By Lothar Stadler, August 2021
New approaches to actively generate sales could make the difference in achieving our goals in this changing business environment.
We have learned how to do business without traveling, without attending physical events, and with far fewer face-to-face meetings. While the pandemic has not affected all industries equally, the major disruptions it has triggered in markets, customer behavior, and ways of working and living, mark a historic turning point. Digital tools have helped us navigate this changing world, and many of them will continue to stay with us in the future. It has also changed the way we will work in B2B sales for years to come.
The history of modern sales goes back to the 1950s ( see image ) , where salespeople sold products out of the back of their car. Every sales rep became their own mini business, and had to manage their own inventory, logistics and finance. That worked because they covered a dedicated market, but it did not maximize the efficiency of the sales teams. Starting in the 1980s, with the beginning of business technology coming to the fore, the role of sales people started to evolve. While people were still out driving around, they were not carrying all the products in their bags anymore. Sales reps got out to sell more unique products to different customer bases, making them more productive. In addition, they were able to leverage order management technology to handle the logistics and financial components, which sales reps were usually doing in their cars on the way from one customer to another. The 2000s marked the beginning of digital transformation. The promise of new technologies should help salespeople spend more time in the field and with customers. With the use of software systems, productivity of sales teams was also increasing. Until recently, B2B sales involved hordes of vendors travelling on planes to their customers, doing classic personal selling, looking for partners, engaging with users, and trying to convince potential customers.
Changes in the business environment are pushing sales transformation
From one day to the other, travels to customers and conferences, where we used to personally connect with prospect customers, were cancelled. Many companies reported not finding potential customers anymore in the usual way. Today, meeting customers in video conferences has become the new normal and also interaction with customers in B2B has changed tremendously. We have started to work with chats and collaboration tools. Many of these tools came from B2C sales and marketing, where faster and more transparent customer interactions had already been developed.
With the lockdowns, B2B customers were also sitting in their home offices and suddenly confronted with new challenges. At the same time, they enjoyed the convenience of e-commerce in consumer markets, with the mindset of “If I want and buy a product today, I want it to be delivered tomorrow”. So it was only natural that, based on the consumer markets, B2B customers’ expectations were also applied to their own business. Today, B2B customers want to enjoy a customer experience similar to that on the popular e-marketplaces such as Amazon, Zalando, Ebay, etc.
Thus, new issues suddenly emerged in B2B, such as being seen in a digital world, immediate accessibility and quick responses. Today, in B2B sales, we need to be quick with answering questions from potential customers. For answers that used to take us several days, we now need immediate responses. This changes entire workflows in sales teams and organizations. Preparations of standard product answers, templates and clarification procedures have to be restructured and rethought. Today, it is all about availability and rapid response.
Today’s industrial customers learn about products on the web, in videos, tutorials, forums, and from reference customers long before they interact directly with salespeople. We therefore need to play on these channels to strengthen proactive sales. As a result, workflows in new customer acquisition and business development are changing. Even though selling large-scale plants or industrial products is not something that can be done by mouse click only, all these new demands triggered a pressure for transformation in B2B sales. This new sales environment needs a mix of traditional personal selling with new digital tools. We certainly need a redesigned structure for sales initiatives as part of this process.
Ingredients of a sales generation plan
When we talk about a sales generation plan, we are referring to a structured plan of initiatives that actively drive sales. The five stages in Figure 2 describe the playground of initiatives we can use to maximize sales impact.
Every customer interaction starts with the right sales arguments. It is important to analyze the value you want to bring to your customers. We start with differentiators that include USPs, product characteristics and new features. While earlier marketing literature mainly focused on value-in-exchange, more recent developments have focused on relationship value and value-in-use (Kleinaltenkamp, 2015). This addresses the real situation in which a customer uses a product. Marketing and sales arguments gain relevance when they refer to specific customer situations. Customer benefits and monetization can be derived from them.
value-in-use (Kleinaltenkamp, 2015). This addresses the real situation in which a customer uses a product. Marketing and sales arguments gain relevance when they refer to specific customer situations. Customer benefits and monetization can be derived from them.
Using these arguments, aligned with your business strategy, we build marketing initiatives. The focus is on generating sales, and differs from marketing initiatives that are image building or directed at stakeholders. By doing so, we focus on customers and how to attract them to initiate purchases. We create sources of leads and targeted marketing initiatives to increase sales opportunities until an order is placed.
In sales operations, new developments emerge every day, whether it is the use of data to better understand customer needs, forecasting and analytic tools to improve performance, or HR-topics to strengthen team collaboration in this new world. At the end of the day, it is a matter of navigating the interplay between innovation, customer value and sales performance in the best possible way and achieving the optimum sales impact.
Structured marketing initiatives are attracting prospects
Figure 3 shows the different areas of marketing initiatives and their target activities. Industrial product marketing typically consists of outbound-oriented activities. This is about finding prospects by segmenting a market, defining target customers, and then actively trying to reach them. When selling solutions, you build a business development process that may customize products or ingredients to meet customer needs. Outbound activities are very typical in B2B sales and supported by personal selling initiatives and advertising to target focus segments.
While typical outbound initiatives were limited during the pandemic, people had a look to B2C marketing and discovered inbound marketing. Inbound marketing is about attracting potential customers to a company with relevant and helpful content, and providing them with value across the entire customer journey – through a website, blogs, social media, etc. Meanwhile, potential customers have the option to interact with the company via email, chat, and other channels.
Inbound marketing brings together teams from all business functions that are involved in customer interactions to attract potential customers. Whether it is in the form of strategic content marketing with blog posts and e-books, or video tutorials from customer service representatives, social media posts from sales teams, or by running targeted paid advertising. All that content can be optimized with the help of an SEO strategy. Search engine optimization targets content to specific keywords and search terms related to products or services, or the problems they are intended to solve.
Inbound campaigns currently represent the growing share of B2B sales and marketing initiatives. Even events are now linked to inbound campaigns. Especially during the past year of the pandemic, virtual events and virtual product tours have proven to be very useful initiatives in B2B sales. These offensives are likely to migrate into hybrid events into the future.
A large part of B2B sales takes place with existing customers. A customer service strategy that keeps existing customers happy while using their products, retains them for future investments. Service prescription models that come from the software industry are finding their market more and more in the traditional industry. Create monthly prescriptions, annual prescriptions, or service level models to keep customers happy. Once a customer is satisfied, you can work on upselling, cross-selling and reselling. The right customer service strategy can be an interesting centerpiece to drive growth for a business.
Many companies reported difficulties in getting in touch with potential customers during the pandemic. Partner and referral programs open doors to new markets and definitely promote sales generation. Companies can sell their products through e-commerce, find an agent in a specific country, and have a marketing partner for a region at the same time. Managing multiple channels is becoming more complex, but customer demand is driving multi-channel strategies (Stadler, 2020). Referral partners, such as influencers or ambassadors, may be more familiar from B2C markets, but are finding higher popularity in B2B as well. In software sales, referral programs are a common concept to drive growth. Matt Haller of CaptivateIQ, a Silicon Valley company that develops a sales team incentivization software, stresses the importance of a referral program: “The modern B2B buyer wants to both be able to research their prospective purchases before engaging in a sales process and requires social proof of product success in orders to set the deal up for success. Our referral partners enable our prospects to do just that – get an unbiased education about the products they wish to purchase, leading to a smoother sales process for both the customer and our sales team.”
Combining the previous marketing initiatives gives us a keyboard with which we can actively play sales generation – be that a combination of service initiatives with outbound marketing, or inbound initiatives with events and partner multipliers. Marketing is a lot about creating emotions, so we should also use it to sell industrial products better. It is about interacting with customers and inspiring them. In this new business world, a structured plan for active sales initiatives will be the key to success. In addition, working with customer relationship data will increasingly serve as a basis for sales initiatives and sales performance.
Customer relationship data – the basis of any future customer interaction
Once marketing initiatives are set, it is important that they serve as a source of leads. A lead is generated as soon as a potential prospect leaves his contact details. For example, if you are an auto company, receiving auto leads is an exciting prospect and one that companies like Interactive look to help with. Online, for example, this happens through newsletter registration, downloading whitepapers, to comments on social media. Traditionally, this happens by handing over a business card at a trade fair. Leads develop different qualities depending on the content they are sourcing. Based on that, you can estimate the chances of closing a deal.
Today, all prospect touchpoints can be tracked by modern CRM systems and stored centrally in a common customer relationship database. See Figure 4 for the many different sources of customer interaction, such as sales, marketing, service, IoT, e-commerce, even physical store visits, etc.
Let’s take the case of In-Vision, a small high-tech manufacturer of core components for 3D printing and light projection. An inbound marketing strategy was set up and connected with a CRM system. Any time a prospect goes on their website, signs in for a white paper, an event or requests a product information, those touchpoints are registered in the CRM and go through special segmentation criteria. The system even tracks how much time prospects have spent on sites and capture the content they liked. In-Vision had about 50 existing customers accounting for 80% of the turnover. This might not be so different for many other B2B companies. The fact making these features so interesting for B2B sales is that the preparation for future customer meetings and of sales initiatives is facilitated simply by using technology.
If you are a salesperson and you have a customer who is responsible for 15% of your revenue, you can look closely at the interaction with all customer touchpoints of your company before contacting them. These useful tools come from customer interaction from the world’s top B2C players like Amazon, Zalando, AliExpress, Mercado Libre, etc. (Merton, 2020). They change sales and drive sales generation because the customers’ interests can be estimated more precisely. The way companies can prioritize their sales activities has changed!
Prepare for sales automation
In B2B, a lot of company resources often flow into the process in-between a customer expressing interest, responding to customer inquiries, and considering a product customization.
Therefore, leads need to be selected and it needs to be figured out which ones are worth working on and will make it to a sales opportunity. For this, you can define the process and selection criteria in your own sales generation plan first.
When leads originate from inbound initiatives, they can be screened relatively easily according to selection criteria. Leads can also be provided with pre-built product information to save resources. You can create inquiry forms or ask queries for pre-filtering. Depending on the product and business, you can use automation for the selection process through workflows or lead scoring models.
When a qualified lead reaches the sales department, in the first sales stage of a CRM system, qualification criteria are checked. For example, you have a list of 10 criteria that you clarify with the potential customer and must be met prior to the case being processed further. If a certain product is requested, for example, the prospect will already receive a template email with certain information and queries.
Questionnaires of criteria can also be linked to a CRM system by means of product inquiry forms. By asking customers to provide specific data about the problem or the desired product features, faster and more precise suggestions for product solutions can be offered without exchanging several e-mails. In the 3D printing case from In-Vision, for example, it was possible to assign specific requests from the medical industry directly to bio-printing specialists. Of course, you can also dive much deeper into sales and marketing automation, and even use artificial intelligence software to leverage systems. It also depends on the type of business, whether you offer standard products or product solutions, or whether you have 50 or 1000 customer contacts per month.
In the next sales stage, the specification for a customer solution has to be clarified more precisely, either on the basis of an existing product portfolio or on the basis of inquiry sheets. It also makes sense to involve R&D and engineering in technical RFQ meetings only after the qualification criteria have been clarified. In a sales generation plan, you can determine how many resources you can allocate to specific sales stages. CRM systems provide an overview of the deals with their likelihood in the sales stages.
Once an opportunity enters the quoting phase, you can divide the quoting process into finished products, product adaptations of less than 20%, new developments, up-selling, service models, etc. Preparing quotation documents for these different groups in advance can help save resources and send quotes to customers faster.
Proper opportunity management maximizes sales impact and saves internal resources. In your plan, you need to create structures to find out if there are promising customer interests, where it makes sense to deploy your sales team, and whether product customizations are promising. These are all important issues in B2B, when it comes to customer-specific challenges and scarce resources.
New approaches for sales operations
Digital tools are driving sales today, but many people and organizations are struggling with their data work and a certain digital stagnation has been perceived. You know how hard it is to keep data fresh and clean. Often, specific information resides in different systems. With current technological developments, there is hope to create a comprehensive view of customer interaction and to use data as a basis for future sales initiatives in B2B.
Everyone in sales wants to close orders. Companies need orders constantly to support the flow of business. As a sales executive, you are always getting questions from production or purchasing about how much incoming orders they should plan for the next three months, six months, and so on. Production planning is preceded by purchasing departments that need to pre-plan strategic long-run parts. This process ensures availability of products and results in product delivery times for customers. In strategic planning and forecasting, digital tools such as CRM systems and forecasting models in conjunction with ERP systems can help.
There is always the big question – in large or small companies – which data is available for predicting orders. You can use hands-on or highly sophisticated methods for forecasting. They range from tagging strategic opportunities in the CRM system to AI-powered analytics, which make predictions based on external and internal influencing factors and learn optimizing forecast models (salesmatic.ai shows novel tools). Ultimately, it is still a matter of human interaction between the various corporate functions, when strategic decisions are made and information needs to be passed around the company.
Digital sales tools have significantly transformed the way sales people and leaders work. Executives recognize that managing remotely differs from when all employees are on-site. Leading sales teams effectively means giving them objectives and regularly reviewing key results. Shorter contacts require subtle shifts in how leaders work. Among other things, leaders are becoming aware of the positive and negative impact they have on employees and the impact of soft skills, such as giving and receiving feedback.
“I think the hardest part of anyone’s leadership management job is the people part, and so I spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about how to retain.”, says Sara Archer from ChartMogul. Figure 5 shows three essentials for motivating sales teams. The playfields of motivation are a pay and performance review guide, definition of your sales culture, and establishing a sales career ladder. Organizations with the biggest productivity increases during the pandemic have supported and encouraged “small moments of engagement” among their employees, moments in which coaching, mentorship, idea sharing, and coworking take place (Alexander, 2021).
Many organizations are preparing for hybrid work in the future, in which employees work both remotely and in the office. This environment is also changing sales force profiles. In the search for top sales talent, character traits are shifting to social skills and greater emphasis is being placed on teamwork. The top reasons that individual contributors join and stay with a company are, first, the opportunity to make an impact on workplace culture and, second, that salespeople expect exciting compensation plans. Compensation plans must represent the fruits of their labor and contributions, not just within the sales team, but within the company as a whole. Leaders need to think about how to help sales people understand their impact and provide a culture in which they want to be a part of.
Typically, each sales person is paid differently depending on the market, customer structure, and prioritization through objectives. They are put on a quota plan and given different metrics to incentivize them and give them a chance to earn good money. Matt Haller stated that “… the biggest challenge that we recognize is that the core issue of motivating sales reps wasn’t the pay, wasn’t the plan design, it was the data”. CaptivateIQ’s data management allows companies to connect their data systems with compensation plans. By using forward looking statements and pulling in pipeline metrics into the commission program, dashboards can help sales people and managers predict pipeline quality and to ensure to hit their quota.
Elisabeth Krennhuber, leadership expert from peopleexcellence, is convinced that “… the sales role will change in the next couple of years“, and that it is a question of how to build up strong teams. Sales transformation starts at the top of a company. It is the business leaders’ responsibility to set the course, speed, and tone of the pivot that will deliver innovation (Furstenthal, 2021). It is important to know that retention and sales culture is not just a soft skill, as the cost of losing sales people is high. Motivating your sales team to go above and beyond is what makes the difference between companies.
This article provides insight into the changes in the business environment that are driving sales transformation. At the same time, it highlights new ways to actively leverage sales initiatives to drive sales generation. Structured marketing initiatives attract prospects and generate touchpoints with customers to plan more targeted sales initiatives. It also shows that inbound marketing has recently gained much higher relevance in B2B.
By combining the right digital tools, a comprehensive view of customers can be achieved, thus improving sales planning and increasing sales opportunities. At the same time, daily sales work and leadership challenges are changing. In today’s business environment, a structured sales generation plan can make the difference in maximizing sales impact, saving internal resources and driving growth.
Dr. Lothar Stadler, 45, is an interim manager and provides services in global sales and business innovation for technology-driven customers. He is a former sales executive from the machinery and transport industry, mentor for startups and lecturer.