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Gartner Keynote: B2B Sales Must Focus on Seller-Assisted Digital Experiences

May 17, 2021

Contributor: Kelly Blum

Sales leaders must find ways to equip their sellers to engage customers through digital channels in today’s digital-first buying environment.

The past year of economic upheaval and uncertainty forced many B2B sales leaders to find ways to build sellers’ virtual selling skills almost overnight. As the global pandemic begins to recede, however, most leaders are left wondering where to place future bets: Further improving reps’ virtual selling capability? Or equipping reps to return to live, face-to-face selling? 

According to new Gartner research, the best answer might be “neither.” Instead, as B2B buyers migrate away from rep-led buying altogether (both virtual and in-person), the best sales organizations are shifting focus to delivering a differentiated digital-first buying experience supported by sellers, rather than a seller-first buying experience supported by digital.   

“ The best companies are exploring how to engage customers through sellers “inside” of digital.”

At the opening keynote for the virtual Gartner CSO & Sales Leader Conference 2021, Brent Adamson, Distinguished Vice President, Advisory, Gartner, said that an astonishing 43% of B2B customers would prefer not to interact with a sales rep at all, leaving the long-term future of in-person B2B selling in significant doubt for even the most complex of purchases. However, in an ironic twist, the same customers who would prefer a rep-free buying experience simultaneously experience 23% higher regret for whatever it is they bought compared to those who don’t.

“The single biggest driver of purchase likelihood in a B2B sale is the degree to which customers feel confident about their own decisions,” said Adamson. “However, B2B customers in an all-digital world are unwittingly pursuing buying behavior deeply contrary to confidence creation, as buying — or even deciding — in a digitally dominant context is uniquely well-designed to undermine customer confidence.”

Customer confidence is critical

A Gartner survey of nearly 1,000 B2B customers reveals that those who report a high level of decision confidence are 10 times more likely to make a high-quality, low-regret purchase. This means those customers purchased larger, broader, higher-priced solutions, with little to no regret following the deal. 

There are three statistically significant drivers of customer confidence — customers’ perceptions of sellers, their perceptions of nuanced differences between suppliers and their perceptions of consensus during the purchase process. 

Rewriting B2B selling with seller-assisted digital experiences

“By choosing to avoid sales reps, customers are forgoing a critical means for distinguishing nuanced differences between suppliers and driving consensus across the buying group,” added Adamson. “It’s like kicking out one leg of a three-legged confidence creation stool, leaving customers to find nuance and establish consensus on their own in a digitally dominant environment. Everyone loses in this world.” 

Learn more: 2021 Roadmap for Accelerating Revenue Growth

Nuance is key to differentiation

Another Gartner survey of more than 1,100 B2B customers showed that customers struggle to distinguish supplier offerings from one another through digital alone. Sixty-four percent cannot tell the difference between one B2B brand’s digital experience and another’s. And 76% of customers report doing nothing different as a result of engaging suppliers through digital means (e.g., websites, online tools, digital content). 

64% of B2B buyers cannot differentiate between one B2B brand’s digital experience and another’s.

“It’s almost as if we’ve built our websites and other digital engagement to purposefully mask differences. Unwittingly, customers seeking a rep-free buying experience are simultaneously seeking a difference-free buying experience. They’re swimming in a sea of sameness,” said Adamson. “In this world, where customers would prefer not to talk to sales reps at all, but find little to no value in our online experience, we have to find a completely new means to give back what neither sellers nor digital can provide on its own.” 

To engage B2B customers in deeper, more valuable seller-led conversations that will deliver on nuance and consensus, sales organizations need to focus on three core components of selling in today’s digital environment:

1. Digitally different experiences

First, sales leaders should thoroughly evaluate their current digital experience and ask “How different is our website from our competitors? What type of experience are we providing to help customers on their buying journey”? B2B customers are starting their journey in digital first, and suppliers’ websites are the first stop in their information-gathering journey.

Supplier websites should be armed with tools designed specifically to help customers on their buying journey. This can include diagnostic tools, customized benchmarking data, virtual tours, configurable solutions, three-dimensional solutions modeling, and virtual and augmented reality tools, among others. 

2. Moments of nuance

Next, those digitally different experiences must revolve around the small number of critically important nuances that differentiate a supplier from its competitors. This can be in terms of the problem it solves or the capability it delivers. “Help your customers feel confident that their choice isn’t just a coin flip, but that the differences are meaningful,” said Adamson. 

3. Rep-mediated digital experiences

Lastly, sellers must reside “inside” the digital experience as a complement or support to customers’ digital learning, rather than on the outside as a substitute. Sellers must be ready to use the technology — the diagnostic tools, customized benchmarking data and solution configuration guides — to interactively help customers dive deeper into the nuanced differences between solutions.

Within the digital experience, sellers must be prepared to help customers make sense of all the information they encounter, explaining implications, alternatives and undiscovered opportunities in an understandable and compelling way. 

A seller-assisted digital buying experience is designed to not only acknowledge, but actively embrace, customers’ preference for digital first, but then give them an easy means to engage with a seller within that digital context.

“B2B selling in today’s world must be digital and human. A carefully designed, richly immersive digital experience where you’re accompanied by a seller rather than funneled to one,” said Adamson. “In other words, rather than seeking to engage customers through sellers or digital, the best companies are exploring how to engage customers simultaneously through sellers and digital.”

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