluted with 77% of buyers now describing the purchase process as ‘complex’.

The pandemic has further fuelled the digitisation and transformation agendas for sales.  A cross-parliamentary report in the UK (2021) argues that the pandemic “has accelerated the digital revolution in how we trade and exposed an acute skills shortage in professional business-to-business selling”.  A number of key themes have emerged that, whilst not new, have certainly become cemented over the last 18 months and have significant implications for sales leaders if they are to maximise the performance of their sales teams:

  1. More Of The Buyer Journey Is Online: McKinsey (2021) research shows that omnichannel interactions, already prevalent in B2B sales, are now the predominant path for customers.  A global survey by Bain & Company (2021) found that buyers and sellers alike prefer virtual sales interactions.  Even as face-to-face engagement has begun to re-emerge as an option, buyers demonstrate a clear preference for a blend of digital self-service, remote human interactions and more traditional approaches.  In the space of the last 12 months, the appetite for digital self-service, necessitated by global lockdowns, has cemented a pre-existing trend particularly at the early ‘discovery’ stages of the buying cycle.
  2. Buyers Have Too Much Information: Conversely, this rise in self-service buying appears to have exacerbated a trend we highlighted in our previous whitepaper which is one of sales complexity.  Gartner’s research shows that whilst the vast majority (89%) of buyers agree that the quality of information available to them is high, half (50%) also found it overwhelming and 43% said it was contradictory.  As a result, buyers report that two-thirds of the buying journey is spent on gathering, processing and deconflicting information.  With numerous stakeholders involved on the buyer side, each independently uncovering information from different sources, it is easy to see how buyers find it difficult to find agreement between themselves about how to proceed.
  3. Buyers Are Prepared To Buy ‘Big’ Online: Perhaps surprisingly, despite this lack of clarity a significant proportion of buyers are prepared to spend 6 figures or more with a wholly digital sales process; that is, without any interaction with a salesperson at all (McKinsey, 2021).  Research from Gartner suggests that when a salesperson is able to interact with a buyer, they can expect to get only 5% of their time and so their window to influence a purchase decision is extremely narrow.  This risks an increase in purchase regret from the customer, if the solution doesn’t meet their expectations, and reduces the likelihood of repeat business.
  4. Seller Capability Is Not Fit For Purpose: Only 54% of B2B salespeople are confident in their ability to close deals in the new environment (Salesforce, 2020).  84% of sales leaders say that they don’t have the sales talent they need to succeed in future (Miller Heiman) and just 22% report that they consistently hire sellers who succeed.  In the UK, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Professional Sales (2021) reports a shortage of sales, digital and management skills amongst sales organisations.  Clearly there is an urgent requirement for organisations to invest in developing their sales talent so that it is fit for the future.
  5. Sales Leaders Are Not Equipped To Support Salespeople: Allied to the dearth of sales talent, is the increasing expectation that sales leaders should play a key part in developing employees.  Gartner research shows that 42% of managers say they lack the confidence to develop the skills that employees need today.  Little wonder then that the average frontline sales manager devotes just 9% of their time to developing their direct reports.  So not only are sales leaders failing to hire well, they also appear to give too little of their time and attention to help individuals to adapt to the new sales landscape.  Sales leaders need to develop their own capabilities as leaders so that they can improve their recruitment and development of sales talent.

Whilst the capability of the individual salesperson is clearly important, they cannot perform at their best without effective leadership.  It is therefore imperative for organisations to understand what is required of sales leaders so that they can support them in bringing the best out of individuals to create high-performing sales teams within the increasingly complex and fast-moving context that we describe.

Jim Bloomfield is a Director of Bloojam Consulting with 20 years’ experience of using business psychology to develop salespeople and leaders. He is a member of the Association of Business Psychology (ABP) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) and has successfully helped some of Britain’s best-known businesses exceed their sales goals.

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