COVID and Sales — from B2B to D2D
by Sreeram S. and Anuroop Krishna
“Clients don’t care about the labor pains; they want to see the baby.”
There is a common joke doing the rounds in the corporate world regarding digital transformation. When CEOs are asked who is responsible for it? They do not reel out the names of their much vaunted and highly paid CDOs (Chief Digital Officers) or CTOs or CIOs, rather they credit a global pandemic for it. What industry leaders could not achieve after a decade long campaign of planning, implementation and excruciating behaviour change, COVID managed to achieve in the space of a few months.
B2B sales along with many other aspects of business has also witnessed this transformation. Selling was characterized by close interactions, personal relationship building, technical discussions and intense negotiation. And while the advent of the internet and digital technologies changed this incrementally, the real change awaited a virus and people being forced to live behind closed doors.
Till the end of 2019, it was customary to do the initial dance of building acquaintance and qualifying a sales lead over a few days if not a few weeks. This has changed drastically with this time now reduced to 60 minutes.
While we may be reconciling ourselves to virtual meetings, real human bonding, especially in the early stages of the relationship, develops face to face. A typical virtual meeting lasts anywhere from 40–60 minutes and some of this may have to do with Zoom’s (arbitrary) free meeting time limit of 40 minutes. This is all the time that buyers and sellers have to interact with each other and naturally there is more emphasis on the solution than creating personal relationships.
Moreover, salespeople have no second chance to create an impression as compared to pre-Covid times where they could meet the customer before the meeting for some small-talk and rapport building. They could also stay back at the customer premises to bond individually with different people who attended the meeting. Added to this is also a trend of higher ranked executives to exercise the option of not appearing on the screen. This is the equivalent of top executives feeling that they were so important that they could receive phone calls during meetings while other lowly attendees were expected to silence their phones.
There is, thus, a limit to the amount of physical and psychological cues that a salesperson can glean from watching so many on the screen. This has forced sales teams to build on their empathy skills and understand the prospect’s thought process better than before. This, we believe, has led to the advent of what we call Digital to Digital (D2D) Selling. The need for a new terminology (D2D) is also driven by the fact most businesses today are looking at Digital (D) transformation at the core and the new ways of selling need to leverage Digital (D) solutions for larger and quicker impact.
So, what does D2D mean for a sales leader? Our view here is limited to B2B IT sales but can resonate with other sectors. Let’s look at it from two perspectives, the Customer Buy Cycle and the Vendor Sales Cycle
The Customer Buy Cycle
Acquiring customers in the IT world is getting more difficult due to the bleak outlook. IT companies are investing in user experience and analytics to entice more customers. This is seen by the investments in online account opening (OAO), video KYC apps and marketing analytics to target the right audience.
A pronounced change is occurring in how customers are inquiring and evaluating. Customers, as a norm, are researching new technologies by themselves rather than depending on the handful of vendors in their ecosystem. There are two broad reasons for this. The first pertains to the growing need to explore new technologies that provide better solutions, convenience, flexibility and cost efficiencies. The second is the inability of existing vendors to sell online. Many vendors have failed to adapt quickly to the new requirements of virtual selling. These include the ability to understand customers in an online video and audio environment, establishing rapport in a short time, presentation skills and managing technical issues arising from the use of video-conferencing and other tools. Companies are no longer willing to tolerate bad connections, call drops or unprofessional backgrounds on a video conference. Loyalty towards existing vendors, thus, is at a rock bottom.
The Vendor Sales Cycle
To understand the vendor’s sales cycle, it will be useful to understand that most sellers would track their customer’s lifecycle. And the generic customer lifecycle can be split into five distinct stages to understand the impact on each stage for a vendor — research, enquire, buy, customer support, renewal.
In the pre-COVID era, salespeople bombarded customers with a large number of solutions with the expectation that a few might stick and get converted into opportunities. With the overload of information in the form of emails and discussions, customers didn’t have the time for research and enquiry. Now, with the increased pressure to reduce budgets and find solutions that can differentiate their product and services, customers are forced to look outside their vendor ecosystem. And they are actively reading websites, blog posts and social media content to know about prospective vendors.
While the above changes are happening on the research and inquire stages, the subsequent stages in the customer life cycle have the focus on the sales representative, however with several caveats. The new D2D era is likely to create a super-specialised salesperson who is going to be a “closer” and is extremely tech-savvy. This person will replace the typical relationship manager or technical account manager.
The duties of this D2D salesperson will begin with researching (or digitally stalking) the prospect to connect emotionally in the first call. Then it will involve creating a first and second level pitch to customers to explore the problem statement succeeded by a marketing automation led follow-up loop. This could then lead to training customers to use the solution and then closing the sale with quick on-boarding on the platform so that the customer can start using the solution from day one. D2D selling will need to borrow heavily from customer success management too since high customer retention rates are vital for doing business digitally.
The new D2D sales representative will be a cocktail of — researcher, marketer, inside salesperson, account manager, customer success manager and project manager.
Does that make sales a daunting enough career for you?